This is an image from ICFree's demonstration against school exclusions at Brixton station, December 21st 2019. ICFree are "a group of young Black and Brown South London kids fighting to end the criminalisation of Black and Brown youth in the Eduction and Criminal Justice system". You can find them at @ICFreeUK
In the summer of 2014, having recently moved to London, and struggling to get by on the £50 I was entitled to through Job Seeker’s Allowance, I began looking for work. I applied for whatever I could find. After a few weeks I had an interview for a company which offer alternative education to young people who have been excluded from mainstream school. Despite having no experience in this field, I was hired immediately. What follows is an account of two years in a workplace which relied on a feminised, precarious workforce to educate and care for some of London’s most vulnerable young people amid a moment of brutal post-crisis economic restructuring.
Those who appear in this article are real people with whom I shared my life for a period of time. Names have been changed for confidentiality, but I’ve tried to write about my former students and colleagues with honesty and accuracy. Certainly, part of my desire to write about my experiences at the company was to be able to work outwards, to use the daily minutiae of a setting I know well to think more broadly about the intersections of UK state institutions with “care-giving” or “carceral” roles. However, I am wary of an approach which collapses real lives into case studies, or which claims to universalise singular experience. This article therefore aims to provide a materialist analysis of the economic and political landscape which shaped my working conditions and impacted the lives of my students, while avoiding extrapolation beyond this. In taking individual experience as a starting point, I also hope to resist the paternalistic fatalism often latent in leftist discussions of (particularly young) people facing pronounced structural violence. Of course, certain possibilities are precluded for those who have been criminalised and denied education, but nothing is predestined. It’s important to bear this in mind in our struggles against oppression.
The company was founded in the late 1990s as an afterschool theatre club for children and young people with “behavioural problems”. In the early 2000s, a gap in the alternative education market became visible, and so, alongside the theatre project, the company began to employ tutors to provide education to young people who weren’t attending school. This new venture quickly expanded due to the increase in school exclusions throughout the last few years of the New Labour Government. Then, when the education system underwent drastic de-funding and restructuring under the Conservative/ Liberal Democrat coalition, the company responded to new demand by opening small education centres across London.
The centre I worked in was based in the outhouse of a community centre in East London. We had a 1:1 staff: student ratio, and had between 10-15 students between the ages of 11 and 18 enrolled at any given time, with a rapid turnover of both staff and students. We offered GCSEs in Maths, English and Science, but with the expectation that not many students would sit their exams. Our students had been excluded from mainstream school for a variety of reasons. Many had been “disruptive” in class, others had stopped attending because they were being bullied or suffered from anxiety, or had other things going on in their lives which kept them from school. All of our students were poor. The majority were racialised. Most had family histories of trauma, poor mental health, addiction and incarceration, and many had spent parts of their childhood in state care.
Had our students been from middle class families who felt entitled to demand they be assessed, many would probably have been diagnosed with learning difficulties or disabilities. Instead they had gone through life being considered “naughty” and “disruptive”. The most common diagnosis among our students was so-called “Oppositional Defiance Disorder”: an attempt to pathologise young people whose experiences have taught them not to have uncritical respect for those in authority.
All the young people I worked with associated school with traumatic experiences, and therefore had little confidence in their abilities, or in teachers. Often a full 45-minute lesson was too much for a student. 1:1 English lessons with one student involved half an hour of doing hair and makeup YouTube tutorials together before 15 minutes of reading Macbeth. Another student was unable to sit and concentrate for long periods, so we’d make an assault course around the playground. I’d sit on a climbing frame with a maths worksheet and he’d answer one question each time he got to the top.
A lot of what happened at the centre was geared around equipping our students to withstand the miserable futures which were considered a forgone conclusion. There was a real emphasis on preparation for low-paid, precarious work, and on building coping mechanisms which would enable them to repress rather than acknowledge their emotions. Head office were obsessed with “resilience”, the new behaviour- management buzzword. We had a “resilience wall” at the back of the single room we taught in, and each day students were encouraged to add experience in which they’d demonstrated resilience on a post-it note. I felt conflicted about this. Ideally, the centre would be a space where young people could work through their trauma and would provide tools for them to fight for a better future, but given the absence of decent mental health services or post-school support systems, this sadly wasn’t much of a possibility. Under these circumstances, maybe preaching resilience really was the best we could do.
