Spreading wings and new constellations

Yesterday was a day of celebration and reflection as we enjoyed the privilege of watching our students graduate at the University of Huddersfield. It also provided the impetus for writing this post: a post I’ve been wanting to w2017-11-14-PHOTO-00000348rite for a while but I’ve just not known where to start.

You see these past 12 months have seen the TeachNorthern team evolve in a way that was neither planned nor predicted. In hindsight though, maybe we should have predicted this unsettling, and at times uncomfortable year. Not only because uncertainty and change is the norm for many working in the FE and the Adult & Community sector (indeed many of our students are currently facing the stresses of change in their own organisations) but because we are #philosophersofpraxis embracing rhizomatic working and so of course this means change.

4595695_ae23b2c2We have to embrace change, it is a part of life. If everything stayed the same, nothing would grow.  As one of our graduates said yesterday, “we are now ready to spread our wings, we are butterflies, going out there and making a difference”. Last year, the time had come for members of the team to spread their wings and move on to new, different and exciting challenges. It is by ‘daring greatly’ (Brown, 2012) that are all now flying high making a difference and changing worlds as they go.

No one really leaves us though, as our shared social purpose values, and the power of social media, keep us connected. That’s the essence of our Community of Praxis. Indeed, spreading wings brings with it the opportunity for creating of new constellations of practice* which in turn strengthens our ever increasing community of students, graduates, colleagues and friends. By supporting each other in both new and existing constellations we keep going, doing the work that means so much to us, waiting in anticipation of the next rhizome to pop up so we can embrace it and see where it takes us.

So, as I said, yesterday was a time of celebration and reflection. A celebration of what everyone has achieved (I was like a proud parent!) and a time to reflect on our own personal journeys and of those who have inspired and influenced us.

With our pedagogy firmly rooted in the Freirian notion of ‘praxis’, we believe that reflection should lead to action in order to change worlds. With this in mind, now is also a time for looking forward.  Asking ourselves where will we be this time next year? PIA13123What will we have learnt from each other as we enter into dialogical spaces with those we already know and those we are yet to meet? Whilst I don’t know the answers, I cannot help but feel excited about what these new constellations will bring us.


* How our Community of Praxis is continuing to grow.

Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly. How the courage to be vulnerable, transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead. Great Britain: Penguin Life.


Exploring Prevent and FBV through Philosophical Inquiry

First published on Kay Sidebottom’s blog http://www.adventuresinlifelonglearning.blogspot.co.uk

Final report – Exploring Prevent and FBV through philosophical enquiry

We are pleased to share here the final report for our Huddersfield- Consortium funded project into Prevent and Fundamental British Values (FBV). Our aim with this project was to facilitate spaces for educators to explore the issues arising from this challenging agenda; using community philosophy as a tool to enable critical thinking and meaningful debate.  As a result of undertaking the process, teachers were overwhelmingly keen to instigate ‘pro-social’ methods of student engagement, considering ways to encourage belonging and a shared sense of identity in their classrooms.  You can read more in the report below; comments and observations very welcome.

Kay Sidebottom and Karol Thornton
Northern College, September 2016

Posthumanism in Teacher Education

For the second year running, we had chance to study with Rosi Braidotti at Utrecht University. Since our visit there in 2015, which we blogged about here and elsewhere, we have been developing a Posthuman Curriculum to layer over the TeachNorthern teacher education programme at The Northern College.  We didn’t pretend to understand it all (maybe 10%) but there were enough startlingly, provokingly new concepts to transform our work.  This time, it made more sense and – from being people who rarely spoke to anyone but each other in 2015 – we found the courage to present our work to Rosi and the conference as a whole in 2016.  These are our notes – rough, pretty verbatim – offered here and on Kay’s blog to invite your freshest thinking.

  1. Who are we and what is our work?

We work at The Northern College in Yorkshire in the North of England.  The college has a social purpose mission around the transformation of individuals and communities and we run a teacher education programme which is focused on social purpose pedagogies.  For the past year, we have been redeveloping our curriculum along posthuman lines.

The Northern College was founded in 1978 as the ‘Ruskin of the North’.  Labour movement politics was written into its DNA and whilst the College has moved away from having an explicitly political mandate, forms of dialectical thinking endure.  Developing a posthuman curriculum affords us opportunities to get beyond the many ‘us’ and ‘thems’ endemic in UK society.

Our teacher education students are all in-service; that is, they are already teaching.  Rarely do they teach in schools.  They tend to work with young people and adults in non-traditional settings:  in community work, rehab, family learning, refugee work, trade unions.  Some do work in Colleges and Universities; these are in the minority.  Most work directly with people on the margins of our society; some come from those margins themselves.

Interestingly, given the focus of the previous presentations, Northern College takes pride in the fact that students who declare disabilities do better than those who do not.  It’s a statistic to be proud of and one that hides the fact that the level of support we give to individuals is not replicated elsewhere.  We just have to hope that we do enough for individuals to demand what they need when they move on.

