Researching Grammar in the Curriculum

Professor Debra Myhill (University of Exeter) began her ESRI seminar by thanking us all for not being put off by the title of her presentation Researching Grammar in the Curriculum.  Grammar is interesting and important but not exactly sexy, she noted.

Part of the interest in grammar is that it is one of the classic sites of left versus right, progressive versus traditional educational ding-dongs.  For those on the right, grammar is an educational obsession. As Philip Pullman (2005) adeptly described the,

“common sense [view of grammar]. That particular quality of mind, the exclusive property of those on the political right, enables its possessors to know without the trouble of thinking that of course teaching children about syntax and the parts of speech will result in better writing, as well as making them politer, more patriotic and less likely to become pregnant.”

Opposite this ‘grammar as birth (population) control’ is the lack of concern in professionals and academic circles.  Although tests lever teacher compliance around teaching grammar there is no coherent rationale for the inclusion of grammar in the curriculum or schooling.  So, how should we consider the importance of grammar?

In the rest of the discussion Debra described how she and her colleagues sought to investigate grammar and meaningfully engage in practitioner and policy discourses, with a particular emphasis on methodological choices.  There are good and bad quantitative and qualitative studies but the current obsession for Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) in education policy the team decided to adopt a mixed-methods RCT approach with qualitative research used to explore the ‘black box’ of the intervention.

The study was based on an approach to teaching children grammar in contextualised ways that made sense, were not arbitrary or contrived.  If you would like more information on the study, read these slides.

There were interesting insights into the role of performativity in education in relation to grammar teaching.  The researchers found teachers whom taught in formulaic ways by saying if you want to get a good mark use a complex noun phrase.  Leading to one exchange between a pupil and a researcher,

Pupil – I want to write complex sentences

Researcher – What are you trying to say?

P – I don’t know

R – Why do you want to write a complex sentence then?

P – I don’t know, my teacher said that complex sentences are best and so I need to write one.

James Duggan

Transient Vacuums, Politics and Research

I recently turned in a chapter ‘Embedded research within a transient vacuum in the managerialisation of a local authority’ for a book ‘Education Policy Research: Design and Practice at a time of Rapid Reform’ edited by Helen Gunter, Dave Hall and Colin Mills.  Like many an ill-thought-out-decision nothing will happen for many months then sometime in 2014 the book will be released and my mistakes and omissions will come back to haunt me.  In the meantime I thought I would blog about what I mean by a ‘transient vacuum’.

Since the 1980’s the English public sector including the education system have been subjected to wave after wave of reforms leading to a proliferation of terms to describe the changes: ‘policy hysteria’ (Stronach and MacLure 1997), ‘policy epidemic’ (Ball 2003), ‘high modernism and hyper-innovation’ (Moran 2003) and re-disorganization (Pollitt 2007)… and many more besides.  These changes, the type, the rationale, the effects and the pace were intricately related to processes of managerialisation and neoliberalisation of the public sector and society. A consequence of the rapid and continual change is that the measured pace of research from writing funding application to conducting field research and writing up can take several years.  Thus research when it is published can describe and engage with a radically different policy context and set of organizational problems.

The chapter I wrote developed on these issues by exploring research in a context of managerialisation in which transient vacuums emerge around the enactment of policies at the local level.  The ‘transient’ describes the pace of change and the ‘vacuum’ emphasises the strange sense of researching an initiative where ‘the centre doesn’t hold’.  Under New Labour the centralisation of policy also worked to centralise interpretation, meaning making and language (Bevir 2005).  Managers had a requirement to enact policies even there were contradictions between these policies (O’Reilly and Reed 2010) and the representation of problems in policies and the problems faced by professionals in working with children and young people.  Discourses and technologies of managerialism, prevalent in New Labour policy and implementation, were founded upon and utilised rational and de-contextualised forms of knowledge that replaced intuitive and contextualised knowledge (Flyvbjerg 2001).  John Smyth (1998) presented the fascinating idea of the construal of teachers as ‘ventriloquists’, articulating a policy discourse without the space, time or legitimacy to question or develop alternative understandings and articulations.  All of this collapsed together to give a sense of disconnection between policy and research and the ‘real’ professionals, schools, organizations, places and problems. I felt as though I researching in a vacuum of official words muted by managers working in de-contextualised spaces defined in Whitehall.

