Remembering my dad: the politics of grief and death at work

It’s father’s day and I don’t have a dad any more. I am not alone in this, there are others in my age bracket who have also lost a parent, some who never had one and a few who have lost both through some deep awfulness. Despite that, we are ahead of the curve – most people our age will not lose their parents for many years and so much the better; the grief and trauma of losing a parent will come sooner or later but it is never easy. There are times though when people can be thoughtless in how they talk about their parents, a taken-for-grantedness which you cannot understand until they are simply not there. This is the stuff of everyday conversation – talking about seeing them last weekend, what it will be like when they retire and so on. I wouldn’t ask anyone to stop talking about this because of me, but it is difficult. Grief and the sweet-bitter joys of remembering are generally an everyday process, sparked by a memory, a discussion you can no longer have or a question you can never ask.

For me father’s day is not a time of fierce emotion, it digs at me because of the personal unfairness of it in a way which is hard to explain. There’s nothing wrong with having a day to focus on mothers/fathers and all the rest, despite the consumerism which is often associated with it. My dad’s birthday, the day he died and international worker’s memorial day on the 28th April each year are more powerful for me personally. The latter remembers all those who die at or because of work, the TUC puts that figure at 20,000 each year and my dad was one of those. I wanted to publish this then but it was simply too difficult and painful. Similarly attending a memorial event is not something I have felt able to do since 2012. My mum said that she didn’t want to go there and remember in reverence but to scream with anger and grief.

Far worse than any of the feelings I have on father’s day is the personal anger I feel about deaths caused by work. There are few more crass forms of insensitivity than the comments of David Cameron back in 2012 that he wanted to “kill off the health and safety culture for good.” He simultaneously succeeded in being extraordinarily offensive to victims of work-related illness, whilst quietly framing greater physical and economic violence against working people amongst a “common sense” argument for less “red-tape”. He thus trounced once and for all the unintended insensitivity of father’s day.

My dad, Simon Pickvance, died in November 2012 of Mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos which he was exposed to in the building trade in the 1970s. He spent his working life fighting with working people for the right to health at work. Initially this was with Sheffield’s steelworkers and builders in the early 1980s, but occupational health or workers’ health goes far beyond this. Links between long-term night-work and breast cancer amongst women are just one example and the UK has a poor record within Europe for de-regulation and inertia in taking steps to improve health at work. For me personally, his death was and still is a deep personal loss. His generation was wrapped up in how the personal is political, and in many ways my grief is no different. Below is the text for a speech which I wrote for a memorial organised by his friends and colleagues in November 2014 on the second anniversary of his death.

This week I’ve been planning a lecture on 1968 as my second supervisor is away (another 68er, though somewhat more ‘angepasst’ – conformist – than dad ever was).[1] Whilst I’ve been planning the talk, right through the process (looking for references, reading, writing the slides), I’ve missed him. Most of the time I’ve wanted to cry. It feels like a fuzziness around your eyes which dips down to the back of your throat and comes back up, burning your face around the edge. My body feels heavy and I sigh. That’s all I do mostly. I have to carry on. But now and again, and now, the tears come.

This is grief. Missing… the missing that doesn’t stop but comes and goes. One day a quick thought of him stabs you but passes quickly. Other days he’s there most of the day because you just want him there. That’s what it’s been like today, reading all this stuff about workers struggles in the 1960s and 70s because you know that if he was still here you’d be talking to him about it.

For me, just now, these autumn days are full of him. It’s partly the time of year – cycling through the park on my way to work with smells of wet leaves, like family walks in the peak district as a kid. It’s also because these were the last terrible weeks of his illness. But it’s the politics, the politics which has really got me today.

I remember talking to dad once about ‘being political’ and what it meant. I can’t remember who said it, me or him, but we both agreed that he was quietly political. I said I was too and he said ‘No you’re not, you’re passionately political.’ Or loudly political. Anyway it’s true, I quite like speaking (and shouting) about politics when I can. Today’s an example really.

What I wanted to say today was really something about politics, about my dad’s politics and about yours – not that I claim to know lots about it. Today I’ve been sat reading about worker’s self-management in France and Italy. So much of what my dad, Sue and John Lawson, Martin, Naomi and many of you were trying to do was about extending that process. About giving working people control over their lives, starting with their own experiences and using that to try and empower them to gain some level of control over their health. Workers’ health.

