Foreword: The Joyful Noise of the Undercommons

Every PhD is compelled to add to the sum of human knowledge; that is its raison d’etre. In many cases, this is achieved by finely contextualising the experiment, in others knowledge is genuinely new and yet others bring protagonists into a plane of encounter, to observe a process of catalysis which could, of course, result in a damp squib. This dissertation[1] belongs to the latter category in that it is an attempt to mobilise via posthuman thinking a genuinely fresh perspective on English community education. Put simply, we need new tools if we want to imagine something new. It is a fundamental assumption of this research that off-the-shelf methodologies and tick-box ethics will guide us inexorably to what we already know. What follows is an attempt to test that assumption and do something different, rather than doing the same thing differently.

The central research question could be paraphrased, after Manning (2016), as “what else could community education be?” In order to keep this space genuinely open, the posthuman lens works to stay within the ‘encounter’ (staying with the trouble, as Haraway (2015) might say), resisting the gravitational pull of what community education is now, is limited to become, or used to be[2] and working together[3] to be completely in the here and now of moving forward affirmatively on a dying planet[1] . Findings are presented as a Community Education Imaginary, a phrase borrowed from anthropology, where it is used to describe meaning-making around culture and identity (Wolf, 1999).

There is no posthuman literature on community education that we[4] have found. This is genuinely new territory, full of clashing tension and likely to be messy. To employ a standard methodology would be to find solutions for things we already have the answers to[5] and in a rapidly changing world that seems like a monumental waste of time. The research is looking for, “…the clarity of the radically new and absolutely simple idea, which catches as it were, an intuition.” (Bergson, 1998). This makes it a risky venture. Having no methodological road map it’s impossible to see the destination or whether anything “radically new and absolutely simple” could come out of the data at all. But in these apocalyptic times[2] , maybe a single throw of the die is a worthy endeavour.

The research does have a methodology and ethics, just not one that had an identifiable and pre-formed shape at the start. Our goal: not just to end the troubles of community education (which are well documented and which will be summarised) but to end the structures which cause those troubles. The process emerges from an “undercommon refusal of the academy of misery”, the term described by Moten and Harney (2013, p7) as a “joyful noise”, a “tentative holding in place of fragile comings-into-relation, physical and virtual, that create the potential to reorient fields of life-living,” (Manning, 2016 p.8). The research question will be answered collaboratively and as far as possible without recourse to old frames of reference, by those of us who are already present in the space. It therefore stands a chance of challenging the ‘monument’ (Braidotti, 2011) of what community education is perceived innately to be (which is of course not innate at all, but a series of social constructs) and maybe even start to tear down some of the ‘documents’ – procedures, processes, policies – which uphold it.

Time for this “subversive intellectual[6]” (Halberstam, 2013) to introduce the two protagonists whose convergence will hopefully spark something new:

Protagonist: Community Education

Community education is defined for the purposes of this research as any adult learning opportunity which takes place outside a traditional college or university environment, though not necessarily outside formal qualification structures. The absence of a rigorous and agreed definition of community education in England (it has a separate history in Scotland, Ireland and in other parts of the world), alongside any persuasive political rhetoric supporting its survival, has led to a fragile provision which currently exists precariously in the eye of an unprecedented storm: that of regional devolution. Since community education has no political or theoretical champions, no convincing evidence base and no agreed definition it may indeed be a lost cause. Certainly our experience of the 2015-17 Community Learning and Mental Health Research Project (DfE, 2018) revealed a petrified, terrified, sector on the brink of collapse (Mycroft, 2019a), yet it endured until at least the start of the 2020 COVID19 pandemic, albeit in a mummified form.

The research is driven not by any belief in a community education ‘golden age’ (inadvisable to revisit out of context, even had it existed) or by any desire to preserve the status quo, but by a belief in the potential, just over the horizon, that community education could be something else, something it has not yet had the chance to be.

Protagonist: Posthuman Thinking

Critical posthumanism as defined by Braidotti (2018) is also a convergence: of posthumanism (critique of the humanist ideal of ‘Man’) and post-anthropocentrism (human exceptionalism).

How can this help free community education from the chains of its history and (low) expectations? There are so many taken for granted ‘truths’ hardwired into the structures of community education that stripping back the layers is an unfathomable task, not least because the weight of assumption is so heavy that the thinker will find it difficult to withstand “the gravitational pull of the old,” (Braidotti, 2019, p.214). A significant disruption is necessary to unsettle the norms, assumptions and givens. The decentring of ‘man’ from human, and ‘human’ from all forms of life, might just do it.

This posthuman ‘frame’ provides a lens with which to trouble the structures and systems of a setting where, typically, adults return to education “having successfully diagnosed themselves as the problem” (Moten and Harney, 2013 p.36), ie they don’t fit the Enlightenment ideal of ‘man’ and are in some way ‘othered’ from society’s privilege, whilst maintaining the privilege of being human. We know, and will explore below, something about the demographic of community education being far from the middle-class ‘leisure learning’ of politicians’ assumptions (Blunkett and Tuckett, 2018); like all of English further education it provides opportunities from those marginalised by the mainstream academic pathways of school, A-levels, university.

The determination of posthuman thinking to seek out binaries and assumptions in order to see beyond not only the ‘monument’ or structure (Braidotti, 2011) of community education but also the “standpoint from which [the current system] makes sense”, to paraphrase Halberstam (2013, p.8) with reference to Frantz Fanon and colonialism, a connection which will make more sense later. Without this vital disruption to the norms of thinking, any re-imagining will be impossible.

Monuments and Documents

Throughout this dissertation, there will be frequent references to the ‘monument’ of community education (or English education more broadly) and to the ‘documents’ which uphold it.

The terms are common in historical analysis. Ceserani (2019, p16) explores the etymology, paraphrased here:

Monument – from Latin mens (of the mind), memeni (memory) and monere (recalling the past). Monuments are therefore the heritage of the past, what remains of what was established then. The ‘monument’ of education is as it is, because of a) what happened in the past to establish and maintain it and b) what remains of that, ie what historians choose to tell us. It “connates intentionality” (ibid), that is to say, it stands for something (or a set of somethings).

Document – from Latin docere (to teach or instruct); this evolved in the Middle Ages to mean ‘proof’. It has “connotations of truth or objectivity” (ibid.) The documents we see are always a selection of what ‘evidence’ has been available, however ephemerally, and the human mind – believing itself, as the essentialist human, to be the curator of the process – has made the selection. The documents therefore uphold a certain form of monument, which is believed to be its essential form.

Foucault, exploring the archaeology of knowledge (1972) contended that any examination of history had to examine the monument, rather than the documents, otherwise the original monument constructed by those documents would continue to stand. This is another way of saying, we want to do something different, rather than do the same thing differently.

COVID-19 – Stepping out of Time

The unique (and unintentional) timing of this research, bridging as it does the first wave of the COVID19 epidemic in England, provides a further counterpoint. The disruption to ‘life as normal’ during three months of lockdown, when people were told to stay in their homes unless their work was essential to the basic functioning of society, meant that lives were suddenly being lived online and access to ‘community education[7]’ was beamed into living rooms as (some) people exercised with Joe Wickes, learned to paint with Grayson Perry or danced alongside Oti Mabuse and her family.

The timing of this dissertation will probably mean that there will be little research to draw on about the uptake of these unexpected activities and certainly we won’t know about their impact on future community education curricula. And, naturally, the velocity of life is such that any piece of research is moving out of date the moment it’s submitted. But it was impossible to ignore such a schism, and so the original survey was revised and re-sent, to see if the disruption to everyday life had also provided a disruption to thinking. Nearly 400 contributions were received, including 40 received post-lockdown, in which the ideas were qualitatively different from many of the original submissions, when the potential of community education was perhaps more fixed.