All of this came to mind after the publication the OECD published a report that placed England towards the bottom in literacy against all other developed countries.  Conservative Skills Minister Matthew Hancock jumped on the findings to declare, in this BBC article,

This shocking report shows England has some of the least literate and numerate young adults in the developed world… These are Labour’s children, educated under a Labour government and force-fed a diet of dumbing down and low expectations.

His comments follow a well-beaten path of right-wing politicians and commentators taking poor rankings in international league tables and using these to denigrate public education.  The “dumbing down and low expectations” refers to the grade inflation that took place under New Labour.  The interpretation fits with Michael Gove’s view of education that making lessons and exams harder and more demanding, asking inner city children to learn Latin, will instill at work ethic and commitment that leads to kids striving not shirking in the classroom. So the problem and the solution are individual and moralizing.

I’m not going to defend New Labour’s approach to education. I’m sure many young people were placed on courses on little educational benefit in order to boost institutional performance.  I’m sure some of these young people realized what was going on and once they’d been placed in a particular and undesirable place in the educational system wondered what the point was and gave up a little bit more.

The focus on drive, motivation, expectations and demands (and now genetics) are arguably not the most important dimension in educational history in recent years.  As Peter Wilby wrote recently, in the Guardian,

For 25 years, education policy has followed a more or less consistent track, in which the main parties share certain assumptions: for example, that standards can only be raised by control from the centre; that schools and teachers need constant monitoring and testing; that competition is good for schools. But as we digest the latest horror story from the OECD – that standards of literacy and numeracy among our young adults are almost the lowest in the industrialised world and no better than those of their grandparents – you should ask whether more of the same can really be the answer… parental choice has done nothing to improve English schooling. Rather, it has increased segregation between rich and poor and left some schools with crippling burdens.

Yet parental choice is not really on the political agenda, not in the way that expectations are.  Fiona Miller explains why, writing about Tristram Hunt’s backing of free schools, again in the Guardian,

I have a rule of thumb when watching education ministers and their shadows perform in public. Remember the audiences, because there are two. The first is comprised of parents, pupils, heads and teachers. In spite of the best efforts of politicians to divide them, this group generally has a common interest in ensuring their local schools are as good as possible.

The second group is the political, mostly metropolitan, chattering classes, policy nerds and the media. Their agenda is different. They like to scent out ideological inconsistency and prey on personality clashes, and the media are disproportionately interested in anything that relates to personal choice, the state-private divide and free schools, which make up a miniscule part of England’s 24,000 school estate but command almost hysterical interest.

So what has all of this to do with transient vacuums?  Under New Labour the managerialisation and neoliberalisation continued apace.  The investment was positive but the obsession with targets led to perverse consequences and the gaming of the system led to a situation where exams can be accused of “dumbing down and low expectations”. The representation of the problem in policy is transient first, under New Labour, public sector inefficiency required targets and now, under the Coalition, low expectations are the reason for poor educational outcomes.  There is always the potential for vacuums forming around policy when politicians adopt ideological approaches to issues by, for example, blaming poor people or any minority or marginalised group for inequality, if out of nowhere a claim is made that 120,000 people cost the taxpayer £9 billion (read here) or any other hair-brained and cynical plot then programmes will be developed and professionals will implement them and if money can be found researchers will research them.  In these spaces professionals will seek to cope, resist and enact an ideological agenda that represent, define, blame, locate and obscure social issues in particular parts of society with consequences for who is to blame and who is still able to receive tax cuts.  All the time researchers will seek to understand these spaces, relate them to policy and lived realities, with the aim of impacting on policy and making society a little better but, I fear, these will be artificial and de-contextualised environments and that by the time the research is published policy will have already moved on.

James Duggan

Reference

Stronach, I., and M. MacLure (1997) Education research undone: The postmodern embrace, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Governing Through Accountability – Andrew Wilkins

The ESRI autumn seminar series began on Wednesday 9th October with Dr Andrew Wilkins (Roehampton University) presenting a talk entitled Governing through accountability: linking school governance to performativity and neoliberalization.  The talk was based on his ESRC Future Leader research project School Accountability and Stakeholder Education (SASE) project.

