‘Hello’ from Harriet Rowley

I have recently finished my doctorate at the University of Manchester and have been appointed as a Research Assistant at  MMU. I am working on the evaluation of School Direct with Prof Tony Brown and Kim Smith. Broadly, we are interested in how the delivery of teacher education is changing both at MMU and nationally, as well as how these changes are affecting student teachers’ experiences and the nature of teacher knowledge.

Before studying for my doctorate, I was a youth worker and secondary school teacher. My PhD was concerned with the relationship between schools and communities and the role of schools in tackling deprivation. I carried out a case study of a community-oriented school, Weston Academy, which was sponsored by a large social housing provider who wanted to provide a more joined-up approach to regeneration and community development. I also used longitudinal case studies of ten families, to track the impact of the school’s efforts on their lives.

I am mainly a qualitative researcher who enjoys being out in the field, using ethnographic and creative approaches to collect data. I have a broad range of research interests that cover areas such as the policy process, the relationship between deprived urban areas and poor educational outcomes, place, space and neighbourhoods, inter-agency working and vulnerable families, community education and student voice.

ChildLine is another important passion of mine and I have been a counsellor there for the past four years. This has led to the development of some broader research interests outside of education that particularly vulnerable young people face. When I am not working, I like exploring new places, going to gigs and being on my bike.

Thank you to everyone who has made me feel so welcome in my first few weeks and I look forward to working with you in the future.

Harriet Rowley

Mr Sneery Strikes Again: Gove’s Canon, ‘policy-based evidence making’ and the Screen Discourse of ‘Low Aspirations’

On 9th May, The Education Secretary Michael Gove delivered a keynote speech at a conference hosted by Brighton College (The Sunday Times ‘Best Independent School’ no less). The title – What does it mean to be an educated person? – is provocative enough, but the full speech is really something else. There has already been a lot of excellent analysis of Gove’s sneering and patronising speech on twitter, in cartoon form, on several blogs (a great example being this by The Plashing Vole), among professional associations, and in the news.  We don’t want to repeat too much of this, but rather to draw attention to three key issues about education reform and aspirations discourse under this government – crystalised within Gove’s speech – which continue to raise concern for us.

Gove’s ‘Great Canon’

‘We all harbour high hopes for our own children, and we know they are happiest when they succeed in any endeavour beyond their own expectations.  R.H. Tawney, the great progressive thinker, argued that, “what a wise parent would wish for their children, so the State must wish for all its children.”’ – Gove*

Gove began his speech by inviting us to imagine two children (our children):  Our son is on his computer, our daughter deeply engrossed in a book.  What would delight us more, Gove asks us? If our son was playingAngry Birds or coding? If our daughter were readingTwilight or Middlemarch? And what might we prefer our children to aspire towards? Would we like our son to play pool to meet some new friends or join the cadets? Would we like our daughter to pursue Olympic glory or dream of ‘fame finding her’ on Big Brother?

What follows is a lesson in what Gove considers the brightest and the best literature, art, history and culture children should – and need – to be exposed to in their education. Such denigration of texts outside of this ‘Canon’ misses the way people read and how they encounter culture. As others noted, reading Twilight can be enjoyable, can enable young readers to enter discussions about relationships, violence or feminism, and usually leads someone to read other books (or write them).  This denigration of particular texts – and by implication those who consume them – as trashy, inferior and lacking any cultural and educational value is gendered as well as classed. These are issues we discussed earlier this week (and, in the case of Twilight, brilliantly captured in this clip from the film Liberal Arts).

Gove’s proposed ‘Great Canon’ of ‘transcendent works’ is as narrow as that which he critiques, based on his own educational experience and the curriculum of the private schools he praises as models for state education.  This canon is deeply elitist, despite Gove’s claims to the contrary. As The Plashing Vole summarised, ‘Canons are repressive concepts. They tell you what an élite thinks you should know, rather than what everybody read… I’ve no problem with making value judgements – but I do object to people who disguise their value judgements as universal truths. It’s dishonest and oppressive’.

