A few days ago, in a letter published in the Guardian, dozens of authors, illustrators, poets, librarians, teachers and others called on the DoE to act on the recommendations of The Beating Heart of the School, a report recently published by the libraries all-party parliamentary group. They requested the Department set up a working party to “draw up an action plan to realise the aim of a good library in every school”.
But what does a good school library look like? This one of the questions asked in the Beating Heart report, and while I’d agree with many of the points made in this chapter, the resulting recommendation makes my heart sink: “…embed the school library in the Ofsted inspection framework”. I do understand the reasoning behind this; the libraries in both schools I worked in undoubtedly benefited, financially and in terms of senior management interest, from critical inspection reports. But the idea that introducing an inspection regime will, in itself, lead to improvement seems hopelessly naive.
I’ve previously blogged about school libraries in Chile. Here, I wrote about the investment which has been made in Chilean school libraries over the course of twenty years: providing not only resources and equipment, but also training and other support nationally, online and regionally. Only after twenty years of this level of input, when most schools can reasonably be expected to have a good school library, is the government now looking to incorporate school libraries into legislation and inspection. Contrast that with the UK where schools library services which provide local support to schools have been in decline since the 1990s and closure is a possibility for at least a quarter of those which remain.
In my view, what makes a good school library is a good school librarian, not a (good or otherwise) Ofsted inspector. There are many fantastic school librarians in the UK doing amazing work, often with little recognition. And to some extent, the Beating Heart report calls for greater recognition for their efforts…but kind words are not enough.
To start at the beginning, pre-service training for school librarians in the UK is woeful. Doing an option module in children’s literature is not sufficient preparation to work in a school library. You also need to understand educational policy and structure; pedagogical theory and practice; classroom management techniques; educational technology etc, in addition to librarianship skills. Elsewhere it’s a different story (take a look at some of these courses accredited by the American Library Association – for example this). But it’s not the universities’ fault. School librarianship isn’t seen as a viable career option by most information studies graduates, understandably so when salaries can be around £15,000 and opportunities for progression limited.
So how can we make school libraries better? In much the same way as we can any organisation better, by attracting talented people into the profession; preparing them adequately to enable them to succeed; supporting them and allowing them to constantly develop and progress; and providing them with the resources they need to do their job. And looking what happens elsewhere in the world, that’s not impossible. But I think it requires more effort and investment than threatening schools with the Ofsted stick and hoping that will solve the problem.
As some of you are aware, I have been asked to write a history of Didsbury in the light of its forthcoming closure.
I began working on it seriously in January and like most research projects, it has grown and grown. There are least three histories to be written: the ‘celebrator y’ account I was commissioned to write which records Didsbury’s achievements over the past 67 years; a local history which analyses the relationship between suburban wealth and power and the ‘shock city’ of Manchester down the road and also, the ways in which a discourse of ‘progress’ moves from religion to education; and an account of the ways in which first as a College, then as part of the Polytechnic and University, staff and students have mediated, accommodated and sometimes resisted a politics which increasingly prescribed and policed higher education. What will be published shortly is the first of these histories but with elements of the other two.
First, in the Govian tradition, the facts. Didsbury as a building began life in 1790 as a country house when the front of what is now the Administration Building was built. It was surrounded by parkland and was one of a number of mansions built along the turnpike road over the next 50 years. In 1842, it was bought by the Wesleyan Methodists as a theological training college for their priests. They added the sides and eventually the back of the building and stone faced to give it the look it has today. They also built the lodge and chapel. Apart from two moments of national service as a wartime hospital, Didsbury remained a theology college until 1946 when it was sold to Manchester Education Committee and opened as an emergency teacher training college, one of a 100 or so across the country. The first students – 246 of them – were all servicemen and women were not admitted until 1948. It became a permanent college in 1950 and a College of Education in 1963 with the power to award the B.Ed overseen by Manchester University. From 1973 it awarded CNAA degrees and became part of the Polytechnic in 77 and the University in 92. Most of the current buildings were built between 1958 and 1975 when higher education was seen as a benefit rather than a cost.