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It seems that researching and making sense of accountability and governance in education has never been more necessary or more difficult.  There are now a bewildering range of schools and educational settings including state-funded or independent schools, and various types of academies, ‘converter’ academies, ‘sponsor-led’ academies, free schools, ‘special converter’ academies, studio schools, and University Technical Colleges (Wilkins 2013).  Amongst this diversity, the educational sector is increasingly undergoing the de-regulation, marketization and new forms of governance and policy networks and actors.  Education is something of a wild west at the moment with the ‘dash for cash’ fueling radical and extensive change in how education is provided.  Understanding the implications, roles and potential for resistance amongst school governors – a group that might be expected to have some say in this process – is a crucial area for research.

Yet accessing and researching schools and governors, especially from a critical perspective, is no easy task as they operate within an Orwellian, Govian landscape that can leave individuals paranoid or intent on engaging with research in instrumental ways.  Andrew was frequently asked when approaching schools if he could tell them whether they were doing good governance or not? When he produced tailored case study reports for each school he found that some individuals interpreted them in ways that fit with agendas of change in pursuit of better outcomes, to clear out the ‘deadwood’ and develop more business-like and business-orientated governing bodies.

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In these activities and working within this context where performativity (see box) is such an intense pressure and presence that his research fueled the process of reforming school-governor arrangements with the sole aim of improving results, what ever these results measured or meant.

The SASE project is not finished and Andrew is about to go into the analysis phase and he shared with us the concepts and approaches that he intends to apply to make sense of this complex picture.

  • Governance as cultural practice (Bevir)
  • Govern-mentality (Foucault)
  • Neoliberalism: ‘roll back’ and ‘roll out’ (Peck)
  • ‘Shadow of hierarchy’ (Jessop)

Andrew concluded his talk asking us to engage with the recommendations he is developing in line with his obligation to the ESRC to develop impact from the research but also his inclination as a critical researcher to engage and try and improve practice.

RECOMMENDATIONS:

  • Minimal hierarchy. All governors enjoy equal opportunity to influence higher-order governance decision making – or elected area school boards or strategic area authorities with opportunities for genuine community involvement and locally agreed education planning.
  • Diversity and representativeness. Change culture of participation. People of specialist and civic knowledge be valued equally. ‘differences are voiced, deliberated and mediated’ (Jones & Ranson)
  • Moral accountability. Generate mutual solutions to local need, downward accountability to local community. Difference and deliberation essential – small executive body subject to the scrutiny of the multitude.
  • Multi-level engagement/governance. Create responsive and quality infrastructures to ensure genuine public discussion and stakeholder engagement; to secure public agreement, public trust and a sense of shared ownership.

If you have any ideas please comment below.

James Duggan

Bad Management #1 – Social Work and Serious Case Reviews

I’ve had in mind to write this series of ‘bad management’ for a while now.  I’m happiest when there is a ‘bad guy’ in my research, unpicking a plot with neoliberalism locating Dr Black and Miss Scarlett’s doctor-patient relationship in the market or managerialisation constraining the academic autonomy of Professor Plum in the higher-education institution.  Management is however a fairly broad ranging set of approaches and tools, some arguably in some cases might be more suitable to the public sector and others less so.  What I’m interested is when the wrong management tools are applied for the wrong reasons.  Firstly, why do policy makers and ‘managers’ only go to the management toolbox?  Secondly, we have to see the application of management tools within the managerialisation of the public sector based on the ideology and process of managerialism, defined by Newman and Clarke (2009: 109) as,

an assemblage of practices, strategies, techniques and knowledges [with the] capacity to colonise other forms of power, reassembling alternative rationalities within its own logics.

Managerialisation/ managerialism locates the selection of particular management tools within political and ideological projects: the privatisation of the public sector and the neoliberalisation of society.