In this pause to ‘normal life’ there is an opportunity to step out of time. Community education has been largely suspended in England and its future seems more uncertain than ever. As part of my stepping out of time to process this research, I was influenced by the Walking Lab’s ‘research-creation’, which “is the interrelated practices of art, theory and research,” (Truman and Springgay, 2016). They use performance art-based walking tours to take that temporal mis-step (Springgay and Truman, 2019) in order to unsettle conventional understandings of the past, present and future. This research does not use art in the same way, nor does it operate in the settler context of Springgay and Truman’s Canada. While it is impossible to remove this research from its context I can only hope that by keeping thinking open, some measure of the conclusions will be usable in any new world which ensues.

Joyful Militancy

The activism of the “subversive intellectual” (Halberstam, 2013) is probably the messiest element of this dissertation, and the most risky. Beyond the stated ethics of the methodology, there was no standing back in the name of ‘clean’ research. If an opportunity for activism presented itself, it was taken, and there is no denying that this, in turn, influenced future reading and thinking in the analysis stage. The literature review, essentially, did not stop, and activism inspired by the research process itself would have been unethical to delay.

This was due, in some part, to an emerging work around “joyful militancy” (a term coined by Montgomery and bergman in 2017, which shares the same Spinozen genealogy as this research). Joy, as defined by Spinoza[8], is ‘immanent’, ie not belonging to some transcendental ‘God in a cloud’. It is present in the connections between people and in the energy that erupts in activism in these constellations. In the spaces where we discussed this research, connections were made and activism happened[9] which in turn re-informed the research. No claim is made, therefore, for the sterility of metaphorical ‘laboratory conditions’.

The activism continues but the threads have to be cut somewhere (Latour, 2004) and in the relatively conventional narrative presentation of this dissertation there are hopefully enough anchor points for it to fulfil the requirements of the academy.


[1] Conventionally in the UK, the written submission for a PhD is known as a thesis. This word is also used in an Hegelian sense to set up an opposition and some form of victory or consensus: thesis – antithesis – synthesis. As the Hegelian dialectic is explored, challenged and critiqued by this work, the use of the word becomes problematic. I have chosen instead to use the term ‘dissertation’, which is more widely used on the European mainland.

[2] Within a given spectrum of ‘truth’: Duffy’s “rosy retrospection” (2018, p.238).

[3] For how that collaboration is achieved, read on.

[4] Following Moten and Harnay and in the words of Halberstam, (2013, p.25), “…we is always the correct mode of address here.” Wherever I use ‘we’, I am referring to some element of diffractive practice, ie my thinking is re-made because I have explored it with others.

[5] Community Education: underfunded, under-theorised and overlooked. We know this so unequivocally that it hardly seems worth spending six years of my life finding it out.

[6] The subversive intellectual, “enjoys the ride and wants it to be faster and wilder; she does not want a room of his or her own, she wants to be in the world, in the world with others and making the world anew.” (Halberstam, 2013, p.9).

[7] Defined above as, “…any adult education which takes place outside a school or university…”

[8] Spinoza wrote of ‘God’, his work was secularised by Deleuze (1970: 1988)

[9] An example of this is the #JoyFE💛 movement during lockdown, of which more below.



Thinking Environments

Update: The Greek Cream Bun

Many years ago I went on holiday to Greece. We were young and skint, we had enough saved up to drink beer, eat cheap food, party a little and sunbathe. Every day, on our way to the beach, we passed a bakery with tantalising cream cakes in its window. The cakes were nine times more expensive than anything else in the village, so every day we walked on by, promising ourselves a treat at the end of the fortnight.

On our last day, we had a few drachmas left so we called into the bakery, each emerging with a cream horn. We bit into them with relish…to discover they were actually made of bread, with some sort of synthetic Dream Topping inside. Not even Angel Delight! They’d clearly been made by an enthusiastic baker who had seen a picture of English Cream Horns, without having an actual recipe.

It’s exactly the same with the Thinking Environment. We call each process – Ideas Room, Time to Think Council, the basic building blocks of rounds, pairs, dialogue – an ‘application’ because the facilitator applies the Ten Components (or values) of the Thinking Environment to that intervention. It’s a deal-breaker. As Sophie Stephenson said, so much more succinctly than I do below, it’s not enough to do a Thinking Environment. For it to properly work, you have to be it, and that means an intentional practice of holding the components in place, even when that’s resisted.1 If you apply the rules, without the components…well, it’s just a Greek Cream Bun.

Here’s the original article:

Reaching the Third Horizon

I began my Thinking Environment training nearly 25 years ago at the Centre for HIV and Sexual Health in Sheffield. I know precisely when it was because I was still on maternity leave, in fact my baby was with me that first day.

He’s a man now, is Fraser, raised in a Thinking Environment and regularly coming to the #SolidaritySpaces I’ve been opening up for working class people like us to think, feel and just be ourselves in a challenging world. Thinking Environment spaces where – sometimes for the first time – we can breathe a sign of relief just to be there.

Thinking Environments online have been a revelation.

Witness, too, the exponential success of the #JoyFE💛 Ideas Rooms, a new application of the Thinking Environment which has emerged in lockdown. English Further Education is re-making itself (in some places) because of the ideas people have explored and incisive decisions they’ve made in those efficient spaces.

If you’d asked me at the start of the year whether Thinking Environments could thrive online, the answer would have been a qualified ‘yes’. I coached regularly via Zoom and I was no stranger to online spaces. I knew the processes would be helpful. But I could certainly never have guessed that Thinking Environments could be better online, and not just because of the possibilities afforded by lockdown to hold them regularly with people who became familiar with deepening their ideas. There’s something about the stripped down intimacy which really works.

There’s a critical mass of interest now and Thinking Environments are about to have their moment. To borrow a Three Horizons notation, useful for leadership in uncertain times, the disciplined space afforded by Thinking Environment processes allows for future horizons to be explored, current horizons to be scrutinised for the best they can teach us, and what’s within reach to be planned for and achieved.

If you have started imagining unicorns, please stop. This is robust, efficient, rigorous stuff. There are rules and they are applied with firmness and discipline.

Thinking Environments can’t be subverted. They can be sabotaged, but it’s really obvious to all (and can be dealt with). Any Thinking Environment session leaves role, rank (and hopefully ego) at the door, meaning that the people who resist are:

  • those with power and airspace who don’t want to give any of that up
  • those who hide behind lack of power and don’t want to step up and be counted
  • those who refuse to be disciplined in their encounters with others

I trained with the best. After Thinking Partnerships training at the Centre for HIV and Sexual Health, I learned to be a Coach, Facilitator and Consultant with Nancy Kline. I studied alongside Ruth McCarthy and Linda Aspey, two leading lights of the Thinking Environment world. My coaching practicum was supervised by Anne Hathaway (and I didn’t pass first time, either).

I trained for approximately 30 intensive days, plus a significant practice requirement, and regular quarterly attendance at the International Time to Think Collegiate. Had I paid for it all (which I didn’t, thanks NHS, EU Objective 1 and the generosity of Nancy Kline) it would have cost me something like £15k even back then.

So when people tell me I make it look easy, that’s why.

I am absolutely not being protectionist. Because of their growing popularity, the #JoyFE💛 Ideas Rooms are also practice spaces for facilitators. Thinking Environments are changing things and we lack facilitator capacity. The moment is now and we need to seize it. But it takes more than a trip to an Ideas Room to be able to hold the discipline in place and this is how I know…

I was using Thinking Environments in all my practice – and my parenting – from 1996 onwards. It was my pedagogy, my community work, the way I chaired a meeting and managed a team. But there was resistance in my organisation and when I finally got the chance to take the processes to a staff meeting, I mucked it up. I wasn’t skilled enough at that time. And so the saboteur had his moment, the process was discredited and the culture of that organisation did not change.

