Project Zulu Research Seminar

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The Department of Education and Childhood Presents: The Bristol Inter-disciplinary Group for Education Research (BRIDGE)

Project Zulu Research Seminar 2nd April 2019 — 5pm – 7pm — Room 2S704 , Frenchay.

Project Zulu is a UWE educational development initiative which works with partner schools in township and rural areas of Kwazul-Natal, South Africa. Collaborations between school communities in SA and UWE staff and students seek ways of enhancing infrastructure, pedagogy and learning opportunities through knowledge exchange, action research and practical support. The three research projects presented in this seminar have developed over the last three years and are based on such collaborations.

Dr Alex Palombi and Vanessa Parmenter LD Nursing and Occupational Therapy collaboration at township SEN school

Over the last two years, learning difficulties nursing and occupational therapy students have volunteered for 4 weeks within a special educational needs (SEN) school within Madadeni Township in South Africa as part of Project Zulu. This research used five semi structured interviews and a focus group to explore the impact of Project Zulu on the health and social care students’ professional learning, and on the participating SEN school’s teachers and principal. Transcripts of the interviews and focus group are to be thematically analysed to explore the nature of the learning derived from this experience and the extent to which teachers and principals view the project as a partnership and the extent to which their mutual learning. Initial findings indicate mutual perceived value in cross cultural learning and useful professional develop alongside managing concerns about sustainability and measuring value.

Dr Jane Carter and Karan Vickers-Hulse Reading Partner intervention at two rural South African primary schools

This project builds on current RET funding (An evaluation of the Bristol Reading Partner (BRP) Intervention) and the work to pilot BRP in two of the UWE Project Zulu (PZ) partnership schools. South Africa was the lowest performing country (out of 50 participating countries) in reading in the Progress in International Reading Study (PIRLS 2016) and is the priority area of the PZ schools’ Principals. In Feb 2019 we trained teachers in the pilot schools in the BRP intervention programme; PZ UWE student volunteers will be trained in BRP in March 2019 and will work 1:1 with children in the two pilot schools in KwaZulu Natal in August. This work will also add to the body of data and knowledge we have about BRP and EAL learners.

Dr David Wyatt and Ben Knight ICT project at a rural South African primary school

This three year ICT intervention project at one rural primary school in South Africa aimed to enable integrated ICT learning for pupils. Actions at strategic, infrastructure and teacher digital literacy levels were implemented over three phases and evaluated via teacher questionnaires and a focus group interview. Findings highlight the opportunities and challenges of managing international sustainable enhancement projects, and illustrate the critical role teachers play in pupil skills development and the importance of investing in their digital literacy.

This event is free to attend but pre-registration is required. Register here to book your place. 

The Bristol Inter-disciplinary Group for Education Research (BRIDGE) – Seminar

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Bristol Inter-disciplinary Group for Education Research (BRIDGE) invites you to a lunchtime seminar on Monday, 4th March 2019 — 12noon-1pm — Room 2S603. We are pleased to have Jade Parnell, the Centre for Appearance Research, the University of the West of England, and Dr Maryam Almohammad and Dr Jane Andrews, the Department of Education and Childhood, the University of the West of England.

Promoting Acceptance of Socially Stigmatised Appearances in Young Children in Primary School

Jade Parnell, the Centre for Appearance Research, the Department of Health and Social Sciences, the University of the West of England

In this talk I will discuss my PhD, which aims to promote acceptance towards various socially stigmatised appearances in young children. Appearance-based stereotyping and prejudice emerges in early childhood, and can exist by the age of 4 years. Children from negatively stereotyped or stigmatised groups (e.g., higher weight, visible difference) are at increased risk of experiencing stigmatisation from other children, resulting in negative outcomes such as poorer psychological adjustment and quality of life. The talk will focus on a recent study, where children aged 4-9 years, from various Primary Schools in the South West of England viewed, in a randomised order, five digitally designed, realistic child characters. The images included a character; with no stigmatised appearance, wearing glasses, of higher weight, with a facial burn and in a wheelchair. All characters had similar features (e.g., face shape, height, race and eyes), but varied slightly according to the stigmatised appearance. Children were asked open ended questions and quantitative measures assessing their attitudes and possible subsequent behaviours towards the individual characters. Discussion will consider the possible findings in relation to the literature; along with implications for researchers and education professionals regarding strategies for promoting acceptance of socially stigmatised appearances in young children.