We do not have any particular freedoms in our work, save those afforded to us by being in an organisation which still believes in teacher autonomy.  Our financial survival is reliant on us successfully offering standard qualifications; but control of the curriculum is ours as far as we can make it so.

Rosi talks about ‘projects’, by which, I think, she means our life’s work, rather than time limited workstreams.  We don’t lack ambition.  Our life’s work is to change education.


  1.  Why a posthuman focus?

We work in an education system that is over-regulated and over-inspected. Many teachers feel that they have little autonomy over their curriculum or pedagogy, and regardless of whether this is the case or not, it provides a powerful narrative that roots us in a place of pain.   Teachers are leaving the profession in droves or failing to join it despite gaining the relevant qualifications.  In this context, as teacher educators we have been concerned to provide a place of sustenance and support, which has at its heart an affirmative belief in our own power and agency to enact change.

Working environments for our students are often technocratic and managerialist.  Standardised testing, identikit lesson plans and tick box approaches to qualifications are the order of the day, not only in FE but now increasingly found in other areas of adult education.  Alongside our students, we have been seeking ways to challenge this, both through traditional power actions of ‘potestas’ and creative and rhizomatic ways of being (‘potentia’).

Before our introduction to posthumanist approaches we were already working in ways that felt and looked very different.  We were picking up new ideas nomadically, through the rhizomes of social media (Twitter in particular) and making connections that extended learning beyond the classroom walls.  We were establishing communities of practice through these digital networks and building movements that reimagined ways of engaging with students and practitioners; acting outside of organisation structures and hierarchies.  We were challenging accepted theory within our received curricula and looking for creative ways to diversity and decolonise it.  Approaches such as community philosophy allowed us to ‘problematise’ accepted concepts and act in ‘as if’ and ‘what if’ ways. We removed the barriers across the silos of subject-based teaching, bringing art and poetry into the syllabus, particularly in the area of reflective practice.

We have now explicated the use of posthumanism as a navigational tool and are using it to further steer a path through our educational environment; applying different lenses and building a cartography which underpins our own thinking.


  1. The Posthuman Curriculum

Our students are not guinea pigs; we do not try out anything that we haven’t unpicked and understood for ourselves.  So the posthuman curriculum began to emerge last academic year on the back of work that we’d previously been doing, accelerated by our emerging understanding of key posthuman concepts.  Being a praxis approach, fundamentally rooted in the work of Paulo Freire and bell hooks, the whole was driven by the notion of an affirmative politics, something we grabbed hold of hard when we came to the Summer School in 2015.  We want to be very clear that we are in, among and of this curriculum, we live as well as teach it.

Our intention has long been to co-create with our students places to dance – to escape the restraints of a locked-down education sector.  Paulo talks about challenging the dominant discourse, yes, but we should never lose sight of our own ‘beautiful voice’, our politics of location.  We work with many people who are told they have a privilege they do not feel; with whom it is difficult to do anti-fascist work because of their fear that they might be labelled racist.  We work with many people – and they in turn work with many more – who voted for Brexit, who live at the sharp end of policy in various ways.

The old pedagogies were not working, particularly those pedagogies of an organisation rooted in political correctness and Labour movement ‘groupthink’.  The posthuman curriculum brought with it the image of Vitruvian Man and this was huge turning point, introducing as it did a concept of ‘othering’ with which every person in the room could identify (we had no David Beckhams present).  This first step led to an exploration and appreciation of intersectionality which we had previously struggled to achieve.  

Together, we began to dismantle the structures (such as #whitecurriculum) that inhibit our thinking, helped by pedagogical processes such as The Thinking Environment and Community Philosophy.  When classroom time ran out, we took it online rhizomatically, gathering new critical friends, deepening both our thinking and our capactity to think, co-producing new knowledge in the way that Paulo Friere had always hoped to see.  Modelling the way in which the curriculum developed, we introduced thinkers, not theorists, bringing in perspectives from absent and hidden identities, using first names to equalise in the way that Rosi does (though she probably personally knows all the people she is talking about).  We call this approach ‘Thinkers are our Friends’.

This is the new anti-fascist work.


  1. Links to activism

Our pedagogy is rooted in the Freirian notion of ‘praxis’; reflection and action upon the world in order to change it.  With this aim in mind, we try to balance different types of action, and the idea of a potestas/potentia split has been very helpful here.  Potestas may be the type of power that we need to employ in order to get funding bids; gain buy-in from our organisations, or get a seat at national conferences.  Potentia is the nomadic, rhizomatic power achieved through our social and digital networks; where shifts happen incrementally and creatively, through the goodwill and time of our communities of practice connections.  

We come from a background of traditional activism approaches, situated in a locality where the impact of the 84-85 miners’ strike still feels raw.  Our aim is to challenge an activist mindset that is rooted in Marxism and patriarchal thinking, and encourage others to embrace digital approaches and platforms, also considering how to use art actively as a ‘thing that does’, rather than a ‘thing that is.’

