Category Archives: Uncategorized

Tackling the teacher recruitment crisis: Retention as recruitment

There is a crisis in teaching. The equation is fairly simple: Not enough people are coming into the profession to meet the growing number of pupils – and too many are leaving.

The Department for Education’s (DfE) new Recruitment and Retention Strategy, published today (28 January 2019) faces the issue head on with clear priorities and a commitment to work with the profession to deliver the strategy. Sheffield Hallam (through Sheffield Institute of Education and our South Yorkshire Futures programme) has been working closely with DfE to look at the issue on a regional level – and we are referenced in the report (page 34) for the successful pilot we have been running.

The focus for this issue, justifiably, is often on the literal starting point for the teaching profession: recruitment, recruiting trainees is undoubtedly challenging. They have diverse needs, backgrounds and experiences, and therefore need individualised, clear advice and support.

So in thinking about this issue I’ve decided to disrupt the order slightly by starting from the other end of the journey, or the other ‘R’: Retention.

The number leaving in the first year after qualifying has remained reasonably steady over the last five years at around 15 per cent – but the numbers who leave in years two, three, four and five continues to increase. Within three years of training more than a quarter have left the profession. This reaches almost one third by year five.

It’s no great leap to understand that if we get retention right, then recruitment will follow. Satisfied, fulfilled teachers will attract more to the profession than, I would argue, any number of golden hellos. Clearly there is value in focusing on retention as a platform to support recruitment – but it goes much further than that. We have a moral imperative to get this right.

Making a difference

Teachers come into the profession to make a difference. To transform lives. To give something back. But this shouldn’t be at any cost – and certainly shouldn’t be at personal cost. To find out a bit more about what encourages or stops applicants from joining the professions, we carried out a piece of research through South Yorkshire Futures. The results were instructive and revealing.

Amongst the data, the most eye-catching was this: Our research revealed that it is family friends, family members and even teachers of the potential applicants who are most often cited as the people who discouraged them from joining the profession.

As a result, we’ve taken a lead in our region to look closer at his issue to see how we can change this perception. This includes having conversations about how well we look after our teachers and asking important questions to help inform our approach.

 What are teachers’ experiences of being in a school? Are our schools great places to work?

These might seem like simple questions – but ultimately, the responses provide us with a defining narrative. It is the experience of the teachers which will determine if they stay in the profession, gain the satisfaction and rewards they anticipated at the start of their journey, and subsequently become the advocates of the profession that we so clearly need.

 Centre stage

I’m very fortunate in my role. I get to visit schools across South Yorkshire and meet inspirational leaders and teachers who clearly love their job. They care about the young people they teach, they know what makes them tick and they know how to motivate and excite them. You can see how much satisfaction they get from knowing that what they do on a daily basis is having a positive and lasting impact. These are everyday people who every day make a genuine difference to our young people.

With this in mind, for our recruitment campaign this year, we took a very different approach. For the first time we put teachers centre stage (quite literally) to tell their honest and compelling stories. The teachers, at various stages of their careers, spoke to future teachers about why they do their job, what gets them out of bed in the morning and what the profession has given to them. You could have heard a pin drop when they spoke.

Therefore if we want to recruit more teachers, we have to face the fact that it is teachers themselves who are the best, or worst, friend of the recruitment campaign, depending on their experience. They are our voice, our narrators, our critics, our advocates – and they all have a powerful story to tell.


We may all have different views about what makes a great place to work – but we all want to work in a great place. We all want to work in an environment where we feel that we belong, where we have the support that we need, that our contribution matters and where positive supportive relationships are nurtured – so that’s where we’re starting.

So we’re not starting with outcomes, we’re starting with the place. We’re looking at what that place has to offer the teacher. And we’re looking at what support there is in that place (and whether it is the right support).

 Great teachers

Great teachers transform lives – and every child deserves a great teacher. But this won’t be the case until we have begun to properly address the retention challenge. To do this, we must keep asking ourselves the difficult but simple questions: Are we offering the best environments in which to work? Are we meeting the needs of all our teachers?

Once we start to genuinely listen to the answers to these questions and begin to translate them in to actions and behaviours, we might start to see a workforce that feels more valued, motivated and excited – and I believe could result in a profound positive shift in recruitment and retention as a whole.

Sue O’Brien is teacher recruitment and retention lead for South Yorkshire Futures

Uniformed or Uninformed?

Before Christmas I watched the short BBC 2 series “School” ( ). Of course TV programmes are made to grab headlines and increase ratings, so it’s not surprising that most of what was shown depicted “problems”, but even so, I was routinely horrified in at least 4 out of the 6 episodes to see the lengths the school staff went to, and the time they spent, keeping students out of lessons and preventing them from learning on the basis that they were not wearing the correct uniform, or not wearing it ‘properly’.

Last night I watched the second in the BBC 2 series “Back in time for school” ( ). This episode depicts schooling from a little before WW1 to the end of WW2. I was struck, not for the first time, by how little school had changed from the 1902 Balfour Education Act until certainly when I was at school in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, and indeed in my experience when I was teaching in schools in the early 2000’s. One of the things that hadn’t changed was the emphasis on uniform, and one of the students in last night’s programme commented himself how similar it still is today in his school. In the 1920’s school it was said that pupils might be “thumped, smacked or caned” for failure to comply with uniform.

