A floppy hat, a sense of occasion and the delights of the UWE Education Doctoral (EdD) Programme

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Tuesday 27th November 2018 was the culmination of over four years of work – the awarding of my Education Doctorate at Bristol Cathedral alongside fellow students. The Cathedral echoed with the voices of many students, parents, friends and supporters all celebrating a mixture of academic success, resilience, personal struggle and the joy of learning.  The floppy hat and gown worn at the ceremony added to the sense of occasion, tradition and the special nature of the event: it isn’t often you are able to don such a hat and it isn’t everyone who can!

The smiles and congratulations were a product of this unique award that recognises the professional knowledge, skills and practice of the student and this is foregrounded in the way the doctoral programme runs and how the student’s research is guided and located.

My research was titled ‘An Illuminative Evaluation of the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check: Listening to the Voices of Children and their Teachers’ and it was situated in my long history as first, a primary school teacher then deputy head, Teaching School Manager and Initial Teacher Educator. I knew that the Phonics Screening Check was the area I wanted to research: it was impossible to ignore the anecdote of a friend, a Head Teacher of a diverse inner city primary school who related the story of a number of children in her school in the year the check was introduced. The Phonics Screening consists of 40 words: 20 real and 20 pseudo words that children sound and blend to read. One of the real words in the check was the word ‘nigh’.  A number of children didn’t recognise the trigraph ‘igh’ (three letters that make one sound) and sounded the word as ‘n-i-g-hur’. Rather than blend the sounds to make the word the children were confused and upset: if they blended this word they would say a word that was considered offensive, a word that their teachers and fellow classmates knew as rude and inappropriate. The same story was recounted by a number of teachers across schools in the city. Prompted by the initial stages of the EdD programme, I was able to begin to frame this as an unintended consequence of the Check and so an area that needed to be explored further.  

The Education Doctorate has an initial taught phase which guides, prompts and challenges the wide range of professionals that embark on the doctoral journey. The first part of the EdD encourages reflection and critical positioning and so enabled me to identify my doctoral thesis focus. What is distinctive is the variety of educational professionals on the programme: in my cohort this included a prison educator; an Early Years Centre Manager; secondary, F.E and H.E teachers and lecturers; an air traffic controller trainer and a teaching assistant and learning mentor in a local primary school. It is this diverse group that enables each person to think beyond the usual professional considerations, to view issues in new ways to “make the familiar strange” (Jackson and Mazzei, 2012).

The programme challenged my approaches to thinking about ethical considerations in research and led to my thesis that foregrounded the voices of those “normally silenced” (Greene, 1994) in educational evaluation – in my case, the children who took the Phonics Screening Check. The EdD programme also pushed me to reflect on theory and in my research, the myriad of theories that impact on the practice of the teaching of early reading. A study unit on policy shone a light on the different ways that policy can be analysed which drew me to the work of Gemma Moss and the evolution of Literacy policy. All of this was in Part One of the EdD programme and this provided the springboard to progress to Part Two– the research itself. Guided by challenging supervisors who questioned, recommended and pushed me to explain and explore beyond my usual comfort zone, the thesis took shape. This was a period of delight in the wisdom of the five year olds I talked to in my focus groups; despair in the multiple writes and re-writes of different sections and moments of the type of ‘flow’ that Csikszentmihalyi describes, the total absorption in the task at hand.

I would recommend the UWE Education Doctorate to any educational professional who wants to lay bare an aspect of practice, to approach it from different viewpoints, to dissect it with forensic care and to challenge their thinking beyond the everyday. And of course – there is the lure of the floppy hat to keep you going!

Dr. Jane Carter is a senior lecturer in education and childhood.

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