Most of our students already had criminal records by the time they arrived at the centre, and some had been incarcerated. At times it was hard to shake the feeling that our workplace was just a holding pen for the prison system. We kept ourselves going by celebrating the small transformations our work was able to achieve, like an unlikely friendship developing between two students, or somebody discovering a new interest. It was these small things which helped me remember that, even though much was pitted against them, the paths our students’ lives would take weren’t necessarily already laid out.
The Education Industry: Funding and Restructuring
When a student has been excluded from school, the school is expected to redirect that student’s funding allocation to the alternative education provider. But the cost of a place in alternative education is much higher than in mainstream school. At a time when local authorities were experiencing huge budget cuts, keeping the difference between money allocated from excluding schools and the cost of alternative education as low as possible became a priority. The company I worked for—who employed untrained workers on zero hour contracts, often on little more than minimum wage—were able to offer a comparatively cheap service, and cashed in on this meagre funding.
Although there has always been a budget for children with statements of special educational needs or disability (SEND), in 2013, local authorities’ protocol around covering this shortfall was standardised: £6,000 per year would be ringfenced for each child with a SEND statement, and the 2014 Children and Families Act stipulated that local authorities set aside funds for the education of “high need” children. As soon as the 2013 SEND ruling was brought in, my company set up a centre for students with SEND statements (which is where I worked), entitling them to an extra £6,000 per year per student. This was clearly a student body with extremely complex and specialist needs, which the under-resourced provision and inexperienced staff were unlikely to adequately meet. However, due in part to the punitive disciplinary measures exerted on councils who go over-budget or seek to redistribute allocated funds,
1 local authorities often referred students to my employer as they were a more affordable option.
Although the company kept overheads to a minimum—I once asked a manager to sign off on an order for some national curriculum textbooks, and was told they were an unaffordable luxury—running schools on rented property in central London is an expensive endeavour. The company relies largely on the re-routing of core government funding, but also, due to its theatrical roots, is able to take significant donations from prominent figures in the theatre world. In her essay “Lies and Mendacity”,
2 Dimitra Kotouza posits philanthropy as a necessary component in the logic of austerity. The essay, published two years before governmental reaction to the ‘financial crash’ of 2008 plunged us into an era of cuts to support and welfare services, was already drawing parallels between contemporary British welfare policy and the Poor Laws of the 1830s. According to Kotouza, the Poor Laws “aptly coincided with a renaissance in a new type of philanthropic organisation which had rejected the idea of almsgiving, elaborating a variety of techniques by which to create a fit between political economy and the population.”
Kotouza goes onto discuss the romanticisation of the “voluntary impulse” by contemporary conservative and liberal politicians and economists, in which charitable and philanthropic endeavours, often with religious or corporate interests, are enabled to make moral and operational incisions into sectors usually thought of as public. Philanthropic endeavour, therefore, enables extra-political vessels of economic and moral conservatism. The rise of philanthropic and charity involvement in state activity is often brushed off as merely a quick-fix in a momentary crisis, but Kotouza argues that it in fact allows governments who project themselves as morally progressive, to “exert[...] influence over poor households in such matters as frugality and industry and ... the education and discipline of children” via a third party. Today, the “voluntary impulse” is not only romanticised when demonstrated by big corporations and celebrities (famous actors who finance independent schools, for example), but also encouraged from within the general population. A pertinent example of this is David Cameron’s flagship “Big Society”
3 initiative which advocated everyday volunteerism to ameliorate the crises sparked by the state’s withdrawal of welfare. I’m not necessarily accusing the donors to this company of having ulterior motives, or of deliberately colluding with the state in absolving it of its welfare responsibilities, but I am interested in the shift back to philanthropic funding models, particularly within education, in our current economic climate.
