To blog is to make a point

Blogging was a liberating, creative release after years of writing prescriptive reports for a well known civil service inspection agency. Five years after I started, however, I barely come here, and my other blog – Not Different But Interesting – is no longer live. But I am glad I have still have this little place, sitting here, dormant for much of the time, but accessible should I have need of pushing through the fur coats and out into its landscape. Should the urge to write, freely, without wordcount or supporting literature (which, as an early career academic these days, is the other type of writing I now do) come upon me, I can still step in, settle down, and tap away.

Time and again I return in my head to the metaphor of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Dig’, in which he views his pen as his spade, digging away, as his grandfather had dug the soil, or, as I like to think, as his way of showing how often the pen is indeed mightier than the sword – if impact on the world is what you are looking for. The metaphor comes again today to me, and the urge to write returns. I should be doing other stuff – marking for example – but I am compelled to visit this place instead, my infinitessimal corner of the webverse.

Blogging is a simultaneously new and old phenomenon. We still read Chaucer, Pepys and a thousand other diarists, biography and autobiography still flies off the Christmas Bookshelves – we want to know what other people are thinking. Blogging is merely the new technology for an old art.

Not Different But Interesting was such a haven for me. A place I would think about while grappling with the challenges of parenting very young children, jotting notes as the day passed on scraps of paper in the kitchen, itching for them to be asleep so I could write, write, write. While it was always hard to resist wondering about one’s reader stats (egos are never completely shaken off) it was essentially an indulgence in a private space for a personal reason – a desire to express, free from constraint, to diarise via a laptop. So I hang on to this second blog, in the absence of NDBI. This blog was always intended for more commercial purpose, as I endeavoured to re-engage with the world of work – once the soul sapping civil service machine finally spat me out. It worked too – I got writing work through it, and in a funny sort of way it eventually lead me back to academia, where I had begun my career and had always wanted to return. Beyond this, I get a bit philosophical – do we blog because in a world with billions of us, all wanting to make a mark, leave a trace, make a difference, this is one of the few ways one can connect to people accross the globe?

Academic life, combined with working a long way from home and parenting small children, leaves pretty much no space for blogging, however. I get to be creative in other ways, and love my work, but even that has rules to follow and conventions to observe that constrain the writing one can do there.

So I need to make a point, as I have always seen blogging as an opportunity to do just that. I am so much more eloquent when I write than when I speak – I think! – and so writing seems the most appropriate medium I can employ when I actually feel the urge to ‘say something’. And my point today is this.

It is easy to dismiss the academic life, and the nature of what passes as work inside the universities accross the UK and beyond, as not relevant to the lived expereince of ordinary people. We know that the political climate in British universities is markedly to the left of what appears to be the view of the general populus, and plenty of members of my own family would be confident in entirely dismissing the views held by both myself and many of my colleagues as utterly self-referencing and elitist. I get that, I do. But it isn’t an accurate description of my experience as a jobbing academic either.

The academics I know work really, really hard to understand the nature of human existence, the reality of living, the impacts of culture, politics, ideology, policy, social phenomena and the social structures we create, or resist, or comply with. They are particularly keen to make sense of how we treat children, parents and families; they are genuinely preoccupied with the vexing question of why we still can’t seem to create a socially just society. So as we lead up to yet another flippin’ election, can I offer you a few research outputs that might help you to reflect on the kind of Britain you want to live in?

1. 3.9 million British children live in poverty. The number had reduced dramatically during the period 1998-2011, and has flatlined ever since. That’s an average of 9 kids in every classroom of 30 (a reminder here that were are the fifth richest country on the planet). 2/3 of these are in households were at least one person works. (Source: Child Poverty Action Group)
2. The bedroom tax has cost poor households an average of £572 a year and is causing children to struggle at school, and their families to reduce their spending on food ( source: Manchester University)
3. Food bank use has increased from 40898 parcels handed out in 09/10 to 1109309 in 15/16  (source: Trussell Trust)
4. 1 in 10 young people in Britain has a mental health problem, that’s three in every average sized classroom, and in the last two years waiting times for treatment has doubled to nearly two and a half years (source: CYPMHC)
5. Average student debt at the point of graduation in England has reached £44,000 but at least 1 in 5 graduates will earn less after graduation than someone educated to A level standard (source: Sutton Trust)
6. In UNICEF’s latest assessment of child wellbeing in rich countries, the UK came an average of 16th out of 29, below Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Portugal. Our children’s educational wellbeing is set at 24th out of 29. (Source: UNICEF)

Gven that Cameron allowed people like Gove to remain in office for twice as long as any other Ed Sec since the 70s, that he allowed IDS to pursue his particular version of madness, or allowed his Best Man Hunt to bring the NHS to a standstill, I’d say that whatever your particular political persuasion, there is grounds for despairing at the place this country has been taken to, and that he had no right to stand on the doorstep of Number 10 and claim any kind of achievement. May has done no better, no better at all. She has no vision for the future of Britain’s disadvantaged children, and thinks grammar schools, and scrapping any seeming benefit to having paid national insurance all your life, is the answer to all our ills.

It is easier to vote for selfish reasons that unselfish ones. Voting for stuff that will benefit others who have no democratic voice – children – can seem like a waste, I guess, when we are all feeling the squeeze. But one day, those kids are going to be the care worker who comes to your home when you are elderly, the teacher who guides your grandkids, the doctor who replaces your hip, the charity worker who brings your meals on wheels, the innovator who finds a new way to tackle the social isolation of the elderly, the builder who constructs your new sheltered accomodation.

My colleagues and I, we see the impact of these depressing statistics every day, we wrestle with the solutions, we hold a mirror up to society. The luxury we have – of time to think, and to use our metaphoric pens to ‘dig’ with – allows us to conclude, no more, no less, that there must be a better way. I invite you to consider whether you agree with us. And use your vote accordingly.


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