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International Quality Icons: The Case of Mickey Mouse

Mickey Mouse has been an international cultural icon for over ninety years. His image has been the trademark of the Disney Corporation since 1928 and the translation of his name is an global byword for fun ( Микки Маус, 米老鼠 , ميكي ماوس ).

Inexplicably, since the nineteen seventies, “Mickey Mouse” has also been a slang expression for poor quality goods, counterfeit, triviality and amateurishness. Margaret Thatcher once disparaged the European Parliament as a “Mickey-Mouse Parliament”. Urban dictionary has many similar examples including entries referring to individuals, jobs and organizations.

About eighteen months ago, Pok Wong, a 29-year-old student from Hong Kong reached for the expression when she came to evaluate her BA in International Business Strategy from Anglia Ruskin University. Although she graduated in 2013 with a First-class degree, she characterized Anglia Ruskin’s offer as a “Mickey-Mouse course”. Her complaint was that the institutions prospectus “fraudulently misrepresented” the business course and “exaggerated the prospects of a career”.

Nothing much may have come from the evaluation had Pok Wong confined it to an Anglia Ruskin feedback form. However, Ms Wong sued. The County Court of Central London ruled against her and awarded the University £13,700 to cover their legal costs. She had had her day in court, an appearance on the BBC’s Daily Politics, and considerable national and international social media coverage. She then disappeared for a while.

I’d come across the “Mickey Mouse” bon mot in education a couple of times before. A university I visited in 2009 had moved from their ‘old system’ of calculating a degree classification to a new one which didn’t factor a student’s lowest marks into the overall average. The idea behind the ‘new system’ was to better-reflect student successes by producing more 2:1s and Firsts, and was thus good for the international market. Unfortunately, the new system was referred to as “Mickey Mouse” – at least until the quality team cracked down on the phrase as being inappropriate.

I’d seen another application of the phrase in the early-2000s with courses designed to recruit students from overseas. Business School degrees, to give an illustrative case, have strict requirements to ensure students can cope with the academic language used in the course input and assessments, but a hurdle to recruitment. It was possible to repackage courses aimed at home students to add “International” to the title as in “International Golf Course Management”; to lower English language requirements; and (the key point) to run a parallel cohort of international students on different lines to the regular Golf Course Management BA.  The practice was quickly denounced as “Mickey Mouse” and the parallel international offers were confined to nineteenth-hole reminiscences.

The phrase was picked up again by the press last week when talking about the government’s review of FE and HE education. Philip Auger doesn’t use “Mickey Mouse” in his Review of Post-18 Education and Funding (May 2019) but the headline writers do. Auger says, “We make recommendations intended to encourage universities to bear down on low value degrees and to incentivise them to increase the provision of courses better aligned with the economy’s needs.” The Daily Mail summarizes thus: “Universities offering so-called Mickey Mouse courses could have their fees slashed from £9,250 to £7,500”.

We might dismiss the use of the phrase as simply a lazy way of referring to things we don’t happen to like. But issues of facilitating grade inflation, lessening learning objectives, reducing contact time, and lowering entry requirements are behaviours we ought to be on the watch for and are right to satirize. When the watch hasn’t been effective enough the courses are called “Mickey Mouse”.

These issues are connected to, but distinct from, value-for-money and the distinct value of Education. Many students may not be able to articulate fully how a quality education is related to value for money. Universities can help with that. For international students, I feel we have a responsibility to make the UK HE’s international offer both first class on its own terms, value for money, and of international, internationalist value.

I’d almost forgotten Pok Wong when this weekend she returned to the headlines. The news is a shock. Anglia Ruskin University’s insurers have settled out of court with her and handed their International Business Strategy alumnus just over £60,000. We have to rely on press reports for any information about the updated story as it’s out of court; however, it seems to have been £15,000 in damages and £46,000 in legal fees. We also have no information about the reasoning behind the settlement. The university does not seem to have approved, or approved of, the insurer’s move.