This is my warning, offered to you with love and respect. If you want to use Thinking Environments to change the culture of an organisation – and you are likely to meet with some resistance – get the experts in and get properly trained yourself – however you do that. I’m advocating practice, and starting small. Gather your allies around you and learn together. Work on the building blocks of rounds, pairs and dialogue until your facilitation is word-sharp and you have your own bank of stories. Practice forming incisive questions. Try your first Council out only when you feel safe with the people around you. Don’t try mixing ‘n’ matching with other approaches – this is a different paradigm. Learn why it’s so important to follow the rules (I still remember the times I didn’t, with a deep blush of shame).

The Time to Think Collegiate founded by Nancy Kline has some fabulous teachers on its books – Bryony Croft in Shropshire, Ruth McCarthy and Anne Hathaway in London, Linda Aspey in the Cotswolds and Sophie Stephenson in Sheffield. Nancy still keeps her hand in and her gentle, intensive style is unforgettable. I will be running some practice groups on a pay-what-you-can-afford basis via Patreon and the Ideas Room provides facilitation opportunities for regulars. I have #JoyFE💛 colleagues who are more than capable of facilitating practice groups too. However, that’s for individuals. Where organisations want consultancy, it’s only fair that they pay.

Thinking Environment processes can transform cultures, there’s no doubt about it. But they are not a magic bullet, particularly in cultures where discipline is lacking and has to be learned. As ever, strategic implementation is what makes change happen and, although the time for change is here, slow and steady will still win the race. Let’s do this together, and do it right.

1I was horrified to read in an evaluation recently that someone practising the Thinking Environment had omitted the component of Appreciation, “because people don’t like it.” Yes, the giving and receiving of appreciation – especially in teams or organisations where trust is low – can be squirmy. But if it’s sincere, specific and succinct, it virtually is a silver bullet for building trust. Plus, the opposite of appreciation is criticism. Practice appreciation to criticism in a ratio of at least 3:1 and you’ll find that when you have to challenge someone, they’ll actually listen to you with an open mind.

An Ethics of Joy

TEDx Doncaster 13.10.19 (images to be added).


“What would it feel like, to have more joy in your life?”

Several years ago, I started to practice an ethics of joy – and it changed my life. That sounds really fancy but my experience is a practical one and I’ll be sharing some ideas for you to take away. Together, practising joy, we can really change things here in Doncaster.

First, a little bit about me.

I was adopted when I was a baby and I was brought up in Mexborough, so you might be expecting some sort of tragic life story but in fact I’ve had a life full of love. At school I was the brightest of bright and it’s only when I went to Uni that I started to lose my way. Amongst all the middle-class kids I couldn’t find my place, I felt other and impostor syndrome kicked in. It took me decades to get my confidence back.

Here’s the thing. Having spent three years in the company of people I regarded as more privileged than me, I thought of myself as a victim. I was feisty and opinionated and yet I couldn’t see that the opinions I spouted weren’t my own. I could see injustice all around me, but because I didn’t feel powerful, it was always somebody else’s job to find a solution.

I patched together a public service career, I had my son and I started to think about what my values were. How often does someone ask us that? We are crowded by other people’s values: ‘British Values’ in education, religious moral frameworks, codes of conduct, political manifestos. It strikes me that by figuring out what our personal values are – our ethics – we equip ourselves with a compass for life.

I wanted my values to be more than words on a page. I wanted them to be a practice, something I actively did, rather than just talked about. And I realised that the word that kept coming up for me was joy. The sort of joy that happens when people interact.

I’m not talking here about happiness. Happiness is a commodity that’s sold to us. Nobody talks about doing happiness, unless you’re buying that dream holiday or the perfect brows. The happiness industry keeps us tied into spending – and if we can’t afford to buy what we see others delighting in, we feel like we’ve failed.

Doncaster is not the richest place on earth and that’s why we need joy around here, not more stuff. When I left the organisation I worked for I decided to see what would happen if I only took on work that brought people joy, because that seemed to be the best sort of help:

This is what I mean by an ethics of joy – a deliberate and affirmative practice. Not playing the glad game, but building relationships which play out in something good – a project, a collaboration, an exchange. This helps us be hopeful, which is the only weapon we have against the complexity and cynicism of modern life.

Joy gave me an ethics.

Good Help gave me a purpose.

Now I needed a toolkit.

Many years before I had been trained in a set of processes called the Thinking Environment: simple, disciplined rules to help people think for themselves and think better together. I’d raised my son in a Thinking Environment and I’d used it a lot in my teaching, so I figured it would help me practice joy.

One of the jobs I do now is run Slimming World groups in what used to be my school. Around 200 mainly women (and some brave men) come through that door every Monday, vulnerable and often ashamed. They are some of the 74% of Doncaster people who are overweight, something which is more likely to lead to isolation than to joy. Yes we get on the scales and we clap and give certificates, and we talk about recipes and getting more active. But we also teach each other how to feel hopeful and we do that by thinking together in a practice of joy.

Using the Thinking Environment, which does not allow us to interrupt one another, I ask everyone in the room, what is your non-scale victory this week? Where in your life have you felt hopeful? This is what they tell me.

I drove to Cleethorpes by myself.

I enrolled to be a midwife.

I asked him to leave.

What happens between us on a Monday is joy [PAUSE]: not something we have but something we do: a practice. And the more we practice, the better at it we get.

Last year, I was teaching a class that mirrored the town outside. White faces down one side of the room and brown faces down the other. No animosity, no connection. There was only one man in the room, a white guy, and he had 90% of the airtime. The Asian girls barely spoke. I practised my ethics of joy and we did round after Thinking Environment round. Slowly, the culture of the group shifted and joyful encounters started to happen. The guy relaxed – he just hated silence – and people began mixing in, having opinions, thinking. Their grades improved – massively. They spoke about one another differently. This is what one of them said:

That’s joy.

These students of last year are the teachers of tomorrow. I hope that some of them will come here, to Doncaster, where we have a school that is such a blessing because it knows how to practice joy. Do you know the school? Yes XP. Where parents didn’t want to send their kids at first and now there’s a second campus because their results – by any measure – are so outstanding. They are enabling kids to feel hopeful, identify their own purpose and confidently take action and that’s because they work together joyously – as a crew.

Every one of you here today can go out and practice joy by creating the conditions for others – and yourself – to be heard. It won’t happen overnight – people with power won’t want to give up their voice and people who don’t feel powerful will hide behind silence. But it will happen.

Here’s how. It’s all about the minor gestures.

  1. Checking in with your values and figuring out how you practise each one. This isn’t easy when they conflict – and they will do – with the values of your organisation, your church, your political affiliation, your family and friends. It’s a bit easier for me now in my nomadic career – when I feel my ethics getting crowded out, it’s time to move on. But it’s possible.
  2. Calling people by their name – accurately. Using their preferred pronoun. Asking if you are not sure. I’m shocked by how many teachers tell me, I’m no good at names. Get good at it! Nothing is more profoundly joyful than that.
  3. And give people space and silence to finish their thoughts. There are lots of ways to practice a Thinking Environment and you can look them up online. Go for a walk with someone and take it in turns to speak, not interrupting the silence until the speaker says, I’m done. Split ten minutes with a friend, five minutes to think without interruption each way. Once you’ve experienced that joy of being truly listened to, you won’t want to go back.

I am no paragon of joy. I get it wrong loads. I love a good moan. I’m certainly no relationship guru, I miss deadlines sometimes, and friendships when I overcommit. I’m a great parent, but perhaps not in the way that you might imagine. This was a little present from my son.

But I keep plodding on, joyfully, and all around me I see the ripples of change – real change, culture change. Joy is infectious. It’s a virtuous virus that passes between all of us. I hope today I’ve connected enough with you, for you to invite joy into your life, your work and your relationships too.

TEDx Doncaster

In October 2019 I achieved one of my dreams when I spoke at the first ever TEDx Doncaster. To be honest, I only applied because post-stroke I was doubting my public speaking skills and I knew it would be a supported process that would enable me to test myself.