So in the early 20th century corporal punishment was used to enforce uniform and in the early 21st century exclusion from learning is used to enforce uniform: uniform must surely, therefore, be incredibly important for academic success.

But why do schools place such emphasis on uniform? What is the justification for preventing students from attending classes because their tie is not properly knotted or their shoe laces are the wrong colour (both examples from “School” episode 1)?

We often hear the argument that wearing a uniform prevents bullying based on fashion garments, but this isn’t my experience either as a student or as a teacher, and literature doesn’t support this very well either, with some studies directly contradicting it (e.g. Sherwin, 2015). This argument is sometimes “strengthened” by the claim that uniform is cheaper than fashion clothing and is therefore beneficial to ensure that the socio-economically disadvantaged are not as visible to their peers, but this is not widely supported and again some studies directly contradict (e.g. Brunsma, 2007). The UK Government website even acknowledges that uniform is often too expensive with advice for how to take action if you are being forced to buy uniform from only one supplier and therefore unable to find the best prices.

Other popular arguments are that uniform creates a sense of belonging, that it teaches the students self-discipline and that it makes students ‘ready to learn’, but it’s a struggle to find much evidence-based research to support these claims. (Although it’s interesting that a Google search for “school uniform improves learning” brings up a Guardian article about Devon school boys wearing skirts in the heatwave because their school refused to allow them to wear shorts instead of their heavy tartan trousers … surely no one can be expected to learn effectively if sweating profusely in heavy tartan and temperatures of 30 degrees plus?)

It occurs to me that, in a society which continually shouts loudly about how much diversity is to be celebrated, many young people spend the first 16 years of their lives being told that they have to be the same: how ironic!

Of course, I’m not saying that there cannot ever be any justification for uniform, but crucially I can’t locate any reliable and well-supported evidence that uniform improves learning and achievement, still less anything to suggest that the improvements in learning and achievement are so great that they justify keeping students out of the classroom when uniform is not being worn.

This all leaves me wondering whether the promotion of school uniform is simply uninformed?

Dave Darwent is a Senior Lecturer and E:Learning Technologist at Sheffield Institute of Education 

N is also for Naming

About a year ago I joined a local choir, and at my first session I was given a badge with my name on it – not just any old badge, but an individually crafted, hand-decorated small work of art. Everyone else had their own badge too. Having something with my name on that had been created and kept especially for me made me feel I was a valued member of the group. It meant I was held in people’s minds, even when I missed a session.

Now, we’re not suggesting you create a handcrafted name badge for each of your students, but the story illustrates how naming can engender a sense of belonging – a vital factor in motivating students to persevere at university.

Below we look at some tips and challenges when it comes to using students’ names, but first, let’s examine further why names might be important.

‘My name is my identity and must not be lost’  (Lucy Stone)

Naming is a universal practice. Names individualise people, contributing to personal identity, but they also classify them, thus contributing to social identity. Conversely, non-naming (that is, the avoidance of the use of names) could be said to contribute to depersonalisation, as can mis-naming.

‘She had got used to people mispronouncing her name but because she got a chance to say it clearly and the tutor stopped people rushing over it, she has got her identity back.’ (Ashton and Stone, An A-Z of Creative Teaching in Higher Education)

In our A-Z book, one of our characters, Yared, recounts a conversation with a fellow student where the student describes how helpful it was to play a name game at the start of her course and have the tutor spend time on getting the pronunciation right. Names generally are not translatable and honouring the original ways of saying them promotes inclusivity and respect for diversity.

‘Naming is a difficult and time-consuming process; it concerns essences, and it means power.’ (Jeanette Winterson, Oranges are not the only fruit).

In many mythologies, from Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea novels to ancient Egyptian folklore , knowing a thing’s true name bestows power. Similarly so in higher education, where asking for and using students’ names involves trust. When you give someone your name, you do so in the good faith that it matters and that they will at least attempt to remember it. A former colleague used to invite each of her students to share something significant about their name:

“I’m Daian. My mum wanted it pronounced ‘Dey-Anne’ but no one ever did.”

“I’m Reuben, but my friends call me Rubes. It means ‘Behold, a son!’.”

Trusting each other with such personal information, it seemed to me, created its own bond within the group.

Naming can also call a person or a thing into being, as illustrated, for example, by the Maori creation story, where the world is re-created with each telling and re-telling. For a university student who is struggling to make friends, and who may be feeling isolated and lost, hearing their name spoken aloud can recall them into existence and provide a reassuring reminder of their place in the world.

‘Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, And they’re always glad you came’ (‘Cheers’ theme song)

Common sense dictates that you’re more likely to return to a group in which you feel recognised and valued. Creating that environment from the start could not only lead to better attendance and retention on your modules but also provide initial support for students in terms of making social contacts and managing their mental health.

Here are some things you can do to develop such a space.