Artmaking, Materialism, and Multilingualism in Welcoming Environments for EAL Learners

Maryam Almohammad and Jane Andrews, the Department of Education and Childhood, University of the West of England.

The Creating Welcoming Learning Environments project, known as CWLE, (AHRC-funded, AH/R004781/1)) is a follow-on project from the large grant Researching Multilingually at the Borders of Language, the Body, the Law and the State (AH/AH/L006936/1). The project involved a “creative collaboration”, using Vera John Steiner’s conceptualisation (2000), between creative artists, school-based teachers and teaching assistants, local authority advisory teachers and university researchers. The project operated on a co-operative development model of teacher development as articulated by Edge (1992) so that, through a series of workshops, teachers participated in arts-based practices, assembled artifacts and interpreted them to reflect on their identities, bodies, languages and cultures. This was prior to teachers engaging in a process of transformation of their first-hand experiences of creative techniques into activities for their own learners in the different school contexts they work in, including primary, secondary and special schools in England.

In this paper, we approach the data generated in the workshops and in interviews, using Bennett’s concepts of “thing-power” and “discursive agency” (2010). Bennett (2010) uses the term “thing-power” to describe the qualities that objects have that in many ways are indescribable and intangible. Power is among all material bodies, both human and more-than-human, and therefore does not belong to bodies independently, but rather happens because material bodies are always dependent on one another. This is known as distributive agency (Bennett, 2010). In the CWLE series of workshops, teachers worked with materials: cardboard, maps, colours, stones, textiles, dyes and symbols. Working with art materials teachers engaged with the role of objects in art and meaning-making and reflected on the potential of material transformation in EAL contexts. Materials constructed during our workshops serve as reflective tools on the body experience and materials surrounding the body. Teachers transformed the art practices in their school spaces, such as the use of the identity suitcase box. The artmaking of suitcase/boxes offered teachers and learners an opportunity to engage with the taken for granted value of both human-human and human-non-human relationships. Through a co-creative process and collective action between animate and inanimate things, teachers and learners could be seen to no longer separate human from non-human. In this sense, humans are no more valuable than materials and objects with which they interact. In our paper we analyse one example of educational practice in a specific secondary school in England. Therefore, not only the divide between human and non-human ceases to exist, and new ways for knowing the self and the object as interbeings emerge (Anderson & Guyas, 2012), but also the divide between the ‘us and them’ can be seen to finish. Distributive agency of materials may be seen to help humans cooperate with each other in the art-and-language classrooms.

The Education Research Network (ERNie) Upcoming Events

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The Education Research Network (ERNie) has forthcoming interesting and varied events that will be of interest.  They include talks, discussions, a book club meeting, and a writing café.  Further details will follow in due course.  Many of these events are at lunchtime and ERNie would encourage you to bring your lunch and take time out from more mundane duties!

Please feel free to circulate this information more widely.  Suggestions for other events are very welcome, as are offers of talks and other kinds of knowledge-sharing.


Book club

This event is part of the Festival of Learning 2019 organised by the Academic Practice Directorate, Convened by Dr Richard Waller, Wednesday 27 Feb 12.00 – 1.00 pm Room to be confirmed. Paper to be discussed:

Harrison, N. & Waller, R. (2018) Challenging discourses of aspiration: The role of expectations and attainment in access to higher education, British Educational Research Journal, 44 (5), 9-4 – 938

Writing cafe

This event is part of the Festival of Learning 2019 organised by the Academic Practice Directorate, further details to follow. The Writing Cafe is convened by Dr Jane Humphreys, Wednesday 27 Feb 3 – 6.00 pm, Room
Frenchay 2D67. 

The Characteristics of Expertise in HE Teaching

This event is run by Dr Helen King, Associate Director of Academic Practice, Academic Practice Directorate, Monday 4 March, 1 – 2.00 pm,
Room Frenchay 3B46. 

