Catching a Lecture at the Ragged University

These are tumultuous times for higher education. Increased tuition fees, the rumblings of growth from private providers, stiff international competition, and the potential of MOOCs to go mainstream all pose considerable threats to established universities.  On a different scale altogether there are now a range of initiatives that bring people together for formal and informal learning, such as the Omniversity, the Lincoln Social Science Centre (click here for blog post), free skools, and Occupy’s Tent City University.  During a time when education is increasingly seen as a commodity and personal investment these initiatives seem to meet a need for people to congregate, to discuss and learn.

I attended the fourth meeting of Manchester’s Ragged University.  The idea was takes its name from the Ragged Schools, charitable schools set up in 19th Century England and Scotland to provide education in working class areas. Drawing on progressive educational thinkers from Rabindranath Tagore and Socrates to Maria Montessori the Ragged Universities aim to provide an informal learning space that is not about CVs, certificates or making money.  To learn more about the RU click here.

There were two speakers presenting on themes relating to the environment. The first was Judith Emmanuel from Steady State Manchester.  After explaining who Steady State Manchester are (citizens concerned that not enough is being done to engage with the threats posed by climate change) and what they are trying to do (develop a substantive and significant planned response to climate change in Manchester) she played a clip from the inspirational video ‘Taking Root The Vision of Wangari Maathai’.

Next, Jules Bagnoli presented her take on Manchester’s De-Industrial Food Revolution.  The talk was rich with insight, experience and wit.  It’s striking to learn that we think we are in an age of unparalleled consumer choice yet there were more types of apples and pears on a market in Salford 100 years ago than today.  Furthermore, although Manchester has a huge food economy we are 99.75% reliant on ‘imports’.

The Ragged Project’s motto is ‘Knowledge is power but only when it is shared…’ so this is what I learned. Together the talks were grounded in the realisation that we are living in a time divorced from ecological reality, eating meats of dubious origin while sitting on a time bomb of environmental collapse – but all of this most people know the perpetual question is, what to do? What I liked about the talks is the message of hope.  Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai’s ‘Green Belt Movement’ demonstrates the significant change that can be achieved by identifying simple and arresting concrete actions that bring people together, such as planting a tree.  A key issue to resolve is what are the equivalent focal points to bring people together in Manchester?  From Jules Bagnoli’s talk, growing food seems to be an urgent, personal and social activity we need to get right as carbon costs more and more making carbon-intensive farming more costly.  One odd cause for hope is that in Manchester there are individuals with considerable knowledge and experience using hydroponics to grow crops, maybe these skills can be put to less illegal uses.

What next for the Ragged University?  There are many different events in Manchester where people talk about their passions (e.g., Bright Club, Social Media Café, MadLab).  So what will bring people back to the RU?  Away from the pull of credentialism is there a sufficient demand in Manchester to meet, listen and learn? I hope so.

James Duggan

Collecting Narratives of Critical Engagement and Resistance

This post describes a new project emerging out of the BELMAS CEPALS network, follow the link to learn more about the network –

Now more than ever there is need for critical policy scholarship to explore, critique and contest government policies that arguably aim to dismantle public education and entrench disadvantage in England.  Researchers’ hands are tied by the reduction in research budgets and the pace at which new initiatives are proposed and implemented.  How critical scholars can position themselves and find ways to present critical and evidence-based analysis and alternatives is an urgent matter.  Inspired by a fascinating talk on narrative theory by Prof. Ivor Goodson (click here to read about the talk), the ‘Collecting Critical Narratives’ project is an experiment in how we might do research in these adverse conditions.

The Collecting Critical Narratives project seeks to develop a model of collaborative and distributed research focused on collecting the narratives of headteachers and teachers currently navigating this turbulent period of educational change.  Although the details have to be firmed up, one idea for the research design is for members to develop and work towards a shared methodology, with each member of the research team conducting between 2 and 5 interviews.  The data would then be collated and analysed to produce a rich series of narrative accounts that detail how professionals are seeking to survive, subvert or resist the Coalition’s deluge of educational change.  These narratives will hopefully provide a voice to those resisting and a counter-narrative to the invidious charge that those opposed to national policy choose their own vested interests over the opportunities of young people.

