Sunday, 30 December 2018

Growth Rings

It was a year of words
So full, that some spilled over
To be corralled into formal shapes
others gravitating
to half-forgotten sediment
breaking down letter by letter,
fragments landing rich and fertile
covering the leaf litter words of rotten men
to re-emerge with the surprise of exclamation marks
punctuating shoots of joy.

A year of multiple rhythms
And odd ellipses of silence
three dots heavy with their own message
and closing doors of full stops.
Words infused by marching characters
softly changed as if brushed against pollen
rhizomic webs of reciprocity
appearing different in the slanting light
crystallising new perspectives.

If you mark the good years
with wide concentric rings
then this book should have gaps

For new pages
where you can see the grain, if you look hard enough
White and waiting
with ink soaking through like sap
a reminder;
We are here, We are here.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

25 questions for Multi-Academy Trusts

The recent episode of Panorama, 'Profits Before Pupils' revealed worrying issues regarding the financial management of a number of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs). The academy landscape is complex and difficult to navigate; so how can parents and local communities keep themselves fully informed about potential changes and short and long-term impact of academisation?  

This crowd-sourced question list attempts to give a steer to parents. While it particularly focuses on consultations where schools are joining MATs, the questions may be useful to pose to any school considering changes to governance.  Many thanks to everyone who contributed.

1. What are the potential benefits and disadvantages of joining the MAT?

2. What will the change actually mean on the ground, for the children in the school?

3. What other options are possible and have been considered?

Values and Identity

4. What are the values of the MAT?

5. What discussions are being had about compatibility, in terms of values?

6. How will the individual identity of the school be preserved? What steps will be taken to ensure this actually happens?

7. How diverse is the Board?  What is the representation of women and people of colour?

8. What work is the MAT doing around equality and inclusion? Do they invest in resources (materials, books etc) that reflect the diversity of the communities they serve?

9.  What are the demographics like in the other schools?  Will constant comparison be made to these schools?

10. What is the view on uniform? How is affordability prioritised? 

Governance and Finance

11. Will the MAT have local governance?

12. Is there a clear scheme of delegation?  How do we access it?

13. Has the Chair been visible and an active participant in discussions about joining? 

14. Will the school's top slice not only provide better value for money, but higher quality services including CPD, curriculum resources, supply staffing, recruitment support, employee benefits and technology/site management support?

15. Is the school committed to supporting the MAT's other schools and is that commitment reciprocated?

16. Will staff be able to contribute their expertise and best practice to feed into MAT-wide improvement/innovation or will they be passengers?

17. Will PTA fundraising be ring-fenced?

18. Will any cash reserves the school brings be ringfenced for our school?

19. To what extent will any one school's funding be used to top up another in the MAT who might be in deficit? Is this capped?

20. Can the MAT evidence a clear breakdown of the central service top-slice charges?


21. What do the behaviour, inclusion and SEND policies look like?

22. Who will carry out school improvement support?

23. What are the planned strategic and sustainable benefits for staff professional learning and development across the trust? 

24. How often do executive leaders spend time in school, with teachers, students or chatting to parents?

25. And an important reminder from @JulieEClarke to consider Tony Benn's '5 Essential Questions of Democracy' - which cut to the heart of the matter:

What power have you got?
Where did you get it from?
In whose interests do you use it?
To whom are you accountable?
How do we get rid of you?

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Breathing life into the curriculum - an evaluation of Why is My Curriculum White? in a university school

When you crush hierarchy, and replace it with network, then the cultures held in the different languages generate oxygen. They cross-fertilize. Cultures are able to breathe life into each other. Every culture should be taught with a nod to other cultures. 

(Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, 2017).

A few months ago I started a small-scale research project looking at the impact of a Why is My Curriculum White? campaign within a university school.  I have published my ongoing audio reflections here - these mainly focus on my problematic position as a white researcher of privilege. The paradoxical nature of attempting to do 'white work' that enables the voices of those marginalised in academic space, whilst managing my own conflicts and ethical considerations, has been an ongoing concern. Barbara Applebaum's book 'Being White, Being Good' has been instrumental in helping me to get over myself and focus on the dismantling of whiteness. I would highly recommend it to other white researchers in a similar position.

In my study I invited staff to participate in an anonymous on-line survey and carried out interviews with key participants (academics, support staff and students) within the School. The decision was taken to include staff in the project who do not teach directly, but are involved in wider curriculum delivery through activities such as Advice and Guidance, Student Experience, Admissions, Academic Support, Induction and general administration.  I also undertook detailed analysis of one curriculum area (Learning and Teaching) as part of an ongoing concern with the biases within teacher education.