We are taking on board the idea of filling in the gaps, the ‘missing slices of the past’ that bias our curriculum.  We have been particularly interested in the rediscovery and acknowledgement of the place of women theorists within what is frequently presented as a male history of learning theory.  Our blog ‘Seeking Lost Women’ is one example of how we explore and promote the ideas of lesser-known but highly influential women educators such as Margaret McMillan, Helen Parkhurst and Louise Michel: http://seekinglostwomen.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/lets-start-school-voice-of-helen.html

Much of our activism is essentially anti-fascism work, as we seek to instigate post-Brexit conversations that are not about ‘consciousness-raising’ but encourage others to challenge their own views and to think for themselves.  Regardless of our focus, the actions are grounded in a spirit of affirmation and realism, where we acknowledge our own roles in the very systems and forces that we are aiming to resist.

Un-Thinking Vitruvian

First published on http://www.steeltrapmind.wordpress.com (Lou Mycroft’s EdD blog) in March 2016 


Question 1:  So, what does a posthuman curriculum look like?

I’ve got to answer this question, however rough and ready that answer may be.  I’m learning that my commitment to praxis is more than tokenistic, that the interplay between theory and practice is essential in keeping me hooked into my academic thinking. Once I’ve figured out the answer to Question 2 (1), practice gets rolled up into my research, of course, but I’m not there yet. In the past seven months (really?) since I got home from the Human/Inhuman/Posthuman Summer School in Utrecht I’ve been figuring out how to teach some key aspects of posthuman thinking (learning them simply and deeply in the process), so this is my attempt to fit the pieces of the jigsaw together.

Human and Posthuman

For human, read Vitruvian Man, that famous Leonardo sketch that inspired a million Leonardo's Vitruvian Mandifferent takes (Vitruvian Cat anyone?) Vitruvian Man is buff, the David Beckham of his day (he might share Beckham’s philanthropy, but probably not his working-class origins). He’s white, he’s young, he’s European, he’s physically fit, he is fair-skinned, he’s probably pretty well off (with those abs, he’s not under-fed). Middle-class, if that’s not an anachronistic concept for the time. Difficult to guess at his sexuality, given his provenance; certainly by the time of The Enlightenment (2) there was probably an assumption that he’s straight. He might have a hidden disability, but I doubt it. He’s almost certainly Christian, despite the struggles some Enlightenment thinkers had with organised religion.

But he is ‘human’. And so it follows that any individuals that don’t fit the pattern are somehow less than human. Thus begins the intellectualising of difference as ‘other’; not the root of slavery and oppression, but in some quarters the justification of it. And he is culturally internalised, particularly in places of power and amongst people who are not cognisant of the privilege they carry. When we say ‘human’, somewhere in our thinking, we see him.

Vitruvian Man is at the heart of understanding the #whitecurriculum (4). Of course he is. Because it’s his power, his privilege and his structures that have constructed the world we live in. They have certainly constructed our education systems (5). Therefore it also follows that any posthuman curriculum is focused on dismantling and rebuilding these structures. The post in posthuman refers to the ending of the Vitruvian time.


Enlightenment thinking formally established the dominion of ‘human’ (see above) over other species and thus established ‘speciesism’, described by Peter Singer as, “…an attitude of prejudice towards beings who are not part of the same species as us.” The notion of dominion is very much part of the Christian tradition, a dominant choice to read Genesis in a certain way.

This human/nature divide (sometimes referred to, interestingly, as a culture/nature divide) explains much that has come later in terms of raping the earth’s natural resources and decimating its wildlife (not just hunting, but intensive, super-destructive factory farming methods, check out @cowspiracy to find out more). Some thinkers refer to the Stylised image of the Earthtimes we are living in as anthropocene – a new epoch where humans have themselves become a major (negative) geological force, as impactful as the Ice Age on the Earth itself. The claim is that the Earth cannot now repair itself from the damage humans have done. Politically, the term ‘anthropocene’ is being used to call for a recognition that dominion has gone too far. So posthuman thinking is fundamentally concerned with environmental and animal rights, as well as human welfare.

We persist in seeing humanity as a positive concept, a value or belief even, in the face of the real hard evidence of what ‘humanity’ does:  Auschwitz, Vietnam, Hiroshima, Bhopal, Calais, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Guantanamo, Chernobyl, the Atlantic Slave Trade, ISIS, Srebrenica, Syria, the Congo, the Gulags.  Enough already.


What posthumanism is not doing is to call for the end of the human race. Because some early posthuman thinkers (eg Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles) have a focus on the more science-fiction (6) end of technology, it’s easy to overlook the fact that ‘technology’ can actually mean basic engineering, everyday affordances such as clocks and cars, printing presses, stuff we now take for Anime of androgynous superherogranted, as we are coming to take for granted computers and mobile phones. What about hearing aids, prosthetic legs, contact lenses? We are already technologically mediated (or, as posthuman thinkers like to say, embodied in a technological world). We are posthuman. We are already there.