There are many questions that this approach to research will have to address.  If funding cannot be found in the first instance, how can the researchers balance the commitment to the research in relation to their other professional and personal commitments?  Furthermore, how will those without institutional support meet the basic expenses of doing research?  How will the data be collected and analysed to fit the busy schedules of the headteachers the project seeks to work with and also the considerable resource costs of transcribing audio data?

Despite these practical concerns the Collecting Critical Narratives project represents an exciting departure, where we as researchers and teaching professionals aim to identify and amplify the often un-noticed acts of courage and conviction of professionals committed to a good education for all.

James Duggan

Prof. Ivor Goodson – Narrative Theory

You would expect from an esteemed narrative theorist a masterful display of anecdotes, analysis and theory and Prof. Ivor Goodson did not disappoint.  Presenting to the Belmas Critical Educational Policy and Leadership Studies Research Interest Group, Ivor described how his interest in narratives emerged when he and Andy Hargreaves were given $1million to develop an approach for researching change in school that would explain why so much has been invested in school reform with so little to show for it.  Their response was to create two databases: an archive of school reform and collect narratives of teachers, comparing cohorts from 1960’s, 1980-90’s and 2000’s.

The research identified that in previous years there was a narrative that brought headteachers and teachers together in a common purpose for changing young people’s lives through education.  This narrative collapsed after a sustained managerialist attack on the teaching profession and public education, which engendered three considerable consequences: First, in the ‘paradox of performativity’, which reads that although the managerial reforms sought to improve the 10% of worst teachers, the management and accountability regimes that were introduced consistently drove out the most creative and effective teachers (see Goodson 2003).  Second, the loss of these teachers precipitated a ‘corporate memory loss’ of years of excellent teaching experience that left the profession when the best teachers retired or left.  Third, many teachers now see teaching as a job to be done and survived until the weekend or retirement. ivor-bio

Following Ivor’s presentation there was a lively debate around the role, advantages and constraints of using narrative theory to understand and engage with the right’s ideological attack on various aspects of the public and those working in education.  Narrative theory is clearly a useful tool in mapping and relating these changes but in analytical terms it is very crowded area.  Why prioritise narrative over culture, identity, discourse, ideology, articulation or assemblage theories? Narratives are a useful metaphors or organising constructs for understanding the world but, for example, social psychology’s fundamental attribution error cautions that people often over-emphasise individual and agential explanations to the detriment of situational or structural concerns.

More significantly for me, I am unsure what narrative theory provides those seeking to develop an alternative political project furthering social justice?  Christian Salmon’s (2010) ‘Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind’ documents how narratives have been adopted by global capitalism, right-wing political parties, and in war and empire building supported by considerable symbolic capital and technological capacity to stunning effect.  In comparison, the left has arguably been devoid of compelling narratives and a pitiful in capacity to promote them, leaving the manufacture of values and myths to marketing executives and political ‘spin doctors’.

Deciding ‘what to do…’ I do not believe that a compelling story would be sufficient to remediate the neoliberal hegemony.  Dunleavy et al (2005) notes that the neoliberal or managerial take-over of the public sector included a critique (a narrative) it also presented a battery of tools and approaches, from accounting to cost-benefit analysis, that were inscribed with and reinforced neoliberal rationalities.  I believe it is crucial to understand the role of these tools and rationalities and develop equivalent apparatuses for a more cooperative and collaborative approach to organising in the public sector.  But maybe in the beginning we need to start with a good story to inform, guide and drive us forward…

James Duggan

The Embedded Research Network – Blog

Below is a blog posted on the Embedded Research Network blog.  The site was set up to provide a platform of discussion in which Embedded Researchers and anybody interested  in such research arrangement may  share ideas, information and news. The network is interested in meeting fellow “Embedded Researchers” – that’s researchers who are nominally employed or located in the organisation they are researching.  Check out the blog at


Beginning a PhD is always a daunting experience as you first sit down to read a towering pile of books and enter into a dialogue that’s gone on through the ages in hushed tones in hallowed halls.  Beginning a PhD as an embedded researcher is, by my reckoning, scarier still because your study is contingent on the continuation of the initiative you are studying, people staying in post, and generally the world going on as normal, which in these days is a lot to ask.

The difference between my dreams of doing of a PhD and the seat-of-the-pants reality came into collision at the end of my first year.