As a posthuman thinker my focus was particularly on the material nature of the campaign and the embodied nature of reactions to change and barriers to decolonisation. This ontology also encouraged me to act in a spirit of affirmation, and a belief in the power of small changes to enact bigger transformations. In the words of Maldonado-Torres, ‘…the decolonization project needs to be a collective one where subjects give themselves to each other and are receptive to each other in love, understanding, and their shared rage against modernity/coloniality.’ (Maldonado-Torres, 2016, p.279). 

My methodology, ethics, findings and discussion are only briefly summarised here but I am happy to share the details of the study with anyone interested - please contact me via Twitter @KaySocLearn for the full paper and references.  

Curriculum decolonisation - setting the context

‘Decolonisation, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a programme of complete disorder…It never takes place unnoticed, for it influences individuals and modifies them fundamentally. If we wish to describe it precisely, we might find it in the well-known words: ‘The last shall be first and the first last.’ (Fanon, 1961, pp.27-28). 

It is firstly important to examine ‘colonialism’ within the academy before considering what it might mean to ‘decolonise’; as Patel states (2016, p.7) ‘…to decolonize requires the apprehension and unsettling of coloniality.’ A colonised curriculum can be seen to be one that upholds traditions of white imperialism and makes assumptions of value based on white priority and domination. Colonialism can play out through not only the materials selected that form part of a syllabus, but the wider influence of a university’s pedagogical methods, admissions criteria, commemorative statues and building names, policies and procedures, stipulations for academic writing, and so on. Whilst not colonising in the settler sense, Bhopal (2018) suggests that English universities in their nature continue to play out the values of imperialism through Eurocentric degree content, the privileging of formal English as a communication mechanism, and entrenched racism and discriminatory practices (for students and staff). In this sense, colonialism is ‘on-going colonisation by capital’ (Hall and Smyth, 2016, p.2), and very much situated within the wider political and social context; a ‘pedagogical project at the level of society’ (ibid, p.22). 

For the purposes of this evaluation, curriculum was therefore defined in its widest sense; as Kelly (1999, p.3) states: 

‘Any definition of curriculum…must offer much more than a statement about the knowledge-content or merely the subjects which schooling is to ‘teach’ or transmit. It must go far beyond this, to an explanation and indeed a justification, of the purposes of such transmission and an exploration of the effects that exposure to such knowledge and such subjects is likely to have on its recipients’. 

Further to this, it is recognised that curriculum is, in itself, always political and entangled with wider social and cultural factors. As Apple states ….’The curriculum is never simply a neutral assemblage of knowledge, somehow appearing in the texts and classrooms of a nation. It is always part of a selective tradition, someone’s selection, some group’s vision of legitimate knowledge. It is produced out of the cultural, political, and economic conflicts, tensions, and compromises that organize and disorganize a people. (Apple, 1993, p.222). 

Given the systemic and material nature of decolonising work I came from the standpoint that interventions such as academic support, Information and Guidance, Induction activities and ‘student experience’ comprise elements of teaching and thus form part of the centre’s wider curriculum (albeit informal, or even part of a ‘hidden’ curriculum (Kelly, 1999, p.4)). 

To decolonise the curriculum would mean firstly to problematize all aspects of a student’s university experience, inferring that issues are systemic and go wider than an individual tutor’s influence over their programme of teaching and learning. Given that the academy can be seen in itself as a perpetual colonising force (Patel, 2016) the question is raised as to whether decolonising is actually possible, or whether in fact an entirely new system needs to be created. Certainly, as Tuck and Yang (2012, p. 36) stipulate, it needs a different perspective to traditional social justice approaches: ‘Decolonisation is not an ‘and’ – it is an elsewhere.’ 

Maldonado-Torres (2016, p.243) also draws an important distinction between ‘coloniality’ and ‘colonialism’: 

'Coloniality is different from colonialism. Colonialism denotes a political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a nation or a people rests on the power of another nation, which makes such nation an empire. Coloniality, instead, refers to long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labor, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations. Thus, coloniality survives colonialism. It is maintained alive in books, in the criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, in common sense, in the self-image of peoples, in aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience. In a way, as modern subjects we breath coloniality all the time and everyday. '

In doing this Maldonado-Torres encourages a shift to a ‘decolonial turn’ which is ‘pragmatic’ in nature – focused on action as well as the recognition and problematisation of colonialism. These important linguistic differences will be returned to in relation to understandings and actions concerned with this evaluation.

Why is my curriculum white? 

This project began in the UK in 2015, with the NUS Black Students work at University College London (UCL). Drawing on international campaigns, such as ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ in South Africa, students challenged the lack of diverse voices within university curricula and argued that ‘…education at universities is shaped by acts of colonialism and imperialism in which the experiences and contributions of non-white groups are ignored.’ (Bhopal, 2018, p.98). 