Despite branching out into education, the company stayed close to its “creative” roots, not only through soliciting funding from rich people in the entertainment industry, but also drawing its labour force from out of work actors, musicians and artists rather than employing experienced education workers. Hiring qualified teachers is expensive, as is providing extensive training; the company are willing to do neither. By making the argument that creative approaches are best for engaging “hard to reach” young people, the company cleverly presents a major flaw as a strength. Their employees, they claim, have innate creativity which would be diluted by formal training. Now, an unqualified workforce appears as a USP rather than a red flag to local authorities, keen to legitimise their decision to go with a lower cost provider.
Of course, in reality these employment practices didn’t work out well for our students. We were all playing it by ear, and although many of us cared deeply and wanted to do the best we could, insufficient training, lack of practical or emotional support, terrible pay and casual, short-term contracts left us exhausted, demoralised and unable to work to our best ability. It also led to an unofficial, predictably gendered two-tier system, where certain tutors (often men) who considered this job a place-holder before their artistic careers took off, spent teaching time learning lines for upcoming auditions or editing their films (there was always plausible deniability given “these bad kids don’t engage in class anyway”). This left other tutors (overwhelmingly women) to pick up the slack and put in extra hours when exams came around and students hadn’t been taught the required material.
Aware that the company like to hire “creatives”, I prepared for my interview by thinking of ways to emphasise my artistic credentials. I picked out an outfit which didn’t just make me look vaguely professional but also quirky and artistic. I felt ridiculous, but I got the job. Once I did, I was pressured to register as self- employed—as an “artist” my work for the company wouldn’t necessarily make up my entire income—and be paid by invoice, giving me no employment rights. I refused and insisted to go on the payroll which guaranteed me some statutory rights, but at a reduced daily wage.
Shifts in employment practices towards precarity (including the rise of zero-hours contracts)—particularly within sectors such as education which used to fall more squarely within the remit of the state—are something we’ve seen more and more of as a feature of post-2008 economic restructuring. Kotouza talks about charities and private organisations “covering gaps” left by the defunded welfare system in the 1960s. The same is true today. Prime examples include the rapid “academisation” of the education system, where state-run schools are being essentially being sold off to corporations, charities and religious organisations, as well as small, for- profit organisations providing alternative education programmes. Where state employment was once some guarantee of stability— state schools must pay qualified teachers a statutory minimum of £24,373 per annum on fixed term contracts— academies, independent schools and alternative provisions are not legally obliged to employ qualified teachers, and are therefore able to employ people on lower pay, with less job security.
The Feminisation of Education Work
Following from Maya Gonzales and Jeanne Neton’s essay “The Logic of Gender”,
4 I want to think of this move as a form of feminisation of the educational labour market. For Neton and Gonzales, the “feminization turn” in the labour market is made up of two components. Firstly, coinciding with the de-industrialisation of advanced capitalist economies which has been occurring since the last third of the twentieth century, there has been rapid expansion of the service and care sectors. This means that more and more low-paid workers now do what was previously thought of as women’s work (for instance in customer service or social care), regardless of gender.
Secondly, they argue, because employers are experiencing less financial security since the 2008 crash, it is becoming more common to treat all workers as if they were female workers. Traditionally, employers considered female workers as unreliable over the long-term as they could at any point leave to have children, and that, throughout their careers, family—be that young children or elderly parents— would be their top priority. Therefore, women’s labour is attributed less value, and is often used “in short spurts at cheap prices”. In the wake of 2008, Gonzales and Neton explain, there’s been an overwhelming “movement by capital towards the utilisation of cheap short-term flexibilised labour-power”; for instance, hiring unqualified drama school graduates at a high turnover rate rather than qualified teachers with secure contracts. In other words, it is no longer only people who appear to employers as liable to become pregnant (so-called “women”) who are feminised through precarious and low-paid employment.5
In devaluing our work through poor pay and precarity, my employer mapped women’s working conditions onto a broader employee base, justified here by the fact that our “passions” lay outside of the workplace. However, normative prejudices around gender, race and (dis)ablility continued to structure workers’ experiences at the company, making conditions worse for more marginalised employees. For instance, there was no sick pay or maternity pay and no guarantee of work after a period of leave. On the other hand, regardless of aptitude or experience, people gendered as men were often offered senior, better-remunerated jobs, as our students’ “delinquency” was often, lazily, put down to an absence of male authority in their lives.