If posthuman thinking seems very new, it’s because our #whitecurricula are so often based on the work of dead white men writing sixty years ago. In fact Robert Pepperell already had a solid grip on what posthumanism meant back in 2003, not about the “End of Man, but the end of a man-centred existence…”, where technology was an extension of the human. (Interestingly, Robert is a Professor of Fine Art. One aspect of posthuman thinking is that it crosses the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines. And who decided what those boundaries were, anyway?)

So a posthuman curriculum is already necessary, it can’t be pushed to one side because your workplace bans mobile phones, or you don’t have laptops in the classroom. It’s not about that, or not only about that. It’s about facing up to the here and now.

Which brings us to…


…sometimes called neo-liberalism (7). Put simplistically, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 any real challenge to capitalism disappeared and it became one of those taken-for-granted things, the only system that works. In fact, it was simply the winner out of two greatCover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Two Tribes 12" meta-narratives:  Capitalism vs. Communism, Reagan vs. Chernenko, VHS vs. Betamax, Right vs. Left, Winner vs. Loser. Marxists would point to the hegemony of how we each collude in accepting capitalism as the only norm:  watch yourself doing it, it can get quite addictive.

Capitalism encourages us to think in binaries and it is even more addictive watching for these: Employer vs. Worker, People vs. Profit, Traditional vs. Progressive, Academy vs. State School. We take it for granted (that word hegemony again) that the structures of capitalism – hierarchies that always have someone at the top and someone at the bottom – are the way of the world, that they are unavoidable. Posthuman thinking shares with Marxism the imperative to deconstruct these structures, to imagine a world constructed differently (it doesn’t share with Marxism the conviction that this brave new world should be communist).

Which leads us to…


…because new futures need first of all to be imagined.

So that’s some of what posthumanism is. Thinking about imagining new futures brings us onto how.


Rosi Braidotti, with whom @kaysoclearn and I studied in Utrecht, draws on the (dead, white) French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (with whom she studied) to explore how we might take affirmative posthuman political action. Discarding the binaries of capitalism, which they describe (unfortunately, but of their time) as Famous photo of Carlos the Jackal‘schizophrenic’, they use the metaphor of the rhizome to challenge traditional notions of leadership and campaign. A rhizome (bluebell, ginger, iris, couch grass) spreads unseen and underground, forming nodes which emerge unexpectedly, possibly in the ‘wrong’ garden. It is persistent and subversive, hard to dig up, a guerrilla plant (if you can de-couple that word from negative images of the Baader-Meinhof gang and Carlos the Jackal).

Nomad War Machine

In rhizomatic political action (as in rhizomatic learning), people – and things, if we reject ‘dominion’ – form and reform in ‘affirmative assemblages’ to become a nomad war machine, popping up all over the place to weaken the foundations of the capitalist machine/sausage-factory education system. Within this model, leadership takes on different forms at different times, people assemble around an energy, disband when the work is done, re-assemble elsewhere to do ‘the work’, rather than constructing themselves tiredly into the same old hierarchical frameworks. Social media affords a transport system to move the nomad war machine around much more effectively than Gilles and Felix ever imagined and I believe this is at the heart of some of the affirmative politics we are beginning to see.

Affirmative Politics

All this sounds very testosterone-laden and it is. Rosi exhorts us to understand all the histories of our thinking (battling that #whitecurriculum again) and these metaphors from Gilles and Felix arise from their work with Michel Foucault and before him Jean-Paul Satre, who thought and smoked Gauloises while Simone de Beauvoir did the photocopying with a young and starstruck Rosi. But posthumanism also draws on Baruch Spinoza, one of the most Image of Simone de Beauvoircapricious of all the Enlightenment thinkers, and he finds the affirmative in the every day. Our work is above all to identify and carry out positive practices and if their cartography (another posthuman concept and the metaphor Rosi uses for knowing all the histories of your subject) is Vitruvian, then it’s our job to bring in the ‘other’ through what we read, the people we seek out and with whom we assemble, to challenge ourselves over #whitecurriculum thinking and to ensure that our nomad war machines are always meaningfully diverse.

Examples of this kind of approach abound, but only when you start looking for them. Do you follow Upworthy, or even Russell Howard’s Good News, gentle political satire with a smile not a sneer? Have you seen the knitted scarves around the trees in Sheffield threatened with felling because there isn’t the money (where?) to maintain them? What about Free Hugs? Spoken Word? Some of the Occupy activity was affirmative (though the leadership structures not always), as were the singing women at Greenham Common back in the day. How about the challenging, amazing examples of refugee Image of yarn-bombed treesartwork such as Za’atari in Jordan, shared every day on Twitter (if you are looking in the right place). Or Lady Gaga’s ‘Born this Way‘ (listen to the words), or Beyonce (8), Banksy? Witty internet memes engage ‘non-political’ people in political debate, which is sometimes more nuanced and less binary than in days gone by. Pitch these against so-called grown-ups shouting at one another across the House of Commons…and go figure.