Be realistic. You can’t learn names in a 200-strong lecture in the same way you can with a smaller group (although you can encourage the students to learn the names of their immediate neighbours). However, even 200-strong cohorts break into smaller groups for seminars and tutorials.

Consider your timetable. If you teach a small number of groups over several sessions then you can build relationships with students, whereas teaching the same session over and over to 8 seminar groups on the trot, while it might save on preparation time, does not allow you much opportunity to recognise or remember individuals. Thoughtful staffing of courses therefore matters.

Use name games. An internet search on this topic will provide a wealth of ideas, and there is a particularly effective one described in our A-Z book. You can also use labels or photographic registers. Don’t be afraid to ask if you can’t remember a name – this makes it ok for others to ask too.

Set up a study buddy system where students are assigned to small groups and take responsibility for helping their fellow members to catch up if they miss a session. This encourages your students to look out for each other. Peer mentoring also helps here.

Comment on who’s missing when you take the registerI know X can’t make it today but what about Y? Has anyone heard from her? Where possible, welcome absentees back into the fold when they return, but avoid divulging personal information (asking publicly ‘How did the op go?’ is not only inappropriate and insensitive but could breach data protection laws).

Go beyond learning names and find out about your students’ interests, needs and goals too.

Asking a student their name, listening to it and using it creates a metaphorical ‘badge’ for that student like the one I was given in my choir. This process acts as a marker of identity, an exchange of trust and respect, a placeholder, a membership signifier and an acknowledgement of individual existence. It humanises what is sometimes in danger of becoming a depersonalised, performatised and marketised experience.

Naming thus has the potential to benefit not only students, but their teachers too and, ultimately one hopes, the academic community and society at large. How many of your students can you name?

Rachel Stone is a Senior Lecturer at Sheffield Institute of Education

This blog was originally published on the A-Z of Creative Teaching in Higher Education blog. Follow the blog at @AZofCTinHE

The ‘Low Steps’ of Social Mobility

We at Sheffield Hallam University are engaged in some great work with South Yorkshire Futures a region-wide initiative to improve rates of social mobility in the area through educational improvement. But, as both Market and Recruitment Lead for the Department of Education, Childhood and Inclusion, and a lecturer within the sociology of education, I paused to think: what exactly is social mobility? Well, think about these questions: Do you have (or expect to have) a better paid job than your parents? Have you got (or expect to get) higher level educational qualifications than your parents? If the answer to these questions is yes, you may be experiencing social mobility.

I have already hinted at how we can define social mobility by my questions above. If you have a better paid job than your parents you have experienced social mobility because it is measured, largely but not exclusively, by your wealth which includes income. Wealth–assets and income–is a key measure of social class by most definitions. So, if you earn more than your parents, we can say that you have moved into a higher social class, and that you have experienced upward social mobility. When politicians talk about the benefits of social mobility, this is the kind that they always mean. However, what goes up can also come down and it is quite possible for individuals to experience downward social mobility. It may not surprise you to learn that politicians do not like to talk about this second kind of social mobility, and neither would you if you had an election to try to win. The difference between upward and downward social mobility points, in turn, to another way of looking at this concept: absolute and relative mobility.

Absolute social mobility refers to the improvements in wealth (largely defined by income) of an entire social class. Relative social mobility means movement between social classes, whether up or down. One way of thinking about this is movement of a class and movement from a class. In the decades after World War Two, Britain experienced quite high levels of absolute social mobility: put simply, working-class people had more money in their pocket and were part of Harold MacMillan’s ‘never had it so good’ generation. The reasons for this are well known: continued post-war economic growth, governments’ commitment to maintaining full employment, and economic policies aimed at income redistribution through taxation and welfare spending. Fast forward to the present and we see a very different picture: sluggish economic growth, no commitment to full employment and a move away from redistributive policies. Under these conditions, the prospects for absolute social mobility of the sort enjoyed by the post-war ‘baby boomers’ are not good. Consequently, as absolute social mobility moves off the political agenda, the focus is on relative upward social mobility: your ability to move from your social class of birth to a higher class. And this is where education contributes. Qualifications are ‘positional goods’–they enable you to stand out from the crowd, although in today’s hyper-competitive jobs market extra-curricular assets are also of key importance.

Why does social mobility matter? Social mobility matters to every advanced capitalist nation. Good levels of social mobility are seen as a sign of a healthy economy, and this in turn feeds into our beliefs about what is right and acceptable. We need to believe that, given the right amount of hard work and skill on our part, we can achieve what we aim for. Anything less is, quite rightly, seen as unfair. It is surprising to remember how recent, historically speaking, this attitude is. The average medieval peasant would not have entertained the notion that hard work could mean social advancement; for them, hard work was simply the grind of daily subsistence. Our modern faith in social mobility has its distant origins in the seventeenth century with the advent of a more secular, individualistic outlook on life. It is well summed up in these lines, written in 1634, from John Taylor’s ode to social mobility and meritocracy, The Triumphs of Fame and Honour:

Low steps begin to mount the highest hills,

Great Rivers have their heads from little Rills

From servitude growes freedome, and from thence

(Through Industry) springs Worth and Eminence.