The feminisation of work occurs not only through the way it is structured and compensated, but also through its content. Feminisation happens through various multi-faceted and interconnecting processes, but a central tenet is the vulnerability to a very particular kind of exploitation: on top of the work people read as women are paid to do, there is also an expectation that we do unpaid “emotional labour”. This is because, in the words of Lisa Yashodhara Haller:
“since the majority of women carry out care work both professionally and privately, it becomes [...] an alleged characteristic of being, and thus a structural mark of gender. Care is then not only considered a feminine trait - femininity is constituted by care.”
Almost as if to deliberately demonstrate Haller’s argument, at a staff meeting, our company director once announced, “I’m proud to employ more women than men. I believe women have an extra gene which makes them more caring”. Because his understanding of femininity here is so bound up with the enactment of care, he perceives “caringness” as a biological trait, an “alleged characteristic of being” inscribed into and onto the bodies of his (largely female) workforce. If, then, “caringness” is a natural “characteristic” of his employees, care and emotional labour cannot be thought of as work, but rather mere expressions of existence. This company, along with countless others, rely on their worker’s willingness to go “above and beyond” because they care.
For instance, nowhere in our contracts did it state that we were expected to cook. The company allotted us a budget of £3 per student for lunch, and it was up to us how we used it. The least labour-intensive way to feed our students would be by buying meal deals from the supermarket across the street. We didn’t get breaks as a 1:1 staff to student ratio was required at all times, and we were always understaffed, so by buying pre-prepared food we would be able to spend the lunch hour taking it in turns to eat our lunch, catch up on paperwork and supervise the students, rather than cooking and washing up. However, most of us felt it was important to provide nutritious food, so squeezed time into our schedules to source recipes that would suit the requirements of all our students (a difficult task!), shop for ingredients, cook and then clean up. Of course, management were keen for this to happen, as it was attractive to potential customers, and therefore put pressure on us to continue. When we didn’t cook because we were understaffed or too busy, they would try and emotionally blackmail us into doing this extra work: “if you really cared about your students you’d find the time to make them a healthy lunch.”
More often than not, care work and emotional labour don’t produce surplus-value, meaning that unlike in the production of many other commodities or services, an employer doesn’t appropriate profit from the labour of their employees. This is the case for unpaid care work which happens within families and communities, and most waged care work which is organised by the state. However, in the case of private companies such as the one I worked for, labour carried out by workers takes the form of a commodity (something which can be bought or sold) and thus surplus- value is directly produced.
Usually, a commodity’s value is determined by the length of time it is supposed to take to produce. But care and emotional labour can’t be neatly packaged in this way: teaching somebody the difference between a noun and adjective or comforting them when they’re upset just takes as long as it takes. Where within traditional value-producing industries, capitalists generate more surplus-value by speeding up average production time (through mechanisation, for example) this is less possible in care work. Therefore, if someone “wishes to generate a profit in this field, the only option remaining is to reduce labour costs by lowering wages” (Haller). In other words, value produced through care work can only be increased when that work is de-valued or feminised.
There were moments of resistance against our working conditions. For instance, new contracts which assigned us extra jobs for the same pay were met with protest, but workers were palmed off with the same old “we can’t afford to pay more, but if you really care you’ll do this”. For the most part, staff were unhappy but—presented with the false dichotomy that the company can either provide good working conditions or a decent quality of care, not both—were willing to sacrifice their happiness at work for the students’ wellbeing.
De-professionalisation and the State
Our role as unqualified, feminised “people who care” in a rapidly de-professionalising industry put us in a contradictory position in relation to the students and their families and the local authorities who indirectly employed us. Because we weren’t “teachers” as such, and were working with people whose needs weren’t being met elsewhere in the rapidly shrinking welfare system, our jobs entailed elements of myriad others: social workers, councillors and family therapists.
The majority of our students had always hated school and were reluctant to come when referred to us. This meant that, for at least the first week, a tutor would go to a new student’s house each day to get to know them, conduct a risk assessment and ease the student into the idea of attending the centre. In reality, this process often took much longer than a week. When a potential student didn’t wish to engage with the centre, we’d try to manoeuvre things so that they remained on our books. This was because, due to the way the company allocated its budget, each employee’s pay was attached to an individual students’ funding. If they lost a student, a member of staff would lose their job too.
