I spent 17 years teaching before local government turned my head, and recently I’ve been thinking quite a lot about what I used to do. I am part of the Warnock generation.
My values, beliefs and career have been shaped significantly by Mary Warnock’s 1978 report and the consequent 1981 Education Act. I am an inclusionist, if there is such a word.
At Leeds Polytechnic, where I did my PGCE (1984-85), I learnt about the difference between the medical and social models of disability. How the former tends to problematise and stigmatise people by focusing on what’s different about them. And how the latter looks for our potential and seeks to understand what adjustments need to be made to the world around us to enable that potential to be released in full.
Maybe I’m thinking about all this because we’ve recently celebrated World Down’s Syndrome Day and World Autism Awareness Day. Or maybe it’s because Brexit continues to be all over every bloody media outlet 24/7.
Or maybe it’s because there are local elections in my area. Or maybe I am just getting to a certain age. Whatever the reason, I am increasingly feeling the need to confront a world in which there is a resurgence of “othering”.
In which version of contemporary civilisation is it acceptable to diminish people by virtue of them not being like me, like “us”? In so doing, we create, nurture and actively promote the conditions that generate indifference, fear, hatred and then, ultimately, violent oppression.
Having thought about my career roots and the children I had the privilege to teach (I learnt so much about humanity from them), I think it’s time to resurrect and update the spirit of Warnock. To move from the rhetoric of celebrating difference to actively doing things that mean valuing diversity is where we start, not where we are trying to end up.
Public services in general – and local government in particular – have a powerful role to play, but I would be lying if I said our polarised politics wasn’t a barrier to doing so successfully. Modern politics starts, I’m afraid, with “othering”. This sets a terrible precedent for the rest of us.
Don’t get me wrong. I love ideas. I love the way different ideas can interact to make better ideas (all hail Socrates) – and, at least sometimes, consign the terrible ones to the bin. Freedom of thought and its expression are at the root of a democratic society. But so is total respect for that thought, even if you disagree with it.
So, in a country, kingdom (LOL) and world in which “othering” is becoming de rigeur again, I want to ask those who hold or seek power to have a read of the Warnock report.
Reflect on the giant step that is embodied within it. Namely, that “educational sub-normality” is, in fact, not sub-normal at all. It is, in fact, a “learning difficulty or disability” that requires all of us to understand that we all have something positive and wonderful to bring to this life. And to know we all share a responsibility to make it possible for each other’s potential to be released, to bring us both intrinsic (personal) and extrinsic (societal) satisfaction.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, as we enter purdah (and when will we find a more appropriate, 21st century word for that, please?), we experienced a collaborative, constructive, citizen-centred set of campaigns that talked about the value every single person can bring to building an inclusive society?
A society in which we first of all look at another human being and ask ourselves what it would take from me/us for them to be successful. Campaigns that start with the premise that we are one species – humans – and that the role of different ideas and the discourse about them is to be better than we are. It’s not to diminish and demean those with whom we disagree, ultimately making it easier for us to place no value in them and so harden our hearts and close our minds to their lives.
Remember Mary Warnock. Remember that we are all of value and that we all have potential that we want to release. Remember that we can all help each other to fulfil that potential. And never forget what happens when society’s leaders forget these simple truths.
As the brilliant Mencap campaign for World Down’s Syndrome Day stated: “Here I am. Understand me.”
Mark Rogers, executive director, Collaborate CIC