It is not exactly Shakespeare but the hopes that Taylor invoked in 1634 are the hopes that we all have today, and so it is vital that education, though programmes like South Yorkshire Futures, plays its role in helping to realise them.

Andrew Morrison is the Markets and Recruitment Lead in the Department of Education, Childhood & Inclusion

“You say … I hear …” tensions in professional/parent partnerships

In this blog entry Nick Hodge and Katherine Runswick-Cole reflect on some of the factors that might lead to a lack of understanding between practitioners and parents/carers  of children with Special Educational Needs.

Inspired by #festABLE tweets, a blog about dealing with difficult parents of children with SEND  and a very kind mention in Jarlath O’Brien’s blog, we decided to reflect on the issue of parent-professional partnership drawing from our recent book chapter:

Hodge, N. and Runswick-Cole, K. (2017) ‘You Say, I hear’: understanding parent-professional partnerships in special education. In Runswick-Cole, K., Curran, T. and Liddiard, K. (eds) (2017) Palgrave Handbook of Disabled Children’s Childhood Studies, Basingstoke: Palgrave.*

We have long been interested in parent-professional relationships in the often conflict ridden world of Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).  From our different subject positions as teacher and parent of a child labeled with SEND, we have had numerous conversations about why it is so difficult for teachers and parents/carers to communicate.  From our work in universities with teachers and parents, we know that, as much as it may feel like this at times, parent-professional conflict is not simply produced by ‘bad’ teachers and ‘troublesome’ parents.  In particular, we reject ways of representing certain types of parents or teachers in negative ways.  We see little value to such an approach.

We know that demands are made on teachers and on parents in systems that make up the legislation, the paperwork, attitudinal and structural barriers to the inclusion of children labeled with SEND.  In the chapter, we drew on Lipsky (1971)’s work on ‘street-level bureaucracy’ or, the paperwork and other demands, to understand how teachers and parents are caught up by the need to meet the demands of the system as much as the demands of the child.

We think that it is this current SEND system that inevitably promotes lack of empathy between teachers and parents in their communications, working against the possibility of productive parent-professional partnerships.

In the chapter, we explored some examples where there seems to be an empathy gap between teacher and parent, describing parents’ reactions to what teachers said to them.

You say … I hear ….

You say…


I hear …
Head teacher: have you thought about going back to work?


Parent: she thinks I’m an over anxious mother with too much time on my hands.


Teaching Assistant:  she was really tired when she came in this morning. Parent: we never go out because of her difficulties with fatigue, we never do the things other families do, and just for once, when we do, you have a go at me! You’re telling me off.


Doctor: what’s your job? Parent: what does it matter what my job is?  You are judging me


Occupational therapist:  I didn’t tell you about DLA (Disability Living Allowance: A welfare benefit for disabled children and adults) because I knew your partner had a good job.


Parent: You shouldn’t be claiming benefits.


Teacher: He has said he doesn’t want to go to work experience. You can over rule him at home, but I can’t, he’s seventeen.


Parent: Adult services won’t look   after my child properly.


Teacher: his teaching assistant reads with him, I have 29 other children in the class to think about.


Parent: the teacher doesn’t see my child as her responsibility.
Inclusion Officer: you are not entitled to a Rolls Royce service. We have limited resources that we must allocate fairly.


Parent: you are a greedy, pushy, selfish parent.


Teacher: I know he’s lashing out but that is what children with autism and epilepsy do.


Parent: You don’t see my son, you don’t recognise him as an individual.


Speech and Language Therapist: your daughter is making really good progress. Parent: hey?  She’s still really struggling – oh no, they are about to discharge her!


Speech and Language Therapist:  I’m sorry but your child doesn’t meet the criteria for our service.  There are some spaces on the anger management classes for parents.


Parent: You think I have a problem with anger and I can’t parent my child.
Receptionist at LA offices: [hand over phone so slightly muffled] it’s Mrs Smith on the phone, are you in? Parent: the whole office thinks I’m a problem.

Hodge and Runswick-Cole, 2018: 545

We know that while the examples above are taken from a parent’s perspective, we could just as easily have found examples of teachers, too, feeling that they are engaging with parents who lack empathy.

In the chapter, we explore the work of McKenzie & Scully (2007) to think about how things could be different in these difficult conversations.

In sympathetic moral imagination one does not try to imagine being the other from the inside. Rather, one recognises that the other is different from oneself, one imaginatively engages with her perceptions and experiences, as she represents them, and one responds emotionally to her perspective and her situation. (MacKenzie and Scully, 2007: 347).

Sympathetic moral imagination means that you try to imagine how an event is experienced by the other person, rather than how we think we would experience it if it happened to us.  This is more than putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, this is about imagining, as best you can, that you are that person, in their shoes.

It is clear that the current SEND system, of failed reforms and ever increasing funding cuts, does not nurture an environment where sympathetic moral imagination has the space to grow, but we also know from #festABLE that it is possible to create those spaces and to nurture relationships for the best interests of teachers, parents, and, of course, children.