‘Becoming’ is the final piece of the jigsaw (I hope. There might be some more which have fallen under the table). Remember those rhizomatic assemblages, which form the ebb and flow of the nomad war machine? They combine in the energy of their action to make something new; put simply they learn from one another, they learn to ‘become’ each other to some extent and that’s how we break down the impact of othering that we’ve all grown up with. You might term this ’empathy’ but it’s more than that, it’s about blending bits of yourselves and you go away with that mingling still in you. Apologies for going all Game of Thrones, but it’s a bit like the old idea of becoming blood brothers (or sisters) by each cutting your palm. Possibly less painful, but in the act of recognising your own privilege and sense of entitlement, also possibly not.

Becoming impacts on your identity,  permanently. That’s why it’s useful to do this work alongside keeping a reflexive account of what’s happening with you, as I’m doing here. Writing this has been a bit like giving birth (I have given birth, so I feel it’s OK to say that). This is not my PhD, but it feels like blogging first is the only way my PhD is going to get written, at least in my own voice.

Why is all this theory important? 

If you drifted off at the talk of Spinoza and co, you may have drifted back in when that cheery bloke on the telly Russell Howard was mentioned. Why is that? You’re as bright as anyone else reading this but it could be that the culture around you is anti-intellectual; as Frank Furedi asks, “Where have all the intellectuals gone?” If you’re feeling impostorish about reading philosophy/theory, that’s possibly because you, too, are not quite Vitruvian. Believe me, if you’d gone to Eton, you would only not be reading it because it didn’t interest you, not because you thought you wouldn’t get it. You’d have a complete sense of entitlement about that.

The language of theory is also tricky, because it is often unfamiliar and that feels excluding. Sometimes it is meant to be, but why should that matter? You don’t have to be friends with a philosopher, just learn from their thinking, stand on their shoulders, as it were, so that you can see further than they could. New concepts demand new words – or Poster of Noam Chomsky redefining anarchynew definitions of existing words – given that the language we have is part of the structures we want to undermine (a bit of Chomsky there). So read with a dictionary metaphorically in your hand and get over it.

Theory is important because it’s what drives us on through those times when going against the norm seems too much like hard work, when everyone’s moaning and you’re trying to be positive, when the bitterness rises and when you feel infected by the politics of envy or identity. There are powerful forces working hard to keep the status quo in place (9) – the media, political structures, the arms trade, the education system – hierarchies all over the place which, if we tackled them head-on, would be impossible to beat. Sometimes it’s easier to give in and go work for The Man. But theory connects us to something bigger, it connects us to thinking differently and reminds us that we are not alone.

Not that posthuman theory is easy to read, and this is where we come in. The concepts are so dense, so multi-layered, nuanced and counter-cultural, that it’s difficult to absorb what they mean (and how to use them). It took me seven months to figure out the nomad war machine (thanks @geogphil) and I’m still not quite there, though I’ve learned to be more comfortable with explaining Vitruvian Man. More of us need to dig into this stuff and Image of ancient mapwrite our own posthuman stories; stories with global cartographies – one of the criticisms of posthuman thinking, which most posthumanists accept, is that it currently operates from within the narrow confines of white European philosophy. We are where we are, but we need to keep pushing to hear othered voices. Thinking posthuman involves us taking the hegemonic (remember?) fetters off our minds.

And keeping affirmative.  I’ll leave you with Rosi Braidotti from her lecture last year, Spinoza Against Negativity:

“Once a year have your dose of Spinoza’s champagne.  He just makes me rock.”

(1) Question 2:  So, what does a posthuman research methodology look like?

(2) A period of (largely male (3), white, European) thinking in the 17th and 18th centuries, the foundations of which proved so influential over the next 200 years that we are only just realising that they were basically just one way of looking at the world.  (The novel Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder is a great – if humanistic – introduction to continental philosophy of this time).

(3) Women were involved.  Men got published though.

(4) Not just about race, though NUS Black Students did kick-start the campaign, but about Vitruvian ‘human’.

(5) Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and Kant insisted that one could achieve ‘human’ through education.  They did not explain how education could make you become white – or male.

(6) But not any more, not really.

(7) Political scientists will argue nuances of difference, but this will do for now.

(8) When the bloke under the table is introduced to the concept of intersectionality. That.

(9) Have you been watching The Night Manager?  Episode 5:  The Permanent Secretary, “…her job is to preserve the status quo, whatever it takes.”

Want to read/see/hear more? Follow the links within the narrative and have a look at the ideas below.  Some are tougher to get into than others, some I’ve not nailed yet, but you might easily.  We are all different, don’t let The Impostor in!

