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Assimilation forces us to miss out on essential cultural learnings - Laura Kayes

20 April 2023

This blog is part of the ETF inclusive leadership programme. This programme is delivered by Association of Colleges, commissioned by the Education and Training Foundation on behalf of the Department for Education. Find out more here.

I have studied part time alongside full-time work for nine of the last ten years. I’ve read avidly (and sometimes a little more reluctantly) for a decade, and never been captivated so entirely as I was when I stumbled across the theory of cognitive justice. The theory was posed by Professor Shiv Visvanathan; a scholar contesting the hegemonic enforcement of Western knowledges upon traditional Indian knowledge systems. Visvanathan continues to argue against the insidious undercurrents of colonialism by calling for the recognition of a plurality of knowledges, or a ‘”democratisation of knowledge systems”. The theory has resonated with scholars across numerous fields of study and has already been brought into educational research by Professor Catherine Odora Hoppers.

The ideas and the ideal that they proposed stuck with me for weeks. They would sit in the periphery of my attention for days, floating into view but never into focus, until micro-moments of disconnect between colleagues and learners gradually pulled the pixels together. Visvanathan tells us that knowledge systems do not exist as abstractions of peoples’ identities. Knowledge systems inform lives, life goals, livelihood, lifestyle and life chances. I had started to recognise that these were often not in alignment between teachers and students, and, more importantly, there was an unspoken assumption of a “correct” knowledge system. The unspoken then, is that any alternative is “incorrect”.

It’s impossible for the diversity of our society to belong in these culturally confined spaces, yet all too often we seek to measure belongingness by assimilation. By doing so, we place the responsibility on marginalised people to conform to unspoken expectations and negate our responsibility to value equally the contributions their own knowledge systems can bring. Not only do we inhibit the ability of people to contribute, we miss valuable opportunities for learning and connection. When our energy is consumed by masking our behaviours, adapting our accents or reconstructing our experiences, we’re stifled and drained.

There are important conversations that must be had about the ideal citizen that we seek to construct through the expectations and aspirations that we impose onto others. Our social mobility agenda celebrates the diffusion of people “upwards”. The term places the responsibility on the economically underserved to mobilise themselves to something more “socially” desirable. It conjures images of a hierarchy of social value, ignores systemic barriers and pays little heed to the implications for “mobile” people arriving in unwelcoming spaces. It also fails to address economic equity. The class pay gap reportedly currently sits at 13 per cent, and whilst this is not a protected characteristic that organisations are legally obligated to measure or publish, the gap widens when combined with other economic disadvantages like gender and race. Research also tells us that people from economically underserved backgrounds take 25 per cent longer to progress in their career than their more affluent colleagues. As the cost-of-living crisis eats into peoples’ finances, I implore leaders to instigate a much-needed watershed moment for positive change.

Perhaps, as a starting point, the next time you conduct interviews, you could share the questions with candidates in advance. Better yet, reflect on any unconscious expectations you’ve built upon bias and assumed knowledge. If you will make unspoken judgements on how they are dressed, please communicate your dress code clearly, and justify its need. If the questions or expected dialogue will contain industry or organisation-specific terminology, provide definitions of these. Applicants may not have been immersed in the same language and attire that your experiences have defined as professional. Jargon and dress codes are not a measure of ability, but they can be a barrier to access.

Before the interviews are even scheduled, please recognise the impact fixed term opportunities will have on your recruitment pool. A leap of faith from permanent employment into a temporary promoted post is a horrifying prospect for those with financial commitments but no financial reserves. If you cannot provide permanent positions, ensure the safety of secondments to empower people with progressionary choice.

To cultivate cultural equity in the workplace, strive for reflexivity in your professional practice. Consider your leadership positionality, and how your personal and professional knowledge systems are crafted. Explore the values that you have co-constructed with your experiences, and delve deeply into how you live these, or don’t. Ask if you have subconsciously designed an imagined ideal for your staff body. Query how prescriptive you have been in policing the ways people are able to enrich your workplace. Critique how the dynamics of leadership enforce your own knowledge systems as dominant. Create spaces for others to challenge this dominance with courtesy and curiosity. Recognise the value of systems of knowledge constructed by lived experiences that differ from your own, and work actively to create spaces that welcome and celebrate these.

If you’re unsure where to start, I must stress emphatically the importance of consultation with lived experience. Poverty, class and culture are experienced uniquely, and generalisations about these are too often constructed through the lens of the middle-class.

There is much work to be done to cultivate safe spaces of cognitive justice across the class spectrum. There is a systemic shift needed from dominance to democratisation of knowledges. This blog post is not intended as a beratement of your leadership. I wish only to plead for the smallest action of allyship. Perhaps a seed of an idea has been planted and you’ll nurture that in small moments that follow. Perhaps you’re already fuelled by the fire to act. If that is the case, (and how wonderful if so), call for the exposure of your organisation’s class pay gap, and begin.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.

See Laura Kayes in conversation with Jeff Greenidge: