To blog is to make a point

Blogging was a liberating, creative release after years of writing prescriptive reports for a well known civil service inspection agency. Five years after I started, however, I barely come here, and my other blog – Not Different But Interesting – is no longer live. But I am glad I have still have this little place, sitting here, dormant for much of the time, but accessible should I have need of pushing through the fur coats and out into its landscape. Should the urge to write, freely, without wordcount or supporting literature (which, as an early career academic these days, is the other type of writing I now do) come upon me, I can still step in, settle down, and tap away.

Time and again I return in my head to the metaphor of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Dig’, in which he views his pen as his spade, digging away, as his grandfather had dug the soil, or, as I like to think, as his way of showing how often the pen is indeed mightier than the sword – if impact on the world is what you are looking for. The metaphor comes again today to me, and the urge to write returns. I should be doing other stuff – marking for example – but I am compelled to visit this place instead, my infinitessimal corner of the webverse.

Blogging is a simultaneously new and old phenomenon. We still read Chaucer, Pepys and a thousand other diarists, biography and autobiography still flies off the Christmas Bookshelves – we want to know what other people are thinking. Blogging is merely the new technology for an old art.

Not Different But Interesting was such a haven for me. A place I would think about while grappling with the challenges of parenting very young children, jotting notes as the day passed on scraps of paper in the kitchen, itching for them to be asleep so I could write, write, write. While it was always hard to resist wondering about one’s reader stats (egos are never completely shaken off) it was essentially an indulgence in a private space for a personal reason – a desire to express, free from constraint, to diarise via a laptop. So I hang on to this second blog, in the absence of NDBI. This blog was always intended for more commercial purpose, as I endeavoured to re-engage with the world of work – once the soul sapping civil service machine finally spat me out. It worked too – I got writing work through it, and in a funny sort of way it eventually lead me back to academia, where I had begun my career and had always wanted to return. Beyond this, I get a bit philosophical – do we blog because in a world with billions of us, all wanting to make a mark, leave a trace, make a difference, this is one of the few ways one can connect to people accross the globe?

Academic life, combined with working a long way from home and parenting small children, leaves pretty much no space for blogging, however. I get to be creative in other ways, and love my work, but even that has rules to follow and conventions to observe that constrain the writing one can do there.

So I need to make a point, as I have always seen blogging as an opportunity to do just that. I am so much more eloquent when I write than when I speak – I think! – and so writing seems the most appropriate medium I can employ when I actually feel the urge to ‘say something’. And my point today is this.

It is easy to dismiss the academic life, and the nature of what passes as work inside the universities accross the UK and beyond, as not relevant to the lived expereince of ordinary people. We know that the political climate in British universities is markedly to the left of what appears to be the view of the general populus, and plenty of members of my own family would be confident in entirely dismissing the views held by both myself and many of my colleagues as utterly self-referencing and elitist. I get that, I do. But it isn’t an accurate description of my experience as a jobbing academic either.

The academics I know work really, really hard to understand the nature of human existence, the reality of living, the impacts of culture, politics, ideology, policy, social phenomena and the social structures we create, or resist, or comply with. They are particularly keen to make sense of how we treat children, parents and families; they are genuinely preoccupied with the vexing question of why we still can’t seem to create a socially just society. So as we lead up to yet another flippin’ election, can I offer you a few research outputs that might help you to reflect on the kind of Britain you want to live in?

1. 3.9 million British children live in poverty. The number had reduced dramatically during the period 1998-2011, and has flatlined ever since. That’s an average of 9 kids in every classroom of 30 (a reminder here that were are the fifth richest country on the planet). 2/3 of these are in households were at least one person works. (Source: Child Poverty Action Group)
2. The bedroom tax has cost poor households an average of £572 a year and is causing children to struggle at school, and their families to reduce their spending on food ( source: Manchester University)
3. Food bank use has increased from 40898 parcels handed out in 09/10 to 1109309 in 15/16  (source: Trussell Trust)
4. 1 in 10 young people in Britain has a mental health problem, that’s three in every average sized classroom, and in the last two years waiting times for treatment has doubled to nearly two and a half years (source: CYPMHC)
5. Average student debt at the point of graduation in England has reached £44,000 but at least 1 in 5 graduates will earn less after graduation than someone educated to A level standard (source: Sutton Trust)
6. In UNICEF’s latest assessment of child wellbeing in rich countries, the UK came an average of 16th out of 29, below Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Portugal. Our children’s educational wellbeing is set at 24th out of 29. (Source: UNICEF)

Gven that Cameron allowed people like Gove to remain in office for twice as long as any other Ed Sec since the 70s, that he allowed IDS to pursue his particular version of madness, or allowed his Best Man Hunt to bring the NHS to a standstill, I’d say that whatever your particular political persuasion, there is grounds for despairing at the place this country has been taken to, and that he had no right to stand on the doorstep of Number 10 and claim any kind of achievement. May has done no better, no better at all. She has no vision for the future of Britain’s disadvantaged children, and thinks grammar schools, and scrapping any seeming benefit to having paid national insurance all your life, is the answer to all our ills.

It is easier to vote for selfish reasons that unselfish ones. Voting for stuff that will benefit others who have no democratic voice – children – can seem like a waste, I guess, when we are all feeling the squeeze. But one day, those kids are going to be the care worker who comes to your home when you are elderly, the teacher who guides your grandkids, the doctor who replaces your hip, the charity worker who brings your meals on wheels, the innovator who finds a new way to tackle the social isolation of the elderly, the builder who constructs your new sheltered accomodation.

My colleagues and I, we see the impact of these depressing statistics every day, we wrestle with the solutions, we hold a mirror up to society. The luxury we have – of time to think, and to use our metaphoric pens to ‘dig’ with – allows us to conclude, no more, no less, that there must be a better way. I invite you to consider whether you agree with us. And use your vote accordingly.

Your most influential teacher was probably pretty quirky

Don’t you think? My 3rd year junior school teacher Mr Wardley was all arms and legs and loud expression, but he taught me that it was OK to make ‘knowing stuff’ my aspiration, and I have never forgotten him. My university tutor Michael Passey occupied a room mostly buried under piles of paper and never pronounced my name right in 3 years, but had a sense of well-placed righteous indignation when talking about human rights and social justice that is still with me 25 years later.

You get the picture.

I think I have spent the last two days, at the HEA Inspire conference in the company of people who are more, or less, quirky; because, let’s face it, aren’t we all? So Claire McGourlay at the University of Sheffield has bucked the trend and made teaching-only professorship a fine art, by setting her students free to practice from the earliest stages of their legal training, and letting a pro-uno stance (not per una) – doing legal work for those who would otherwise not have it – be her, and her student’s, modus operandii. Twitter could not roll fast enough with the wisdom coming through her words this morning – just check out the hashtag #HEASocSci15 to see what I mean.

With lots of session options on offer after Claire’s key note, I headed in to listen to early-career academic Lewis Simpson from University of Leeds, exploring the use of metaphor in his teaching of Sociology. For Lewis, quirkiness is a backbone of his pedagogy, as he uses chairs or tables, and their component parts, to represent complex theories, and genuinely aims to be “as weird as [he] possibly can”. I quite fancy being in Lewis’ lectures; I reckon his teaching would be big on ‘rememberability’ and low on Hancock-faced boredom – and it was he who had us pondering the relative necessity for quirkiness in our educators. Next up, Alan Hanna from Queens University Belfast described bringing the trading floor inside his institution, so that his business students understand the challenges of making other people’s money grow in a real-world way. It seems so obvious, but I got the impression very few others were doing it, this side of the pond anyway. And Hope Christie and Karl Johnson were driven by personal experience to bring a greater degree of shared anti-worry wisdom to the students on their previous degree courses, as they transitioned into the tough final year. All of their papers, and the many, many others on offer throughout the conference are available on the HEA conference website shortly.

I was lucky enough to share twenty minutes of my own quirkiness as I delivered a paper – in which I characterise myself as a Street Level Lecturer holding back the tide of performativity agendas and neoliberalisation to keep my relationship with students authentic. That this early-career academic got her paper accepted felt like a great coup – to have had a warm reception, amongst such intense diversity, was even nicer. The individuality of each pedagogue I have met in the last two days leaves me feeling encouraged for the future of HE in the UK, no matter the pressures, the measures, or the Green Paper metrics and rhetoric. It will still be us, standing in front of our classrooms, trying to do our best by our students, for a good while to come.

So, thank you HEA, for the opportunity – and the quirkiness.

Hippos, tweckling and Dame Edna’s glasses (or, what a HEA conference has contributed to my teaching)


This early-career-but-long-in-the-tooth academic has spent her day being inspired by other hard working, highly motivated HE pedagogues (yes, I use that word deliberately – ‘teacher’ or ‘lecturer’ don’t really cover it for me).

Universities have existed in these Isles for a long time, a few hundred years now. During those centuries we’ve picked up a few good ideas about how to transmit knowledge, encourage understanding, inspire criticality. And rather than running out of steam, my day at the HEA conference has confirmed for me my sense that, as a sector, and despite the 21st century pressures we face, we are collectively committed to continuing to find ways to be even better at what we do.

Steve Wheeler has encouraged me to keep on ‘running to catch up’, to grasp the flickering nettle of technology in my classroom and my student’s lives, and recognise the power it has to shape the curricula – no matter what the module handbook says.  I am part of the ‘architecture of participation’ – connected learning experiences in which my students can teach me as much as I can teach them. He’s even given me a new – and powerful word for this: Paragogy. Comfortingly for me, too, whose teaching content is often Early Years, Steve made great use of the still-meaningful work of Vygotsky, and in doing so confirmed my growing sense that much of what I know about how our youngest children learn might also equally apply to my students at the university.

Gill Seyfang from the University of East Anglia has reminded me of the value of humour as a teaching resource. She has embraced comedy in her classroom, and as we fell about laughing at her performance, the real message of her presentation – that emotional engagement = deeper learning – was not lost. Equally powerful, the work being done by Hodda Wassif and Maged Zakher at the University of Bedfordshire in using artefacts in their ‘cultural shoebox’, brought in by students, to kickstart learning conversations really moved me. I teach a module on Childhood in a Changing World, and I minded to try out their technique next week – I’ve promised to report back to them, and they’ve even given me a few cultural objects to get my shoebox started. And thus I present, learning-in-action, almost as I type.

I’ve considered the relevance of screen capture to improve the quality of feedback I give, via the work of Nigel Jones at Cardiff Metropolitan University, as well as gained further insight into the value of classroom flipping with Rick Hayman from Northumbria University. And Elizabeth Malone from Liverpool John Moores has further warmed the cockles of my heart by confirming my sense that all that defines good teaching with our youngest children also applies to our youngest adults – and maturest students. Darren Cooper (of University of Worcester) had me considering the power of video, and Carol Zhang (Royal Agriculture University) was disarming in her honesty – being your truest self in the classroom, and focusing on a pedagogy that prioritises your relationships with your students – well, that works for me.

This Street Level Lecturer (more on this tomorrow!) is new enough to the profession to still feel a little giddy in the company of people who have been at this stuff for a while. Yet, in reality, they are a humbling bunch. They operate in ever-changing institutions, where marketing is now just as important as getting students to grasp theory, and where metrics and measures often run counter to that which would facilitate the most effective teaching. And yet they willingly acknowledge the need to be, at every juncture, what my daughter’s headmaster calls ‘White Haired Radicals’; people who know the rules so well that we know how to break them. They know how to embrace subversion, the disruptive and the new, and reject comfort and complacency, for the sake of their students – and their own sanity. I am proud to be among them – and have much yet to learn.

And the hippos, tweckling and Dame Edna Glasses? Let’s see. Joe Gadzula from the University of Bolton effortlessly applied the metaphor of hippos, and their resistance to being tamed, to the notion that we must all acknowledge our starting point (in research, in writing and in teaching) or it will come and squash us flat. Gill Seyfang had some great props for her students to use, as they got into (theoretical) character and engaged with their learning, said glasses amongst them. And ending where I began, Steve Wheeler acknowledged the power of twitter to bring the world to our handheld, to be ‘CPD personified’, while also suggesting that our students can engage with the world’s collective wisdom as they sit in our lectures, redefining notions of knowledge, and how we acquire it. Though they probably don’t do it in his lectures (my suspicion being that they are rather fun), our students are thus at liberty to challenge our omnipotence with their ‘tweckling’, democratising learning as they tap and swipe.

Let’s (try and) keep up with them.


More tomorrow from the second day of the conference; follow us throughout the day on #HEASocSci15

Are we sitting comfortably? Let’s begin.

3 reasons to go to an academic conference:

  1. A change is as good as a rest. There is something genuinely refreshing about being in a new place, with new people, hearing new things about your discipline – or other people’s disciplines.
  2. You’ll be a better teacher for it. Or lecturer. Or pedagogue. (Delete as you wish). Immersing oneself in the ideas of others is – my intuition tells me – a great way to take back new and better ways of doing things to your own institution.
  3. You might just meet the one. No. I don’t mean the one. I mean that other academic who wants to do research that you also want to do, but is struggling alone, just as you are – doing it together might just be a way to make it actually happen. Collaboration, people – it is the way of things.

As I type, I am living proof of the above. I am in a city I haven’t been to for 25 years (when I came for a University interview, ironically enough) and even before the conference I am attending has started, I’ve met some great people. Their fields don’t much overlap with mine, and their working and studying contexts are also very different, and that is thoroughly refreshing. For the next two days together we are going to listen to a tonne of interesting people speaking with passion about their pedagogical work in institutions up and down the country. I’m going to do my best to give the twitterverse and the blogosphere a flavour of their ideas. Bring it on, good people, bring it on.

You can follow what I am up to by popping back here tomorrow, and by following me on twitter @leoarnawrites, or using the hashtag #HEASocSci15.

On becoming an academic

On becoming an academic….

Between my finger and my thumb, The squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it – Seamus Heaney

For this is what I appear to become. This fact became clear, or clearer, last week, when I attended my university’s graduation ceremonies, and an academic conference. It brought a few realisations with it.

Graduation means a lot to the students who participate, and their families watching on. Even though we have shifted from a position of 5% of school leavers going into higher education, to one where around 50% of school leavers do, it is still an ‘individual journey’, a unique moment in the life of the student. The rhetoric of employability screams in student’s ears so much these days that I doubt they stop to think so much about the notion that an education might just be an end in itself. But it is just that, and perhaps at graduation, there is a moment in which to think on that.

To give voice to my teenage self, I did always want to be an academic. My first job after university was in academic social research around children and families, but I lost my way, became disillusioned, and left. I think a slice of (unnecessary) working class modesty had something to do with it, though not all. A sense that I wasn’t clever enough, didn’t belong, had always pervaded, even though no-one else ever said it to me. I have always regretted leaving, but have to hold on to the notion that, without the meanderings of the intervening years, particularly down the rather dull and dimly lit corridors of Ofsted, I would not have found my way back. In essence, those years gave me something to care about – early years – something to champion, something to know.

As I get to know my colleagues, both within my new institution, and the wider academic community via conference attendance, I am forced to acknowledge the variety of approaches towards ‘the academic life’. Even those of us who strive for the moderation of ego via Buddhist principles have to acknowledge that in every professional role there is an opportunity to enjoy status, and its close friend, privilege. Academics are no different. Social science academics – which is how you might best describe me – are no different. They desire impact and recognition, and have done since the days of their godfather, Richard Titmuss, whose mouth was never far from the ear of government. Titmuss set a precedent, and the Blairite government fanned the flames of desire in us; “Come, tell us interesting things, and we’ll let you shape policy and society” they cried. Many of the people I have heard speak in the last few months have achieved those giddy heights, can rest their heads knowing they have been heard by those who count.

So as I step out onto the very crowded stage of social science academia and research, there is a need for me to consider my role. As I sat through plenaries, and workshops and honorary doctorate acceptance speeches last week, I pondered this question. I heard one senior academic describe her deliberate abandonment of status as she participated in action research, got her hands metaphorically dirty, and found out something useful along the way about how children play and the unassessibility of true child-led play. I heard another absorbed in an idiosyncratic preoccupation with the redefinition of otherwise familiar concepts. She spoke in a classically academic way, and I was intrigued, and impressed – but also left wondering what had been added to the body of knowledge that might make a difference to ordinary lives. I found myself leaning towards the example of the first over the second – siding with the notion that an academic life, however rarefied the atmosphere within which it operates, can yet still make a useful contribution to the debates around how best to organise society.

Thus I find myself really wanting to tackle injustice via my work, to really ‘tell it like it is’. To do this academia – and I – need to remain connected to society in a genuine fashion, and pitch our collective wisdom in terms that all can understand. I don’t believe many academics these days live at the top of ivory towers – the reality of university life in England, chasing research grants, and dealing with ever more diverse student cohorts, precludes such an existence. Indeed, universities are themselves an increasing site of policy shift and politicisation. But we need to remain wary of the accusation of ivory-tower residence, and keep our work, and our language, firmly focused on the notion of being accessible, both to our students who carry our messages out into the world of professional practice, and to the wider community.

For me then, a hope of keeping the research work in early years and social policy I do purposeful; not necessarily in the grand way of reaching the ear of the minister, more in the sense of being a common sense exploration of current troubling issues that we could, as a nation, better address. And a hope of keeping the teaching I do ethically located in meeting student need and shaping, for the good, their one-day-to-come practice, rather than aspiring towards some imagined and surreal elevated status that might afford me an invitation to Whitehall. The graduations I attend each year will hopefully serve as a reminder of why I have a job in the first place. And this way, I might – just might – find a way to tackle the injustices endured by British children, through both my words and deeds.

This person

This person tried to bring to an end safe ratios for childminders and nurseries. This person refused to listen to the evidence about school starting age, and subjects English children to the most atrociously inequitable system of results driven schooling in the developed world. This person wrote a primary history national curriculum that is oft described as a pub quiz, and he calls the academics who tried to help him do better ‘marxists’ and enemies of promise’. This person has removed democracy from huge swathes of our education system without a mandate, and handed the responsibility over to private companies with unproven track records. This person relentlessly pursued childcare policies that place stress on parents and children, commodifies childhood. This person let his pal Murdoch design tablets that they can together sell into schools to deliver ever narrower curricula. He told us that some subjects are more important that others, that the only way to teach children to read is via synthetic phonics, and he shouted down a colleague using the phrase ‘yada yada yada’ on national television. This person stops families taking a well-deserved holidays together outside prescribed times of the year. In short, every clear thinking educationalist in Europe, Scandinavia and Australasia has looked at us with incredulity as we allowed this man to govern the schooling of our children for so long. 4 teaching unions carried a vote of no confidence in him. (That’s never happened before.)

England, I know you voted for reasons other than education. I get it, I really do. No politician truly spoke to me about education during the campaigning. But really, is this what we intended? The man who gave the man I describe above a job is back in power without even breaking sweat. The man you voted in saw no reason to stop the man I describe for 4 years; twice as long as any other Education Secretary for nearly 40 years. In fact, he only ousted him when he realised that such policies might cost him the election. People voted for their small businesses. They voted for their hospitals. They voted for their welfare, or for (or against) Europe, or interest rates, their tax bill, and more besides. All very reasonable, rational and sensible. But sadly, I’m not sure anyone (or not enough ‘anyone’s) used their vote in defence of English children. I look at our two tonight asleep in their beds and I feel genuinely fearful for what lies ahead.

Maybe education policy isn’t as important as other stuff. Maybe childcare issues just don’t flick people’s switches. Fair enough. I truly don’t expect everyone to get as hot under the collar as I do about this stuff. But, but…. If we don’t get schooling right, there will be no nurses and doctors, no social carers, no innovators, scientists or researchers, nor any bus drivers, creatives, social workers, supermarket managers….. ad infinitum. If we don’t get childcare right we do lasting harm to children and break their parent’s hearts. I have absolute respect for every person who used their vote in a thoughtful to defend or support any number of causes. But is this really what we meant to do?

Ex Inspectors 4 Early Years

I believe in ground-up democracy. As Richard House has noted this week, the coming together of so many early years professionals from disparate backgrounds, united by concern about the policy direction of the DfE and Ofsted (who, let’s face it, shouldn’t even be making policy) is heartening. It gives those of us desperate for the voice of common sense to be heard in the corridors of power hope. To that end, I have of late been enjoying online discussions with former inspector colleagues. We have moved on to different things, but we keep ourselves up to date with what is happening in the field of early years. We are shocked at the pressures our former colleagues who still inspect are under. We are astonished that Ofsted is attempting to shape policy. We despair the lack of evidence base to the almost daily policy announcements. We, we, we….. well, I could go on, but instead you could 1) follow our new blog 2) chat with us on twitter @ExIs4EYs and 3) give us a like on facebook. We are adding our voice to the online throng. Join us.