Educational Equity: Do single-sex classrooms help to close the gender-achievement gap?

This event is led by Dr Charlotte Pennington, Lecturer in Social Psychology, Department of Health and Social Sciences, Tuesday 30 April, 1 – 2.00 pm, Room, Frenchay 1K2. 


On-campus Bystander Behaviour 

This event is led by Dr Helen Bovill, AHoD Research, Dept of Education and Childhood,  Thursday 11 April , 12.30 – 2.00 pm, Room, Frenchay 3B46


This is posted on behalf of Dr Jane Humphreys. 

Empowering autistic children: Experiencing a museum through a customised app

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For most of us, a visit to the museum is a chance to relax, to learn interesting stories from our past. We can probably remember school visits to museums when we were younger. However, for some children, the visit can be challenging: namely autistic children.  

Some research highlights that involving children with autism in recreational activities helps to support inclusion, reinforces positive behaviours, and enhances well-being.  Within this context, a museum visit is considered a pleasant way to spend leisure time, as it provides interesting stories to inspire and engage visitors; while offering opportunities for experiential learning through play-based activities. 

In response to the growing international drive for equal rights and diversity, museums have been encouraged to embrace new ways to provide access to services, with a focus on providing access to people with a diverse range of disabilities. This coupled with an ongoing rise in diagnoses of autism has led museums to address issues of integration. Considering the needs of autistic visitors, museums have attempted to integrate an individualised supportive environment and to provide sensory-friendly activities. In addition, improvements have been made to the physical spaces of these environments. Responding to the prevalence of digital media, museums have gone one step further to consider digital practices as a means of engaging visitors with various impairments. However, the adoption of mobile services in museums seems to target specific groups, and there is little work regarding digital platforms developed specifically for autistic people.

With technology for autistic users being well researched with many attributed benefits, the role of technology in museums represents a timely area of study – this is the focus of my PhD work.

Benefits of technology for autistic users includes:

  1. Slower presentation of information/communication;
  2. Reduced pressures of completing activity (with others);
  3. Computers and technologies can be predictable, systematic and logical; all supporting the strengths of the autistic communities.

With this in mind novel technology programs have been developed to promote various aspects of education, communication, and entertainment, as well as social skills. 

My PhD study has been focused on addressing the potential of using digital services in a museum for autistic visitors. It investigated the views and impact of a digital museum experience (through a museum-based app) of autistic children. One of the main aims was to examine whether a museum-based app could be a mediating tool to enable groups of autistic children to have an inclusive experience in a barrier-free environment. 

My study was conducted in several stages, and cycles of an iterative process were included to help build an optimal version of the touch-screen interface. This study was conducted in collaboration with a special educational needs school and the M Shed museum in Bristol. The design and development of the app was based on existing literature coupled with recommendations and feedback from the participating children.  

So far, the findings suggest that a museum-based app was viewed as a useful tool to provide equal opportunities for autistic children in which to participate with museum-related activities.  Given that autistic people can encounter profound challenges in their daily life and feel marginalized from society, a specific adaptation is necessary in this context (a museum). The use of the app during the visit seemed to act as a bridge and to guide the children by focusing on specific exhibits in the gallery. The data also revealed that the choice of the exhibits through play-based activities encouraged the children to be more motivated and to remain focused on the requested tasks.

Overall, the findings from this study support the idea that:

  1. The use of technology-based museum activities can contribute to the inclusion of the autistic community.
  2. The role of partnerships with specialists from different fields are an important aspect of providing high quality outcomes.

This study aimed to shed light on an under researched area and to inform future policy and services provided by museums. This, in turn, could help young autistic people (and their caregivers) access museums in meaningful and supportive ways – and so they can get more out of the experience. 

Author: Dimitra Magkafa is a doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Arts, Cultural Industries and Education, the University of the West of England.