Heather also made this point in her recent analysis of the doublespeak in Gove’s speech ‘inspired by’ Antonio Gramsci and Jade Goody. As she stated there, despite positioning himself as a champion for equality and social mobility by widening access to the ‘canons of knowledge’, what emerges is a constant reassertion of elitism by naturalising the practices of privilege by which the ‘best’ and ‘valuable’ in literature, culture and history gets established and fixed as such.

Education reform and ignorance – ‘policy-based evidence making’

‘What makes the setting of higher expectations more difficult is the culture of excuses and low aspirations which some in the education establishment still defend’ – Gove

Secondly, we take issue with Gove’s broader comment about cultures of ‘low aspirations’ and low expectations which he has set up as the key challenge for education reform. In yesterday’s speech and elsewhere, Gove named his critics – the teaching unions, author Michael Rosen, the whole of the Education Guardian, and the 100 academics who wrote a letter criticising his curriculum reform – as a ‘blob’ of ideologues and Marxists, poor teachers, ‘melancholic’ union leaders and ‘enemies of promise’, ‘invested in the regime of low expectations and narrow horizons’ which holds kids back.

In positioning his critics in this way, Gove suggests that his policies for reforming the curriculum and education more generally are instead ‘ideology free’ and driven by ‘truth’. Such ‘truth’ lies in some interesting sources. As this investigation by The Local Schools Network reveals, Gove’s claims about young people’s poor knowledge of history which served as a basis for his redrafting of the history curriculum came from a small scale survey of 3000 people in 2008, commissioned by the television company (yes, that’s right) UKTV Gold. His additional sources included the hotel chain Holiday Inn; a website for London ‘Mumpreneurs’; and the Sea Cadets. But perhaps most interesting was his other key source: the Centre Right think tank Politeia whose advisory council includes a ‘Rt Hon Michael Gove MP’ and which supports free market policies for welfare and education reform.

Kim has recently been reading work by Tom Slater on the ‘myth of broken Britain’ which excellently traces the current assault on the welfare state by the Con-Dem government – including drastic reductions in family and child benefit and the pursuit of punitive workfare programmes – to the emergence of the ‘Think Tank’ The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), founded by the now Work and Pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith.  Slater argues that changes to welfare have been enabled through the selective use of (mis)information produced by the CSJ, presented as ‘evidence’ that welfare is a lifestyle choice and that inequality is created by family breakdown, cultures of worklessness and dysfunctional behavior – while evidence to the contrary is deliberately ignored by policy makers and politicians.

Slater exposes not just flimsy or inaccurate evidence, but purposely rigged surveys used by both the CSJ and lain Duncan Smith to make a case for welfare reform. He calls this ‘decision-based evidence making’, where ‘evidence’ produced by think-tanks and other commissioned research organisations is selectively designed and ‘tailored to fit the needs of policy elites and politicians on the look out for accessible catchphrases to woo a jaded electorate’. Rather than consult social scientists, policy is now increasingly informed by ‘neat sound bites drawn from surveys that measure nothing more than the worldview’ of those that commission them and the ‘false problems’ they have already reformulated.  Only last week, the Work and Pensions Secretary was caught out by the UK Statistics Agency for misuse of official statistics to support the Coalition’s benefits cap.

Given Gove’s reliance on anecdote and surveys commissioned and conducted by commercial organisations and centre-right think-tanks (on which he sits), Slater’s analysis of welfare policy is easily transferable. By locating autonomous scholarship that critiques his pre-decided agendas for reform as ‘bad academia’, produce by the enemies of promise, Gove sets himself up as the lone ‘voice of reason’. Such deliberate and concerted dismissal of voices and knowledge deemed contentious or disruptive to Gove’s plans for education reform is deeply worrying.

Low expectations? Low Aspirations?