Locally, the NUS of the university in question took up the campaign, identifying it as a movement that ‘…aims to decolonise and critically challenge course content and perspectives offered through the accepted Western white canon of knowledge.’ The transcript from the launch event highlights a fear the ‘dismantling the structures’ is not being done (University Union, 2016) suggesting that the institution is paying lip service through piecemeal interventions such as mentoring schemes. Student campaigners called for a focus on dismantling barriers; on confronting the systemic challenges rather than diversifying individual programmes per se. The campaign ran from October 2015 to January 2017, and was led by the then NUS Education Officer. It comprised the following events: 

· a panel debate on the topic ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ 

· a library campaign in which students suggested new textbooks which were then purchased by the university 

· a university-wide survey which led to the development of a report containing recommendations which were passed by the university in June 2016 

· other activities and events including a TED talk, further panel debate, and dissemination of publicity materials such as mugs, posters and badges 

· presentation of 13 Recommendations to the Taught Students Education Committee (TSEC). 

However, since the conclusion of the campaign in January 2017, and as key campaign leaders have moved on, it is unclear what the longer-term impact has been.

Analysis of Findings 

Twenty five per cent of staff within the Centre completed a questionnaire; of the respondents two thirds were teaching staff and one third non-teaching. Eighty per cent had worked for the organisation for longer than two years, so had been present during the WIMCW campaign. Although participants were asked to identify their ethnicity, no pre-selection criteria were established. As stated previously, this meant that analysis of responses could be problematic – however, 23 respondents chose to self-identify as white, and either English or British; of the remaining three, one identified as Asian, another as Pakistani, and the final respondent responded ‘N/A’. 

Four interviews were undertaken; two of the participants were members of staff and two were Student Representatives. 

Data was analysed manually through subsequent examination of both interview transcriptions and questionnaires. It was then tagged for keywords with the aim of constructing a thematic framework. The ensuing themes were: 

- Understandings of curriculum decolonisation 

- Impact of the Why is My Curriculum White? campaign 

- Material nature of the campaign 

- Barriers to decolonisation. 

Understandings of curriculum decolonisation 

The question ‘What do you understand by the term ‘decolonising the curriculum’?’ elicited a variety of responses and definitions. Diversity was a key theme, recurring in phrases such as ‘diversifying content and pedagogy’, ‘bringing in diverse perspectives’, ‘including diverse voices’ and so on. ‘Decolonising’ was also identified most commonly as a positive action; participants used words such as, ‘changing’, ‘acting’ ‘reflecting’, ‘enriching’ ‘appreciating’ and ‘rebalancing’. 

Two of the respondents stated that they didn’t understand the term; one stating that they wished ‘these terms were rendered in plain English’. 

In interviews, participants stated that:

'There needs firstly to be an understanding of how the curriculum is colonised – and what is meant by that term'. 

'Not everyone understands what it means to be colonised…how can you begin to decolonise without this basic understanding?'

Impact of the Campaign 

Despite evidence of a good understanding of decolonisation, awareness of the local WIMCW campaign was not as high as anticipated. Seven respondents were not aware of it all – of those who were familiar with it, most (24%) had learnt about it through the debate held on campus for Black History Month. A larger number (38%) were aware of the national campaign by NUS Black Students and accompanying film. 

In terms of change to the curriculum, 26% of respondents said that their curriculum had changed as a result of the local WIMCW action. The most significant changes made were amendments to reading lists and other resources (23% of participants reporting change had altered these). Other key changes involved instigating discussions with students (18%) and adding new topics to the syllabus (18%). Interestingly, no participant reported making any changes to teaching methods. 

The two students who were interviewed were not present at the instigation of the campaign. However one noted that:

' My tutor mentioned Why is My Curriculum White? when we talked in class about the current curriculum in schools. Some of us watched the film… but it was a bit awkward to discuss in depth in class, as some of us were a bit defensive. I’m not sure we all understood what it was saying, if I’m honest.' 

The desktop analysis of the ‘Learning and Teaching’ degree programme curriculum revealed that books and other recommended materials were drawn almost entirely from white, European, North American and Australian theorists. Figures for the three modules analysed for this evaluation showed an alarmingly low percentage of writers of colour across over fifty sources (even allowing for the eventuality that authors were writers of colour (where their ethnicity could not be identified), the figure for white theorists held at a minimum of 97%). Although some new texts had been added between 2015 and 2018, and others removed, there was also no indication that WIMCW had influenced change in terms of the diversification of reading lists on the programme. 