We need to fight current systems and approaches that define children labeled with SEND by what are said to be their deficits and disorders, and, at the same time, strive to engage with sympathetic moral imagination, or just be a bit kinder, in our relationships with each other.

* You can read our chapter in The Palgrave Handbook of Disabled Children’s Childhood Studies – available from libraries.

Nick Hodge, Professor of Inclusive Practice, Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University, @goodchap62

Katherine Runswick-Cole, Chair in Education, The University of Sheffield, @k_runswick_cole


Stephen Lawrence and Closing the Black and Minority Ethnic attainment gap

I was privileged to be invited to the service to commemorate Stephen Lawrence’s death and perhaps more importantly celebrate his life and legacy. St Martin-in-the-fields welcomed family, friends, royalty, politicians, senior police officers, celebrities, community leaders, those emboldened by Stephen’s life to act and those who have benefited from his legacy. In this famous church a very ‘broad church’ were congregated. During the service I reflected on how the extraordinary can be found in the extremes and what we must do to encourage the extraordinary.

Twenty-five years on, as Stephen was remembered, it was palpable that wounds were still raw and justice still unanswered. To us, Stephen Lawrence has become an icon for needed change but for others he is a son, a brother or a friend. They had lost the personal, in the most brutal and unjustifiable manner possible. They received the knock at the door, or the phone call, that no one should have to answer. Their loss was greater as at its heart was ignorance, apathy and hatred. Ignorance of the power of understanding the other’s perspective, apathy towards the value of life and hatred of one’s own life that its inadequacies should be blamed on another. Stephen is still missed by those who loved him, for the boy he was and the man he should have become.

Despite their terrible loss, his family chose to build a legacy, and from this emerged reasons to celebrate. The work of the Stephen Lawrence charitable trust has supported young people from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds through university to influential careers and posts in the professions; the Macpherson report acted as a watershed moment in race relations in the police force; and as Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon OBE, Stephen’s mum has tirelessly acted for constructive change and creating positive futures in young peoples’ lives. Stephen legacy is extraordinary and shows ignorant brutality is most powerfully responded to with thoughtful empowerment.

Stephen’s talents were leading him towards university to study architecture and a career where we one day could have benefited from the buildings he designed. If buildings really are ‘machines for living’ as Le Corbusier described them, then Stephen was on track to design our lives. Since his death, Doreen Lawrence has championed the value of education at all levels and spoken of its power for positive change. In education our potential is enriched and as we get stronger so does our society.  A well-educated society is robust, more powerful, and able to sustain its values while addressing challenges. Therefore, it makes sense that the more we educate our society the better off we all are. The more ‘designers of better lives’ we have. This statement has a reasoned and reasonable logic to it. It just feels right and yet it stands at odds with the Black and Minority Ethnic attainment gap which exists in Higher Education.  It stands at odds with the potential we squander, ignore and fail to recognise in the cohorts we teach.  While many numbers could be chosen, the latest data indicates that Black and Minority Ethnic students studying at SHU are performing 18% below their white peers, a black student is performing 29% below their white peers, numbers which are echoed throughout HE. Their potential is not being recognised, developed or enjoyed. How would Stephen have fared? Would he have been hindered in the HE system due to the colour of his skin? It is probable that he too would have suffered from the attainment gap.

Data gleaned during the Macpherson report noted that the police were guilty of institutional racism. It is easy to see this label applied to others but the attainment gap data speaks and the label is justly applied to our profession. In short, our actions and inactions are denying the potential of Black and Minority Ethnic students. While I am not attempting to make any parallels between the hate filled actions of those who murdered Stephen and what we do, I am noting that a Black and Minority Ethnic attainment gap is the embodiment of institutional racism.  So what to do? Fortunately we are already taking actions and raising awareness about the issue with our course teams, enacting listening rooms to hear from our Black and Minority Ethnic students about what they experience, need and want in order to reap their potential. Deep change won’t come easy but we are willing to change and undertake the work.  Yet we need to keep these developments front of mind and not allow them to be lost amongst competing priorities.

At the service, the Prime Minister announced that the 22nd April will become Stephen Lawrence day which will act as focal point for the nation to remember Stephen and take stock of changes that have been made to improve our society and the lives of young black people. A day to celebrate an extraordinary legacy and gird ourselves for the work yet to be done. In line with this, I intend to use the 22nd April in future years to examine our Black and Minority Ethnic attainment gap, transparently and openly. So that we can recognise that which has been achieved and that which is yet to be attained. Sir Lenny Henry at the service noted that ‘a just society is not a destination but a state of mind’. Therefore, justice will always take work and require changes but it must sit at the core of our values. We will close our attainment gap and we will benefit fully from the potential of all our graduates. In helping guide this change Stephen Lawrence will have helped ‘design better lives’ through the enacted potential of others, a truly extraordinary legacy the Lawrence family can be proud of and we can all benefit from.