Call for Chapters: Social theory, digital education and the Global South

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‘Digital transformation Machine’ . Photo by Flickr ID Bryan Mathers (CC)

Published in BourdieuCivil SocietyCritical pedagogyCultureLatest PostsTheory by Cristina Costa on January 24, 2019

Call for chapter submissions for a new edited collection, entitled:

Social theory, digital education and the Global South: Critical perspectives

Edited by Cristina Costa & Ana Lucia Pereir

Book Overview (download leaflet): 

The impact of digital media on the social world is a global phenomenon that presents the education sector with a set of new challenges. Even though there is considerable body of research engaged in problematising the effects of digital media on education, the contexts in which these perspectives take place are to a great extent western and often lack social theoretical considerations. In this regard, the Global South has largely been portrayed through a conception of technical divides (access to technology) whereas questions of how new digital and social media interrupt, extend, transform and/or create new, alternative education practices from a multitude of perspectives is far less common. This approach, no doubt, relates to the epistemological and ontological stance one adopts for their research, and where, more often than not, western knowledge is confused with universal knowledge. Santos (2014) names the practice of privileging one type of knowledge over another ‘epistemicide’ and calls for the need to unlearn the dominant criteria by which we conceive the social. Understandings of the role(s) digital media play in education in the Global South would therefore benefit from engagement with different knowledge lenses.

The concept of the ‘Global South’ is one that surpasses geographical location to focus on how colonialism, patriarchy and/or capitalist action has led to deep and ingrained social suffering (see Santos, 2016). It is however true that most research on phenomena that afflict the Global South finds its location in the southern hemisphere. With it then comes the care and the concern that the reality under study is (re)presented from the perspective of those who are part of and/or affected by it. With regards to the focus of this book, this means to explore not only the ways in which digital technologies – especially those associated with the web – drive or hamper education practices, but also whose practices they most affect, how and why.

One of the key purposes of obtaining knowledge from the Global South is not just that of simply giving voice, but rather of sharing voice with those implicated and affected by the phenomena being explored (Santos, 2016, p.21). This requires methodological attention not only to what types of knowledge are being produced through research practices, but how these are developed and by whom. This presents a clear case to connect social theory to method as a core research activity, one that this book aims to promote and exemplify in its different chapters. In this sense, we are interested in exploring how social theories – such as those developed by Arjun Appadurai, Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, Franz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Nancy Fraser, Paulo Freire, Stuart Hall, Jürgen Habermas, Edward Said, Amartya Sen, Gayatri Spivak etc. – can be applied (individually or hybridly) to digital education phenomena in the Global South. We are equally, if not more, interested in examining the application of alternative social theories that may help develop new understanding on the issues at hand.

Hybridized forms of theory will be of particular interest to this collection as a form of advancing new knowledge through the intersection of different and/or emerging theories, as for example, works linking Gramsci to Freire, Foucault to Spivak, etc.

In this regard, this book aims to explore the interplay between digital media practices and education (primary, secondary, further, higher, and adult and community education, as well as informal education) in the context of the Global South. We are particular keen on chapters which can advance existing theories and/or propose new theoretical debates. Chapters focused on the thematic of the book can explore a wide range of issues, as for example: Civil societyColonialismCultureCurriculumIdentityLanguageKnowledge ecologiesModernisationPatriarchySocial justiceThe state, etc.

Chapter Proposals

Proposals for chapter contributions, in the form of a 400 word abstract, are requested (deadline: June 30, 2019). The chapter abstract must clearly detail:

  1. The focus of the research and the specific research question/aim.
  2. The social theory/ies and/or theorist(s) drawn upon for the conceptualisation of the research problem as well as how social theory-informed methodologies influenced the research process, i.e., research design, method, and analysis
  3. Explicit reflections of how the theory/ies used offer unique ways of thinking about the issues being explored.

Chapter abstracts should be submitted, in Word format, to the following email

Abstracts received by June 30, 2019 will be reviewed by the editors and authors notified of review results no later than September 1st 2019. A book proposal will then be sent to Bloomsbury Publishing: Social Theory and Methodology in Education Research Series.

Authors invited to submit full chapters will have until May 30th, 2020 for their submission, which will be followed by a peer-review process. Publication of the book: December 2020.

This post was originally published on  the Social Theory Applied.