For my first three terms at the centre, I was sent to a “disengaged” student’s house every morning to try and make contact. This involved standing outside the front door, ringing the doorbell and being ignored. I was told that if someone else from her building let me into the stairwell I should go upstairs and try and try to speak to her through her letterbox, but I didn’t, as this felt like harassment. As much as I believed it was important she knew there was someone there for her if and when she was ready, she clearly had a lot going on and needed support in other areas of her life before she’d be ready to come back to education. However, desperate to hold onto the funding she brought in, my employers insisted I continued this vain attempt.
On the few occasions I met this student’s mother—usually at multi-agency meetings about her daughter, which she’d taken time off one of her three jobs to attend— she came across as lonely, unsupported and overwhelmed. She didn’t speak much in these meetings, and was visibly tense around the representatives from other services (such as her social worker and a Community Support Officer)
7 who spoke in jargon and, she feared, thought her to be an inadequate parent. But after they all left, she’d break down and tell me how she was worried about her daughter, who was withdrawn, angry and frequently went missing. She was also struggling to pay rent and worried about eviction, but kept this from social services in case they took her child away. To her, it seemed that because we weren’t “real” teachers in a “real” school, we didn’t pose the threat all the “professionals” around her did.
To other families, our proximity to these state agencies was more apparent. On a home visit to try and coax a non-attending student out of bed I was physically threatened by a parent, who felt that the school’s incursion into his home was an act of surveillance intended to help build a case to have his children removed. I understood his fear and frustration and felt angry at my employers for creating this situation. Because this family were working class and not considered willing or capable of catering to their son’s “additional needs”—in this case, autism—various state and quasi-state agencies had been granted access to their inner life. Despite legitimate concern that this child had stopped attending school, it was inappropriate for the company to send staff uninvited into his private space.
The Militarisation of Care
The “militarisation of care” is a term used by Becka Hudson to describe the interconnection of “welfare” and “carceral” state functions.
8 This is not a new phenomenon, but Hudson argues it has become more pronounced in the UK since the New Labour government of the 1990s. This shift, she explains is primarily one of policy and funding, but also consists of changes in the logic and ideology within institutions. Hudson explains that workers in welfare and support services are often coerced into engaging in punitive practices, but sometimes do so of their own volition, because they and their colleagues and managers believe it’s the right thing to do.
There were many instances in which staff at the centres voluntarily colluded with the state’s carceral institutions. Police were called fairly regularly, including once because a student had self-harmed! Reports were made if a student claimed to be carrying a knife, without verifying if they really were, and a probation officer, police “gang specialists” and a magistrate were all invited to the centre to give workshops designed to scare our students away from criminalised activities.
Echoing Hudson though, not all participation in carceral structures were “deliberate”. The most obvious example of this is forced participation in the Prevent programme.
9 Originally, referrals to Prevent would be made directly. However, presumably because many were reluctant to expose those in their care to state violence, a general referral form was introduced instead. Now, any concern about a young person—maybe you felt they needed an eye test or a dyslexia assessment—would be routed via the local authority, who would forward it onto whichever agency they saw fit. If, for instance, a teacher had concerns about a young person’s mental health, they could no longer refer them directly to counselling services. If this student happened to be from a Muslim background, there was now a significant danger their case would end up with Prevent instead.
In her book Gendered States of Punishment and Welfare Adrienne Roberts argues that in advanced capitalist countries, care and carcerality have always been two sides of the same coin.
10 The so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” is a pertinent example of this, and was evident at the centres. Many of our students, particularly those who were not white, were constantly in and out of young offenders’ institutions, and, largely because employment options had been precluded through the denial of education, saw spending some of their future in prison as inevitable.
For one student though, the relationship between the education, social care and prison systems was particularly clear. During his first term at the centre, soon after being excluded from mainstream school, Danny was arrested and held on remand in a children’s prison. His mother became unable to deal with the stress of what was happening to her child and was interned in a psychiatric institution under a Hospital Order, which meant that Danny’s younger siblings were placed in foster care. Here, one event precipitated an entire family being removed from their community and taken into state custody.