Dr Iain Garner is the Head of Department for Education, Childhood & Inclusion

Changing writing

I can just remember the last two occasions on which I signed my name. The first, a fortnight ago, was when I validated a friend’s passport photograph and the second, only the other day, involved signing for a parcel – and for that I used a fingernail to scrawl my name on a handheld device. With the rise of card payment and the almost complete disappearance of handwritten letters and memos at work it seems like the signature is in terminal decline. Of course there are still some very important functions that signing fulfils, but they’re less common these days. Like other kinds of writing, signatures are changing. The point I want to make here is one that has preoccupied me throughout my research career. It’s quite simple. Writing is changing rapidly – and so is communication as a whole. And whether we like it or not, this is a challenge for educators at all levels.

In our recent book New Media in the Classroom Cathy Burnett and I tackle this issue by describing some of the creative ways in which early years and primary school teachers have encouraged children to use new forms of communication in the classroom. This is in full recognition of the popularity of Snapchat and WhatsApp, the ubiquity of touchscreen tablets and smartphones, and the rapid take up of hashtags and emojis. But what about writing your name, holding a pen or developing fine motor skills for a legible cursive hand?

When you profess an interest in the changing nature of writing, people seem to automatically assume that you don’t like pens, pencils or biros. But actually I’m interested in the whole rich tapestry of human communication from Roman clay tablets to Chinese typewriters; from the invention of moveable type in Korea (yes, Korea, not Germany as you may have thought) to the recent evolution of predictive text – not forgetting, of course the proliferation of YouTube channels – and that’s before you get to the SIoE blog and Twitter accounts! None of these have supplanted other means of communication. But yet full participation in social, civic and working life does always require a familiarity with the communicative tools involved. It’s not as if writing is dying out, it’s just that human communication is becoming more complex and more diverse.

The recent Guardian Roundtable on Handwriting was an attempt to get to grips with the implications of all this for schools. Should we be spending more time on letter formation or should we dump all that in favour of keyboard skills? Of course, the question itself over-simplifies the topic. Still the discussion had to pick its way between the rock of romanticism (the golden age of copperplate – wasn’t it beautiful?) and the hard place of futurism (speech recognition software will soon be so good that in five years time we’ll all be doing hands-free writing). In reality most of us still use pen and paper – we need those skills, but their share in the economy of communication is much reduced. I believe that children should have access to the full range of communication skills, and for those who for one reason or another find pencil control difficult, there are now other tools to choose from. At least for now you need to be able to sign your name as well as find your way around a keyboard. I’m very pleased about that, because as a teenager I invested considerable effort in perfecting a distinctive and marginally legible signature. At least I can still use it, from time to time!

Guy Merchant is a Professor of Literacy in Education at Sheffield Institute of Education 


University Assessment and a High Court Judgement

A genre analysis of university assessments by lecturers may prevent a forensic analysis of them in the High Court.

The High Court judgement in the case brought by a former student against Oxford University excited much coverage in the press last week. Mr Faiz Siddiqui had claimed that the teaching at Oxford had been so “negligently inadequate” that his History degree classification had had a “deleterious effect on his subsequent career”. The Honourable Mr Justice Foskett, sitting in the High Court of Justice, did not agree.

Many of the headlines were dismissive of Mr Saddiqi (e.g. Daily Mail (online)). However, lecturers need to look beyond the headlines to what the judge took evidence on when preparing his 245 paragraph judgment (Siddiqui versus The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford, 2018). By doing so, we’ll avoid a dismissive stance and learn something from the judgement.

In fact, there is a warning in the case about our accountability for the student experience and our assessment practices.

In his written judgement, Mr Justice Foskett considers many aspects of the student experience including course descriptions, syllabi, assessment procedures, library resources, class sizes, marking, and marking criteria. He also considers staffing, workload and the provision of cover within a research-active department. In essence, he considers the whole system both from a legal (forensic) perspective and a pedagogical one.

In going through the judgement, I was struck by the similarities between the judge’s line of reasoning and that in my own line of pedagogical research. I’m an educational linguist and work with contemporary descriptions of language including genre analysis. As I’ll suggest below, knowledge of how language works has a lot to offer those teaching in HE, and indeed those called to defend it.

The judge’s approved judgement starts with a detailed analysis of one of the assessments that Mr Siddiqi faced as part of his finals: a gobbet paper. To prepare the opening paragraphs of the judgement, he had asked the Oxford academics who gave evidence for an explanation of the purpose, stages and reading required to write the genre of the gobbe [paragraph 10].  This is the start of what linguists call a genre analysis. The judgement then goes on to consider the evidence presented by the academics that they, and the university, gave adequate support to Mr Siddiqui in preparing for the assessment, along with their acknowledgement that gobbet papers are “very ‘testing’ and ‘difficult'” [paragraph 24].

By starting with an assessment text (the gobbet paper), the judge follows a process with which I’m familiar in my research. I was introduced to the word gobbet by Mary McKeever when we conducted an analysis of assessment on a history BA course (Wrigglesworth & McKeever, 2010). The term for this type of assessment paper on the course we researched was document commentary. I was reassured that the Oxford academics held a similar view to that outlined in our paper.