(I always thought it sounded better than occupational health – I’ve spent about 10 years trying to explain what an occupational health worker is and I always get a confused face).

I was telling a friend recently though about what my dad died of. Of asbestos, used in the building trade, she said to me: ‘But that’s terrible, he was killed from what he worked and fought against.’ My dad never talked about that much during his illness, but she was right.

It is terrible.

And this is where I want to talk about politics. You could call it the politics of grief, but it’s the politics of work as well, and your work in particular. When we first found out about dad’s cancer, when mum and dad told us what had caused it, that it was asbestos, I said ‘They knew, they fucking knew that stuff was poisonous.’ And I was furious, absolutely furious and totally fucking distraught.

That feeling faded, but it never went away. Sometimes it comes back and I kick something – I make sure it’s something soft. More often it hits me like a punch and I wince, suck the air in through my teeth and sigh loudly. Because what it feels like, what it is, mesothelioma and every other work-related illness.

It feels like theft. It is theft.

It’s theft for my dad who lost years that he should have had. It’s theft for us – our family and you his friends and colleagues. And it is theft for all the others who have come before him and will go after him.

People that die at or because of work, they die for no other reason than a fundamental indifference to people’s needs and their basic, basic, right to live a healthy life. Often it’s worse than that, it’s not indifference, it’s pro-active lying. Hiding the evidence, producing corporate-funded academic lies about the safety of asbsestos or lobbying for the de-regulation of working conditions.

My dad spent his working life fighting with you against that. He suffered the same theft of his life that so many others have done.

But I don’t want to get caught up in grief or self-pity. My dad had very little of that during his illness. (Though he did make the most of doing basically no cooking and no house-work and finally letting someone buy clothes that made him look actually quite stylish.) [2]

And I’ll end on this. He was adamant at his retirement do that there was still the same need now to struggle for worker’s health, as there was in the 1970s when he moved to Sheffield. I’m glad that today part of the day will be about current research and progress because there is no greater honour that you could do for my dad than to carry on fighting for worker’s health.

So let’s remember my dad – a partner, a father, brother, friend and colleague. And let’s take our grief and use it to keep fighting.

[1] I’m a PhD student in London.

[2] My dad was a pretty staunch feminist, which is partly why I have my mum’s surname, not my dad’s. The housework was always shared, but my dad’s illness changed that and so much else in my parents’ everyday lives.


The logic of the ladder – elite widening participation and the implicit “scholarship boy” discourse which never went away

I argue here that the logic and implied class-ism of “raising up” a gifted few through the 11+ was never completely lost and has returned with a vengeance in the widening participation discourse at certain elite universities.

‘[…] whenever there’s something about Russell Group admissions in the press the Russell Group say, “Well it’s not our fault, schools aren’t producing enough poor kids with A’s and A*’s, so what can we do about it?”’

Widening Participation Coordinator, Limeways Sixth Form College, London.

‘L’Ecole Libre d’abord, l’IEP ensuite, ont permis l’ascension de quelques « sur-socialisées »… leur réussite sociale constitue une sorte d’alibi pour la rue Saint-Guillaume qui peut se targuer de recruter dans les classes dites inférieures.’[1]

Across a range of different elite educational institutions, not only in England but in France too, there has long been an acceptance of the need to recruit a (small) number of students from socially, racially, geographically or gender-oppressed backgrounds. The beginnings of opening-up of secondary schooling in England were rooted in this logic of selecting a chosen few from the working classes to access academic, middle-class dominated forms of education. At first this worked through state-funded scholarship schemes for a small proportion of ‘free scholars’ to access secondary schools, then after 1944, it was generalized through the 11+ exam, as secondary school became free and accessible “for all”.

This system produced some of the most famous figures and works of post-war social science and cultural critique of the education system. Authors such as Olive Banks (1955), Richard Hoggart (1957), Dennis Marsden and Brian Jackson (1962) drew in part on their own experience to problematize a system of education which operated a form of social apartheid. This system produced complex splits and divisions between academically-able working class communities and the families and neighbourhoods they came from. For the grammar schools involved, and post-war society more widely, these students provided a sort of ‘social alibi’ which allowed the justification a system of education that still overwhelmingly benefitted the middle and upper classes, at secondary and university level.