Enough of the facts which dominate the first two chapters. The remaining four chapters focus on the oral history of the 30 or so former students and staff I have interviewed, the documentary evidence of policy initiatives which have impacted on teacher education in particular, HMI/Ofsted reports, and the push towards ‘partnership, and a chapter I call ‘Researching and Writing Didsbury’. Here I trace the ways in which the creation of the Research Base as it was called initially, built on a pre- university research tradition. The chapter also charts the sometimes fierce debate between ‘professional research’ intended to be undertaken by all staff and more theoretical and conceptual work with the RAE looming large. The last chapter is called ‘Didsbury’s Inheritance’ and argues for a long standing commitment on the part of generations of staff to subject knowledge which cannot be reduced to the National Curriculum, to enabling students to develop an appropriately complex professional identity, and to social justice which takes many forms.
I think it makes for a good read but you might think differently
Last week, Laura and Kim were invited to speak at a brilliant one-day conference organised by CRESC and the University of Manchester, entitled ‘A sense of inequality’. They drew on findings from the project to attend to young people’s everyday negotiations and understandings of inequality. In this short blog post, Laura and Kim give a brief report on their presentation and the day itself.
‘A Sense of Inequality’ – organised by Wendy Bottero and Helene Snee – brought together a range of speakers from sociology to explore the significance that people place on questions of inequality in their day to day lives and what shapes these everyday ‘views’ or framings of inequalities.
In our presentation (‘Extraordinary acts and ordinary pleasures: the role of celebrity culture in young people’s interpretations of inequality’), we located young people’s talk about celebrity as a novel and interesting way in which to explore how people think about inequalities in the present conjecture. Our starting point was that, despite the last two years seeing record levels of youth unemployment, rising tuition fees, and growing numbers of young people in low paid and precarious work, there are no shortage of images of wealth and consumption in mainstream media and popular culture – particularly within celebrity culture. How then do young people make sense of this disparity?
Drawing on group and individual interview data from the project, and developing Michael Billig’s work on ordinary families talking about the Royal Family – we argued that in comparing their lives with those of the rich and famous, young people are actively making sense of the massive disparity between them. Specifically, by replacing envy or anger with pleasure in being ‘ordinary’, young people’s talk about celebrity serves a social function by naturalising social inequalities. Taking a fine-grain approach to young people’s sense-making practices, we identified and talked through the different rhetorical strategies young people used when talking about the wealth and status of celebrities, interrogating the justifications and judgements made by young people as they make sense of different forms of wealth and privilege. This included talking about celebrities doing extraordinary things and celebritiesmaintaining their ordinariness within extraordinary circumstances. We also drew on Steve Cross and Jo Littler’s work on schadenfreude to consider how locating celebrities as disgusting and inauthentic operated as a response to inequality, and considered the gendered and classed nature of these attempts at ‘levelling through humiliation’. You can view and download our presentation here.
It was great to share our work with delegates and to hear five other fantastic papers. These included Sam Friedman’s (City University / LSE) paper on subjective experiences of social mobility. Using Bourdieu’s work on habitus, Sam revealed the tensions and emotional ‘trauma’ that accompanies class ‘movement’. In this way, Sam’s paper powerfully interrupted and challenged the banal and overly celebratory discourses of social mobility that dominate the political and social register. Constantino Dumangane (University of Cardiff) gave a fascinating paper from his PhD research about the experiences of British Black men in elite universities. Constantino examined how race, class and gender intersected in different ways to inform these men’s access to higher education and feelings of belonging (or not belonging). Most revealing were the men’s accounts of experiencing micro-aggressions of racism and subtle forms of classed and raced misrecognition from staff and students, reminders that the spaces of elite higher education continue to privilege whiteness despite claims of ‘doing diversity’.