An editorial in the Telegraph did welcomed this weekend’s result: universities must be clearer about their offer and their ability to deliver it or find themselves in court. That’s business, nationally and internationally.

We can leave the last word to Pok Wong, the international business student. She told the BBC in 2018,

“They think we’re international students [and] we come here to pay our money for a piece of paper, for the degree. But actually, we care about the quality, we care about how much we could learn.”

We care about the quality; we care about how much we learn.

I do like Mickey Mouse. And I’m sorry his name is linked with poor quality goods, counterfeit, triviality and amateurishness. To make something positive of this cultural icon’s negative connotations, curriculum designers could re-claim him as a Quality Icon: as a desk-top reminder to strenuously avoid having his name linked with UK HE and their own course offer.

Written by John Wigglesworth  , Principal Lecturer in the Department of Education, Childhood and Inclusion and edited by  Dr Iain Garner, Head of the Department of Education, Childhood and Inclusion.

Trends in Education, Effectiveness and Internationalization

It was snowing when we arrived. Thank goodness. Mid-February can be grey in Moscow and a fresh layer of snow refreshes both the Soviet-era apartment blocks and adds sparkle to the Orthodox domes above the Kremlin. You don’t want to travel to Russia without finding icicles, fur hats and clouds of condensed breath mixed with the marketplace shouts. Best to acknowledge the stereo-types before challenging them.

We’d been invited to speak at the “Trends in Education: How to measure the effectiveness of Educational Institutions” conference at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. MSSES is a young (founded 1995), internationally-oriented institute and was an early-adopter in Russia of the Bologna processes and structures. It offers Masters level programmes to students across the post-Soviet space in partnership with similar universities in Europe and America. As you can imagine, in the current geo-political climate, MSSES has challenges with its international offer. Academics from Sheffield Hallam University have been presenting at their conference for several years and we were all happy to spend three days with Russian academics engaging with the transformations at all levels of Russian education.

Sue O’Brien talked about the changes in UK teacher education policy, alongside the proposed reforms to the quality assurance of schools via the Ofsted framework. Both aspects drew interest: of course, the proposed shift from the focus on data was well received and, not surprisingly, the various routes into teaching were confusing and particularly difficult to translate! But of particular interest was the assessment of teachers, Russian colleagues having recently undergone new requirements for the assessment and testing of qualified, experienced teachers which has proved to be highly controversial.

Sally Pearse talked about Quality in Early Childhood Education in England and the issues of data taking priority over pedagogy. Sally also gave a Master Class on the role of Early Years Teachers in England and this session generated a great deal of discussion with Russian early years teachers as there were a number of comparisons to be drawn with issues of status and funding.

John Wrigglesworth gave a workshop on Quality and Accreditation in Academic English Pedagogy: an international reflection. The workshop built on a previous research project with the Turkish ministry of education and another with the British Council (in Kursk). It also covered the vexed question of English becoming the international academic lingua franca and how scholars around the world can communicate their ideas within a globalized community.

In sharing experiences about the problems of education policy, quality assurance measures, and academic communication we found a growing shared experience within the international teaching profession.

The conference was, therefore, a great opportunity to work with colleagues trying to harmonize the Russian education system and the International one. As part of our Transforming Lives Strategy, Sheffield Hallam University has global strand:

“We will extend and deepen our global engagement – linking Sheffield to the world and the world to Sheffield. We will work with like-minded partners locally and globally to enhance our impact and reach.”

Like another knotty problem of the day, global engagement can be seen in soft and hard forms. Soft forms include fostering an enriched student experience, conducting research between and across cultures, and enrolling lots of full-fee paying students. Hard forms bring into focus issues of deep-seated political misunderstandings and even conflict, bureaucratic mismatch and inertia, and the ethical difficulties of facilitating the participation of groups who cannot pay Western education prices.

Back in Sheffield, we return to the hard challenges of moving the partnership from the conference floor to the university’s boardroom.

Sheffield has just had the warmest February on record. But this morning (10th March) there’s a fresh fall of snow. Maybe it’s not going to be so difficult to link Sheffield to the world and the world to Sheffield.