However, I want to argue that the structural logic that was at work has not disappeared from our education system. As the schools and universities have expanded, this ‘logic of the ladder’, and the insidious ideological alibi that it provides, has simply moved upwards. It is no longer entry to grammar school where this filter of social selection and limited diversification of the middle and upper classes occurs, instead it is our elite universities who have taken over this function, and it is widening participation (WP) that has allowed them to do it.

I should say now that I am not opposed to widening participation, far from it. It is something I have been involved with indirectly and directly through my research and something which I see as potentially emancipatory – though more often this is at the individual than at the collective level. What I wish to problematize here is the underlying issue that at times, elite institutions’ widening participation efforts are not egalitarian, in fact quite the contrary, they are openly selective and geared towards finding the ‘scholarship boys and girls’ of the 21st century.

When I was gaining access to the sixth form schools and colleges, one of my opening gambits would be, “Maybe your school/college would be interested in the WP work that King’s does…” In one sixth form college I worked in, when I handed the HE adviser the leaflet about the KCL scheme, which requires 5 GCSEs at A or A*, she simply said “Oh we have hardly any students that meet those criteria.”[2] Again, in another college, I was told:

So um, for example with the grade requirements for WP programmes, we get all these things from UCL and its like, all these students must have 5 A*s to come on the widening participation programme and you think well, that’s er, we’ve got 1600 students and there’s like 3 students who would have that, and those students are already getting bags of support, what about the other… and I sent an email to that effect to the person at UCL and they were defensive about it. And also the other thing is that, it’s not unrealistic, we sent two students to Oxford last year who wouldn’t have got onto the UCL programmes. Er, which I tell them and they sort of shrug

Widening Participation Coordinator, Limeways Sixth Form College, London.

He continued:

And I was in a seminar with someone from UCL outreach, but they um, they said “We used to run a thing with students that got Bs and Cs at GCSE and we worked with them for a couple of years and we worked with 250 students and actually only 1 of them got into UCL so we’ve stopped doing it.”

Now, it goes without saying that these intensive summer schools, year-long mentoring schemes are great for those students who get on them, who probably ‘are already getting bags of support’ from different schemes or universities. Clearly university WP departments have limited resources and they do great work within, and often beyond, the remit set for them – my aim here, please understand, is not WP staff, some of whom I know very well and count as my friends. The issue is the structural function that WP serves for elite universities and how this plays out in the field of post-16 education more broadly.

For those students who are able and aspiring to attend university but do not meet the criteria, what is the value, or indeed the point, of WP schemes which are already openly academic selective? The logic seems to be overwhelmingly clear: what we are looking for is ‘enough poor kids with A’s and A*’s’, if you don’t meet those criteria then we are not interested. I am oversimplifying here, and there are wonderful schemes, such as those at St. George’s medical school, Bristol, Sheffield amongst many others with extensive programmes and context-based admissions. Nevertheless, the core issue is that widening participation within the Russell Group serves a minority of students, and more specifically a minority of “non-traditional”, first-generation university students, in the post-16 sector.

Clearly this is, as the second quote implies, a dilemma for WP departments who are being asked, presumably by management, to run schemes which will help elite universities meet their OFFA-set targets for widening participation students. Again in my interviews, it is through anecdotes with senior members of university staff where attitudes towards WP at certain elite universities is made abundantly clear:

when Harway College opened their new building […] they had an inaugural opening and Harway has got a link with UCL, […] ‘Gerald Pomp’ [a senior university manager] came and did a speech and he sat in the room, we had other universities there, he sat and made his speech saying How wonderful it was that they were linked with this brand new sixth form building and it was a wonderful building: “UCL are at the forefront of widening participation, we’ve set up this, this and this.” At that point, the people from London Met got up and walked out, because they thought “We aren’t listening to that – you aren’t!”

Another time, I sat in UCL at a meeting where he [G Pomp] was saying the same thing, a meeting for careers advisers and teachers, and for some reason he did his speech where we were all being served food, there were two chefs, West African chefs, behind him and he was talking about diversity and I caught their eye. And they were looking at each other going like that [Shrugs/disbelief] they were probably PhD or MA people with degrees having to work as chefs and they thought, what is this guy talking about? You know, I wish I could have taken a picture, if it had been in the days of smartphones I could have taken a picture and caused havoc.