Cristina is Associate Professor in Digital Education and Society in the Department of Education and Childhood, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK. After completing a degree in Modern Languages and Literatures, Cristina worked as an EFL teacher in the Portuguese Navy. During that period she developed an interest in Learning Technologies and completed an MPhil in Educational Technologies at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. In 2007 she moved to the UK to take up a post in the field of Learning and Research Technologies at the University of Salford. In February 2013 she completed her PhD study on The participatory web in the context of academic research: landscapes of change and conflicts. From March 2013 to March 2018 she worked as a Lecturer in Digital Education at the University of Strathclyde. She was named Learning Technologist of the Year 2010 by the Association for Learning Technology (ALT).

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.

BRIDGE Paired Peers Twilight Event

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BRIDGE is pleased to invite you to the Paired Peers Twilight event. This event is on 14 Feb, 16:30-18:30, Room 2S704, Frenchay Campus, the University of the West of England.

Critical perspectives on transitions into, through and beyond university: Learning from the Paired Peers project

Dr Richard Waller, Associate Professor of the Sociology of Education, Dept of Education and Childhood.

The phenomenon of people’s access to and experience of higher education being informed by their social class position is by no means new. Yet despite numerous policy initiatives and interventions in the last few decades, significant inequalities remain between working and middle class young people regarding their chances of progressing to higher education, the type of university attended, their student experiences and their graduate outcomes. The Paired Peers project was a two part longitudinal study (2010-2103 and 2014-2017) funded by the Leverhulme Trust which followed an initial cohort of 90 undergraduates studying at either of the two universities in one English city. The University of Bristol is an ‘elite’, research intensive institution and a founding member of the Russell Group. The University of the West of England is an ex-polytechnic, a post-1992 institution generally lying around the middle of HE league tables and which prides itself on the quality of its teaching as evidenced by the recent Gold TEF award. The project matched pairs of students by social class, gender and subject discipline both within and between the two institutions, and followed them from induction to graduation and for several years beyond into their post-university lives and careers. The project explored not just what class based inequalities existed in terms of access to university, the experience of going through higher education and the transition into the workplace, but also the processes by which these significant inequalities were established and maintained.     

The presentation will be followed by a discussion of the implications of the project’s findings for the practice of academics and university professional services staff alike.

This event is free. However, registration is required. To register click here. Refreshments will be served. 

Please share widely. 

BRIDGE Education Research Seminar – Technologies to support inclusion and learning: Working with young autistic people

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The Department of Education and Childhood, Bristol Inter-disciplinary Group for Education Research (BRIDGE) invites you to this seminar on 21st Jan 2019 — 12noon-1pm — Room 2S602. This event is open to everybody.

Ms Dimitra Magkafa, Doctoral Researcher, Department of Arts and Cultural Industries, UWE

In recent years, there has been much research into the potential of technology programs to support and facilitate a variety of skills for children with ASD and, in some cases, access to services. From a museum perspective, digital services are a means of extending the network of visitors and of enhancing visitor experiences with object rich collections. Having these perspectives as a starting point, the aim of the talk is to present briefly the overall process for the design and evaluation of a museum-based app for children with ASD. The purpose of the study was to develop a digital platform that would promote the inclusion and foster the engagement of children with ASD in a museum environment. This  study aimed to understand the impact of a digital museum experience, through collecting and analysing qualitative data. The results obtained from different perspectives revealed the positive influence of the museum-based app by presenting emotions of enjoyment, engagement, and satisfaction among the children. This study provided some important insights into the importance of the use of digital services, in this case, a touchscreen-based app, as a mediating tool to offer opportunities for interactive experiences and create an inclusive environment for diverse user communities in the museum community.

Dr Nigel Newbutt, Senior Lecturer / Researcher Department of Education, UWE

In this talk I will provide some context to using head-mounted display (HMD) technology with autistic groups; the potential benefits and why this technology has/is being applied. In addition, this session will provide insights from research and practice in using technologies in classrooms for autistic children. I will look at virtual reality and examples of how this has been applied with autistic children in their education (and specific support needs more generally) for positive gains and outcomes. This talk will showcase some examples and responses to using virtual reality in schools while also covering some of the key challenges and barriers that have been reported in taking VR into classrooms. With the benefits of VR-HMD technology clear (from a research perspective), I will discuss the ways to best overcome some challenges that lie ahead and how practitioners and researchers can work collaboratively to help ensure technology can be applied in real-world settings.