Working with history lecturers we had conducted a genre analysis on a set of assessments. As we had analysed examples of student scripts, we were able to devise descriptions of how the assessment worked at the level purpose and stages but also of grammar and vocabulary. The genre descriptions and language material we generated from the research was used in workshops with students, enhancing the support given to them about how historians write and think. We were able to explain the assessments from wider purpose down to sentence level grammar. Although this detail was not required to illuminate Mr Siddiqui’s case, it could be with all groups of students and, indeed, appellants in legal cases.

Using a genre-based approach in the classroom can be immensely empowering for students. This is particularly so for those at risk of not succeeding or from groups with historical disparities in educational outcomes. Educational linguists can thus make a positive contribution to pedagogy and help respond to the negative complaint, “why can’t students write these days?”.

What lessons can we learn from the case?

Mr Justice Foskett is a high court judge. As an undergraduate, he was president of his student union (King’s College, London). His book on The Law and Practice of Compromise, now in its eighth edition, deals in part with the settlement of disputes before they come to court (Foskett, 2015). As a judge is not unsympathetic to Mr Saddiqi, a student who feels he hasn’t made as much of himself as he had hoped [paragraph 243]. Lecturers should take no comfort from this judge nor the case of Siddiqui versus The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford, 2018.

My view, as an expert in educational linguistics, is that providing genre explanations of assessments will support all students in successfully meeting their learning (and therefore career) objectives. And such provision may prevent lecturers being called to present forensic explanations of their assessment practices in the High Court.

John Wrigglesworth is Head of International at Sheffield Institute of Education


Foskett, D. (2015). Foskett on Compromise (8th ed.). London, Sweet & Maxwell Ltd. This book was previously known as The Law and Practice of Compromise.

Sidddiqi v. The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford (2018). Royal Courts of Justice, HQ14X03469.

Wrigglesworth, J., & McKeever, M. (2010). Writing history: a genre-based, interdisciplinary approach linking disciplines, language and academic skills. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 9(1), 107-126.


How often have you heard someone talk about ‘the heterosexual community’? Rarely or never, I would guess, but the phrase ‘LGBT community’ is frequently used by policy-makers, service providers, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people themselves, particularly during February, which is LGBT history month. So what understandings and experiences does that phrase conjure up – or ignore? I addressed this question in UK-wide research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, involving over 600 participants. It is examined in detail in my new book Exploring LGBT spaces and communities. Here I offer three reasons why the term ‘LGBT community’ is problematic.

First, the acronym ‘LGBT’, which is most often used, excludes some who may wish to align themselves with LGBT people, such as those who identify as queer or intersex. Even those who do feature within these four letters, notably bisexual and trans people, can feel marginalised (including by lesbian and gay people). This has important implications for service delivery premised on the notion of ‘LGBT community’, because for some it is inherently exclusionary.

Second, the word ‘community’ can be understood in many different ways. In my research, people experienced it as space (e.g. the commercial scene or particular areas such as Brighton); as virtual (i.e. online); as temporary (e.g. at Pride events), and/or as imagined. All these perspectives are important because people often shared fears or negative expectations of wider society, meaning they wanted the idea of ‘LGBT community’. However, the term ‘community’ does not capture these differences and complexities, and can wrongly suggest or assume a shared experience.

Third, the phrase ‘LGBT community’ suggests that LGBT people should feel part of something, which if they don’t, can heighten negative experiences. Language use is important, and using ‘community’ tends to overlook differences and potential tensions between LGBT people. It also implies that LGBT people somehow automatically belong to a ready-made community. This is not the case! Many participants talked about trying, and failing, to ‘find’ such a thing. Others experienced discrimination from LGBT people relating to their age, body, disability, ethnicity, faith, HIV status, perceived social class, and so on.

It was clear that community belonging is not a given even when people share a gender or sexual identity. Use of the term ‘LGBT community’ could therefore be experienced as offensive, as it was thought to deny or render invisible experiences of inequality and prejudice among LGBT people. Often feelings of community belonging were thought to be conditional on the basis of conforming to particular norms and/or ‘fitting in’ in other ways. The notion of ‘LGBT community’ is therefore problematic because of a suggestion that it requires a similarity that was often felt to not exist, or be desirable.

This is not merely an ‘academic debate’. I was surprised at the strength of feeling some people had, and sympathise with their reasons. When policy-makers, service providers or educators use the term ‘LGBT community’ they are at risk of deterring some LGBT (and other) people from engaging. As one participant commented, [I] find anyone who uses this language dubious and with doubtful intention”.

I’m not suggesting that we should abandon the phrase altogether, as my research did find evidence that people often wanted to feel safe, connected and/or a sense of belonging with other LGBT people, which the word ‘community’ might capture. However, I do think people should ask themselves ‘do I mean community?’. Often, using ‘LGBT people’ would be more accurate, and would not risk suggesting that LGBT people’s needs and experiences are all the same. Alternatively, using ‘LGBT communities’ in the plural does at least acknowledge difference and diversity amongst LGBT people. Yet I am surprised how little this gets used, even now.