All this came to mind when the media filled, yet again, with the face of a smiling toddler next to the graphical representation of the bruises and wounds inhumanly inflicted on him or her and the country turns briefly to consider who or what is to blame.  The boy was Keanu Williams, a 2 year-old boy beaten to death by his mother.  Keanu’s name joins an ever-growing list of lives lost far too soon: Daniel Pelka, Baby Peter, Victoria Climbie and many more alphabetically anonmized children.Screen shot 2013-10-09 at 11.11.55

After such incidents a serious case review is ordered (read this year’s here).  Since Maria Colwell’s death in the 1970s report after report have detailed the failings of social or children’s services to share information and present a joined-up response to spot and act on abuse.  In Keanu Williams’ case the ‘familiar failings’ as reported by the BBC were:

  • “Professional over optimism”
  • A lack of “professional curiosity” in questioning information
  • A lack of confidence among professionals in challenging parents and other professionals
  • Poor communication between and within agencies.
  • A lack of analysis of information
  • Shortcomings in recording systems

As pointed out by Eileen Munro (2005) these professional or human based factors locate the blame with the professional, and feed into the media discourse of failing public sector organisations that can’t keep children safe from abusive parents.  Munro pointed out the difference between the way in which child death was investigated and reported in relation to the systems theory that is used to understand catastrophic failures such as plane crashes or nuclear power plant failures.  The nub is, in systems theory there is no such thing as ‘human error’ but in social work the entire focus has been on human error.

Locating the responsibility or culpability with the social worker the response in the UK has been to develop supposedly robust tools and scrutiny procedures, the application of particular management tools rather than others – such as systems theory – as part of the managerialisation of social work, to manage risk.  Then when a child dies these provide the framework for blaming and punishing professionals who did not, while working in an incredibly complex and challenging environment, work according to a clockwork world of timescales and tick boxes in which all children are kept safe.

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Munro outlined an approach that started with the individual factors but went beyond these to consider the resources, constraints and organizational context in which the professional was working.  We should also attend to the role of the social worker as a bulwark between the vulnerable child and adults in an increasingly unequal society with parents living chaotic lives.

There are signs that within children’s social work that the agenda is shifting in how these incidents are investigated,

minister of state for children has recognised that the process of serious case reviews is inadequate. He has asked for analysis in Coventry of cause – the “why” questions – rather than a focus on retrospective description of “what” happened. (Ray Jones 2013)

There are many issues that can be extrapolated from this debate.  One way to describe the managerialism of the public sector is that it’s 20-years out-of-date management from the private sector.  This is true for performance-related pay or the ‘bring in and burn out the bright young things’ that we’re seeing in education. In social work it involved applying processes, tools and procedures from management that sought to de-professional and reduce professional autonomy and judgement replacing them with management-accountability measures. However, systems theory is a well-established management approach so why favour particular management tools that focus on procedures, audit and accountability rather than another more useful management approach, in this case systems theory? This seems to add an extra dimension of the managerialisation thesis that it is the application of particular types of management technologies over others for whatever reason, or more likely as part of the privatisation and neoliberalisation of public sector organisations.

Another question is why do we always go to management tools and techniques developed in the private sector?  One reason is that there is a huge industry devoted to developing the practical tools and techniques but also discourses that enact and promote private sector rationalities, and so the public sector basically borrows and steals ideas developed elsewhere.  The significance of this is that systems theory was developed purpose-specifically to understand catastrophic incidents with the intention of stopping them happening because crashed planes and nuclear meltdowns are bad for business, society and politicians.

So instead of applying techniques developed in other contexts those working in the public sector should have the time, capacity and resources to develop purpose-specific approaches to engage with the challenges they face.  As a society we might have to face up to the fact that individual professionals cannot be expected to, what ever the procedures claim to do, protect children from harm from adults when we as a whole care for neither until it’s too late.

James Duggan

ECER 2013: Creativity and innovation – Under the watchful eye of a sub-machine gun?

This year’s European Conference on Educational Research (ECER) took place at Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul, Turkey, between the 10th and 13th of September. Each year ECER has a specific theme. While this year’s theme was announced as Creativity and Innovation in Educational Research, ‘innovation’ tended to dominate the official blurb in a simplistic reproduction of the view that “innovation …may contribute to maneconomic prosperity as well as to social and individual wellbeing and may, therefore, be an essential factor for creating a more competitive and dynamic European society”. Oh, dear. All the old stuff about competition. Plus the now commonplace conflation of ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ into neo-liberal ‘entrepreneurship’! The idea that Educational research is “able to consider the needs of society and the economy while not overlooking the impact this may have on individuals, communities and society” (my emphasis) was tagged on nervously, almost as a footnote. It didn’t really auger very well.