Rosi Braidotti Punk Women and Riot Girrls https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5J1z-E8u60

Rosi Braidotti Nomadic Theory (book)

Rosi Braidotti The Posthuman (book)

Noam Chomsky’s Website https://chomsky.info/

Dave Cormier Open Education and Rhizomatic Learning  http://www.open.edu/openlearn/education/open-education/content-section-7.5

John Weaver Educating the Posthuman and Posthumanism and Educational Research (both these books are quite expensive, so try libraries or Google Scholar)

Frank Furedi Where have all the Intellectuals Gone? (book)

BBC Radio 4 In Our Time – Baruch Spinoza (podcast) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0079ps2

Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Two Tribes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2QAMqTgPKI

A Perfect Storm

Back in April, I said that education was facing a perfect storm and it feels like the storm circled over the Teacher Education programme at The Northern College for a while this year.  No-one can plan for two reviews/inspections at the busy end of the academic year, when the team is running at reduced capacity.  And we don’t even talk about ‘cover’ now in FE, do we? We are all so cut to the bone that it’s just not a thing.

Everyone in state education knows that Inspections/Higher Education Reviews are blindingly hard work; for the Inspectors/Reviewers too, to be fair.  The guys who came to us had a punishing schedule.  We did all the stuff I’ve written about elsewhere, we were bold, we were brave, we were Northern; we gave it our best shot, students were amazing (obviously) and it all went euphorically well.  But a bit like Glastonbury after the crowds Image of debris and rubbish left in a muddy field after Glastonbury Festivalhave gone home, I spent some time afterwards looking round at the debris through the lens of an adrenaline crash and wondering how to tidy it all up. And don’t even get me started on how the maths stacks up: how one day’s 48-hour notice inspection can put me behind schedule for three weeks. (Maybe that’s just me…)

The most recent inspection was a two-part process, so the pain/pleasure won’t be over until the Autumn, though I have to say that everything is very clear and fair, we know what we need to do.  Maybe that’s part of why my dopamine high was short-lived; maybe too the tangle of emotions occasioned by at the same time saying goodbye to Certs 2014 after two years and two bereavements meant that it was all too much…but there was an unexpected flatness once we’d waved off the inspection team and I certainly felt very strange for quite a few days afterwards, way beyond my annual separation anxiety.

Part of what’s tangled in my head is the paradox of doing incredibly well and at the same time breaking all the perceived rules of what Ofsted look for.  It’s not an easy one to unpick but it seems to me that if we could do that, we’d stand a better chance as a sector of doing education substantially differently than the risk-averse, panicky sausage-factory we have now.  I’m not saying, “Do it like us,” – one of the lightbulb moments this last week is that consistency and diversity can co-exist – but at least, “Take a chance on being yourselves.” Everyone I speak to seems to be telling me that Ofsted are mainly interested in making sure your paperwork is in order but that has not been our experience, perhaps because our Principal is a experienceAn image of a postcard that says, "I make everyone believe that I like to be different, but really I just don't know how to fit in."d pragmatist who doesn’t use the threat of inspection as a stick with which to beat her staff.  What inspection teams do find with us is a deep knowing of students, where they’ve been, where they’re at, where they are going…and that always seems to be appreciated.  So what is happening with the perceptions of the majority?  Are we just a tiny microclimate at Northern College (1)?  Or is it possible for us to really think differently about inspection in the sector as a whole?

Are we, in fact, outstanding because we stand out (2)? Because we are different?  A sort of national treasure like Vivienne Westwood or John Lydon, Mrs Brown perhaps or Jade Goody, naughty but nice. Let’s have a peek in at Northern College then return to doing what we do….

I sincerely hope not.  We are trying to change education here and it’s a serious mission.  My dissonant feelings are caused in part by doing well under a regime I know isn’t healthy, in terms of its impact on mental wellbeing. At the heart of any such scrutiny is the need to be reassured of the commitment to continuous improvement (or ‘enhancement’); on the face of it a good thing of course but surely the quest for ever-better practice is a kind of perfectionism? If so, my CBT training tells me it brings in its wake a world of pain, in terms of never being able to feel that you’ve done ‘good enough’. If your self-worth is tangled up with your work…that’s not a healthy place to be. Something doesn’t sit well with me about succeeding under a system which, whatever its intentions, quietly terrorises our profession.

As I write this, there’s a change at the top of Ofsted and it’s impossible to know whether meeting the new boss will feel the same as the old boss. I wonder if Amanda Spielman realises the sea is rising up to meet the sky? At Northern Rocks 2016, where she would have spoken had her appointment not been announced, the mood was clear.  There is a sea change.  There was a strangeness and richness about every one of the Northern Rocks presentations that spoke of a time beyond teaching to the test.  Utopian, perhaps, but new futures were being imagined there, and at the launch of EdTech North in Sunderland just a couple of days before. Perhaps those of us left standing have nothing left to lose.