Dismissing the critical voices of academics who challenge his reform as holding low aspirations for children is a rhetorical misdirection. The discourse of ‘low aspirations’ among disadvantaged youth, parents and now academics is part of what Bourdieu and Wacquant call the ‘neoliberal newspeak’ disseminated by ‘officials, high-ranking civil servants, media intellectuals, high-flying journalists’ and ‘think-tank experts’.

Alongside ‘the underclass’, ‘generations of worklessness’, ‘feral kids’ and ‘feckless families’, the discourse of ‘low aspirations’ becomes a doxa – a common-sense, self-evident truth (see alsoSteve Roberts and Sarah Evans excellent writing on this). Such ‘screen discourses’ play a central role in the neoliberal refashioning of the state, education and welfare. As Bourdieu and Wacquant state: ‘Lodged in the minds of political or economic decision-makers and their publics’, and ‘ as an instrument of construction of public and private policies and at the same time to evaluate those very policies’.

Why such willful ignorance from Mr Gove? Because a focus on individual ‘aspiration deficits’ of young people, their parents or their teachers, allows him to elide the complex lattice of inequalities faced by young people in their everyday lives – many of which are being further entrenched by this government’s policies: daily poverty blighting more and more children’s lives; rising levels of youth unemployment; increasing stratification and segregation in the education system through Gove’s academies and free schools policy; and a narrowing of choice and pathways deemed ‘aspirational’.

This limited view of ‘appropriate’ aspirations, combined with Gove’s narrow conceptualization of ‘knowledge’ and an ‘educated person’, sorely misses the range of capacities, passions and aspirations that young people hold, setting up a hierarchy in which only some skills, knowledge, subjects and futures get recognised as worthy and legitimate – those that fit with neoliberal capitalism and follow the same educational pathways and experiences of the ruling elite. Further, such a focus on the individual orientations of young people to those futures deemed by this government to be ‘aspirational’, fails to contend with the more significant issue of why young people from disadvantaged backgrounds might not find the places preserved for the privileged and elite ‘desirable’, let alone accessible – something Kim has discussed elsewhere.

This week we’ve been speaking to young people about their different hopes for the future – these included going to university but also things like being happy, having a nice place to live, and just having enough to get by and support a family. Hearing their sense of frustration that many of these ‘modest’ hopes may not be attainable in the current climate, we can’t help but feel filled with anger about Gove, this government, and capitalism more generally for the way it manhandles, regulates and stamps on people’s dreams.

‘Mr Gove believed that everyone else in the world was stupid and ignorant. The problem was, Mr Gove himself was the one who was ignorant’ – from @PaulbernalUK art by @KaiserOfCrisps

*If, by the way, you’d like to see someone use Tawney in a way that really does call for a socially-just and more equitable education system for all our children, I’d highly recommendthis piece by Sociologist Diane Reay

This is re-posted from the Celebrity and Youth blog which documents a research project entitled: ‘The role of celebrity in young people’s classed and gendered aspirations’. It is being carried out by Heather Mendick and Laura Harvey at Brunel University and Kim Allen at Manchester Metropolitan University between September 2012 and April 2014 and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Who is Embedded Research For?

When your PhD is funded by an airport, certain things take a little getting used to. Firstly, your morning train ride will be shared with a lot of happy holidaymakers, which can be difficult to stomach when your destination isn’t a sunny one and your interview schedule for the day’s fieldwork isn’t finished. Secondly, there’s the ever-present possibility that the meeting you’re heading for might be cancelled at the last minute due to an Icelandic volcanic eruption or an unattended suitcase at Terminal 1. Thirdly, and by far most importantly, there’s the nagging question of who your research is for – a question that all embedded researchers must at some point grapple with.

Ultimately, every piece of academic research has a number of stakeholders: the funding council, university award or partner organisation that paid for it; the academic(s) conducting it; the participants who helped to generate the data behind it; the broader academic community that will receive the new knowledge it generates, and anyone in any way involved with a policy, service or piece of legislation that might change as a result of its findings. The paradox of doing a PhD is that a famously solitary activity does, in fact, involve a lot of people.

In the case of embedded research, the presence of the first and last set of stakeholders – the people paying for it, and the people affected in concrete terms by its outcomes – is particularly apparent: a partner organisation has invested resources in you, and in return they will normally be expecting some kind of outcome tailored to their own strategic goals. In my case as a PhD researcher, the airport provided the lion’s share of my annual studentship and, in return, my research had to be focused on the local area. There could not have been fewer strings attached. I had no problem identifying a research question that was focused on the local area, engaged with my own academic interests and had relevance in contemporary policy debates: how are young people’s occupational aspirations shaped by the areas they live in? But how did this research question align with the airport’s own agenda? In what sense was this research for my funder? After all, I owed my opportunity to pursue a PhD to the airport, and this was supposed to be a piece of embedded research.

During initial meetings at the airport it became clear that one of their primary goals as a large local employer and sponsor of a nearby secondary school was to raise the qualifications and skills of the local population, in order to create a more viable local pool of labour. I was almost taken aback at the airport’s candidness here: of course, they were interested in such a goal for its inherent value to the local population, but ultimately they had a lot to gain from any intervention that would help to raise the educational attainment, aspirations, qualifications and skills of the people living on their doorstep. Given this strategic goal, it’s not difficult to see how my research may contribute to local initiatives focused on the sorts of jobs young people in the area aspire to do when they’re older. However, it’s been a long time since I’ve been in touch with the airport – a truly ‘embedded’ relationship was never realised, and after the first 12 months my PhD developed independently of my funder. While academics would probably hail this as an instance of the proper independence of academia from business interests, I’m left with a sense of doubt: have I conducted a mutually beneficial piece of research? Has my research been for my funder? I will find out soon enough, when I meet with representatives from the airport for my final funders meeting – by which point my PhD will be a fait accompli and the opportunity for collaboration will be gone. I have no doubt that my PhD has been of benefit to me and to the policy context in which it is situated, and I can prove the relevance of my findings to the airport’s strategic goals. But the question of whether my research has been for my funder in any meaningful sense is far less certain.

Sam Baars

Sam Baars is a PhD student at the University of Manchester.  To learn more about his research check out his website. This was originally posted on the Embedded Researcher blog.

Teachers and Sports Coaches up there with Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall

The news that veteran broadcaster Stuart Hall has pleaded guilty to a number of sexual offences has prompted a further eruption of the long-grumbling volcano of opinion and comment around sex offenders in general and child abuse in particular. In the most recent Observer, there was an item titled What the BBC can learn from scandal of Stuart Hall and the dark side of fame. It wasn’t the discussion of the main offender or the BBC that interested me, but some (apparently authoritative) comments included in the piece, which are indicative of the low level and incoherence of the way these issues are typically being discussed, even in the quality press.

Donald Findlater, director of research and development at the ‘Lucy Faithfull Foundation’ and director of ‘Stop it Now! UK and Ireland’, was quoted at length (and presumably with accuracy). To allow full appreciation, here are his words in full, and some linking text from the piece:

“Any suggestion that this is a unique problem of the BBC is a distraction. There’s acres of children being abused every day. Maybe with celebrities they’re on a different psychological track with children, because they’re people they look up to, who are big in their world, but we could say the same about sports coaches.” But many, said Findlater, might well never have been abusers in an ordinary job. “That’s my assumption with some of these people – they would have been harmless in ordinary life. It’s the context in which they find themselves but that’s the same for, say, teachers, who train with no intent towards children but then find themselves in perhaps facing a life crisis and are feeling vulnerable, in a situation of temptation, and suddenly thoughts are developing. They never planned to be sexual offenders.”