Material nature of the Campaign 

Interestingly a key factor in awareness-raising came through the material objects used to promote the local campaign – ironically, tea as one decolonising force - as one tutor stated in the survey comments: 

'…it was the Why is My Curriculum White mug which I discovered 6 months ago in the staff room which captured my imagination. My induction certainly did not flag up the campaign and there is nothing on the notice board in the staff room to flag it. Thank goodness for cups of tea!' 

In an interview two participants mentioned the posters that were displayed around campus as being key to their awareness of the campaign. The centre's Equality Lead stated that: 

I remember seeing the [WIMCW] posters…that’s the first thing I saw about it, and I thought ‘this is brilliant’ and it connects to the other campaigns, I think at Oxford...and then the other way I connected with it was when they [NUS] came into the office with the mugs and the badges…’ 

Barriers to decolonisation 

Where changes hadn’t been made, in a number of cases respondents felt that this was because change was either out of their control or not relevant due to their role. A number of support staff stated that they do not have influence over course content. Certain curriculum areas also were identified as problematic; one respondent stated that: 

' Science definitely has issues with barriers to who can contribute to the body of knowledge and as such a fraction of the material I teach had definitely been discovered and refined by over-represented people… I can’t present science that has not been peer reviewed. The peer-review process is supposedly blind, and so has made steps to ensure meritocracy, however if you do not write in English then the scientific community in Britain/US and parts of Europe will probably not hear what you have to say… I can see that there is a real issue here. I would really welcome further discussion about this because I have no idea what it means for us and I haven’t immediately put my hands on resources which are trying to apply this to scientific disciplines… '

The interviews provided further context to the notion of barriers to organisational and curriculum change. One interviewee felt strongly that it was connected to individual responsibility: 

'If you’re teaching at university level you have a responsibility to understand it [decolonisation] and also to understand the ways in which you have internalised bias – it’s not just about what your teaching them [students].'

For one student, the variation between approaches in different academic schools and inconsistencies across the organisation were significant barriers: 

'I’d got used to bringing in different voices and perspectives on the [Interdisciplinary degree] here. But when I studied a module in another School I felt like… I had to go back to the old theorists. Kant and people like that…I wasn’t confident enough to bring the writers who had spoken to me back into what I was writing.' 

The findings here suggest uneven practice across disciplines and School, alongside practical gaps in both time and knowledge required to elicit meaningful change.


The evidence provided in this evaluation suggests that, whilst the initial impact of the local Why is My Curriculum White? project was limited, there is a good understanding of decolonisation issues within the centre. However, despite respondents generally feeling they have a good understanding, this has not been translated into significant action. As four of the original NUS recommendations (NUS, 2016) relate to curriculum design and content, and only one quarter of respondents reported curriculum change, it could be argued the campaign’s success was limited in terms of effect on the curriculum within the Centre. It is therefore worth examining more closely the way in which decolonisation is generally framed in the language used by respondents. The term ‘diversity’ recurs frequently and this term is, in itself problematic. Ahmed (2017) suggests that it reflects a process of ‘institutionalised polishing’; whereby it ‘replaces other more unacceptable terms that make people feel threatened.’ (2017, p.101). The positivity of the term is ‘shiny’ and prevents the necessity for actual work to be done. Further to this, Patel (2016) suggests that diversity as a ‘binaristic statement or goal’ is ‘woefully inadequate for a project of decolonization (p.93). Decolonisation must instead attend to the dismantling of material structures and practices; and action must be meaningful. The centre's Equality Lead drew a distinction between ‘decolonialising’ and ‘decolonising’ which is helpful here:

'…to be decolonial or post-colonial, is to problematize… but decolonialise is the new term. Being able to actively [my emphasis] find new forms of knowledge.'

It could be suggested that future activity is centred around action as well as reflection and examination of the colonised nature of our work. Taking this further, I want to introduce Applebaum’s (2016) concept of ‘response-ability.’ This idea takes us forward as agents for change who are able to enact transformation within their own embodied and embedded entities. A significant proportion of respondents in support (rather than direct teaching) roles felt that they unable to instigate change due to their lack of influence over the curriculum. A wider understanding of curriculum being more than just the syllabus may help staff to recognise the impact of their practice in terms of other activities such as induction, advice and guidance, admissions and academic support.

Participants also mentioned the significance of material influences, such as posters, mugs and badges in terms of awareness raising and sustainability. Where campaigns are student-led, it is difficult to have one figurehead as campaign leaders will necessarily move on (through graduation); the nature of the NUS as a campaigning organisation also suggests that different issues will be prioritised according to the nature of its leadership and student voice at a particular point in time. 

What is heartening is the desire for more knowledge and understanding of the decolonisation agenda; there is a sense of a conversation beginning and an appetite to continue the work through further discussion and action. However, in discussing the findings of this evaluation it is important to note the absence of a number of voices; what were the thoughts and experiences of those who did not respond?