*Be careful.  I do get irritated when people try to marginalise us as being able to do what we do because we’re fortunate in some way.  We don’t do anything that others couldn’t do, if they were minded to.

**Many thanks to Tim Wood for flexing my thinking around this.  Outstanding/standingout.




Breaking the Rules

Updated for Keynote to Barnsley College pre-service PGCE students and Certs 2014 at The Northern College 18.4.16  Please click through on the links for access to deeper research.

(If you read one thing after this, please make it The Centre for Mental Health’s ‘A Day in the LIfe‘ Report – and follow @markoneinfour on Twitter.

Slides accompanying this blog will be are here: Breaking the Rules April 2016

Link to an Adobe Voice recording will follow.

A troubled face, with the caption Welcome, Breaking the Rules Affirmative Mental Health Leadership, ELMAG 3 Mental Health. Also includes logos for Time for Change, The Education and Training Foundation and the Learning and Work Institute

This blog post reflects on our experience of the ‘Breaking the Rules’ affirmative mental health leadership project, funded by ELMAG, the Education and Training Foundation fund which makes possible so much brilliant work around leadership, always on a short timescale; an adrenaline-fuelled experience, a rollercoaster ride.  Inspired by the growing movement of neurodiversity, which tells us that mental ill-health and learning disabilities are not just not a deficit but an actual JOY to the WORLD, we put together a leadership programme called ‘Breaking the Rules’.  Note that, for us, leadership is something we all do, it’s not just the remote preserve of those who sit at the top of hierarchies.  We refer to it as ideas – or thought – leadership, an extension of democratic professionalism.

What was ‘Breaking the Rules’?  It blended a face-to-face Thinking Environment day with an online, reflexive programme; there were options for one-to-one coaching and leadership analysis work.  It gave the opportunity for current and potential leaders to affirmatively explore the leadership of mental wellbeing, with the support of leadership coaches. It absolutely rejected the othering of those who experience mental ill-health, who are often us (though we maybe dare not say so).  Mental health diversity is not a deficit, it is an actual thing and many of the people in the room with you are experiencing it right now, whether they are prepared to go public with it or not (I increasingly am and it’s proving to be a virtual spiral of liberation as others share their strategies too).  What’s more, mental ill-health can be a thing that is actually caused by the work we do, so maybe our ‘sector’ (whatever that means) has some responsibility here.


One of the unspoken ironies of adult and further education – whether sausage factory or social purpose – is the mental health cost to its staff.  The irony, of course, is that adult education, done properly, is one of the greatest contributors to improved mental wellbeing.  At places like the Exchange Recovery College Barnsley, transformational pedagogies are integral to the recovery process; staff are properly teacher trained and partnerships with local adult education providers nurtured.  And they are making a difference.

But if the staff themselves achieve these successes by pushing themselves to the max, limiting their own potential in the process, the net cost to education is tragic.  We are all in danger of forgetting that we have ‘mental health’ too; that we are all vulnerable (particularly under stress), and that users of mental health services make up only a proportion of the “1 in 4”.  We define diversity (in part) as “being present as yourself”.  At those times when your mental health is fragile, can you truly be yourself at work?

Pretty much everyone who works in adult, further and community education means well. Increasingly, in this world of pay freezes and zero hours, none of us do it for the money. We are likely to have invested in our own training, for a pay-off of doing rewarding work in precarious circumstances.  We arm ourselves daily against media slingshots and political A complicated Cubist paintingsneering.  We live with our profession being deregulated and downgraded from ‘education’ to ‘skills’. We find it impossible to meet anyone socially who doesn’t assume we work in a school. Somehow, in all of this melee, we raise families, maintain relationships, grieve and care for loved ones.

We’re fighting back but that takes it out of us too; added to the emotional labour of believing in people who don’t – yet – believe in themselves is the terrifying courage needed to challenge statuses quo. And we are likely ourselves to be people who don’t quite fit the mould of the ‘professional’, who are maybe developing our own cutting-edge definitions of professionalism. Many adult educators are people who benefited from adult learning ourselves and who are now pedagogical pioneers. We have ‘passion’*. We want to ‘give something back’, ‘make a difference’.  We are good at what we do because we’ve been there.images-3

And so our own mental wellbeing gets eroded. The early starts…the late finishes.  The long (unpaid) ‘holidays’ so envied by our non-teaching friends packed to the gills with marking and the secretive checking of emails. Family members resentful, bank accounts in the red. Panicky organisations over-regulating, micro-managing, Ofsted-petrified.Traditional autonomy replaced with tick-boxy bureaucracy. Teaching observations. Paperwork. Loss of dignity and control, yet sort of publicly ignored at the same time**. Under this level of pressure, no wonder many of us become ‘mentally diverse’; life gets harder as we struggle to keep it all in balance and the vicious spiral begins.  As long as we are in a culture which sees mental diversity as something lacking, rather than something potentially creative, we risk being attached to a label that will haunt us endlessly.