The support was incredible. Based around Helm, a co-working space I’d used the summer before, and hosted at the Cast Theatre Doncaster, I was brought into the orbit of talented and creative thinkers, allocated a performance coach and – for once – put the marketing and design in someone else’s hands. It was an amazing experience and a challenging one as I had to learn my talk by heart.

Naturally, the day dawned grey and rainy and I had the ‘flu. Dressed up to the nines in the frock I’d bought for my son’s graduation, I coughed my way through the first session and had to take refuge in the cafe, so as not to disturb my colleagues. Here a woman stopped me, and gave me the advice anyone would want to hear: you need chocolate to line your throat and stop that cough. So I was accompanied into the wings by a grab bag of Minstrels and adrenaline did the rest!

I’ve made friends through the experience that I hope will be for life and we stay in touch via our encouraging WhatsApp group. TEDx Doncaster is happening again this year – so if you get the chance to audition, go for it!

Here’s what I had to say about practising an Ethics of Joy.

Place Matters

Present me with any sort of list and my brain immediately feels overwhelmed: it’s a wiring thing. So I don’t tune into whether it’s National Grandparents Day or The Week of the Hamster. But for 30+ years I’ve worn a red ribbon every December 1st and for the last few years I’ve woken up knowing exactly what I want to say on World Mental Health Day, October 10th.

It’s been three years since I started on a nomadic career path, guided not by any external framework but by a personal ethics of joy*. I’m never surprised these days to stumble across a paradox and if I’ve learned anything in that time it’s that, to a nomad, place matters more than ever. So I’ve woken up reflecting on physical place, and recognising that where I live has had a negative impact on my mental health for some time now. Convinced that returning home after days on the road ought to provide some sort of sanctuary, I didn’t see before now that the opposite was true. And in a classic domino-effect, this triggered thinking about how ‘place’ can sometimes be metaphorical and how community learning – in England at least – remains as neglected and unloved as my kitchen.

First things first. A year ago on World Mental Health Day I had a bit of a meltdown and the CLMH** research was finally published (these things were unconnected). My meltdown proved to be a watershed but CLMH remains a huge elephant in the room: ignored and unacknowledged to the point of paranoia.


CLMH did really happen and it cost the public purse £20million. 62 research sites (community learning providers) and – more importantly – 23,000 actual people trusted initially BIS and then the Department of Education with the stories of their mental health, in the hope that a connection could be made between participation in community learning and improvements in mild to moderate mental ill-health. Research sites were randomly allocated to one of three types of community learning intervention and participants trusted that, even if they did not personally benefit from the experience, others who came after would – which was hugely altruistic and unselfish of them. The research findings, analysed by Ipsos MORI, did in fact show results which were at least as good as the main NHS talking therapy intervention (IAPT) and that community learning engaged and benefited people less likely to access mental health services, notably people of colour and men***. Intersectionality within mental health is something that definitely ought to be talked about more.

So what happened next for CLMH? Precisely nothing. The Department for Education soft-launched it on World Mental Health Day 2018 (with no hard launch to follow, and no funding to implement its findings – or even disseminate them). Few of the research sites were able to continue the work, even if this meant good people lost their jobs (and the generosity of 23,000 research participants came to nothing). In desperation, the project manager Catina Barrett (@mhfenetwork) and I took ourselves off to the European Mental Health Conference in Belfast, where at a personal cost of €510 each (plus travel and accommodation) we presented to a workshop of eight people. Interested people, yes, but no-one who was likely to make anything happen as a result of the research. On my return, I was further disheartened to read an otherwise excellent chapter in a shiny new book about FE, which didn’t mention CLMH at all.

So where’s the problem and what’s it got to do with my new kitchen? It’s all to do with place. Part of my navigational compass are the ten components of a Thinking Environment, which include Place. Place matters. I don’t feel at home in my home any more, because being on my own in that family house full of memories is too painful. I can’t move (yet) so I’m fixing it up in the hope of shifting my relationship with it.

How do we fix up community learning? As FE colleges got bigger and shinier over the last ten years, community learning got more and more neglected. Place matters, and community learning has no place at the table (don’t @ me, with respect if you think you have – it’s not working). Like my tumbledown kitchen, the infrastructure has crumbled, appliances have stopped working and spiders have amassed in the corners**** As we discovered on CLMH (and unlike my kitchen), this is not about money, it’s about being out of mind. Community learning is the forgotten afterthought of FE: unsure of its place anymore, under-theorised and unloved, barely advocated for, trying to box with the big boys and failing. That’s why good people overlook CLMH when they are writing about mental health. And why for twenty years I’ve run along behind policy and opinion makers shouting, ‘What about us?’ And yet we have a story to tell that FE needs to hear, an expensive story, in which 23,000 mental health stories (and £20million) were deeply invested.

If I’m to keep living in my house without feeling like dementors have got me every time I walk through the door, I have to fix it up, so that it becomes a house designed for me and I can make a new life for myself there. Community learning needs to do the same.

My call to arms for World Mental Health Day 2019 is to join me in rebranding English ‘community learning’. Let’s start by calling it community education (like everyone else does). That sounds more powerful and invites new thinking. In a year stuffed full of Commissions, we should then create our own, virtual one, to set some parameters for the future of English Community Education.

There’s still a job to do in putting CLMH under the noses of people interested in mental health, so if that’s you please contact @MHFEnetwork. As for the Commission (because these things are always capitalised), who’s with me? Let’s make a start.

*Honestly not as fancy as it sounds. See my TEDx Talk (not even joking) or this blog.

**The Community Learning and Mental Health Research Project 2015-18.

***See the brilliant @dragonfruitfilm 1 in 8 Men, a product of Knowsley CLMH research site, which we’d like to think inspired the very similar, celebrity-studded and royalty-voiced Richard Curtis film ‘Every Mind Matters’ 🙂

****This bit may not be true of community learning, but it was certainly true of my kitchen.

finding joy in difficult times

For #ukfechat conference 2019

Starter kit: Nottingham UCU Joyful Militancy session (2.5.19)

We are living through extraordinary times. I’m known for not relying on the words of dead white men but Gramsci, a visionary who wrote from a prison cell, always inspires. His ‘interregnum’ was of a different time but I think we are similarly trapped between the old and the new and, in particular, between old and new thinking. Now I’ve started looking for them, I see and hear binaries everywhere. I’ve come to be allergic to them!

In the words of my good friend Rob Peutrell:

When times are bleak, how do we keep our professional spirits up, our integrity alive and our solidarity intact?  How do we resist being turned into assets in conveyer belt systems as education is diminished by marketing and messaging?  How do we stay true to the idea of education as an affirmative, transformative practice?

Note the collectivism implied by the word ‘solidarity’. It was long held to be a truth and a Good Thing that once the classroom door was closed, what happened within was between teacher and student. Learning walks put a final nail in that coffin but that individual space had been eroded for a long time, practically and mentally as our practice became increasingly bureaucratised. Yet, still, we operate largely in isolation from one another, as individuals, organisations, FE contexts, education sectors, public service, humanity. This is no accident, but a deliberate policy of capitalism to divide and rule. This session aims to demonstrate how, if we ‘only connect’, we can change the way we think and work. 

So here we are, on a grey Saturday in Manchester. Everyone here is committed to being an advocate of great practice in #FE or you wouldn’t have made the effort to come. But we all know that not all our colleagues – at any level of hierarchy – feel the same. Many are demoralised  – by their working pay and conditions, by the reductionist ideology that has cut the joy out of much of our education system, by the compliance practices of organisations: inhuman resources. They become obdurate – and I can see why. They fold their arms. The philosopher Henri Bergson called this ‘petrification’: they are turned to stone. 