Despite the limitations in scope of this evaluation, the ‘reterratorialising’ nature of colonialism within the academy, and my own complex position as a researcher, this study has revealed a number of interesting findings in relation to the success and sustainability of Why is my Curriculum White? as a campaign. It is clear that, despite good understandings of decolonialisation issues, curriculum change in relation to WIMCW has been inconsistent within the university school at the centre of this study. Where change did occur, it was largely framed around the diversification of reading lists and materials. However, there is will and enthusiasm to learn and reflect across the Centre. I have been asked to make recommendations to the Centre in the spirit of affirmatory praxis, and these will focus on the following issues: 

- How to make a shift from ‘decolonising’ to ‘decolonialising’; and thus build emphasis on action in addition to doing the important work of problematizing curriculum issues 

- The importance of investing in sustainable, material reminders of the campaign messages 

- Allocation of meaningful time for reflection and discussion, particularly of areas in which colonisation is present but less debated, such as the science disciplines 

- A wider understanding of ‘curriculum’ and who is able to influence its development. 

In doing this work we need to also be wary of conflating this project with other social justice interventions. As Tuck and Yang (2012) suggest, we should not ‘domesticate’ decolonisation, nor use it as a metaphor. The term itself and the associating work can be subsumed into the system (‘reterratorialised’ in Deleuzian terms) so problematization of the concept should be an ongoing project. 

This study has also called into question the sustainability of campaigns led by students who are not permanently represented in the workings of an organisation. It is therefore heartening to see the university in question establishing a working group comprised of academic leads, tutors and student representatives. As the group held its first meeting mid-way through this evaluation project it is too early to tell whether its work will relate in any way to the recommendations in this study but its progress will be followed closely. 

Patel (2016, p.95) states that ‘While we cannot map the future, we can map possible futurities and do so with a reckoning of the past trajectories that give shape to the present realities.’ We must continue to ‘breath life’ into the curriculum for fairness, parity and the joy of re-imagining what it means to be human in the world today; and this is our responsibility of academics in positions of privilege. To close with the words of the centre's Equality Lead: 

'We need to keep talking about it, so it doesn’t go away. From the students’ point of view, we need to consider…what’s the impact on them, of not continuing to ask these questions?'


Ahmed, S. (2017). Living a Feminist Life. London: Duke University Press.

Apple, M. (1993). The Politics of Knowledge: Does a National Curriculum Make Sense? Teachers College Record. 95(2), pp.222-241.

Applebaum, B. (2010). Being White, Being Good. New York: Lexington Books.

Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Fanon, F. (1986) Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto.

Fanon, F. (2001 [1961]) The Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin, with an introduction by Sartre, J.P. and translated by Farrington, C.

Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin.

Gordon, L.R., Sharpley-Whiting, T.D. & White, R.T. (eds). (1996). Fanon: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd

Hall, R. and Smyth, K. 2016 Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education. Open Library of Humanities, 2(1), pp. 1–28.

Kelly, A. (1999). The Curriculum: Theory and Practice. 4th Edition. London: Sage Publications.

Maldonado-Torres, N. (2007). On Coloniality of Being. Cultural Studies. 21 (2) 240-279.

Maldonado-Torres, N. (2016). Ten Theses on Coloniality and Decoloniality. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 2 June 2018].

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. (2017). Interview with Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. [Online]. Available at [Accessed 20 February 2018].

Owusu, M. (2017). Decolonising the Curriculum. TED Talk . [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 3 June 2018].

Patel, L. (2016). Decolonising Educational Research: From Ownership to Answerability. New York: Taylor and Francis.

Tuck, E. and Yang, K. (2012). Decolonization is not a Metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society. 1(1), pp.1-40.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Decolonising the curriculum (Audio Reflections)

A few months ago I started a small-scale PhD project, looking at the impact of a 'Why is my Curriculum White'? campaign undertaken within an English university.  Since then I have spent time reflecting on the findings, and my position as a white researcher of privilege.  The first of my podcasts introduces some of these themes, drawing on the work of Sara Ahmed and Barbara Applebaum.  The second looks more closely at curriculum colonisation and starts to explore what can be done. I would love to hear your comments and thoughts.

Ahmed, S. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. London: Duke University Press.

Applebaum, B. 2010. Being White, Being Good. New York: Lexington Books.

Hall, R. and Smyth, K. 2016 Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education. Open Library of Humanities, 2(1), pp. 1–28.

Maldonado-Torres, N. (2016). Ten Theses on Coloniality and Decoloniality. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 2 June 2018].

Patel, L. (2016). Decolonising Educational Research: From Ownership to Answerability. New York: Taylor and Francis.

