HEPPP Featured Researcher – Nicky Turnbull

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The HEPPP research network is principally for colleagues at UWE but we are pleased to connect and collaborate with researchers from elsewhere. This week we welcome Nicky Turnbull from Newcastle College as our Featured Researcher.

Hello – I’m Nicky Turnbull and I’m Director of Higher Education at Newcastle College Group (NCG), which one of the largest providers of HE in FE in the UK. I’m currently a doctoral candidate at Newcastle University, and researching and writing a thesis on pedagogical praxis, particularly exploring the philosophical basis of caring teaching and its practical implications.  After graduating with a degree in Sports Science I worked in local government providing leisure opportunities for individuals from deprived communities and in my spare time I was a fitness instructor, outdoor enthusiast and sports coach.  My obsession with activity and fitness led to me becoming a sports teacher, in 1995 I moved into the FE sector teaching adults, increasingly specialising in teaching HE in FE. On the way, I studied for and gained a PGCE, a DMS (Diploma in Management Studies), a PGDip in Sociology, an MA in Lifelong Learning and I was a national finalist in the prestigious FE STAR awards for excellence in teaching.  After a number of curriculum management and leadership roles, I became Director of Higher Education at Newcastle College in 2018.

I’m passionate about the remedial role that further education colleges play in ameliorating disadvantage and levelling up opportunity and access, and my doctoral thesis is a phenomenological study that investigates the relationship between HE students and teachers (in HE and FE). Most specifically I’m exploring how pedagogies of care enacted and modelled by teachers resonate with students and whether this has implications for teaching, student outcomes and the institution.  

This research interest grew out of a professional concern for the comparatively low levels of student retention within low-tariff institutions (like HE in FE) and a search for a ‘holy grail’, where more students, specifically those from disadvantaged backgrounds, would persist with their studies in order to benefit from the transformative effects of higher education. I’m especially interested in exploring the nature of teaching within HE in FE, and how the ‘dogma of skills’ with the focus on training for a specific job has arguably led to transmission models of teaching and the ‘passing on’ of skills or professional competencies by dual professionals (teacher-trained industry experts) rather than the development of the student as a whole person.  My study has already raised questions about notions of ‘good teaching’ in vocational contexts, the disposition and values of the teachers and, also how relational care as a reciprocal ethic of care benefits the students and the teachers. As a phenomenological study, my research explores the experiences of those HE in FE vocational teachers who identify as caring and inclusive, and it asks how their students conceptualise this. 

Contextually, the study is complex and quite controversial: in Higher Education teaching, the concept of ‘care’ is certainly problematic.  It is under-theorized and under-researched (particularly outside compulsory schooling).  It is also not easily defined and whilst no teacher wants to identify as ‘uncaring’, there are those who believe that the deontological duty to care is complete at the end of compulsory education, and therefore caring has no place or purpose in HE.  In this framing of care, students are expected to develop individual autonomy, resilience, and be exposed to ‘tough love’ in preparation for the world beyond HE, which therefore necessarily precludes a deeply relational experience of teaching, such as care.  This extends even to those from disadvantaged backgrounds who are seen as more fragile and must be quickly ‘levelled up’ using scaffolding from adjunct support rather than subject, discipline or even vocational experts. Also, there is a view that the affective and cognitive domains are immiscible and that by showing concern, paying attention, listening to students or even providing safe spaces, there is somehow a view that this constitutes adjunct pastoral support and that in doing so, such students can’t be challenged and intellectually stretched. There is therefore an implicit assumption that students have individual differences that are somehow fixed, and that if a student is fragile, then they are always fragile, and their abilities must be immutable, and they must therefore be handled with care, as if they were permanently on a hard shoulder of pedagogic frailty, rather than being scaffolded back into the main highway of academic expectation. In some ways, the construction of the fragile learner is similar to the ways in which inclusive education has been constructed within schools as a result of educational ‘statements’ after the Warnock Report: it was never intended that accommodations were to be fixed and lifelong, yet the possibility of withdrawing them has become conflated with being less supportive, and less accommodating, and arguably, less caring. But in higher education, there are other seemingly contradictory pressures:  this resistance to caring is also borne out of the rampant commodification of higher education.  Now, the focus is on institutional customer care and the requirement to provide value for money as a transactional ‘having’ or ‘getting’ relationship between the student and the institution, rather than a nurturing, fulfilling, ‘becoming’ relationship between teachers (who understand the benefits and obligations of teaching as a ‘people business’) and students (who all feel like they really matter and are able to flourish and indeed are expected to flourish).  As a senior leader within higher education, I believe that it is critical that my research benefits the students, the institution and particularly the staff.  Teachers have cited a lack of time due to intensive teaching commitments or large class sizes as the reason why they are unable to ‘pay attention’ to students in HE in the way they want.  I hope that my research will illuminate practice which shows that enacting pedagogies of care is not about going ‘above and beyond’ and risking the teacher-burnout that sometimes ensues, but teaching in a caring way to benefit the students, the people they become and the communities in which they live. 

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