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“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.


Time is a great healer: how can academics contribute to students’ mental wellbeing?

Every day at work is a race against the clock and in my case, the clock often wins! There was a time (excuse the pun) when this caused me no end of stress and anxiety, but not anymore…. Why? Because I’ve learnt through experience that nothing horrendous happens as a result. More importantly, I’ve developed shedloads of strategies (prioritising, action planning, list making etc…..) for managing my time effectively. Indeed, of necessity, I’ve become quite the expert, as have many of you no doubt. This puts us in a fortunate position: effective time management has been found to protect against ‘job strain’ and resultant mental health problems (see Burgard and Lin (2013) for a review of the impact of work on health).

What has all this to do with promoting students’ mental wellbeing you ask? Well, rather a lot as it happens. There’s a great deal that can be achieved by academics, and with little effort and minimal resources. A mere cursory glance at recent student mental health research (see YouGov and NUS survey results below for example) reveals not only a problem on the increase but also a noticeable association between mental health problems and student workload/demands, which is where the connection lies: either we’re placing too many demands on students, failing to equip them with effective time management strategies, or both…. One thing’s for certain – we need to explore these issues as a matter of urgency.

According to a recent survey (YouGov, 2016):

  • More than a quarter (27%) of students in UK universities report having a mental health problem of some kind.
  • Females are more likely than males to say they have a mental health problem (34% vs 19%).
  • The problem is particularly high amongst LGBT students (45% LGBT vs 22% heterosexual).
  • Depression and anxiety are the most common reported problems (77% and 74%).

What a sad and shameful state of affairs: so many students suffering mental distress, and at a time when they should be enjoying life and living it to the full. After all, aren’t the years spent in university meant to be the best years of our lives? Hardly the case for at least 27% of higher education students if the results of the YouGov survey are anything to go by! Moreover, as well as the day to day strain of functioning brought about by mental distress, it also puts students at increased risk of poor academic performance and of leaving university (Crust et al, 2014) and so has the capacity to reduce quite significantly their chances of realising their full potential in life. Much worse of course is that students with mental health problems are at increased risk of committing suicide.  In fact, student suicides rose by 79 per cent (from 75 – 134) between 2007 and 2015 (Thorley, 2017). This is something we need to consider when attempting to support our students in managing their work loads.

What makes students depressed and anxious?

Being a young person doesn’t help….which of course the vast majority of higher education students are. Young adults are, by definition, more at risk of developing mental health problems. It’s a well-known fact that around 75% of adults with mental illness had their first symptoms before the age of 25 (Thorley, 2017).  Students though have more risk of developing mental health problems than their peers. Why? In 2013 the National Union of Students put this question to several hundred students.  Below is what they identified as the main triggers of mental distress (NUS, 2013):

  • Course workload deadlines (65%)
  • Exams, including revision (54%)
  • Balancing study and other commitments (52%)
  • Grades/academic performance (52%)
  • Personal, family or relationship problems (49%)
  • Financial difficulties (47%)

How can we help our students to win their race against the clock and thereby contribute positively to their mental wellbeing?

Helping students free up more time is one sure way we can promote their mental wellbeing, not to mention the knock on effects! So why not commit to two simple tasks as a starting point (that’s assuming you haven’t done so already of course):

  1. Scope the collective academic workload demands being placed on students by your course team – does this need to be reduced (I’m not suggesting dumbing down academic challenge here)?
  1. Establish from relevant research effective ways to teach time management and put these into practice. You may not always feel that this is your role, or the purpose of your modules, but the better students can manage their work load the more likely they are to engage and to realise their true potential.