In the midst of all of this, we have lost the ability to tell the stories of our practice. With the loss of staff rooms to accommodate more ‘bums on seats’ we don’t even tell them to each other any more! We can tell the ‘tragic life stories’ of students, because for twenty years we’ve been told that’s all that matters: not professionals but agents of transformation, i.e. it’s not about what we do, it’s something of the magic of FE itself that effects transformation. Rubbish. Let me tell you no-one with any influence on policy is interested, apart from as a convenient soundbite when they are challenged on widening participation. Transformation happens when a determined student and a skilled, professional teacher encounter one another on a field of play that is not too strewn with obstacles to navigate. Those are the stories we need to tell.

Writing the stories of practice back in to the public domain brings a new element to the relationship between teacher and student. Once more, we are in it together – equal as thinkers but in different roles. This enables a shift away from the infantilisation that has crept into FE, that well-meaning but paternalistic sense of ‘helping the less fortunate’. If you haven’t come across it already, check out think tank Nesta’s work on Good Help and ask yourself, is it good help or bad help that FE provides? (sorry, don’t like the binary but it’s not mine!)

I would like to explore today how we can bring joy back into our professional practice. I can’t take those great big boulders away that stand in your path. I can share with you some of the ideas and practice that sustain and energise me and many others. To do that, I’m going back to an even older and deadder white guy – Baruch Spinoza, Dutch philosopher of the 17th century. 

Spinoza didn’t see joy as the ‘everyone deserves happiness’ meme of the 21st century. We are sold the happiness myth by an economic system that wants us to a) be envious rather than collegiate with the people around us and b) buy more stuff. He saw it as relational – joy comes from our interaction with others, from communication, solidarity, empathy, respectful disagreement and the creative tension of new ideas. The prerequisite to this is humility and an openness to being wrong, to learning something new from someone with a different experience and world view and consequently feeling something different in the world. That’s so alien to everything we see around us in everyday discourse which is much more binary – us/them, left/right, leave/remain, all carried out by taking up a position and then defending it, what Bernard Williams (male, dead) called a ‘fetish of assertion’. A living bloke to read on this is Richard Sennett, his book ‘Together’ promotes a more ‘dialogic’ approach.

And so researching joy I found a collection of ideas from Nick Montgomery and carla bregman, still very much alive. Their book ‘Joyful Militancy’ translate’s Spinoza’s notion of affirmative ethics into a politics of now. 

I’d love to do a book like this for FE and at the launch of a project I’m involved in yesterday – #APConnect – we seeded this idea. Where is the affirmative practice in FE – practice which balances criticality with fresh thinking? What’s the impact of such practice? How do we tell one another about it? How do we tell the world beyond our silos? Policymakers? I know it’s out there, because people tell me about it. I very much see my job now – and that of others – as enabling spaces where people can learn to publish these joyfully militant stories of professional practice. 

I’m trying to live all this stuff. Two years ago I made the decision to free myself from organisations and operate as a nomad, working in different constellations of practice, doing ‘Good Help’ and moving on. I can be more safely critical in this space, including challenging people to dig deep into their courage (by en-‘courage’-ment) and find affirmative ways of enacting their personal ethics. 

Along the way, I find fellow travellers, not people who ‘think like me’ necessarily (why would I want that, if we are searching for new stuff) but who share enough of an ethics to journey together some of the way. I also found a philosophical lens that prevents me from slipping back into the silos of my own old thinking and that’s posthumanism the Rosi Braidotti way – a way of thinking that comes directly from Spinoza. 

I see theory as an energy drink and theorists – thinkers – are friends to me, challenging my thinking and keeping it sharp and moving on, just as critical friends do in the here and now. Posthumanism looks at Vitruvian Man, which established centuries ago what it was to be truly ‘human’ (and in charge of the world) – white, male, able-bodied, almost certainly affluent etc, the David Beckham of the time. Those of us who are not all of that, ie most of us, are immediately ‘less than’ – and society, culture, policy, practice forms around that. Posthumanism imagines not only what the world could be if ‘Vitruvian’ was decentred from ‘human’, but what it could be if ‘human’ was decentred from the world – but that’s for another time. 

What Rosi is saying here is that if we can create constellations of practice – ‘planes of encounter’ – which actively work at all the voices, not just the Vitruvian ones – ‘composing a missing people’ – we will come up with solutions that address the complex problems of now.

(The problem, of course, with posthuman writing is that an activist practice, an anti-fascist practice in my view, is communicated largely in academic terms which exclude that missing people! So that’s a challenge).

So after that important digression, I’m drawing on bell hooks to check us in with now and she is all about community. bell totally gets that ‘community’ is formed of numerous, often conflicting, views, identities and experiences – that’s what forms community, not the bland ‘groupthink’ of organisations and ‘politics as usual’. That sameness makes us risk averse, it’s almost dystopian. If we take chances, we are going to make mistakes, not easy in a ‘dominator culture’ where outstanding is the norm and perfectionism makes us ill – see the work of Brené Brown if you need evidence of that. What we can do – the ones who get out of bed and get here on a Saturday morning – is smooth out spaces where others can learn to dance.

So it’s time for us to stop being ‘preferably unheard’. Many of you here will be familiar with the #dancingprincesses movement in FE – many of you are part of it – writing our voices back in and throwing down the ladder for others to join us. This is a How To/Why To movement, affirmative, playful in its metaphors, taking a critical view yes, but not forgetting the practicalities too. We are philosophers of praxis, but we can’t congratulate ourselves too much when our panels, our contributors, our delegates, our reading lists are Vitruvian. I had a joyful day yesterday working with 50 people who are or will be the freshest voices in FE and 96% of them were white. I’ll leave that with you.

In fact, I’ve just given you a lot of why, so let’s move onto the ‘how’. For me, this way of living and working, whether you’re part of an organisation or not, has to be centred around your own personal, affirmative ethics in a Spinozean sense – a daily practice of checking in with yourself and relating with others – whether you like them or not – in a manner which is congruent with this practice. I’m going to be brutal now – if you have irrevocably lost hope, you have no place in education, except as a student, because there’s no way that won’t work itself into the DNA of your teaching. Most people haven’t and you certainly haven’t or you wouldn’t be sitting there now. 

Spinoza’s ethics, as we have heard, are relational. I played the Lone Wolf card for years at Northern College but it’s ultimately sterile. Figure out your own ethics – not your organisation’s code of conduct, or your political party’s manifesto, or your religion’s creed – and enact them in every interaction you make in a day, every day. That, pretty much, is what I do. It doesn’t make me good, but it makes me authentic and means that no-one can take ‘me’ away from me. 

So this (I think) is how to find joy in difficult times – not just find it but co-create it, work with it, drink from it. 

I have to finish on another dead white man – Spinoza again – twinned with Gramsci in my mind as a man before his time. 

This battle is not just for FE, not just for the public sector, not just for the country’s dignity and self-esteem, it’s for the earth. I have chosen to believe this is true. 

Come Together*

We are (all) in this together, but we are not one and the same.” Rosi Braidotti, 2019.

Last week, in its fourth year, the #ReImagineFE19 conference attempted to reimagine FE across its whole complex, glorious landscape. I’m going to lay down some challenges in this rough and ready blog so it’s good to start in an affirmative place. Our three provocateurs – Katie Shaw, Palvinder Singh and Christina Donovan – and the ‘Voices of FE’ soundscape courtesy of @FETransforms – did everything necessary to send nine working groups off to do the business. We had set the convenors of each group an unprecedented task – fix the unfixable thing, be the visionaries who can not only save but recalibrate FE. This sounds like words, but as a member of the small conference organising committee I can promise you that, this fourth time around, the expectation was reimagine or bust.

The timing was perfect. Two years ago, along with Andrew Harden of UCU, I stood up at #ReImagineFE17 and claimed that FE was about to have its revolutionary moment. Well, reader, we were wrong. With a little more humility this time round, it’s possible to say that now – maybe – now is the moment. And the moment arrives as the gift of #FEResearch.