Bridget Byrne (University of Manchester) presented work on (mainly middle class) parents’ school choice and the ways in which class and race were negotiated as parents contemplated ‘the right mix’ for their children. Bridget attended to the ways in which racial difference and class disgust were manifest in parents’ talk about ‘bad families’, ‘rough areas’, and ‘avoiding the scum’. At a time where the school market is being increasingly fragmented by Gove’s education policies, and where parental choice remains a key mantra of neoliberalism, Bridget’s work revealed both the considerable burden parents experienced in this process and the ways in which these decisions inevitably contribute to the reproduction of inequality. The final two papers – from Sarah Irwin (University of Leeds) and Wendy Bottero (University of Manchester) – focused on the methodological and theoretical challenges of exploring how people make sense of their social location, and how they might respond to feelings of constraint, anger and resentment at inequality in ways other than explicit political protest. You can read a Storify of tweets from the day here.
The day ended with a rich discussion of both how we understand and can attend to forms of ‘resistance’ beyond the obvious, and on our role and responsibility as academics in challenging inequalities beyond simply writing about them. Ending on a positive and apt note given the theme of the day, the speakers and delegates posed for a picture to show our support for Lambeth College UCU members who are striking indefinitely to protect their pay and conditions (find out more about Lambeth here).
We’d like to thank the organisers for inviting us to attend and present our work, and for all those who contributed to the discussion.
Kim is currently working on the ESRC funded project Celebrity and Youth project with Heather Mendick (Brunel University) and Laura Harvey (University of Surrey). This was originally posted on the CelebYouth blog.
ESRI’s Geoff Bright is featured in the article below, talking about children in colliery towns and the miner’s strike. The article was originally published in the Guardian. Great work Geoff!
Ian Buxton, deputy headteacher, is nursing a Nottingham Forest mug and sitting near a photograph of Bolsover colliery at Bolsover school, Derbyshire. His mug tells its own little story: Forest supporters have long had to endure chants of “scab” when their team plays around here. The chanters are making an oblique reference to the miners’ strike of 30 years ago, even though most Forest fans were never miners and most of the chanters weren’t even born at the time.
Buxton, 60, remembers the strike well. He started work here in January, 1984, when he was still living in Retford, Nottinghamshire, and the strike began two months later. “Every time I drove to school, there were lines of police on the county border,” he recalls. “The first few times I was stopped and they’d go through the car.”
The men in his family worked at Annesley colliery. “My father insisted that I wouldn’t go down the pit,” says Buxton. Instead he went to teacher training college in London, and by 1984 he had been qualified for seven years.
It was a difficult time to be teaching in a colliery town. “Some staff had families split between those who had joined the strike and those who had stayed at work. One member of staff, I remember, had two sons on different sides.”
As far as students were concerned, “there was a little bit of tension but it didn’t really come into school that much. We had a sixth form in those days and there were some healthy debates at post-16 level.” Edwina Currie came in to talk to sixth formers, he says. Currie was a Derbyshire MP and a member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. The local MP was, and is, Labour’s Dennis Skinner, a fierce supporter of the strikers.
But 30 years on, how much do young people in the former mining towns know about the strike that divided their communities? The answer is not a lot, according to research by Dr Geoff Bright from Manchester Metropolitan University. While the communities are still suffering from the results of the conflict, those still at school know little about the dramatic history of their own neighbourhoods.
Bright, a research associate in the university’s Education and Social Research Institute and author of a new book, There’s a Kind of Haunting Going On, spent six years interviewing students in this area who had been excluded or were on the verge of exclusion from school and talking to them about their lives and their communities. The vast majority were boys. At one time they would probably have followed their fathers into mining, for a dirty and hazardous but nonetheless steady living and the opportunity to learn electrical or mechanical skills. But those jobs no longer exist.
Mining communities have traditionally been conscious of their shared history. But not now, says Bright. “Kids don’t know their own histories, yet they’re still playing them out,” he says. He cites the way youths from one village will routinely call those from another “scabs”, leading to some “very nasty” confrontations. Their knowledge about the actual events is very limited.
Bright is all too aware, though, that telling students what really went on in 1984-5 is not easy, with the sensitivities of parents with long memories and the constraints of the national curriculum.