Pam Dewis is Head of Student Employability in the Department of Education, Childhood & Inclusion



Burgard, S. and Lin, K. (2013). Bad Jobs, Bad health? How Work and Working Conditions Contribute to Health Disparities. American Behavioral Scientist, 57(8), pp.1105-1127. doi: 10.1177/0002764213487347

Crust, L., Earle, K., Perry, J, Earle, F., Clough, A. and Clough, P. (2014). Mental toughness in higher education: Relationships with achievement and progression in first year university sports students. Personality and Individual Differences 69, 87-91. doi: org/10.1016/j.paid.2014.05.016

NUS Services Limited (2013). Mental Distress Survey Overview. [pdf]. Retrieved from

Thorley, C. (2017). Not by degrees: improving student mental health in UK universities. [pdf]. Retrieved from

YouGov (2016). One in four students suffers from mental health problems. Retrieved from

Of writing, wardrobes and windows

In the coming months, we (Lisa and Karen) between us will write a research bid, an ethics application form, research articles, responses to reviewer comments, an SFHEA application, emails, module guides, and now, a blog post….a dizzying array of genres, each calling for different language choices and rhetoric if we are to achieve our communicative purposes.

It’s the same story for our students. In our work as English for Academic Purposes lecturers, we encounter students across the departments who are expected to perform an even wider range of genres: essays, dissertations, webpages, critiques, reports, posters, as well as the more practice-based genres that come with the territory of an applied university, such as a lesson plan. Just like us, each time they write, students need to adapt to the audience they are writing for and to the purposes they are trying to achieve. The complexity of writing at university entails a steep learning curve; even when students can write good A-level essays or well-crafted reports in their profession, we can’t assume they have the genre knowledge required to adapt to new communicative contexts such as a Bachelor’s dissertation at the SIoE, or a business case report in Sheffield Business School. The upshot would seem to be that “[t]he communicative demands of the modern university involve far more than simply controlling linguistic error or polishing style” (Hyland and Shaw, 2016, p.1).

Let’s take a closer look at this complexity using criticality as an example. Evidencing criticality is fundamental for success in most academic genres, and here at Hallam we teach criticality in our seminars and lectures. But do we teach how this criticality comes across on the page? Take the following extract from an annotated bibliography written by a student in the SIoE, which in our view is a reasonable attempt at criticality:

“The article is very long, which could have resulted in the main point being diluted or even lost as I am unsure if the andragogical model of adult learning was clarified for me as a result of reading this article”.

How would this extract be judged if it were taken from a literature review in a Master’s dissertation, and not an undergraduate’s annotated bibliography? We think not well at all.

Clearly, a change in context requires a change in rhetoric. One issue here is that “[w]riting in a particular genre often requires writers to assume a particular identity in order to enter meaningfully into the conversations of the discourse community” (Clark, 2016, p.5). In a Master’s dissertation, we would expect this student to make a rhetorical shift. She needs to move away from writing as a critical learner who is reading for an assignment, and move towards writing as a novice researcher, positioning her contribution in the current research field. Being able to adapt to these different communicative contexts is a bit like building up a wardrobe full of clothes and knowing which outfit will have the right impact for the occasion.

In recent weeks we have had many fruitful discussions with department and faculty teams across the university about these issues. Importantly, we all seem to agree that just as we plan to develop students’ subject knowledge, we also need to plan how students will learn to effectively communicate that knowledge across a range of genres and contexts. We also seem to agree that we need an inclusive approach which brings to the surface the tacit knowledge we have as disciplinary experts and writers. This entails finding “literacy windows” (Wingate, 2015, p.155), opportune moments within lectures, seminars and tutorials to explicitly focus on the ‘how’ of communication and not just the ‘what’.

This is the first time we have performed this genre – a blog post. We have drawn on our identities as academic writing specialists, and we are writing for you, our colleagues who are disciplinary specialists with your own understandings of academic writing. Our aim was to persuade you of the importance of finding opportunities to explicitly develop your students’ academic communication as part of your practice. Whether we have adapted our rhetoric and style to appeal to our audience (you), and effectively achieved our communicative purpose remains to be seen…but if this is the case and you want to know more, do get in touch.


Lisa McGrath is a Senior Lecturer in English for Academic Purposes, Sheffield Institute of Education

Karen Nicholls is Principal Lecturer in English for Academic Purposes, Sheffield Institute of Education


Clark, I. (2016). Genre, identity and the brain: Insights from neuropsychology. The Journal of General Education, 65, 1-19.

Hyland, K., & Shaw, P. (2016). The Routledge handbook of English for Academic Purposes. Oxford/New York: Routledge.

Wingate, U. (2015). Academic Literacy and Student Diversity: The Case for Inclusive Practice. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.