As it transpired, a certain air of nervousness – even a pretty complete failure of nerve, in my opinion  – troubled this year’s ECER. We were in Turkey, in (Res)Istanbul, after all – a couple of miles from Taksim Square where protests which began  in May of this year against development encroaching into one of Istanbul’s remaining green spaces quickly became generalised against the authoritarianism of the Erdoğan government and spread throughout Turkey. The protests were viciously suppressed and, lest we forget, one of the iconic images was of a young woman academic – yes, one of us – on her lunch break being pepper sprayed by the riot police. Remember her? We need to. But ECER didn’t. The official apparatus studiously maintained  a nervous quiet about Taksim.

While we were there, a protest against the death of a demonstrator was met with the now routine tear gas (see here) and the back streets along the ferry terminals of the Bosporus were lined with buses full of those same riot policemen, but armed now with sub-machine guns (in case the pepper didn’t do the trick!?). Every day, as we walked out to the university from the centre of the city, we passed them – nervously, as you do anyone with a sub-machine gun. Some conference goers were even caught up in the tear gas and while their national TV stations were keen to pick up the story the ECER pantechnicon rumbled on in silence.

As delegates, a lot of us were very uneasy about being in Turkey in these political conditions in the first place and some had withdrawn prior to the conference. My feeling was that we should be there and that a unique opportunity existed for Europe’s education  research community to make links with the protesters and warmly offer them a platform to speak. That never happened . Some delegates made private contacts with Taksim Square – one Portuguese friend of mine pulled running shoes and a gasmask from her bag, winking –  others struggled unhappily under pressure of institutional ‘risk- assessments’ and Foreign office advice to keep away. ECER seemed to wish the whole thing would go away rather than queer its expensive conference pitch. But the missed point in the missed opportunity was a critical one. It was about creativity! About the political and social conditions necessary for it to thrive. About the real sources of creativity in collective improvisation, rather than  in profit induced and patented  invention. Taksim Square – like other recent protest movements – has been a hot bed of creativity in street pedagogy, boycott, social parody and insubordinate humour. The standing man protest is a wonderful example,

To her great credit, Professor Morwenna Griffiths, of Moray House School of Education at Edinburgh University, finally tackled the matter head on in her key note on the third day of ECER. At the very outset of her paper on Encouraging Imagination and Creativity in the Teaching Profession she made the necessary links through Hannah Arendt’s words – “in acting and speaking we show who we are” – and made a call for ‘deep democracy’ pledged to a capacious notion of ‘economy’ as understood in its “full (original) moral sense as referring to the well-being and flourishing of all the people”. Only in such a situation, she said, could creativity in education – or anywhere else for that matter – occur. Everyone knew where she was pointing, and the majority applauded this small, bold gesture by a public intellectual daring to exceed her keynote brief. For me, it reminded me why I persist as a network convener at ECER, reviewing papers each year and sitting through the entire proceedings of the ethnography strand. A Europe-wide research community has a potentially powerful voice and in acting and speaking might show who it is. Indeed. What was the epigraph to Forster’s Howard’s End’? “Only connect”? Yes, only connect. I seem to remember the rest of the quote was “live in fragments no longer”. Not easy with a pepper spray in your face, or while looking down barrel of a gun.

Geoff Bright 

 

The Collaborative Action Research Platform – Bursary Scheme

The Collaborative Action Research Platform (CARP) is a new project in development at ESRI. It represents a new and networked approach to practitioner inquiry by bringing together practitioners and academics to focus on improving, researching and communicating effective practice through practitioner research.

In recent years there have been considerable changes in the importance and location of research focusing on improving practice.  Schools, for example, face the need to develop research capacity and CPD programmes, challenging schools to work in new ways with a larger number of practitioners.  Furthermore, schools have to conduct a range of assessments based on evidence to, for example, determine the impact of the Pupil Premium or use of phonics.  Similarly, early years practitioners are required to assess school readiness.  Then there are the perennial pressures to improve practice in order to boost levels and exam results.

At the moment there is an emphasis in policy for evidence-based practice and large Randomised Control Trials in particular.  This form of research has its merits but it has limited contributions to make to individual teachers making decisions in complex contexts.  At its worst this can lead to a situation where one-sized fits all practice can be de-contextualised and handed down to practitioners to implement.