Aspirations, expectations and rethinking outreach

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This post was originally published on The British Educational Research Association on 18 December, 2018.

‘Aspirations’ are a wonderfully simple concept. The problem is that it’s becoming increasingly clear they are of little worth in terms of understanding pathways towards higher education, as we argue in our new article in the British Educational Research Journal (Harrison and Waller, 2018).

In it we explore how higher education outreach activities are conceived and delivered through the eyes of two generations of practitioner-managers: those leading the national Aimhigher programme (2004–2011), and those now working in English universities. The first group, comprising 10 former directors of the programme, participated in extended telephone interviews, while data from the second group was collected through an online survey.

One notable theme within our data is the ubiquity of the discourse of ‘aspiration-raising’. While the Aimhigher generation were generally critical of it, contemporary practitioner-managers are much more committed to the idea. It’s where they feel their work is successful, and it underpins many of the activities that they manage.

‘Aspiration-raising is touted as the silver bullet for social mobility. The problem is that it simply doesn’t stack up, as the evidence demonstrates.’

Indeed, this discourse of aspiration-raising has long pedigree. The argument runs that many disadvantaged young people don’t participate in higher education because they lack ambition: they seek careers that don’t match their academic potential, and they are satisfied with less. Aspiration-raising becomes the silver bullet for providing social mobility – a commonsense ‘quick win’.

What do the data say?

The problem is that it just doesn’t stack up, as has been demonstrated by several recent large-scale studies that explored the aspirations of young people. Firstly, disadvantaged young people do not have notably lower aspirations that others (Baker et al, 2014). Secondly, if anything, some young people’s aspirations are unrealistically high (St Clair, Kintrea & Houston, 2013). Thirdly, there is no strong evidence that aspirations drive motivation or attainment (Gorard, See & Davies, 2012).

Turning to expectations

So, where does this leave us? We argue that we need to refocus our attention on young people’s expectations. Contrary to aspirations, there is good evidence for a link between expectations and disadvantage (Archer, DeWitt & Wong, 2014).

This is not just a semantic turn. Expectations are substantively different to aspirations. They embody not just what a young person wants to be, but also a subjective assessment of challenges and constraints. Many young people aspire to be professional sportspeople or entertainers, but few expecttheir lives to turn out that way.

Young people’s expectations are forged through the people who surround them – the everyday messages about what they can or should do, or what they cannot or should not. Teachers and parents exert a strong influence on how young people see the world, yet outreach programmes rarely engage extensively with these influencers.

An agenda for policy and practice

Higher education outreach needs a rethink. It needs to abandon the vapid discourse of aspiration-raising and consider expectations instead. We make three broad suggestions.

  1. Work with young people earlier, while expectations are still forming. We found a shift towards a recruitment-friendly focus on the over-16s, but the previous generation of practitioner-managers felt the most transformative work stretched down, even into primary school.
  2. Work more directly with teachers and parents to challenge their own expectations and those they transmit to children. In some communities, the link between educational success and life chances has been eroded by limited opportunities and needs rebuilding.
  3. Work to realise aspirations, shifting away conceptually from assuming that aspirations are low to acknowledging that young people may need help in meeting them, through rethought careers activity, work experience programmes and mentoring, allowing them to explore what they might want to be and, crucially, how to get there.

This blog post is based on the article, ‘Challenging discourses of aspiration: The role of expectations and attainment in access to higher education’, Challenging discourses of aspiration: The role of expectations and attainment in access to higher education’, by Neil Harrison and Richard Waller, published in the British Educational Research Journal. It is free-to-view for a time-limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Wiley.


Archer, L., DeWitt, J. & Wong, B. (2014). Spheres of influence: What shapes young people’s aspirations at age 12/13 and what are the implications for education policy?. Journal of Education Policy, 29(1), 58–85.

Baker, W., Sammons, P., Siraj‐Blatchford, I., Sylva, K., Melhuish, E. C. & Taggart, B. (2014). Aspirations, education and inequality in England: Insights from the effective provision of pre‐school, primary and secondary education project. Oxford Review of Education, 40(5), 525–542.