After several months in a prison which was in the middle of a child abuse scandal, Danny was released on bail to an overcrowded care home, and came back to the centre. As part of his bail conditions, he was given a Youth Offending Team (YOT) worker who he had to meet with regularly. This worker was responsible for making sure he kept to his curfew and was attending school, and would submit a report on his “progress” to the court, with a recommendation of what she deemed an appropriate sentence. The YOT worker met with him almost every day, and quickly became the most stable adult presence in his life during a turbulent and traumatic time. When Danny turned 15 she was the only person to buy him a birthday present. She was also largely responsible for the custodial sentence he received later that year. When I first encountered Roberts’ analysis of the inter-dependence of the state’s caring and punitive mechanisms, I thought immediately of Danny and his YOT worker.
The Deviant Family
In Gendered States of Punishment and Welfare Roberts charts the history of the nuclear family as economic and moral unit. “The family itself”, she says “was reconstituted in the nineteenth century, and it came to play a certain policing function. In contrast to the previous period, the family was to be seen no longer as a reflection of the model of the state but as its own instrument of governance, with an important disciplinary role.”
11 This “proper” family she describes must be economically self-sufficient, subsisting on the family wage of the husband/father,
12 and must bring up its children as law-abiding, hard-working, correctly-gendered capitalist subjects. Deviant families are, for example, those which cannot afford to exist without support from the state; are not headed by a married, heterosexual couple; are racialised; who engage in criminalised activities to survive; who have migrated from the Global South, or who have members living with disabilities. Deviant families are families like Danny’s who are poor, Black and headed by a single parent on a council estate associated with “gang activity”, and, as such, are treated with fear and contempt.
The idea of the deviant family has long been used to justify the draconian intervention of the state’s disciplinary institutions. Seen as lazy, un-cooperative and undeserving, the meagre welfare provisions the deviant family are entitled to are presented as a great luxury and kindness when, in fact, they often serve to punish or even separate family members. Serving a similar function to the Victorian workhouse which Kotouza writes about, Roberts argues that part of social services’ role today is to “break up deviant families and institutionalise children to prevent the transmission of criminality from parent to child.”
13 In periods of post-crisis austerity, the deviant family becomes a convenient scapegoat for capitalism’s failure, and a justification for the de-funding of public services.
This rhetoric was apparent at the beginning of our current moment of economic restructuring. In the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings, after eighteen months of ruthless cuts to welfare and support services, seven local councils evicted whole families in which only one member was charged with rioting offences. David Cameron justified this use of collective punishment by stating “we’ve gotta find a way of enforcing responsibility in society.”
14 Under the same government, Michael Gove, then minister of Education, brought in legislation whereby parents could be fined or even prosecuted if their children failed to attend school. Since then, we’ve seen countless measures brought in to punish struggling families for their “failures”, while simultaneously causing them further immiseration through the devastation of necessary services. The message of these measures is clear: the deviant family deserves no support or safety net, and when it fails, as it inevitably will, disciplinary and carceral institutions will be there waiting.
When the welfare state recedes, it is overwhelmingly feminised people who take on the responsibility for people’s survival and welfare. As Haller explains, feminisation partially occurs through the assumption that the undertaking of certain types of work (care, for example) come naturally to those with biological traits coded as “female”. For somebody gendered as a woman, then, to insufficiently care for members of your family or community is considered a great failure. In the general social imaginary, it is the job of women to love and discipline the children and men around her into law-abiding subjects, and her fault when this is not how they turn out. In an almost parodic example of this, Boris Johnson famously claimed that the children of “low income families with working mothers” were more likely to “mug you on the street corner” because they are “un-loved and undisciplined!”
15 Of course, due to the criminalisation of certain means of survival, those growing up in poverty are more likely to break certain laws, but in his interpretation of this fact, Johnson lays bare the racist misogyny circulated widely by the current government and its policy makers. The imaginary mother in Johnson’s statement is caught in a double- bind: because she is poor, if she doesn’t work she will have to rely on welfare, and will therefore be setting her children a bad example. If she does work however, then she is negligent and her children will become “feral.”