FE Research has always had a presence, through the patient existence of research-positive networks such as LSRN, TELL and ARPCE. There’s an honourable history of FE to HE escapology (no judgment there), fellow travellers who have not pulled up the ladder. And in recent years some FE-based research has been supported by the Education and Training Foundation through various initiatives. So FE-based research kept a foothold in some parts of the sector, though with the shift in priorities of the former NIACE (now the Learning and Work Institute) skills in the formerly well-researched adult and community learning workforce have fossilised**, whilst other contexts struggle to have research aspirations valued or even recognised by the organisation they work for.

The truth on the ground is that, unless individuals are personally investing in post-graduate programmes of education, research unconnected with the supported ETF programmes is patchy, often ignored and even undermined. There is no formal apprenticeship for FE researchers outside the traditional academic pathway and consequently research quality can be patchy too. Again – no judgement. Why would it not be? That academic apprenticeship is a heavy investment – of money, of graft, of time away from family life – and involves deep encounters with impostor syndrome that not everyone is up for, plus it can be counter-productive in those organisations where doing an MA (never mind an EdD/PhD) makes you too big for your boots. There’s an anti-intellectual streak a mile wide running through FE.

The  ‘spontaneous’ emergence of the #FEResearchMap*** in the week before #ReImagineFE19 grew out of a rhizomatic history of connection whereby pools of research-interested people found each other on social media, and via existing and emerging networks. Organisations are like trees – hierarchical roots and branches – but a rhizome is more subtle and subversive, unexpected and difficult to control. Think of a fern, which returns to flourish even when you’ve dug it up, native bluebells carpeting the forest floor or lily of the valley popping up in the neighbour’s garden. I would say this of course but this rhizome first stirred back in 2015 with the publication of Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, a constellation of educators who hadn’t – haven’t – got cynical, eddies of activism which pooled around writing and research, bursts of energy as people shared their drive for a time and then moved on. The purpose was clear in a sense – ReImagining FE – but vague in application and constantly oppressed by the forces of compliance operating in both FE and HE.

The growth of interest in #FEResearchMeets, initially in Ashton-under-Lyne and Bedford and spreading across England, provided a focus, recently coinciding with intentional efforts via the #APConnect programme to network those in advanced practitioner or similar roles who had a can-do attitude and interest in research. The trajectory was evident: now is the time for interest in FE-based research to take flight. And although there was a specific, FE-research themed working group at #ReImagineFE19, talk of research ran like golden threads through every conversation. 

Activism needs a catalyst and it is ironic that this recent surge in rhizomatic energy has been in the face of Ofsted’s desire to understand what’s happening in FE-based research. It must have come as a surprise to good people at Ofsted that a genuine attempt to reach out was met with such resistance. With hindsight, the sincere establishment of a research reference group comprising only HE-based researchers was a bit of an open goal in a context where there is so much residual resentment about the spectre of Ofsted and how quality assurance is used as a stick to beat in some FE organisations. Collectively we need to move beyond this now. A plea to the sector to provide evidence of FE-based research initiatives is proof enough to me that the the offer of dialogue is a trustworthy one (even if I didn’t know the people involved to be trustable).

So the joyful energy of this moment is not without  danger and there was a sense of this at #ReImagineFE19. Christina Donovan’s provocation at the start of the day was about freeing the creative and immanent potential of trust in our working relationships but almost as soon as the map was published, mistrust crept in. Those of us who identify with FE but not with a single FE institution wondered where we fitted, making the (incorrect) assumption in some cases that we were being excluded and perhaps rightly (though a little righteously) remembering those £ks and family hours lost to our research training: ‘we know best!’ In response – what the philosopher Bernard Williams called the ‘fetish of assertion’ (taking up a position and then defending it) – a grievance amongst those of us based in FE organisations that we were OK to play out with as long as we were the junior partner was maybe a little defensive, given genuine and generous partnerships between fellow travellers in research. Honestly, some of my best friends work in universities, but that doesn’t mean I want to work in one myself.

Friends, we have got to stop this. Listen to ourselves. Practice a personal affirmative ethics in our relations with one another: look for the joy in diversity, not the fear. Like-values are worth seeking out. Like-minds keep our thinking within the filter bubble. As Rosi Braidotti writes, “We are not all the same, but we are all in this together.” It is time to notice not our differences, but what we have in common. Otherwise the moment will pass and it will be a lifetime before it comes around again. As my friend Andrew Harden said, we have opportunity in this interregnum. All it will take for some in FE to return to complacent thinking is for BoJo’s education minister to throw FE a bone. 

There are practical considerations. There is very little by way of a research training pathway in FE, aside from the honourable ETF funded opportunities and the traditional academic route to EdD/PhD via degree and Masters study. Organisations are not always prepared to support these routes with any form of remission or financial assistance (worth remembering here the huge number of FE educators on term-time/sessional/zero hours contracts). So many of the close practice enquiries that lead to interesting findings inevitably lack the rigour of an intentional framework of methodology or ethics because training is just not available. This should be easy to deal with – we are educators, right? We can teach one another (which is exactly what COOCs was set up for, by the way). Passing research skills forward is another way of not pulling up the ladder.

We also need a repository or at least an up-to-date digital catalogue of where research can be found. Research-active people will see things released on Twitter, will be savvy about using academia.edu and Researchgate and will watch out for journals such as ARPCE (and will still miss things) but most FE practitioners are not research-active in this sense. Having worked in the silos of FE myself, I had to start running an HE programme before I began to realise that everything really *wasn’t* stored on the Excellence Gateway, as I’d been led to believe. It’s actually quite difficult to even discuss this in an un-siloed space, because so many assumptions are made around language (all parties guilty of impenetrable acronyms) and the hegemony of ‘how it works’. The truth is that research on and in FE is incredibly difficult to pull together, as we have discovered recently. These misunderstandings need weeding out if we are to present a coherent cartography. 

This began as an appreciation of #ReImagineFE19 (and ended as a rant) so why is #FEResearch so important right now? For me it’s because this is the first rallying point for the whole sector that we’ve ever had. Policymakers tell us that FE does not speak up for itself and the problem has been – always – not that we’ve not had enough to say, but that like any diverse population we’ve had too much to say, to be heard. So it’s easier not to listen. But now we are saying very clear, solution-focused things and Ofsted are listening and the Association of Colleges are listening and, after all, those organisations – just like ours – are made up of human beings who are bothered enough about FE to work for it. It’s time, my dear friends and dancing princesses, to start listening to one another

*Not The Beatles (sorry Christina Donovan) – I’m channelling another Summer of Love https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dFKWpJKDwo

**This became evident during the Department for Education’s Community Learning and Mental Health Research 2015-17. Interested? Drop me a line and I’ll share ‘Not Them But Us’, the educators’ survey, with you.

***Looking awesome by the way.

Screen showing the word Faith. 

Thank you Simon Justice, Sally Reeve and Gavin Knox from Lincoln College for this image.

Silver Linings

When I was invited to Hereford College of Art to talk about my nomadic working life, as part of their ‘Jobs of the Future’ workshop, the timing was perfect. As Facebook reminded me, it was two years since I’d planned my new venture from an AirBnB on the North Norfolk coast. I talked to a group of talented artists about how I’d intentionally drawn on Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome1 to plan my lines of flight, how engagement with thinkers (‘theory’) and many other relationships strengthened me and how it all worked out in practice day-to-day. 

And, half planned, half carpe diem, I talked about how two months ago I had a stroke, which puts a different spin on nomadic life – on life in general, in fact. It’s not my first brush with mortality; I nearly didn’t survive my son’s birth and I came close to being swept away by pneumonia a couple of years later. Those experiences shaped who I am, someone who is affirmative daily, cheerful (most of the time) and open, so it was shocking to realise that my reaction to this latest health challenge was to stick my head in the sand.