No students from Bolsover school were involved in Bright’s research. Chatting to some of them, though, is fascinating. Ellie Whittaker, 15, was due to answer questions on the American west and medicine through time when I spoke to her shortly before her history GCSE exam. Her father, grandfathers and uncles were all miners. “Grandad Keith’s always going on about it,” she smiles. “He’s got bits of coal in his back.” Was he in or out during the strike? “Not sure.”
He was in, as it happens, but only because he was a member of NACODS, the deputies’ union charged with keeping collieries safe for strikers to go back to. The rest of the family were all out.
So was Jamie Brown’s father, Dave, now chairman of the school governors. Does he talk about the strike? “No. But he did tell me about his accident underground when a machine fell on his leg.”
Like Ellie, Jamie has studied the Romans, the Tudors and the second world war as part of the history syllabus. “I am interested in the history of mining, though,” he says. “I’ve been underground [at the National Mining museum] in Wakefield with my Mum. Didn’t like the look of it. I couldn’t do a job like that.”
Had he been born at another time, he may not have had much choice. As it is, Jamie wants to join the army.
Headteacher Gordon Inglis is conscious of the need to expand his students’ horizons, “enabling individuals to fulfil their potential within our dynamic 21st-century economy”, as it says in the school vision. Hence annual trips to Shanghai and a sister school in West Africa, and hence the clocks in the entrance hall telling the time in New York, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong and Sydney. At the same time he tries hard to connect the children with their mining past through extra- curricular projects. By his own admission, though, he is “nervous about upsetting the local community” when it comes to discussing the strike.
Bright hopes that his research will make schools and support services in former mining areas more aware of what he calls “the complex consequences of the history of de-industrialisation”. The mining communities, he says, “weren’t just isolated; they were self-contained. They inherited a cultural history that had been handed down orally. Those communities had their own narratives, a sense of their own part in a dangerous and precarious industry.”
There is still some awareness of that legacy in areas such as South Yorkshire and south Wales, he says. “But the educational aspirations of kids from former mining towns are still being affected by the positioning of those communities as ‘the enemy within’ by the prime minister of the time, Margaret Thatcher. It’s hard to see that you have a stake in things when your family and community have been positioned like that.”
In areas such as Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, meanwhile, Bright believes that children are aware of deep-lying conflicts but unaware of the causes. So is it the job of schools to impart that missing knowledge?
“That’s a matter of very fine judgment. If they’re in a position to do that, yes. Schools are under massive pressure to present themselves as a success story. I don’t want to undermine that. I’m simply making the case for complexity. Some would say that this is an issue that has gone, that it’s done and dusted. I would argue that it’s not. It keeps presenting itself.”
Chris Arnot is the author of Britain’s Lost Mines
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
I wrote an earlier blog about my experience of doing a PhD as an embedded researcher (read the blog here, the research paper here, a book chapter here, and check out the network blog here). With my traumas over I find myself on the other side of the desk as a supervisor to two PhD students whom are both doing their PhDs as embedded researchers.
It is symptomatic of embedded research that both students don’t want me to talk about their research for fear of upsetting the host organisation. Happily this isn’t because they have devious, ulterior motives written into their research designs, with an example line from their research plan: ‘week 45: strip mine data from pupils and teachers and sell to whichever organisation buys NHS patient data’. Rather, doing embedded research is small ‘p’ precarious, political, personal research. So having me running my gums about the challenges they are facing would not be exactly politic. Indeed, one student doesn’t want to identify himself/herself as an embedded researcher because this might change the way people in his/her research setting. Mum/ dad are literally the words.
Getting into the spirit of passing on my wisdom or at least explaining the particularly haggardly lines and scars on my face and very soul, I gave a class on doing embedded research as part of the MRes at ESRI. The slides are below:
In the slides I gave my tips on doing embedded research:
- Start researching straight away! No really, start researching straight away. The initiative will no doubt change and most likely finish between the year two fieldwork phase. Get going!
- Do lots of research on lots of different things. It won’t always be clear what your research is about, who and what is important or not. I believed the people I was researching when they said the initiative was about cultural change. It ended up being, in my view, about leadership so keep collecting data so you can change direction and have the empirical material to support your argument.