Written by Sue O’Brien, Sally Pearse and John Wrigglesworth

Postgraduate Research Culture at SIoE: What does it look like?

There are more than a few debates about what precisely constitutes a ‘positive research culture’.

PGR students Arwa Omar and Ruth Squire, 2nd and 1st year PHD students in SIoE respectively and student representatives for the Institutes PhD students, looked at the importance of research culture at SHU for postgraduates following discussions in their regular PG Rep meetings.

Both have had positive experiences of research culture at Sheffield Hallam University but wanted to explore what that meant for them and fellow PGR’s, draw attention to what already exists and challenge colleagues to consider where PGR’s fit in their understanding of research culture.

‘It’s something we are asked about in the PRES and, however cynical we might be about another HE metric, with good reason. Both of us can see the benefits of the research environment we have engaged with for our development and for our research. But we feel it works best when the culture and experience for PGRs isn’t isolated from the wider research culture. It’s about creating a vibrant and inclusive undergraduate, postgraduate and professional research community.

Currently, the institute offers several opportunities for PGRs to be part of the wider research community, with events that bring together researchers and academics at different stages of their careers. Last year, SIoE hosted the annual Doctoral Research Conference, which brought together researchers and academics from Sheffield Hallam and neighbouring institutions (including members of the White Rose DTP) to discuss their latest research and to celebrate their achievements. The conference served as a platform to share current research at the SIoE as well as other regional institutions. Importantly, though designed with Doctoral researchers in mind and providing them a platform to share their research, academic staff also attended as presenters and colleagues. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Many attendees said that they found the opportunity to listen to other researchers at different stages of their doctorates and careers helpful for their own study and felt reassured that their journeys were not that different. They valued the networking opportunities, and the wide variety of topics covered during the presentations – including research methodology, ethics and analysis. Most importantly, and what we think is a core component of a positive research culture, many praised the informal and supportive environment of the conference. This year’s conference will take place on 30th November 2019 and we hope will continue to be valuable for all involved.

We are both regular attendees at a seminar series aimed at PGRs, where researchers at every stage present their work and enable us keep up to date with what colleagues are working on. The SIoE also has (at least!) two research groups (the Language and Literacy Education Research Group and The Practice, Innovation and the Professional Learning Research Group) as well as special interest groups (SIGs) which PGRs have been invited to participate in and we believe will offer greater opportunities for us to develop and share.

As researchers whose work also extends into departments beyond education, we also take advantage of opportunities that span disciplines and fields of expertise, including the CRESR seminar series and the university-wide SHU Creating Knowledge Conference. Events like this provide an avenue for students to present their work to a wider audience and offer new opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations. PGRs also have distinct opportunities to come together as a research community, such as through the SHU Postgraduate Student Conference; this year’s event is on ‘Invisibility: The Absent, the Unseen, and the Forgotten’. The Sheffield Institute for Policy Studies (SIPS) also hosts a PGR poster competition, which we will both be presenting at this year.

Finally, SIoE researchers also have an opportunity to engage with professionals through events like the Festival of Education, which gives us a chance to celebrate and promote the region as a centre of innovation in educational research and practice.

Importantly though, there is no one type of event that creates a positive research culture for us or the wider university. It’s an ongoing relationship that makes sure PGRs are included, valued for their contributions and supported to make them. We are a diverse group, with different research interests, goals and skills, and commitments outside of study. That means that communicating events in good time, with opportunities outside of usual working hours, a variety of types of engagement and just keeping us ‘in the loop’ really matters. The events that we have identified here as full-time PGRs are important for us but, as reps, we also want to have a research culture that works for all of us.

So, we’d like to ask you, the reader, what research culture means to you? Is it different for PGRs? What have we missed and how can the institute help grow and sustain it? You can also join us to discuss this on 14th May to discuss this issue at our PGR forum.’

Written by Arwa Omar and Ruth Squire, PhD students in SIoE

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