At the Intersection: Between Welfare and Punishment
I want to conclude with the story of a student who experiences the full violence of welfare’s absence and carcerality’s omnipresence, but for whom things could be so different. Lewis was the first person I taught at the centre, and my first session with him was a nightmare. He ran away from me and hid in cupboards, threw my teaching materials down the stairs and tried to steal things out of my pockets. After this rocky start though, I really warmed to Lewis. Once I got to know him, I realised he was extremely kind. He was genuinely interested in the people around him. He’d ask us lots of questions and remember all our answers. After I told him that my grandad had been ill, he asked after him every morning. He teased me relentlessly for my terrible football skills when we’d play at break times, but took it upon himself to help me improve. When he struggled to focus in lessons, we’d go outside and he’d set up cones for me to do dribbling drills, and shout encouragement at me as I lost control of the ball. Lewis was fascinated by keys and locks, and wanted to be a locksmith when he left school. This would be unlikely though: Lewis was heavily pathologised as he found controlling certain behaviours difficult. Sometimes, he’d compulsively shout and spit at people in the street, use racist and sexist slurs and get into fights. He would often shoplift without taking precautions to not get caught, and he struggled to understand boundaries and what was appropriate around people he was attracted to.
When Lewis was approaching 18, there were lots of conversations about what would happen to him after the local authority stopped funding him to come to the centre. It was clear to those of us who had worked with him that he would need some kind of care for the rest of his life. Someone arranged for him to have an assessment to ascertain whether he had “capacity to make safe decisions”, and therefore whether he qualified for adult social care. The psychologist conducting the assessment spent less than ten minutes with him. The assessment was a short list of leading questions which were designed to get a “positive” outcome. Lewis was declared to be capable of making safe choices, and would therefore not be “looked after” by social services after his 18th birthday. By this point, he’d already been kicked out of home as his parents couldn’t cope with him. He’d been arrested several times, and was drinking regularly and hanging out with a group of people who seemed to be taking advantage of his vulnerability in various ways. I miss Lewis. I don’t know where he is now but, heartbreakingly, I think he’s likely to be among the thousands of people absorbed by the prison system due to lack of appropriate provision elsewhere.
For someone with needs such as Lewis’, the ideal support system would be one in which supervision and care are combined. This supervision wouldn’t be a punishment for contravening law, nor would it need to include containment or the removal of choices. Instead, it could be a measure to keep people at risk of causing harm or being harmed safe. With the right kind of supervisory care, Lewis could be supported to lead a fulfilling life and to have healthy relationships with friends and family, who would not have to be solely responsible for his wellbeing. In our current climate though, care outside of the family is often absent, funnelling those who need it into institutions of punitive supervision instead.
However society is organised, people will always need support structures of various forms. Therefore, in a capitalist society, when state responsibility for these provisions diminishes, new markets open up. Many companies and organisations who tap into these markets, particularly those which are not state funded, produce surplus-value from care work which is transformed into a commodity. As I outlined earlier, the best way for them to do this is to use de-valued, feminised labour. It is always feminised people who are made chiefly responsible for the welfare of people in our society, but in periods of austerity, when support services are sparse and are operated by a precarious, underpaid and undertrained workforce, this is more the case than ever. As the (already inadequate) infrastructure to keep the most vulnerable and oppressed safe and cared for has collapsed around us, unpaid feminised work from within communities is often what keeps people out of the carceral institutions which threaten to swallow them. Our task, particularly amid the spectre of Brexit under a right-wing government, is to find ways to keep each other alive without exploiting and further devaluing those who carry out that work.
I left the company after roughly two years due to lack of managerial support, and the feeling that, due to the insidious militarisation of our roles, my work was doing more harm than good. It was an institution which didn’t need to exist: the young people who were sent there shouldn’t have been excluded from their schools in the first place, and their education and care shouldn’t have been commodified through the exploitation of those who provided it. The centre was structured around hopelessness: that the best any worker could do was attempt to keep students out of prison for as long as possible, and the company’s role as outsourced state institution meant it was beholden to the state’s mechanisms of discipline and surveillance. But in a way, the centre also offered us a glimpse of its own radical alternative: due to the specificity of our student body, we were forced to take an approach which was centred around relationship building and individual needs. I think back to my time there with, among other things, a deep sadness for the way things could have been had the conditions been different.