- Identify (and re-negotiate) your relationship to the research commissioner, the organisation and everyone else. As I said above, embedded research is personal and political so you need to work with your gate keeper but also acknowledge where this locates you in the organization so you aren’t seen as the bossman’s/ bosswoman’s spy.
- Understand power relations. See above.
- Protect your privileged position. First of all you don’t really have a privileged position, not really. It is likely that someone powerful in the organization supports your work but apart from that you don’t really matter all that much. The trick is that not everyone knows this. In any event, learn to say ‘no’ if people keep asking you to do things that you don’t want to do.
- Defend your thesis’ neutrality, offer micro-research. There is a chance that the individuals and organization supporting your research will want a fair-and-balanced appraisal of their initiative, what does and does not work. Equally likely however there is a danger that they will want positive puff-pieces to legitimate what they think works. Be very clear that the thesis is neutral and sacrosanct. You could negotiate micro-research projects that enable you to collect data and present it in accessible ways quickly to inform the initiative.
- Be useful!
- Play the long game! The world is a fast moving place and in a lot of places people move on. Pressures may lapse or views expressed off-the record can be returned to if key people move on. And they will 3 years is an eternity in most organizations. You are there for the long haul, relax and enjoy the ride.
If anyone else has any other advice or ideas I would love to hear them!
Two researchers from the Education and Social Research Institute (ESRI) at MMU, Dr Kim Allen and Dr Geoff Bright, recently helped launch the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies. The launch event Contesting Youth brought together an audience of researchers, partners from the youth sector, and young people to strengthen links with a view to future collaborative explorations of the issues that young people face in contemporary society. There was also a panel discussion chaired by the author and one-time Hacienda DJ, Dave Haslam. Both Kim’s and Geoff’s contributions were very well received, with enthusiastic questioning of both presenters after their session. Possible future research partners were also penciled in.
Dr Kim Allen, Research Fellow in the ESRI, shared key findings from her current ESRC-funded research project on celebrity culture and young people’s classed and gendered aspiration. The project – conducted with colleagues at Brunel University – is the first of it’s kind to engage directly with young people’s relationship with celebrity culture and explores how it informs their own aspirations and imagined futures. Kim argued that contrary to claims by politicians and the media that young people only aspire to fame, the research shows that young people have rich and varied aspirations for their futures. You can read more about the project here.
Dr Geoff’s Bright Research Associate in ESRI’s presentation updated his ethnographic work on young people in the UK’s former coal mining communities in the light of this year’s 30th anniversary of the UK 1984-85 miners’ strike. In a number of journal publications and a forthcoming book Geoff has argued that much of what is seen as school disaffection has, in the coalfields, to be seen in the context of the heavily policed year-long strike and the rapid de-industrialisation that occurred in the period that followed (read more about this here). Deploying an idea developed by the American sociologist Avery Gordon, Geoff believes that the situation in the coalfields a generation after the events of the 1980s has to be thought of as a ‘social haunting’. As such, it still requires careful and thoughtful attention through redesigned forms of youth practice if the continuing impact of that period is to be understood and not persistently misrecognized as ‘anti-social behaviour’.
Following on from my irregular series of holiday reading (read my last and only post here), I read Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed a science-fiction novel from the 1970’s (download a pdf here). The novel is set straddling political systems on Anarres a dirt poor but anarchist-syndicalist system and A-Lo which is basically a future version of America. There’s some great lines, quotes, thoughts in it. For example, Shevek describes the difference between A-Lo and Anarres,
No. It is not wonderful. It is an ugly world. Not like this one. Anarres is all dusty and dry hills. All meager, all dry. And the people aren’t beautiful. They have big hands and feet, like me and the waiter there. But not big bellies. They get very dirty, and take baths together, nobody here does that. The towns are very small and dull, they are dreary. No palaces. Life is dull, and hard work. You can’t always have what you want, or even what you need, because there isn’t enough. You Urrasti have enough. Enough air, enough rain, grass, oceans, food, music, buildings, factories, machines, books, clothes, history. You are rich, you own. We are poor, we lack. You have, we do not have. Everything is beautiful here. Only not the faces. On Anarres nothing is beautiful, nothing but the faces. The other faces, the men and women. We have nothing but that, nothing but each other. Here you see the jewels, there you see the eyes. And in the eyes you see the splendor, the splendor of the human spirit. Because our men and women are free—possessing nothing, they are free. And you the possessors are possessed. You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns. You live in prison, die in prison. It is all I can see in your eyes—the wall, the wall!