An earlier version of this blog featured in The Conversation. Eleanor Formby is a Senior Research Fellow at Sheffield Hallam University. Her book is available here. She will be delivering an LGBT history month talk at Sheffield Hallam University on February 14th.

Epistemic justice: is this what universities are for?

In an era in which the credibility and confidence in knowledge is under attack, the idea that ‘powerful knowledge’ (Young, 2008) might provide reliable explanations, as well as the basis for suggesting realistic alternatives to the status quo operating in society, raises a number of questions for teachers and curriculum developers. Knowledge that is powerful, it is argued, enables acquirers to see beyond their everyday experience; is open to challenge; and is conceptual as well as derived from experience. This description aligns with the type of knowledge taught and learned in universities in the (inter)disciplines, and its recontextualisation in the school curriculum. Monica McClean (2015) has argued that the availability of powerful knowledge to students is a matter of epistemic justice, because it allows them to think of things not only as they are, but as they might become. Key to this, she argues, is the quality of teaching: a moral-practical activity that requires collective agreements about pedagogic policies and practices that do justice to all students.

Elizabeth Rata (2017) puts this another way: powerful knowledge, she says is the type of knowledge that is the pre-condition for a potential connection to the democratic political system. The features of a democracy that are the pre-condition for this connection include a consensus of what counts as legitimate knowledge for citizenship. Ryan Maxwell, senior director of Schools for EL Education in the US, argues that teachers can foster democracy, and that Citizens are Made not Born. To this end we might ask how universities can contribute to this project. First, in my view, they need to continue to profess that they care for knowledge and to be an important site of knowledge production; second, by supporting the message that everyone has an entitlement to attend university; and third that knowing something about the nature of knowledge is important because it helps us to create it, to use it, to share it, and, if we need to, to doubt it.

What are universities for? Richard Pountney explains to year 7 students in the Pennine Lecture Theatre


To bring this closer to home we can look at how schools work with universities. At XP School in Doncaster, for example, the link with Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) has been the local focal point for establishing the school’s common mission for all their students – to be able to go to university, if they so wish. This highly ambitious expectation has allowed their students to set their aims high, from whatever context they have come from. Indeed, the school admits students through random selection across the whole of Doncaster, so they have a diverse range of backgrounds. And all the students have not just visited SHU, they have carried out ‘purposeful’ work there on a number of ‘expeditions’. The school follows an innovative approach to curriculum design and pedagogy based on the interdisciplinary, problem-based learning, approaches of Expeditionary Learning schools in the USA (Pountney and McPhail, 2017). Expeditions are interdisciplinary projects that last 8-10 weeks. Each has a guiding question, some field work, case studies and key texts, experts external to the school, and a final product that the students share with their families at a Celebration of Learning event (see the examples of expeditions on the school website). This pedagogy aims to combine a knowledge-led curriculum with pupils’ engagement, to effect a Future 3 School (Young et al., 2014). Such a school is one that works to make a direct link between learners’ character growth and the quality of their work.

What happens to food when you freeze it?’ Professor Neil Bricklebank explains

For the ‘Chefistry’ expedition for example*, (guiding question ‘What has Chemistry got to do with cooking?’) year 7 students from XP were led by Neil Bricklebank, Professor of Chemistry at SHU, in experiments on the states of matter. And on the top floor of the Owen Building, Norman Dinsdale, Master Chef of Great Britain, guided them in preparing food using liquid nitrogen (see more about the learning on the website). These are deep, visceral experiences that help to enrich the education and lives of the young students at XP, who are making outstanding academic progress because of it. They are also examples of how learners have been given fair access to expertise and a fair distribution of knowledge that prepares them to be successful in the modern world.


‘How can you cook with liquid nitrogen?’ Master Chef Norman Dinsdale explains










This approach goes beyond simple notions of employability (the right to work) in order to uphold access to powerful knowledge (the right to think) as a form of social justice, in which young people can be given access to new contexts – and to understand not just how the world can be different, but how their place in the world can be different.

[*Note: While the examples in this blog are from STEM subjects, the idea that powerful knowledge applies equally to humanities and arts subjects is important. See the Make a Stand expedition, involving a lecture by SHU historian Dr. Alison Twells on Yorkshire’s role in the slave trade, combined with study of Harper Lees’s To Kill a Mockingbird, performed at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre.]

Richard Pountney is Principal Lecturer in Curriculum Development in the Sheffield Institute of Education, and Chair of the XP Multi-academy Trust.


McLean, M. (2007) Higher Education Close Up 8: Think Pieces. Available at:

Pountney, R and McPhail, G (2017) Researching the interdisciplinary curriculum: the need for ‘translation devices’, British Educational Research Journal, 43: 1068–1082.

Rata, E. (2017) Connecting knowledge to democracy, in: B. Barrett, U. Hoadley & J. Morgan (Eds) Knowledge, curriculum and equity: Social realist perspective. London: Routledge.

Young, M. (2008). Bringing Knowledge Back In: From social constructivism to social realism in the sociology of education. London: Routledge.

Young, M., Lambert, D., Roberts, C., & Roberts, M. (2014). Knowledge and the future school: Curriculum and social justice. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.