And we know, of course, that even before considering the needs of the most marginalised in our society, such as refugees, that if in our individual identities we are diverse from the #whitecurriculum ‘norm’; if we are female, if we are black, if we are poor, if we have other ‘disabilities’,  we are likely to experience both more mental ill-health and less helpful support.  ‘A Day in the Life‘ makes that absolutely clear.

A commitment to diversity is increasingly – and healthily, wellbeingly – defined as people who can be present as themselves in any given situation. How true is that of you at work? An image of a postcard that says, "I make everyone believe that I like to be different, but really I just don't know how to fit in."How true is it of me? How does that fit in with ‘fitting in’, where there is an unspoken ideal of quiet reasonableness, of diligent and consistent graft, of neatness and order (oh yes, there is). Nancy Kline, founder of the Thinking Environment, points out that even in business (sold to us in adult ed as a hive of creativity and free-thinking), there is an ‘epidemic of obedience‘. It’s a measure of how institutionalised I am that, watching The Theory of Everything with my son over the holidays, I was mostly worried that Stephen Hawking would get the sack from Cambridge, but of course in that day and age, for someone of his background, brilliant awkwardness was almost de rigeur; his physical disability just took it to another level (Ian Walsh would argue that times have definitely changed).

The latest transformational leadership models focus on enabling the creativity of staff, affirming (more or less) measured risk taking, and the centrality of mistake-making to creativity. Nonetheless, many workplaces don’t feel like that and, despite the health-promoting paternalism of modern HR strategies, there’s a lot to be said for pro-actively taking hold of your own mental well-being before things get out of hand.

There may be a book you can take strength from – I’m reading Brené Brown’s research into shame at the moment, something that really resonates with me as kicking in when I’m under stress.  I am learning to be shame-resilient.  Therapies such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) don’t work for everyone, but are certainly thought to do no harm in the case of mild to moderate Image of the sea with the caption 'Find what feels good'depression and/or anxiety – and you don’t need a referral from your GP to try a CBT course you’ve found on Groupon, or work through exercises from the web.  It may be that you have regular coaching, or get to work in a Thinking Environment, giving you space to develop the resilience not to dwell on stress or fear.  You might practice Mindfulness. (When I was 50, friends bought me twelve bottles of Prosecco and three of those Mindfulness colouring-books, which gave me a pretty good idea of how they viewed my life).  What all of these have in common is a sense of agency.  Work on what you can fix for yourself and don’t waste energy on what you can’t change.

You may already know what else works for you – fresh air, running, yoga, lots of sleep – but it’s possible you’re not doing it because if one thing is certain, it’s that the chemicals of stress take away our desire for wellbeing behaviours. What I want to say to you, with painful self-awareness, is that nobody will do it for you and no amount of work-based stress management training will replace you doing what’s good for YOU.

Organisations have plenty of processes for identifying and supporting mental ill-health, and some of these are even genuinely about staff wellbeing, but external forces are strong and the level of stress and struggle continues to ratchet up. We need to take up the reins ourselves, itself an empowering act.  As the hugely successful (by every measure) drag diva RuPaul would say, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the  hell can you love somebody images-6else?” When we suffer (get fractious, forgetful, go off sick), our students suffer. Something has to change.

There are some brilliant resources on www.mhfe.org.uk to help you keep yourself safe and to help you teach this practice to others. And of course the legal and emotional safety net of belonging to a trade union should not be discounted. One of the horrible paradoxes of the employment landscape in adult and further education is that the most exploited of us – those on zero-hours or fixed-term contracts – are the least likely to be unionised and consequently have the least protection from the darker side of working life.

As I’ve written elsewhere recently, we are all seeking the nirvana of creativity, but not the extreme mental stress that comes with it, because we don’t know how to handle the fall-out from that. The fact is that our entire sector, with its model of heroic leadership and its mimicry of corporate business, continues to ‘other’ and deficit mental health diversity; acceptable in ‘learners’ and pathologised amongst its own staff. Until we have leaders who get it, who are prepared to shatter #whitecurriculum thinking with their own experiences of being black/female/disabled/young/mentally diverse, we will continue to marginalise and exclude those brilliant minds amongst our own workforce, who are just the people to lead us to a brighter future.

Can I get an ‘A-MEN’?


Interested in Breaking the Rules?  Although the ELMAG Pilot has finished, we hope to continue to offer the course.  Please contact Sally Betts sallybetts@ideasforlearning.co.uk 

*Pah-pah-pah-pah-passion (as David Bowie might not have sung).  Certainly a double-edged sword.  In adult education we pretend it’s a good thing and we certainly mine it heavily.  But it’s not passion that gets you to places of influence; or if it does, it’s likely to be the thing that topples you.

**My heart is palpitating as I write this.  And I am one of the lucky ones, with the privilege of a permanent contract in an organisation which has tried for 38 years to live the good values it espouses.