The novel explores the social, institutional and economic dynamics that develop, underpin and sustain collective or competitive societies. The education system is presented as part of the explanation, centered around the challenges the brilliant physicist lead-character Shevek experiences between being brilliant and having to fit in, for example, this happened to him at school,
The orchestra needed all the benches that morning for rehearsal, and the dance group was thumping around in the big room of the learning center, so the kids who were working on Speaking-and-Listening sat in a circle on the foamstone floor of the workshop. The first volunteer, a lanky eight-year-old with long hands and feet, stood up. He stood very erect, as healthy children do; his slightly fuzzy face was pale at first, then turned red as he waited for the other children to listen. “Go on, Shevek,” the group director said.
“Well, I had an idea.”
“Louder,” said the director, a heavy-set man in his early twenties.
The boy smiled with embarrassment. “Well, see, I was thinking, let’s say you throw a rock at something. At a tree. You throw it, and it goes through the air and hits the tree. Right? But it can’t. Because — can I have the slate? Look, here’s you throwing the rock, and here’s the tree,” he scribbled on the slate, “that’s supposed to be a tree, and here’s the rock. see, halfway in between.” The children giggled at his portrayal of a holum tree, and he smiled. “To get from you to the tree, the rock has to be halfway in between you and the tree, doesn’t it. And then it has to be halfway between halfway and the tree. And then it has to be halfway between that and the tree. It doesn’t matter how far it’s gone, there’s always a place, only it’s a time really, that’s halfway between the last place it was and the tree —”
“Do you think this is interesting?” the director interrupted, speaking to the other children.
“Why can’t it reach the tree?” said a girl of ten.
“Because it always has to go half of the way that’s left to go,” said Shevek, “and there’s always half of the way left to go — seer’
“Shall we just say you aimed the rock badly?” the director said with a tight smile.
“It doesn’t matter how you aim it It can’t reach the tree.”
“Who told you this idea?”
“Nobody. I sort of saw it. I think I see how the rock actually does —”
Some of the other children had been talking, but they stopped as if struck dumb. The little boy with the slate stood there in the silence. He looked frightened, and scowled.
“Speech is sharing — a cooperative art. You’re not sharing, merely egoizing.”
The thin, vigorous harmonies of the orchestra sounded down the hall.
“You didn’t see that for yourself, it wasn’t spontaneous. I’ve read something very like it in a book.”
Shevek stared at the director. “What book? Is there one here?”
The director stood up. He was about twice as tall and three times as heavy as his opponent, and it was clear in his face that he disliked the child intensely; but there was no threat of physical violence in his stance, only an assertion of authority, a little weakened by his irritable response to the child’s odd question. “No! And stop egoizing!” Then he resumed his melodious pedantic tone:
“This kind of thing is really directly contrary to what we’re after in a Speaking-and-Listening group. Speech is a two-way function. Shevek isnt ready to understand that yet, as most of you are, and so his presence is disruptive to the group. You feel that yourself, dont you, Shevek? I’d suggest that you find another group working on your level.”
What I’m interested in is how science-fiction describes educational systems and then relates them to society, making them integral to re-producing the many and weird, bizarre worlds in focus. There are lots of examples of this such as Brave New World, the Dispossessed, Ender’s Game and so on. Maybe it’s something to do with human imagination or the necessity of providing a coherent formative context for the story, but it I think it’s an interesting way to reflect on how an author would write about the educational system that explains a society in which one individual earns more in 2.5 days what others earn in a year and then rich people live 25 years longer than poorer ones… and that’s normal not some far-fetched scenario on a distant moon. Would it need to look radically different to the one we have?