Passing by the cavalier ‘acres of children being abused every day’, which seems designed to shock and demand agreement, the numbing laziness and saloon-bar quality of the rest of this contribution takes time to sink-in. The comments might begin to make sense if there was clear evidence that a category of people we could define as celebrities is any more likely to be child-sex offenders than the rest of the population. I am unaware of any such evidence. Moving on, the casual references to sports coaches and teachers only work if accompanied by a knowing nod and wink: ‘and we all know they’re at it don’t we!’ In fact there is no basis for picking on these groups except for it being a common tactic used by those intent on spreading fear and mistrust. There is no evidence to suggest that children are more at risk near teachers or sports coaches than any other adult, and they are almost certainly safer there than with family members.

The real message here is that anyone who works with children and young people in loco parentis is likely to be (or become) a child abuser. Dressing the shifty argument up in terms of ‘it really isn’t their fault, they are tempted and vulnerable’, is insulting. Although we should perhaps be grateful that there is no mention of intrinsic evil in this account, the downside is that the child is constructed as being a source of contagion. The idea, with echoes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, seems to be that being or becoming a teacher or coach (or social worker, or nurse, or doctor, or presumably parent!) is potentially very bad for our health and moral wellbeing. (‘Everything in my life was going so well, then I decided to try to teach young people to play tennis, then my wife left me and I found I was developing some very nasty thoughts…’.) This is a counsel of moral and social despair, an incitement to detachment and passivity. Off the cuff comments like this from people who should know better foster a culture of fear by saying that the only way to be safe is to keep away from other peoples’ children, and that those who choose to do otherwise should not be trusted. Those who represent the interests of children should not come out with stuff like this, and quality journalism should notice that such comments are absurd and not include them without some critical comment.

Heather Piper

Reporting from the Gender and Education 2013 Conference

Last week the team delivered a workshop on analysing the emotions at play in our data, at the 2013 Gender and Education Conference, hosted by the Weeks Centre, London South Bank University. Here’s a quick update.

In  our workshop – ‘Understanding the Affective – exploring young people’s talk about aspirations and celebrity’  – we shared emerging data from the project  and drew on three different approaches to examining ‘the affective’ within this, inviting participants to work with these in groups with three different extracts.

The approaches we drew upon were:

  • The Kardashians as ‘disgust object’ – using the work of Bev Skeggs and Helen Wood on reality TV, affect and judgment; and Imogen Tyler on disgust and social abjection
  • Beyonce as a ‘happy object’ – using Sara Ahmed’s work on the sociality of emotions
  • #cutforbieber, fandom and affective practices – using the work of Margaret Wetherell
You can find our powerpoint here and photos of the group brainstorming activities below.
Brainstorm – Kardashians
Brainstorm – Bieber
Brainstorm – Beyonce
We will be uploading more details of the approaches we used and how we applied these to the data extracts soon – watch this space.
This is re-posted from the Celebrity and Youth blog which documents a research project entitled: ‘The role of celebrity in young people’s classed and gendered aspirations’. It is being carried out by Heather Mendick and Laura Harvey at Brunel University and Kim Allen at Manchester Metropolitan University between September 2012 and April 2014 and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

The Museum of Qualitative Data – The Wonder of Data

Data, what it is and what we do with it, has been a recurrent focus of this blog.  We’ve had posts on, ‘What is data?’, the ‘Death of Data’, and ‘Doing Monstrosity: Two conferences, four minutes of free improv and the death of “data”’.

Now we’re trying something a little different to develop on these themes and help us all untangle what it is we spend our days collecting, wrestling with and working into semi-coherent representations of the world.

Maggie MacLure is opening the Museum of Qualitative Data.  Okay, well actually it’s not a Museum, not yet anyway, it’s a blog but it’s a blog about data, for qualitative researchers in the social sciences, arts and humanities.  She wants to stimulate discussions about data: what can count as data, beyond the familiar interview or field note? Is data just passive material, waiting to be animated by our analyses? Or can data be provocative? Excessive?