Where did that fearful denial come from? As someone who tries to live a Thinking Environment, with En-courage-ment and the head-on engagement with reality demanded by the concept of Information, it certainly led to a few weeks of behaving quite unlike myself. Fear drove me, kept me awake at night imagining tiny flecks of fat, cholesterol and calcium proceeding slowly through my bloodstream. I went on a massive detox2 and catastrophised about a half-life future without dancing, or wine. I told no-one the truth except my very dearest, putting out vague messages about having an ‘electrical fault’ and scheduling a relentlessly upbeat social media output so that no-one would guess. Unlike my previous two close shaves3, although I was tremendously tired and felt really weird, I wasn’t so sick that I couldn’t plan my own funeral in detail. I googled and discovered that I was, in fact, in a coma4

I’m not a stranger to health anxiety, usually at stressful times5 but this was on another scale. It took me a while to realise that what I was experiencing was shame. At the same time, I was bullish with people who told me to ‘slow down’, partly because in some cases that meant ‘slow down and just spend time with me’. As my hand began to rehabilitate and test results came back negative, I had to encounter the idea that I’d been on a damaging trajectory which meant that I had, to some extent, done this to myself. 

Facing your responsibilities without doing the dance of shame6 leaves you wobbling along an emotional knife-edge and I’m grateful for the good people I had around me while I figured it all out7. All I’ll say here is that I’d been in an unprecedented period of adrenaline high, a purple patch of creativity, for several months. I’d been having a blast and I don’t regret a moment…and I’m not 23 any more and there has been enough shame in my life recently. I have written elsewhere about the shame and blame endemic in education; inevitable, I believe, in perfectionist cultures where outstanding is the norm. Becoming nomadic meant I stepped outside of that and yet here it was again – this time coming from another area of public service entirely. As I tried to research my condition, I kept bumping up against public health messages that told me it was all my fault: I ate too much, drank too much, weighed too much, worked too much…once again that echo of my schooldays – I was too much.

I jokingly describe myself as a ‘recovering public servant’ and life reminds me to look up from education’s siloes from time to time and think across the board, like Good Help8, a research project which is aiming to re-orientate public services. In my experience, a superb acute services response was followed by outpatient contact which reflected the perilous state of NHS funding; however there’s no excuse for the victim-blaming public health messages that framed my experience. And we weaponise these to shame and blame one another, as well as turning the gun on ourselves. 

Brené Brown’s work9 helped me process my shame response to my last job ending and helped me to understand that whilst guilt is healthy10 (I’m sorry, I made a mistake), shame is not (I’m sorry, I am a mistake). Shame is at the heart of the mental health epidemic we are experiencing: addiction, depression, anxiety, self-harm. Advanced capitalism feeds us a vision of happiness and when our lives don’t measure up, shame sets in. My shame at being ill (faulty), frightened (weak), living alone (unloved), is what made me uncharacteristically reticent to face up to my truths. I wonder if every disabled human is made to feel this way? Every other ‘non-Vitruvian’ person who is othered by our society’s norms? Equality might work differently if we could demonstrate more empathy for the shame laid on others. 

Shame drives us to feel bad about ourselves and the expectations of a ‘happy life’ drives us to shame. Shame makes us do damaging things, to feel better. I’m not spending time on sympathy for Theresa May but those tears were driven by shame. Not only shame at ‘failing’ but inside that Christian woman is the knowledge that on her watch, people burned to death, were deported, are destitute and/or homeless because of the corrupt ideology she follows. Shame means she can’t say, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake,” and neither can we, unless we are very wholehearted. We have to say, conditionally, “I’m sorry IF I hurt you,” because to be truthful would be to make ourselves vulnerable.

Boris Johnson can’t be seen to fail, Tommy Robinson can’t be seen to fail. Ex-colleagues who betray us can’t be seen to have messed up. It’s all shame – and sham. And, having survived a shame-show, I’d promised myself I’d never fall into that trap again. And yet here I am, ‘fessing up that I did just that. I hadn’t sussed it at all, I’m on life’s rocky journey, along with everyone else.

I’ve no masterplan to dismantle or replace capitalism, we are where we are. Talking up love makes nice memes, but it won’t get us anywhere. The only weapon of peace we have is vulnerability and we have to start somewhere. So I’m starting here, speaking into the unknown of a public space and saying, this happened to me and it changed me. I’m not quite the same as I used to be.

In this blog, I’m deliberately not making  connections to education, because if you’ve been willing to read this far, you’ll be making those for yourself.  Over-work is inscribed in our profession these days; an addiction. I think it would be easier to admit voting for Michael Gove right now than for some people to confess their workload is under control and so we collude, complicit in our own oppression, chipping away at our mental and physical health. Gramsci was right a century ago – the cleverest oppressors get us to do the work for them, they implant the micro-fascist in the head. Only you will know if your work is causing you to harm yourself, only you will know how to deal with that.

For me,  that’s detox, yoga, meditation, swimming, lots of sleep (and veg). As the weeks pass, I can feel the miracle that is my brain forging new neural pathways, I don’t wake up terrified and don’t have to tell my pinky finger to press the A key any more. I still feel it when I’m tired – not the numbness or weakness the doctors asked me about but a sort of mental separation between my brain and my left hand side, a fighting for mental focus. Of course, that could just be menopause! But I know I’m changed. 

I will still be a nomad. This isn’t going to send me scuttling back to the security of sick pay any time soon and anyway, I probably wouldn’t pass the medical. But to deal with this I needed to write it out, and my deeply held value of authenticity means putting my experience out there. It’s hard to make yourself publicly vulnerable about any aspect of health, but I drink from the well of Brené. To be vulnerable is to be whole-hearted. So in my whole-hearted way I’m saying, none of us are perfect, or even ‘outstanding’ most of the time. We’re just human and to be human in all its faults is to be glorious. If anything I’ve written here makes you step outside into the garden for a few minutes, or pause to call a friend (or your mum), or leave work half an hour early tomorrow, I’m thankful. Maybe we could all try to do a little more of that. 

This very personal blog is dedicated to everyone who has supported me over the last ten weeks. Every lift, laugh, loving message, help around the house, shopping run, biscuit, tweet, has made a difference and it’s been lovely to have been really listened to. I’ve had a life full of love and never have I felt it more. You know who you are. Thank you.


Every cloud has a silver lining. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve decided to tell you about my new super power. From time to time since the stroke, both my ring fingers start tingling and the joints get sore, I have to massage to ease them. This only seems to happen in the presence of stupid…*

*I don’t think people are stupid. I just think some people do or say stupid things sometimes.

  1. Stubborn, persistent and creeping underground into your neighbour’s garden right now. See also deterritorialisation, lines of flight, cartographies, affirmative ethics, planes of immanence and the nomad war machine. The jury is still out on body-without-organs. 
  2. Wine, caffeine, cheeky smokes, dairy (yes including cheese) are out. Yoga, meditation and green tea are in. 63 days in and I look sickeningly healthy but as I spent the first few weeks on the sofa I’ve hardly lost any weight *eye roll*.
  3. Reckon I’ve four lives left.
  4. Joke.
  5. My GP once had to remind me that I don’t have a cervix, during an QAA-driven panic about cervical cancer.
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBn3gTMD-yg 
  7. Not *always* the people you’d expect and isn’t that one of the true joys of life? People are good.
  8. Full disclosure: I was a member of the advisory board.
  9. If you only watch the first ten minutes I think it will really speak to you (it’s not the original TED Talk). If you watch it to the end, you’ll get a feel for how gendered shame is.
  10. Weird for a Catholic to hear.

Losing My Religion

Warning: stream-of-consciousness, one take only kind of post. 

IMG_7153I’ve been trying to articulate something for the longest time, something around the transformative power of a personal ethics.

Last year, I went again to Rosi Braidotti’s posthuman summer school at Utrecht University, my version of a city break or trip with the girls to Benidorm (copious amounts of Belgian beer but no actual dancing). At the heart of posthuman thinking is the conviction that the moral frameworks we have to hand are no match for an advanced (even post) capitalist, post anthropocene world. All the things we think we know, are not working.