CARP engages with a long tradition of teacher, practitioner and action research but brings these forms of enquiry up-to-date by joining-up the many and various practitioner enquiries using an online platform.  CARP is a website and social network that enables practitioners to:

  • Create a user profile
  • Start and describe a project
  • Update the project categorising the activity with action research terms
  • Attach documents and resources
  • Share this project openly or with a delimited group of people
  • Receive ideas or advice from other practitioners or academics

A key part of CARP will be the characteristics of the community:

  • The CARP community will be defined by the ethos and commitment of its members to an open, honest and reflective engagement with practice
  • The CARP community will include practitioners from different sectors, education and children’s services, and between practitioners and academics

CARP is based on the belief that there is great practice out there and that the way for a practitioner to get better at what he or she does is to reflect, try things out, and talk to colleagues within the an organisation or across the network about what has been tried in what circumstances and what did and did not work.

You can visit the site by clicking on the image below,

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 The Collaborative Action Research Platform Bursary

ESRI and MMU are offering 15 bursaries at £400 to committed individuals or research groups in schools or other settings that work with children and young people.  The bursary holders will be the first cohort of members of the Collaborative Action Research Platform (CARP), and will be instrumental in developing the community standards for research and practice.

The bursary will provide £400 to each project, which can be an individual or group working on a distinct project.  The money is intended to funds to be used at the discretion of the project individual or team, to pay for expenses or as a contribution to the school or organisation.  The bursary is conditional on the project individual or team meeting the following requirements:

  • Join CARP
  • Read and engage with the tutorials on how to use the site and conduct action/ practitioner research projects.
  • Complete an action/ practitioner research project using CARP to record and organise the research.
  • Engage in the community by reviewing other research projects on the platform and commenting on them to provide ideas, advice or encouragement.
  • Participate in an evaluation process to identify ways to improve CARP.

The bursaries are available immediately on a ‘first-come-first-served’ basis. Please email J.Duggan [@] mmu.ac.uk to discuss this opportunity or to apply for a bursary.

James Duggan

Space and Place in the Democracy Project – Call for expressions of interest

As physical beings we inhabit space. We have to even if we are for most of our time playing computer games in a virtual world. But spaces are changing and with them the places we inhabit, make and, more significantly, that are made for us. These places help shape who we are and what we are to become. They enable us play, buy, lounge, watch, eat, drink, work, and even to read or study. As many cultural critics have noted, spaces and places are not what they used to be and neither are they what they seem. Long ago Jean Baudrillard said that the only real place in America was Disneyland because it was the only place in the country not pretending to be something else. Now we all pretend to be something else. In business it is called impression management, branding or public relations.

Henri Lefebvre, Peter Marcuse and David Harvey have argued for a right to the city, for spaces of hope and for practices that may realise these hopes.  Places and spaces are often private or privatised; those still considered public and social are rarely either. The manufactured countryside, the enterprise university, the branded city, the themed restaurant or the air conditioned shopping mall are increasingly divorced from those cultural spaces that may be free and democratic and where critical awareness and action may emerge or flourish. David Graber’s Democracy Project draws important lessons from the Occupy movement; but was Occupy actually a movement, and what did it occupy apart from space? We clearly need free spaces and democratic places – real, digital and hybrid – that will help us address and act on those discourses of power and resistance that are shaping our reality. So where are the spaces and places where we can truly find ourselves?  And, if they exist, or can be somehow created from what we have, do we actually know what we should do with them?

As part of the ‘Space and Place in the Democracy Project’ conference stream at Discourse Power Resistance 2014 (DPR 2014) we are particularly interested in presentations on current and future scenarios that detail the interaction between digital technologies and the potentials for and threats to fully democratic communities.  There are a series of influential agendas in the form of smart cities, big data, the quantified self, and algorithmic culture that intertwined with the neoliberal capitalist project(s) raise concerns for the inclusion and exclusion of individuals and sections of society on the basis of undemocratic principles and practices (see for example).  We hope to bring together a series of thought provoking discussions that explore these alignments within the context of space, place and democracy.

If you’re interested in participating it would be great to hear how you could contribute to the conference stream, focusing on digital or non-digital issues.  We’re looking for academics, practitioners and activists perspectives. Please email (the emails are embedded in the names) either John Blewitt (Aston University), James Duggan (ESRI, MMU) or Kamila Kaminska (University of Wroclaw).

John Blewitt and James Duggan