Think of the data ‘exhibits’ in this living and changing collection, not as inert exhibits in an ordinary museum, but as wondrous items in a cabinet of curiosities.

Screen shot 2013-05-02 at 09.07.34

Maggie invites you to review the exhibits, comment on them or submit your own by emailing her on m.maclure [at] mmu.ac.uk

James Duggan

Learn to teach with Teach First and you are 5 times more likely to leave the profession after 5 years

This morning I’ve been tweeting extracts from this report, the DfE’s own analysis of the 2010 school workforce census. Whilst some might consider this excellent bed-time reading, it does contain some interesting evidence about key issues within the educational debate today, e.g. the academies programme and the differences between different routes of initial teacher education.

On academies, it was interesting to note that the average teacher in an academy earns less than their counterpart in a LA maintained school; but that academies pay the highest average leadership salaries across the age groups; teachers in maintained secondary schools are also more likely to have higher degrees that their colleagues in academy schools (I’m not sure that the two are linked though!).

However, it was the data surrounding teacher retention that really struck me as interesting. It confirms something that many of us have known for quite a while: students who train to be teachers on the Teach First programme only ‘enjoy’ short teaching careers. How short? Well, the report says this:

The teacher training route for secondary teachers played an important role in influencing the odds of leaving the profession. In particular, teachers with Teach First training had odds of leaving which were five times higher than the odds for those with post-graduate training (n = 170). This is not unexpected given the objectives of the Teach First programme to bring very able graduates into teaching for two years prior to entering another profession or occupation (although it is hoped that around one half will remain in teaching beyond two years). (p.89) 

So, train with Teach First and you are five times more likely to leave teaching than if you trained in a more conventional (PGCE) route. In fact, training to be a teacher with Teach First is the largest single factor by which teachers leave teaching early (i.e. within 5 years). Here is the table that shows the likelihood or not of leaving teaching (factors above 1 increase the likelihood of leaving; factors below 1 indicate that person is less likely to leave teaching):


Although the figures for teachers leaving teaching after two years are not quoted in this year, the above quote is enlightening. The best that the DfE can say is that they ‘hope’ that 50% of teachers who have trained with Teach First remain in teaching after 2 years.

As an aside, hats off to our colleagues running graduate work-based training programmes, you are more likely to still be teaching after 5 years, by a small margin (0.8), compared to a traditional PGCE route.

I know some readers of this blog think I have a vendetta against Teach First. This is not the case. However, we all need to remember that Teach First is by far the most expensive and ineffective way to train our teachers. The sadness here is significant:

  • Tax payers money could be better spent (remember, Teach First have just received £76 million to run their programme for the next 3 years);
  • Teach First students don’t enjoy sustained teaching careers (with all the knock on effects that this has for the stability of an individual school’s workforce);
  • Other initial teacher education routes and the universities that have provided them are suffering and many have closed or will close in the future (read my post on Sir Tim Brighouse’s views on this if you don’t believe me);
  • Individual academics working in universities are afraid to speak out under contractual obligations that stifle freedom of expression and will, eventually, lead to whistle-blowing about shoddy practices surrounding programmes like Teach First (at great expense to those individuals who take that bold step).

But perhaps the thing that annoys me most, is that Teach First have the cheek to make a virtue out of such an obvious failing. Hey folks, enjoy a short career in teaching (after all, the teaching profession will be eternally grateful for your contribution) before moving on elsewhere to a proper career in industry, business or banking.

The Labour Government who facilitated the introduction of this style of teacher training, and the Coalition Government that has sustained it, should both hang their collective heads in shame. There may be a political consensus here at the moment, but I suspect history will not be such a kind judge.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this and if you feel strongly like me, please write to your MP about this shocking waste of money and the detrimental effect it is having on the wider ITE sector.

And if you work on a Teach First programme and are too frightened to speak out about it publicly, please feel free to contact me in confidence about your experiences.

This post is re-posted from Jonathan Savage’s blog – click here to read more.