Gorard, S., See, B. H. & Davies, P. (2012). The impact of attitudes and aspirations on educational attainment and participation. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Retrieved from:

Harrison, N. & Waller, R. (2018). Challenging discourses of aspiration: the role of expectations and attainment in access to higher education. British Educational Research Journal, 44(5), 914–938.

St Clair, R., Kintrea, K. & Houston, M. (2013). Silver bullet or red herring? New evidence on the place of aspirations in education. Oxford Review of Education, 39(6), 719–738.

Neil Harrison (@DrNeilHarrison) is deputy director of the Rees Centre at the University of Oxford. His research interests are focussed on social justice issues in secondary and higher education, especially for marginalised groups such as care-experienced students. He is the co-editor of Access to Higher Education: Theoretical Perspectives and Contemporary Challenges, published by Routledge in 2017.

Richard Waller has worked in further and higher education for over 20 years, and is currently associate professor of the sociology of education at the University of the West of England. His research interests focus on the intersection of education, identity and social justice, and he has published widely in the area.

Did you know you can change a life? Changing a life is easy.

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Changing a life is easy.

Start by watching this short film.


Changing a life is as simple as sharing a book with a child. This is the message that has engaged and enthused  a team of librarians, academics, family workers and local authority education specialists from across five European cities who are part of the Erasmus Plus project ‘Open the Door for Reading’

There is a growing body of research that provides the evidence about the benefits of reading aloud to a child: whether you are a parent, caregiver, teacher or from a whole host of professions working with children and families.  The research by Shahaeiana et al (2018) offers a comprehensive overview of the benefits,

Results indicated that early shared reading was associated with children’s academic achievement directly and indirectly through receptive vocabulary and early academic skills. Also, the frequency of early shared reading predicted the outcome measures, over and above other home learning activities. Associations were stronger among low and middle socioeconomic status groups compared to the high socioeconomic status group. We conclude that shared reading offers unique opportunities for adults to teach young children new words and concepts

Gothenburg, in Sweden had for some time been troubled by the apparent decline in caregivers reading to and with children, and the city embarked on an initiative to promote reading – to be “The City Where We Read for our Children”. Their research had suggested that only four in ten parents read with or to their child.

To develop the project further Gothenburg applied for Erasmus Plus funding for the ‘Open the Door for Reading’ Project launched with cities that had a similar focus: Turku in Finland; Brussels in Belgium; Milan in Italy and Bristol. Each city faces particular challenges and has similar issues with families who have traditionally been harder to engage in education or social services.  Details of the project can be found on the website. The cities have met three times now and have learnt from the practice in each country. Exciting ideas like cloakroom libraries in Gothenburg; bedtime story book shelves in early years settings in Turku and using UWE teacher training students to read with children in Bristol have ignited the imaginations of participants. Gothenburg also shared the short film linked at the start of this piece. It was produced to promote reading to caregivers. It is a powerful reminder of the impact of reading for both the child and the caregiver.

The Bristol team, Debbie Miles and Cerys Stevens (Reading Recovery Teacher Leaders), Kate Murray (Head of Libraries) and Jane Carter have been working on the projects’ output: a practitioners’ guide to supporting caregivers with reading. This guide is full of practical ideas and tips for non-education focused professionals in ways to encourage first steps in communication around a text. It is hoped that midwives, social workers, family workers and early years professionals will become ambassadors for reading in the knowledge of its life changing effects.

The team is also now trying to gather support for a Gothenburg style initiative in Bristol and has begun to plan ‘Bristol, a reading city’. The city’s councillors are interested in the project as are many stake holders who attended a first meeting a few weeks ago to plan possible first steps in the project. Representatives came from local businesses, charities, city council services (Early Years; Family Support), the museum, libraries and schools. We are currently exploring funding avenues and hope to establish the first Bristol Cloakroom libraries along with community reading ambassadors. I am planning for UWE students to be involved in this exciting initial step and with the ‘Bristol a Reading City’ when funding is secured. Watch this space!

Author: Dr Jane Carter, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Education and Childhood, the University of the West of England.