Marking to fail or facilitating success? Could understanding marking improve how feedback is perceived?

I was recently team-teaching and my colleague was speaking to our students about how they should use the Module Learning Outcomes and Pass Descriptors to inform their work and used the phrase “allowing you to experience success”. There was a slight buzz of conversation in the room and I overheard a few students muttering ‘I didn’t know they could do that’ and (bearing in mind these are trainee teachers) ‘have you ever done that with your learners?’.

I found myself pondering what the experiences of our trainees must have been in the past to leave them surprised that assessors would be seeking to support their success. I recalled an article from The Florida Times Union which considers whether P.E. students should be graded on what they can do or what effort they make. A contributor noted: “You should not be graded on how fast you run a mile, the grading scheme should be based on the process, not the product.” (Amos in Florida Times Union, April 15th 2015). The context of this comment was a learner who, because they were unwell and therefore did not exceed their previous best speed, was down-graded from an A to a C.

This in turn made me think about NSS results: it’s well known that NSS scores for assessment and feedback are a concern for the H.E. sector, but do we have a good understanding of why they are low? Some research into the possible reasons was carried out for the HEA in 2010 (Crawford, Hagyard & Saunders) and amongst the key findings were “Preparing students to understand, receive and make the most of assessment feedback takes time” and “When informing students about the assessment requirements and submission dates, it helps to provide clear indications of when and how feedback will be provided as well as the roles and responsibilities of both staff and students“. But might it (also) be that students are actually less aware than we think of how marking is carried out? Or could it be that some assessors really do look for ways in which they have not met the pass criteria – or at least that some learners perceive this to be the case?  Perhaps feedback itself isn’t the whole story.

I noted to plan a session with our trainee teachers where we will look at some grade descriptors and some samples of work and investigate how the trainees tackle assessment themselves, then explore whether they are all doing it the same way and proceed to discuss ways to ensure that learners are given the maximum possible credit for their efforts, without undermining the integrity of the assessment process.

Later I had another thought: does the way in which grade descriptors and pass criteria are presented influence how learners and assessors perceive, understand and use them? It came to my attention that all the grading rubrics for modules I have taught for the last four years are laid out in four columns with the refer criteria on the left, then pass, merit and finally distinction on the right.
PP1 Rubric

A quick scan of grading rubrics on a modest sample of Blackboard module sites revealed that almost all are set out in the same fashion, but in my external examining role I noticed that at another HEI all of their grading rubrics are laid out with the highest marks on the left and the refer marks far right. rubric 2

As we read from left to right, does this influence the way that learners approach their work? Does it influence the way in which assessors mark work? Might it encourage ‘marking to fail’, albeit completely inadvertently and / or subconsciously. These are questions I certainly can’t answer at this time, but I would like to investigate.

A starting point for research is often a literature review, but interestingly, when I performed a search for literature on this topic, almost nothing was apparent. Instead literature was readily found on appealing marks which students perceived ‘unfair’ and there is much media coverage of assessors protesting that they are being encouraged to award marks which they do not feel are merited in order to maintain student numbers – “… recent reforms, which encourage universities to … expand their intake, … In 2014, record numbers of students left university with a first-class degree, prompting claims that grades are being inflated. The number of firsts has more than doubled in the decade since 2004,…“. (Guardian, May 18th 2015: )

There is a certain irony that, in a profession where encouraging learners, and planning to afford all learners maximum opportunity to experience success, because “By allowing learners to experience success throughout multiple levels of learning, they will develop a positive self-perception of their ability.” (Fazioli, M. P., 2009), the new entrants to the profession appear unaware of the concept of ‘marking to pass’ and instead – apparently – expect that they themselves will be ‘marked to fail’.

Having sparked my interest I am now planning to research approaches to marking and assessment.