As for my dream, it is perhaps surprising for an anti-elitist but I have always wanted one of those Oxbridge chats with a professor, in high-backed chairs, beside a fire, port in hand, as we discuss what I might do after graduation.  I would suggest becoming a philosopher.  She would suggest I might do something practical like making jam.  What about a sociologist… or futurologist… or one of those people who writes fake reviews for businesses online? I would reply between her embarrassed headshakes.

The closest I came to such a conversation however was while in a conference centre bar and being handed a beer by one of my supervisors as he told me,

Haven’t you heard? Nick didn’t get the job, so he’s leaving. Henry’s handed in his resignation. So he’s off. It’s all a bit of a mess… Cracking data for you though.

This was June 2009 and I was to start my PhD fieldwork in September on an initiative called the Stockborough Challenge. Nick was the senior manager championing the project. Henry was the director of the Stockborough Challenge.  The initiative I was meant to research for my PhD had effectively ended before my fieldwork began.  Cracking data, cracked dreams.

At first I was pretty downbeat about the whole thing but due to the benefits of being an embedded researcher, specifically being a nominal employee of the organisation I was researching, and a bit of luck I was able to find the space and goodwill of the professionals in Stockborough to pursue a more interesting line of research, one that brought together research, policy and practice.  My findings are a subject for further posts. At this point I simply offer the advice to people embarking on embedded research that things might fall apart at some point but in the cracks you can find what you need to write your thesis.

James Duggan


Celebrity culture and young people’s classed and gendered aspirations

Dr. Kim Allen’s (ESRI, MMU) presentation, ‘The X Factor Generation? Young people’s aspirations and celebrity culture’, offered a sneak peak of some early findings from her and Dr. Heather Mendick’s (Brunel) ESRC-funded project ‘Celebrity Culture and Young People’s Aspirations’.  The project explores how young people navigate celebrity culture and develop their self-identities relating to education and aspiration.  The significance of the focus on celebrity and aspiration is found in the repeated connection of the two in contemporary discourse. For example, after the stillborn ‘Big Society’ David Cameron now aims to bring forth an ‘Aspiration Nation’ (read here) yet he recently joked in Monrovia that, “If you ask children in the UK, all they want to be is pop stars and footballers” (read more here and here).kardashian 1

Kim described that celebrity studies is often dismissed as being shallow and apolitical yet the subject is attracting serious academic attention, with a new journal and conference.  Indeed ignoring celebrities in time when even the evidently erudite and high-brow Michael Gove declares that Jade Goody and Antonio Gramsci are key influences on his approach to education (read here) seems bizarre.  Furthermore, the articulation of the celebrity-obsessed young person and the location for reduced opportunities within the individual’s delusional aspirations warrants critical academic engagement in the current socio-economic and political context in which opportunities for many young people are being denied by cuts, additional fees, and a failure to invest in opportunities.

kardashian 2The task, as Kim outlined, is to bring proper academic inquiry to the study of young people and celebrity culture.  The study builds on previous work by Kim and Heather Mendick (read here, here) and represents methodological advances on previous research by being young person centred, using interviews and textual analysis of online and offline material, and incorporating an analysis of affect.  In particular, building on the work on reality TV, visual moral economies and class, the research will understand celebrity as a social practice and young people as participatory actors agents in the process of interpreting and enacting meanings in their everyday practices.

The talk presented some fascinating focus group data with young people discussing the merits or otherwise of the Kardashians and Tom Daley versus Bear Grylls.  A key theme in the data we saw was that of the ‘unworthy celebrity’, where the Kardashians were famous for nothing and were mostly thought to be contemptible.  Perceptions were deeply related to class, sexual attraction, disgust, assumptions around achievement and ability, and the performance and reinforcement of particular understandings of masculinity and femininity. bear g

The odd finding for me was that a group of girls despised one of the Kardashians for having given birth on TV and helped in the process yet the boys liked that Bear Grylls eats snails and bugs on television.  I would’ve thought helping out while giving birth was more impressive than eating creepy crawlies but this proves the point of the research – that we should research how young people navigate celebrity in media and in real life rather than project our opinions.

