A Welsh mining community 30 years on

It is 30 years to the day since the Miners Strike ended. The legacy remains in the poverty and loss experienced in many parts of Britain. 

Gabrielle Ivinson’s research concerns the lives and feelings of young people living in the South Wales valleys. These are the real lives behind the numbers of the “closing the gap” agenda. Her article points to the importance of teachers being able to engage with these young people and their families – a task which is made much more difficult within a centrally determined curriculum. 

Child poverty is a serious issue in Wales, where more than 4 in every 10 families with children are below the Minimum Income Standard. Official interventions have rarely been effective because they have often been designed without a strong understanding of how the history of place still influences young people experience today.

Communities in south Wales valleys developed ways of living that were forged through the necessities of working in dangerous mine and steel industries. Many boys left school at 14 to endure long hours working underground hewing rock. At its peak, south Wales had 620 collieries employing 233,000 men. Therefore physical skill as well as the close bonds of solidarity required in industries fraught with danger became highly valued in these places.

The brutality through which the mining industry ended left many communities traumatised. These highly unionised and historically socialist communities summoned massive, but eventually fruitless, efforts of save their livelihoods. During the 1984–5 strike people felt they were fighting for their lives.

The young people in the accounts below were 14 in 2009 – born ten years after the strike. Many face bleak futures at the end of schooling because traditional industrial jobs have gone. The kinds of training that are now on offer usually given them low-level certificates that stigmatise them as educational failures, or direct them into low paid jobs. Many face future unemployment.

Popular rhetoric suggests that working-class young people lack the aspirations to succeed. Our studies refute this. Young people growing up in ex-mining communities have as much desire to succeed and make a living as any others, yet often the values of hard manual labour and solidarity are in conflict with the skills and values required for the so called ‘knowledge economy.   The following stories exemplify the clash between the values of that keep communities together and the demands of schooling.

Owain: becoming social

Owain spoke about his tattoos and body piercings with pride. He was one of the bigger boys for his age and regularly worked out in the gym. As the bus drew into the schoolyard, Owain said, you unplug the iplayer, take off your hoodie, roll down your sleeves so they can’t see the tattoos and put on the tie. “They’ll check we’re wearing all our uniform and haven’t got earrings in.”

The tattoos and piercings were marks of a working-class identity that he shared with older men. He managed the transition from home to school well and was well liked by his peers and teachers. He expected to gain good GCSEs, but had recently started spending lunchtimes with boys from a lower set. He spent his weekends with about 25 friends who went into town to do “Well, stuff that we shouldn’t”.

Most of his extended family lived nearby. “It’s easy, cos you’re never locked out really, someone’s bound to be in. In the summer we’d be like on the steps outside, talking. And all the little kids playing.” He spent times babysitting his 2-year-old cousin. We asked Owain if he wanted children and he replied, “I have to wait about two years… I want a kid before I get older.” He seemed to genuinely embrace the (adult) responsibility of looking after children. Owain’s family and community provided him with a strong sense of belonging and his ambitions were to stay and, literally, build his future home in the place where his family had lived for generations.

Sam: corporeal becomings

Sam had been playing rugby since aged 5 and was a prop for Cwm Dyffryn. His ambition was to attend a sports academy and play for a local team. He was a serious BMXer and friendly with the older boys at a nearby skatepark but not influenced by their drinking and drug culture. His enjoyment of physical movement led him far and wide across the ex industrial landscape. He camped out near the reservoir with friends who amused themselves with midnight swims and fishing. He had become resourceful and seemed to embrace his freedom. He was a warm, empathetic and mature 14-year-old to talk to. Yet his future was precarious, for he was unlikely to find a sport academy to attend when he left school.

Alwyn: ghost stories

Alwyn’ father was long-term unemployed and his mother was a housewife. His teacher said simply, “He doesn’t get much support at home”. He had grown up roaming the landscape around his house and had developed a sensitive awareness of features of old industrial sites. He is particularly aware of the fault lines, the holes and crevices through which the otherwise dormant life of past mining activities pushes up through the surface as if to re-exert its presence.

On one of his travels he found water pushing up from an old mine shaft that had been blocked up. “I could feel a little rumble in the ground. Water came up two metres. They ended up putting cement in it … but then the water came through again – so much pressure in the ground.”

It was poignant and disturbing to listen to this boy who was very bright, very alive, yet seemed caught in a hybrid place somewhere in the past. He seemed to make sense through his vivid imagination, loss, grief, and searching for treasures to bring his grandmother back to life. His poverty and outdoor wanderings gave him the time to develop a rich fantasy world that fuelled his narratives.

Alwyn could regale a listener with ghost stories and displayed a rich narrative code, which had the same engaging and lilting cadence that can be heard when ex -miners tell stories. He gained a 4 out of 5 for his presentation in English: his teacher said he could not have a 5 because he had shown a video rather than writing a powerpoint text. Alwyn needed the teacher to help him translate his rich oral code into the kind of written stories that count as legitimate knowledge in English. His ways of talking and knowing, his situated, context-dependent, deep knowledge of mining processes and environments were not being harnessed as school-appropriate knowledge.

*   *   *

These stories tell of a gulf between the lifeworlds of young people and school expectations. They challenge the deficit accounts we constantly hear about working class families and neighbourhoods. Indigenous forms of knowing often go unrecognised and unvalued in schools. This raises questions about a ‘closing the gap’ agenda because it fails to engage with families, local cultures and the histories of ex industrial places.

 

Professor Gabrielle Ivinson, now at Aberdeen, carried out this research with her colleagues at Cardiff University. 

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