Reflections part one:

Reflections part two:

Monday, 9 April 2018

Beware, children playing! Summerhill school and the liberation of the child

Last weekend I visited Summerhill School in Leiston, Suffolk. I was taking part in the 'Freedom to Learn Forum', a conference which gathered together a range of educators with a shared interest in democratic, participative, self-directed education.

The School itself was paradoxically exactly like I imagined and at the same time completely different. My ideas of Summerhill were based around the negative publicity of the late 90s - children running wild and unkempt; swearing; hanging out of trees - not things that bothered me particularly, but powerful assumptive images that had clearly stuck in my mind. The reality just needed reframing. Children were playing and experimenting; enjoying nature; not conforming to usual dress codes; taking calculated risks.   Beliefs about what it means to be a child run deep, and I was happy to reconsider my own views and prejudices over the course of the weekend.

To help with this I chatted to pupils and teachers and did my best to immerse myself in the ways of the school.  Although a massive believer in democratic practices and community, I'm also pretty introverted. Any fears that I would be forced into communal activities soon dissipated though, as I learnt that the school operates on the maxim of Law of Movement - you are free to join and leave any activity at will.  (This law famously applies to lessons too; it is up to the kids whether they attend classes or not. Children also need to give permission to be assessed, which is an interesting idea when you consider what might happen to standardised testing, if kids were able to vote with their feet).

In my teaching I will often use the phrase 'Freedom needs boundaries' - and at Summerhill the maxim is similar; 'Freedom, not licence'. As Summerhill's founder AS Neill stated, 'Freedom does not mean that the child can do everything he wants to do, nor have everything he wants to have.... Freedom, over-extended, turns into license. I define license as interfering with another's freedom. For example, in my school a child is free to go to lessons or stay away from lessons because that is his own affair, but he is not free to play a trumpet when others want to study or sleep.'

Democracy is enacted at the regular house meetings which involve all children and adults with equal voting rights. Every decision about the running of the school is taken in this forum. Kids take turns to chair the meeting and in doing so learn over the years to be efficient and fair facilitators of the process.  The skills of listening to the views of others, involving quieter participants, applying justice and achieving consensus seem vital in today's world of binary thinking and a search for easy truths.  The meetings I attended took time. Democracy, done well, takes time.

As I left Summerhill I thought about the notion, put forward by writers like Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, that as a society we are essentially 'childist'.  We 'other' children, viewing them as non-humans that must be manipulated and moulded into effective adults - and this view proliferates throughout our schooling systems.  In recent years with the increase in the compulsory school-leaving age we have seen this extended to teenagers too.  Obedience, conformity and uniformity are the watch words in a system which places adults at the top of the tree.

Zoe Readhead, AS Neill's daughter and the current principal of Summerhill shared the school's ethos with us and the challenges that it faces (funding; inclusion; curriculum; internet usage - the same issues that more or less any educational establishment comes up against). Despite the non-compulsory nature of lessons, children do attend, and learn huge amounts - often developing specialisms from a very young age that flow into their later working lives. Many choose to take GCSEs and the results are excellent. It was also interesting to hear that many children coming to Summerhill have previously been diagnosed and medicated for conditions such as ADHD.  (The condition isn't mentioned again once they arrive at the school and perhaps unsurprisingly after a few months of children being free to be children it seems to disappear).

I was left with a number of reflections and I have much more thinking to do:

- Not every school could, or should be a Summerhill, but there is no reason why democratic practices can't be embedded in mainstream provision.  This can be enacted, if you're courageous enough, through practices like community philosophy, restorative justice, Thinking Environment techniques and active citizenship projects, that start with children determining their own projects and outcomes.

- We know the impact and effectiveness of democratic educational practice but need more research evidence to back it up. I would guard against reductionist approaches to this though, that fall into the old trap of trying to measure things (belonging, that can't be measured. Post-qualitative, rich, and participative research approaches to data collection that enact and reflect the democratic approaches we advocate have to be the way forward.

- We also need to look at teaching not just in terms of schooling. Educating as social care, youth work, adult ed, foster care and so on can all use democratic approaches to learning and growing.

I am gathering together links and reading on democratic education from the weekend; do contact me to view the list and I will also add it here shortly.   We need to change the current education paradigm and consider how this can be done both inside and outside our current systems - reframing our ideas of what children actually are could be a great place to start.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Becoming Radical

What does it mean to be 'radical' in England today?  When I think of the word itself, lots of things spring to mind.  As a kid in the 80s 'rad' was a slang term for cool (I think it was also used by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - don't feel particularly 'rad' for mentioning that though).  Being 'cool', different, wanting change, seeing new and unusual perspectives... all of those things, plus probably having a beard (women don't immediately spring to mind when I think of 'radical', which is troubling).  I also think of Saul Alinsky and his 'Rules for Radicals' - a guide for community organisers, taken on board again in recent years by US Democrats.  Alinsky's Ten Rules for Radicals are here:

Reflecting on the word and Alinsky's philosophy as outlined above (often accused as polarising and anti-feminist) reinforces my sense of 'radical' as a problematic term.  The word is now of course also used freely throughout the government's Prevent policy, undergoing an etymological shift from the OED definitions of a person '...characterised by departure from tradition; innovative or progressive' to a person undergoing a process of being influenced by and joining extremist groups that are violently opposed to the general way of life in Britain today. Carol Wild, in her article Going to Extremes - How Radical are you? (2016) suggests that terms like radicalism are being 'made strange' by constant repetition in a particular context.  Certainly the word seems to have fallen out of use in terms of education; more emphasis is put on being a progressive, or a 'critical educator'.

Given this strangeness it felt timely to attend the University of Kent's 'Radical Pedagogies' Forum 
Richard Hall's Keynote
along with my colleague from University of Leeds Lifelong Learning Centre, Catherine Bates (@cathpuppeteer).  This event was the brainchild of organisers Claire Hurley and Tom Ritchie, who, on their university teacher training course realised that there had been very little mention of progressive, critical or indeed 'radical' education. Universities are often labelled as hotbeds of radical, snow-flakey, SJW thinking, particularly where teacher education is concerned, so it may surprise some to see an instrumental approach being advocated internally for teaching and learning. Given the creeping neo-liberalisation of our HE institutions however it is likely we will see more of this shift in the days and weeks to come.

Rather than recount the entire conference (which was brilliant, incidentally) I have attempted to distill the sessions I attended into 25 questions.  My aim is to turn these into tools for reflection for educators in HE institutions (you'll also find some of these appearing over on Twitter for #30DaysReflectResist).

From Paula McElearney's session - What 'gives life' to critical pedagogy?'

1.What is 'critical pedagogy' and what does it look like in England today?
2. How can we sustain ourselves as critical educators in a system that makes sustenance feel impossible?
3. Critical pedagogy has its roots in the work of Paulo Freire, who was writing over forty years ago. How different should the principles look today? Is there a need for (post) human critical pedagogy, and what might that look like?

From Darren Webb (University of Sheffield) session - Exploring the archeology of consciousness as an aspect of utopian pedagogy'

4. 'There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.' (Leonard Cohen).  How do we know when we have found the cracks, fissures or gaps through which we can reimagine teaching and learning? How do we spot this happening in our classrooms?
5. Should we also seek to create these 'cracks' in the system - and if so, how?
6. What 'disruptive behaviours' can we undertake to shake (even if temporarily) the status quo?

For more on Utopian pedagogy, read Darren's piece for Open Democracy here

From Kathleen Quinlan (University of Oxford) session - How Higher Education Feels: Commentaries on Poems that Illuminate Learning and Teaching

7.  Powerful learning experiences have emotion behind them. If this is true, why do we only focus on the cognitive domain?
8.  What 'unwritten' rules around emotion affect our teaching?
9. How can we better use emotion as a catalyst for reflection and growth?

For a preview of Kathleen's book, How Higher Education Feels: Commentaries on Poems that Illuminate Learning and Teaching click here
The Master's Office
The Master's Office

From Geoff Bunn (Manchester Metropolitan University) session - The Student Journey, Power Relations and the Development of Agency'

10.  Why do we always use the linear journey metaphor to describe student progression, and how does this limit how we teach our students?

11. Bureaucracy is not neutral...It creates students who are good at fulfilling (or subverting)
bureaucratic processes. What is the impact of new bureaucracies on our students? How does it affect the relationships between us?

The Student Voice - session with students from the University of Kent

12.  Students and lecturers are increasingly suffering the same issues with mental health, precarity of employment, poverty and debt. How can we narrow the gap between us to find spaces of support and solidarity?
13. 'I don't need you to sit there and use long words with me - just chat to me like a normal human being.'  How do we address issues where individual academics misuse (and abuse) power through 'micro-aggressions'? Is this a problem of growing feelings of threat and vulnerability? And is there a wider concern about the demonising and 'othering' of young people today?

From Richard Hall (De Montfort University) session - Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education

14. How white is our curriculum?  How democratic?  How feminist?
15. Is it possible to re-imagine and re-create the academy from the inside, or do we need to find another way?

Read Richard's article 'The Rise of Academic Ill-Health' here

From Lee-Ann Sequeira (London School of Economics) session - The Problem with Silent Students - It's You, Not Them

16. Why do we fetishise extroversion in education?  How can we better value silence, attention and listening to others?
17.  Why don't we ask students about how they prefer to participate in learning?
18. How can we build in more time for reflection? (for students and teachers)
19. What can we learn from non-Anglo/American practices and ways of being?
20. How often do we praise good listening?
21. How aware are we of how much space we take up by our own vocal contributions?