James Duggan

“i DON’T WANT HORSEBURGERS” – An introduction to the maker movement

The ICT curriculum has been a site of considerable interest and change, in recent years, since Eric Schmidt’s (Google’s CEO, click here) high-profile criticism of the previous approach of formulaic and uninteresting training in common software packages in schools.  In 2012, The Department for Education (DfE) responded by ‘disapplying’ the national curriculum for ICT until 2014, when a more rigorous programme of study would be put in place.  Then, last week, the DfE announced that computer science will be included in the EBacc (click here). 20130122_123320

Schools now face an imperative to deliver computer science classes that get the ‘scores on the doors’ yet there are well-reported barriers stopping many schools from doing so.  For example, a Royal Society (2012) report ‘Shutdown or Restart’ includes the sobering statistic that only 35% of ICT teachers have what the DfE regards as an appropriate qualification to teach the subject.  Furthermore, although as in biology, physics and chemistry the fundamentals of computer science remain the same the languages and applications of computing technology change at a dizzying speed.  The challenges for teachers in keeping up-to-date with changes in computing languages etc are therefore considerable over a career.

Helen Manchester and I have been exploring these issues in an unfunded development and research project with Oasis MediaCity Academy in Manchester (click here for an earlier post).  We are interested in exploring the opportunities between the maker culture (click here) and schools.  The idea is to bring individuals and organisations from the maker movement into schools to share their knowledge, skills and enthusiasm for DIY technology, physical computing, coding, robotics and 3-printing.  The maker movement has been described as the next industrial revolution (Anderson, 2012) and there’s a persuasive argument for enabling young people to roll their sleeves up and get involved now.

Last week we observed a pilot project at the school, we helped to broker.  Funded by Sony and in partnership with Forum for the Future, representatives from Technology Will Save Us delivered a lesson to 15 pupils on using Arduinos and the Internet of Things.  The session was not without one or two bumps around bringing technology into schools but it demonstrated the benefits of such an approach and helped us reflect on our assumptions about what was required.

One finding was that as adults we were so intent on enthusing the pupils about technology that we perhaps forgot that young people are used to using and playing around with technology, and that they just wanted to get their hands on the kit.


An example of this playful approach was when the pupils changed the message to be shown when the code was compiled from ‘START’ to, in one instance, “i DON’T WANT HORSEBURGERS.” Of more interest was one girl’s suggestions that they fit sensors to text all the pupils when the school bus is approaching the stop.

The challenge now is how to go from corporate sponsored one-off workshops to scale-up access to the maker movement in all schools? And, how to reconfigure teaching and learning where teachers facilitate learning and encourage problem-solving rather than knowing the answers themselves.

James Duggan

Sarah McNicol says ‘hello’

I’ve recently joined ESRI to work on the iTEC project, which is looking at how technology can be used effectively in the classroom of the future.  For me, this is a really interesting question as my very first job was working as a school librarian in the 1990s when technology was first starting to impact on teaching and learning; I was responsible for the only place with internet access outside the school’s ICT suite.

From there, I moved into my first research post in 2000.  The first project I worked on investigated the types of support students need to carry out independent resource-based learning effectively.  I’ve worked on a wide range of projects since, including research into censorship, careers information, open educational resources, family learning and educational comics.

Over the past 12 years, I’ve worked for Birmingham City, Loughborough and Leicester universities, and most recently for the NUS.  And in between, I’ve studied for a PGCE and taught in the FE sector – and spent some time in South America.  So I’ve travelled around and worked with some interesting people along the way, but I’m happy now to be settled back in the north west.

Welcoming Sarah Dyke and Sarah McNicol

We are delighted to welcome two new colleagues to ESRI.  Sarah Dyke and Sarah McNicol joined us as Research Associates in January 2013; Sarah Dyke will be well known to many as she is a former MMU/ESRI full time PhD student. Sarah McNicol joins us after working as a research officer with the NUS, having previously been a research associate at the University of Leicester.
Sarah Dyke has a first degree in Social & Cultural Studies and worked as a research assistant at the University of Derby before joining the ESRI doctoral programme.  Her research interests involve investigating the discourses and practices around anorexia, particularly the relationship between the real and the virtual in on-line discussion groups, and the effectiveness (or otherwise) of educational interventions. Sarah is based in Old Chapel 1.9.
Sarah McNicol has a first degree in Library & Information Studies and a PhD in History – investigating the ‘History of allotment holders in the Black Country’. Her background and experience mean she is equally familiar with quantitative and qualitative methods.  She will be working on the EU-funded iTEC project and is based in Old Chapel 1.8.
We are all looking forward to working with Sarah and Sarah and, once again, offer them a warm welcome.