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

PISA: Stories of Science

A couple of weeks ago the results of the latest PISA global education survey were released.  The PISA survey happens every three years, and measures the skills and knowledge of 28 million 15-year-olds across the world in science, mathematics, reading, problem solving and financial literacy.  PISA is seen as a vital measure of education policy.  Each set of results prompts a flurry of reports comparing the positions of various countries, and – in the UK at least – bemoaning or congratulating (depending on political stance) the failure or success of educational policy.  It is due to PISA, for example, that Finland and Singapore are held up as exemplars of education, and the aim of moving up the PISA tables often drives government investment worldwide in education strategy.  Sheffield Institute of Education colleagues contributed to the discussion, with Sam Twiselton, David Owen and Mark Boylan discussing issues of teacher education and how the East Asian countries stay at the top of the tables.

It’s notable that the PISA science tests receive relatively little attention in the press. As science educators, we’d like to see as much attention paid to science as to mathematics and the relative performances of different countries. Science education is important for reasons which we hope need no rehearsing: science is essential to the economy, vital for sustainable global development, key to understanding the world, and fascinating!

We think the PISA science tests are interesting and engaging compared to many assessments. You can try sample questions here. Meanwhile, the stories in the results are fascinating: they reveal students’ enthusiasm for science, their attitudes towards scientific careers and the approaches of their teachers.  There are lessons about what we do well and what could be improved.  We look here at just three examples.

Firstly, there are positive messages about science teaching in the UK. Students in the UK enjoy science more than in other countries, with only three countries reporting a greater increase in enjoyment since 2006.  Relatively high proportions of students (around 30%) expect to move into a career in science, and this is the same for girls and boys.  Indeed, in the UK there is no gender gap in test performance in science.  It seems that in this country we teach science in ways which support the learning and engagement of all students.  This is something we should be proud of.  Of course, we can still improve: when asked what type of scientific career they expected to pursue, gender stereotypes revealed themselves.  Twice as many boys pictured themselves moving into a career in engineering and three times as many girls imagined a career in healthcare.  As Jill Collins said in her recent blog, we still need to open young people’s eyes to non-stereotyped ideas about careers in science.

Next, a worldwide story about the value of ‘science capital’: a term used to capture the idea of the everyday knowledge, attitudes and experiences of science that can be gained from families, schools and society. Research carried out by King’s College, London has shown that the more science capital a young person has, the more likely they are to aspire to further study and careers in science.  This year’s PISA tests support this: students in schools which provide extra-curricular activities such as science clubs and competitions are much more likely to expect to work in a science-related career.  Interestingly, they also perform significantly higher in science. These findings suggest that increasing science capital not only increases career aspirations but may also improve attainment.  This surely provides an impetus for governments worldwide to ensure increased funding for schools to raise science capital through science clubs, competitions and trips.

Finally, we turn to the role of inquiry in science teaching, the PISA result which has attracted the most attention in the science education community. Inquiry-led approaches are those in which students design, carry out and evaluate practical investigations and experiments. In the UK we pride ourselves on the amount of inquiry-led science we use.  We see the development of scientific skills through inquiry as a vital part of learning science, and governments worldwide turn to us for help in improving their teachers’ inquiry-led approaches to science.

However, this year’s PISA results show a correlation between more inquiry-led approaches and lower performance in science. But this does not suggest to us that we should stop using inquiry, since inquiry-based practices are at the heart of what it means to be a scientist.  Indeed, PISA also shows that inquiry has a positive relationship with students’ understanding of scientific processes and to the likelihood of students expecting to move into a career in science.  We believe that the PISA results indicate that, again, there is work to be done.  On the one hand, high performing systems, which tend to focus on test results, need to find ways of improving their students’ engagement in science and their scientific skills without compromising their achievement.  On the other hand, lower performing systems, which use inquiry-led approaches to boost their students’ engagement, need to develop ways of improving their students’ scientific knowledge.

Our stories are just a sample of the challenges raised by this year’s PISA results in science education. They show that there is more to be done in improving gender equality, in raising science capital and in ensuring that inquiry-led science leads to high attainment.  Our organisations have long histories of developing new approaches to science teaching and supporting teachers’ professional learning.  We need to hold tight to what we believe is effective, and we need to gather more evidence to test our beliefs.  To achieve this we will continue to work in partnership, with each other and with science educators from around the world, especially teachers and students, since they are the people who really understand what works in their classrooms.

Emily Perry, Sheffield Institute of Education

Richard Needham, Association for Science Education