Read Lee-Ann's blog, Silence in the Classroom here

From Shahidha Bari (University of London) keynote - The Art of an Education

22. How can we make universities more like a medical triage system - where we treat those in the most need first?
23. How can we build in more critical reflexivity - in our students, our colleagues, ourselves? And what can we (should we?) do about those who don't want to engage in critical dialogue?

From Malcolm Noble and Tracy Walsh - Learning and Teaching for the Post-Capitalist Economy - Co-operation, not Competition

24. What might a 'co-operative' curriculum look like?
25. Is a co-produced curriculum truly possible when students are becoming consumers of a product?

Find out about Leicester Vaughan College (new co-operative venture) here 

Becoming Radical

The reflective space offered by this conference has helped me consider further what it means to be radical in education today.  I get the sense that it is a process of 'becoming', very much connected to personal values and something to reconsider, reframe, and question continually as we try to navigate the shifting world around us.  It isn't a process that can be done alone - and I'd love to hear your comments and your own questions, either on this blog or on Twitter via #30DaysReflectResist.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Philosophical Inquiry

Finding Spaces to Dance


Image result for twelve dancing princesses sheilah
Image by Sheilah Beckett

Twelve princesses, each more beautiful than the last, sleep in twelve beds in the same room. Every night, their doors are securely locked by their father. But in the morning, their dancing shoes are found to be worn through as if they had been dancing all night. The king perplexed, asks his daughters to explain, but they refuse. The king then promises his kingdom and each daughter to any man who can discover the princesses' midnight secret within three days and three nights, but those who fail within the set time limit will be sentenced to death.


This fairytale by the Brothers Grimm is used in the book 'Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses' (Daley, Orr and Petrie, 2015) as an analogy for the state of the FE sector today.  The neo-liberalisation of education in England is spreading - and affecting the freedoms of students and educators so that, like the princesses, we have limited 'spaces to dance'.  In Teaching to Trangress (2014), bell hooks suggests that '...the classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.' Is the classroom still the place where we can enact our own 'midnight secret'?  As educators, are there other spaces that we can escape to to avoid oppressive and managerial regimes? And as students, what does it mean, to dance, in the educational sense?

Philosophical Inquiry

Take a look at the image and consider the story in the context of your educational life today.  What thoughts, ideas and questions does it raise for you?  You can post your ideas and discuss in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter using the hash tag #30DaysReflectResist or #RadicalKent.

Daley, M., Orr, K. and Petrie, J. (2015). Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. London. Trentham Books.

Hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018


As educators, we have little time to reflect on our practice.  I'm convinced that the reason for this is largely political - who knows what we might think, share, or decide to change if we have time to really explore and consider the issues affecting our practice?  Means of resistance are becoming more squeezed, as we fight the bureaucracy of 'academic capitalism', where time is money, and less time is our own.  It is easy to feel defeated - yesterday's appointment of Toby Young to the board of the new Office for Students (along with a former director of HSBC bank and a managing director of Boots, yet no representative from the National Union of Students),  was yet another blow for those resisting the neo-liberalisation of universities in England.  I know less about the picture in the US, but can imagine the feelings and frustrations of teachers there too.

Yet we need to continue to seek out affirmative approaches to change, that take us out of places of pain and inspire hope. These might just be temporary 'lines of flight,' but the disruptions to the status quo can produce a ripple effect that lead to lasting change, even if we can't see what these might be right now, or know where they might take us. 

The wonderful Benjamin Doxtdator (@doxdatorb) put together a podcast which encourages us to take a pause and reflect on the 'productive interruptions' which might create small ruptures in the systems that limit and constrain us. You can listen to it here:  On the back of his brilliant idea, I suggested we take the first 30 days of January 2018 to continue pausing and reflecting in response to different questions about social justice in education, grouping them with the hash tag #30DaysReflectResist.

The first question was 'What is your social justice goal (big or small) for 2018?' and the responses so far have been inspiring (I have started to capture these on the 30 Days Google doc).  How much or how little you join in is up to you, but if you would like to pause and reflect with us, take a look at the questions coming up here and perhaps add your own too.

As a result of day one I have connected with some new and exciting international thinkers on Twitter and can feel myself emerging from my turn of the year stupor.  It's in our interests to stay awake and alert to means of resistance, even when anaesthetizing (in whichever way we choose) feels like an easier way to deal with the pain. As the structures within which we work become more restrictive and stultifying, it may be that the rhizomatic connections we make through projects like this really are the best hope we have for change and transformation.

Looking forward to reading your thoughts and tweets and many thanks for sharing.