David, HE and Careers Adviser

These two anecdotes underline the sheer absurdity and rank hypocrisy which can underline the attitude towards widening participation in elite higher education institutions. My quotations above have singled out my former university UCL, but I doubt that this attitude is limited to senior management at that university alone. Moreover, I am sure, in fact I know, that WP staff at UCL are committed and that their WP work does indeed make a difference to students who are involved with it. What is at stake here, once again, is the farcical claims made by elite figures in the university about the effect of their WP efforts in a context where the majority of first generation students still attend post-1992 universities.

What has returned, and perhaps never truly went away, is the deep logic and symbolic violence of selection within the British class system and its schools. Selection of a gifted few to be raised up into a diversified and socially acceptable elite and a shrinking and increasingly fragile middle class is not a new phenomenon. It is as old as the urban-industrial roots of British class structure and the schools that it produced (Banks, 1955; Hoggart, 1957; Jackson and Marsden, 1962). Looking forward to the 21st century, we have not rid ourselves of the vicious and implied classism of tri-partite selection which secondary education “for all” relied on. Rather, as is so often true with matters of class in British society, the mode of selection and its ideological supports have mutated, in this case moving upwards as secondary schooling and higher education have expanded.

In the twenty first century we need, more than ever, to break the logic of the ladder. We cannot seek to build an egalitarian model of education (higher, secondary or otherwise) on a mode of widening participation which itself is already selective. It is time to burn some sacred cows, first amongst them has to be the idea that raising up a select few and diversifying elite institutions is some educational panacea for the university system. It isn’t. In the short-term, of course, we have to and should continue with these pragmatic steps. But we need to radicalize it from within: open up these widening participation schemes, build sustainable partnerships with schools and colleges, look beyond the logic of simply meeting market-driven targets for WP students. I know that WP work already involves all of these things, and I am aware of pontificating, quite literally from an ivory tower – I apologize for this in advance. Nevertheless, what is at stake here goes right to the heart of a left-wing, radical progressive stance on education: we cannot base our approach around individual aspirations, we need a radical collective approach to schooling which challenges the structures and language within which we are forced to operate. Only then can we begin to dismantle the ladder which has dominated British educational ideology for more than a century. If we start to do this, then we will have no need for social alibis because the education system will begin to be truly ours.


Banks O. (1955) Parity and prestige in English secondary education: A study in educational sociology, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Hoggart R. (1957) The uses of literacy: Aspects of working class life, with special reference to publications and entertainments, London: Chatto and Windus.

Jackson B and Marsden D. (1962) Education and the working class: some general themes raised by a study of 88 working-class children in a northern industrial city, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

[1] Gérard Vincent, Sciences Po. Histoire d’une réussite, (Paris : Orban, 1987), p. 294. ‘First the Free School [abbreviation of the original name of the school, l’Ecole Libre de Sciences Politiques, the free school of political science], then the IEP [Institute d’Etudes Politiques – Institute of Political studies] have allowed the rise of a few “over-socialised” individuals… their social success constitutes a sort of alibi for rue Saint-Guillaume [the road on which Sciences Po is situated, often used as a short-hand abbreviation for the institution itself] which can pride itself of recruits from the classes said to be inferior.’ The IEP Paris is an elite French university, with a similar focus to LSE. Since 2001 it has operated a ground-breaking widening participation programme with an admissions stream and year-long programme for students from schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

[2] I should say that despite this, the work of King’s was praised by other WP/HE advisers.


Fantastic news from Lewisham. Academization can still be successfully resisted!

Stop Academies in Lewisham

We have great pleasure in announcing that the Leathersellers’ have rescinded the academy orders for ALL THREE SCHOOLS in the Prendergast Federation.

Over the last few months NUT members and other trade union colleagues at the Prendergast Federation, together with students and parents, have mounted a tremendous campaign to oppose the damaging academy conversion proposals. Demonstrations, strikes, meetings – and now legal challenges over Government Regulations – have all helped to keep up the pressure on Governors to think again – and now they have!

This is a major breakthrough for the campaign. It reflects the pressure that has built up over months, culminating in legal challenges that have left Governors with little option but to pull back from their plans. Every union member who has struck, every student that has demonstrated and every parent, SAIL campaigner and letter writer should be proud of themselves for standing firm and refusing…

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