Are we all vulnerable now?

Sunday 19 October, 14.00 until 15.30, Cinema 2, Barbican Me, Me, Me Politics

In official terms, ‘the vulnerable’ used to be narrowly defined by the 1995 Care Commission report as referring to people in extreme circumstances, like the homeless, or those unable to look after themselves mentally or physically. Today, however, it is the term of choice to describe anyone and everyone deemed to be in need of sympathy, especially those hit by government cuts – ‘a savage attack on the most vulnerable members of our society’, etc - but also much more widely.

The unemployed are vulnerable to depression; women are vulnerable to ‘everyday sexism’; immigrants are vulnerable to trafficking or even slavery, not to mention FGM; teenage girls are vulnerable to body-image issues; and teenage boys are vulnerable to being warped by pornography. Labour leader Ed Miliband has accused payday loans providers of preying on vulnerable people and MPs have accused bookmakers of targeting vulnerable people in deprived areas. Before her forced resignation, former culture secretary Maria Miller pledged to save ‘children and the vulnerable’ from gambling adverts. A coroner recently called on the Ministry of Defence to review its care for vulnerable soldiers at risk of suicide and bullying. Meanwhile, more radical campaigners increasingly seem to see ‘vulnerability’ as a collective condition affecting just about everyone under rampageous capitalism.

Solutions invariably involve calls for more support and protection for those deemed vulnerable. Nurseries, schools and universities create new systems and activities to support growing numbers of these deemed ‘vulnerable’ – often merely by dint of youth – aiming to ‘build resilience’ and develop ‘survival strategies’.  Labour’s shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, has called for teacher training to include methods for helping children develop ‘grit, determination and the ability to work in teams in challenging circumstances’. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility has said schoolchildren should be taught character and given the resilience and determination to overcome setbacks in life. 

But can grit and determination really be taught? Or does a preoccupation with vulnerability actually threaten to sap our resilience, making us dependent on external support? If we begin by defining ourselves and others as powerless, how can we hope to change the conditions that undermine material, physical and mental well-being? And with so many labelled vulnerable, how do education and welfare professionals differentiate between competing claims and judge how to allocate scarce resources?

Listen to the debate:

Debora Green
head of student support and wellbeing; University of Sheffield

Jen Lexmond
director, Character Counts

Dr Mark Taylor
vice principal, East London Science School; London convenor, IoI Education Forum

Professor Sir Simon Wessely
president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists; head of the Department of Psychological Medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London

Kathryn Ecclestone
professor of education, University of Sheffield; author, Governing Vulnerable Subjects in a Therapeutic Age (forthcoming)

Produced by
Kathryn Ecclestone professor of education, University of Sheffield; author, Governing Vulnerable Subjects in a Therapeutic Age (forthcoming)
Recommended readings
We need to mobilise against the cult of low expectations

The very politicians who bang on about social mobility have made it harder to pursue.

Brendan O'Neill, spiked, 4 March 2014

Tristram Hunt: Children should be taught 'grit and determination' in school

Schools should aim to instil

Irena Barker, TES, 12 February 2014

The harmful idea of student ‘vulnerability’

A growing zeal to address ‘well-being’ diverts resources from those who really need help, says Kathryn Ecclestone

Kathryn Ecclestone, Times Higher Education, 23 January 2014

‘The message is that all our problems are in our brains’

Joanna Moncrieff talks to spiked about the myth that we’re all mentally ill.

Tim Black, spiked, 7 October 2013

Brene Brown: The power of vulnerability

Brene Brown studies human connection -- our ability to empathize, belong, love. In a poignant, funny talk at TEDxHouston, she shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to understand humanity. A talk to share.

Youtube, 3 January 2011

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