That means religious morality systems (of any hue), political belief systems (capitalism, socialism), as well as professional/organisational mission statements, ‘standards’ and codes of conduct. All serve to maintain the status quo in all of its intersectional inequalities. Yet freedom certainly needs boundaries. What I think is that as long as those frameworks are external, we don’t figure things out for ourselves.

As I write this, Losing My Religion is playing on the radio and while I’ve never fully subscribed as an adult to any system of faith, I’ve certainly absorbed and acted for much of my life in accordance with principles of socialism. One of the first things I had to do when I started to study at postgraduate level was to disentangle myself from all of that, in order to do some thinking that was new. Otherwise I kept drifting back into what was already thought and what’s the point of that? I learned – and am still learning – that breaking the ties of old thinking is patient, incremental work.

When I was deeply involved in the CLMH research curation, a couple of years ago now, there was no appropriate external framework to guide us. ‘Research principles’ are so contested that we did not find an external ethics to fit. What emerged through a diffractive process of open reflection and scrutinising one another’s work was a collective working ethics, a walking of boundaries at our virtual meeting each week. As a process it was raw and challenging, often my skin felt too thin for the robust discussions or I found myself just saying words, speaking for the sake of having something to say. And yet my work got better, all our work got better as we let go of what we already thought and embraced looking for what was new.

So is this an individualist approach, part of that schizophrenic capitalism which is dividing our earth in envy and fear? I don’t think so because, paradoxically, we don’t form these personal ethics in isolation from one another. That process of diffraction I mentioned above means that we filter our thoughts through the perspectives of others, focusing not on reflecting back but on recognising the impact of that catalysis and consequently our impact on others. Collectivism is found in the constellations of practice we operate across: not lonely Cinderella but the Dancing Princesses.

No doubt I’ll continue to invent new political systems in Asda, after a few glasses of wine. And then forget them again the next morning. But my work is invigorated with the knowledge that what I can do best for the world is create spaces where people can work their ethics out for themselves.

Dancing Matildas



 Presentation to the ACDEVEG Conference, Melbourne, December 2018

Thank you for inviting me here today and making me so welcome. Since I’ve been in Melbourne, I’m learning from you that our experiences in what I’ll call the Further Education – or FE – sector in the UK, specifically England, have a lot in common with your own and so I hope that what I’ve got to say here is relevant to you.


Before I get into the nuts and bolts of it all, I’d like to say a bit about my approach to life and work. There’s nothing that can’t be improved by thinking about it first and so I don’t shy away from drawing on the ideas of other thinkers in everything I do. That’s a theory warning! My work now is nomadic; I’m affiliated to several universities and also do a lot of professional development with the FE workforce. I range across public service as a whole, doing community work in both housing and health and with women offenders. Coming here this week is about practising doing good work while out on the road. I think of myself as a recovering public servant.

3For decades, FE has been referred to as the ‘Cinderella Sector’ in British education – the poor relation. Do you have that here? That metaphor totally plays into a blame and shame, perfectionist culture amongst educators, a sense of powerlessness and lack of agency. It has cemented itself as a Cinderella in the head.

Historically, English FE and the TAFE/VET landscape here in Australia have much in common. I worked in college-based community education for nearly twenty years, during which time we shifted from writing our own quals to a situation which has become hugely centrally regulated and scrutinised – you’ve heard of our Ofsted, right? Well I’m no wilting flower, but by the time I left my FE job to go freelance a couple of years ago I’d reached the stage where I had a panic attack if I drove past a school that exhibited a massive ‘Ofsted say we’re outstanding!’ banner outside. So many of them do that you wouldn’t send your kids to one that didn’t and that’s not a good thing, because the human cost of that banner is high.

I think Ofsted might be the significant difference between us, not because of the level of scrutiny per se – I’m sure you have plenty – but because of the language used. In England, you have to carry a personal label of ‘outstanding’ to be deemed any good as an educator – a label that can be taken away from you after a twenty minute teaching observation at any time.


Just stop and think about that for a moment. If you know your Brené Brown at all – and if you don’t, check out her TED talk – you’ll know that her research links perfectionism with breeding the blame and shame cultures I mentioned earlier. And she links shame with how entire workforces are controlled. This is perfectionism imposed from the outside, of course, but it soon gets lodged in the head. As teacher educators you will recognise how endemic ‘impostor syndrome’ is, particularly amongst TAFE/VET educators, who might not have followed the ‘golden route’ of education. The literal truth is that Ofsted are beginning to recognise this and have shifted their position, but many of those responsible for compliance in organisations have not – I call out human resources here, not just managers – all of David Graeber’s ‘bullshit jobs’. I also call out ‘the pack’, compliant colleagues who – in times of fear and scarcity – take up a groupthink, ‘can’t do’ approach. Less of it here than in the UK I suspect, where rising levels of mental ill health and staff churn contribute to a bleak picture for the workforce. No wonder some colleagues dig their heels in.

So we find ourselves in the UK in a landscape of paradoxes. Short of funding, yet huge amounts of public money wasted on initiative after initiative. Zero-hours contracts for educators, yet I don’t believe there’s a principal who isn’t on a six-figure salary. Told to use ‘evidence based practice’ – but that the evidence of our own practice is worthless. Sold a story of transformational potential, yet corralled into place by risk-averse policies.

The problems are ideological – almost all our civil servants are privately educated, FE is for ‘other people’s kids’ – the problems are strategic and they are organisational. What concerns me is the impact of all of this on the workforce. The government minister for skills, herself a former nurse, asked recently how she could speak up for FE when FE didn’t speak up for itself and she’s got a point. We are depressed, disorganised and – frankly – obdurate. I’m sorry if that seems harsh. All of us here today will work with amazing educators. We’ve still got hope, right, or we wouldn’t bother? But others of our colleagues have folded their arms and are serving their time.

I totally get that. I don’t blame them. And I fully accept that structural change has got to happen, for anything to significantly improve – by which I mean fundamental, societal change, as well as policy changes in education. Whenever I talk about my work, I’m assailed by structuralists who seem to think I’m dumping responsibility onto the shoulders of individual educators so I’m just heading that off at the start. I’m not. I understand why people have got where they are. I’ve tried every other route open to me and it strikes me that nothing is going to change unless we educators make it change. Enter the Dancing Princesses.


In 2009 I made myself a Twitter account. Like everyone else, it took me an age to get going, but by 2014 I’d started to build networks with other educators outside my organisation. This brought a great opportunity to me – to collaborate in this book: Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses led by the Pied Piper Joel Petrie.

This was a book for educators who hadn’t got cynical; an attempt to replace the Cinderella metaphor with a powerful, collective, Dancing Princesses one. You know about the Dancing Princesses? Instead of waiting patiently to be married off, they sneaked out at night and danced until their shoes were in rags. The book is a mixed bag of essays by people who had – in the main – never met, written by FE practitioners and FE refugees now teaching in uni or doing other work. I’ve brought a few copies in for you to look through and you can see how engaging and fresh the tone is. It might be an ‘easy read’, but it’s also as complex and grounded as any other academic work.

My own chapter, written as a dialogue with my long-time work colleague Jane Weatherby, looked at how we created what we called ‘spaces to dance’ within formal learning programmes, by building communities on- and offline. The keynote of the whole book was affirmative critical thinking – if you have chance to read it I recommend Julie Hughes on the vulnerability of pioneering educators (particularly digital pioneers) and Rania Hafez on the limits of subversion. There was a huge buzz around being involved with something so refreshing. Naturally, the co-authors found one another on social media, sought one another out at events, began finding ways of working together which – crucially – permeated the boundaries of institutions.

These dialogues were invigorating because we looked beyond the ‘Cinderella of the mind’ and the structures – often managerial – which keep it in place. Over a series of (soon to be) three volumes, we rejected ideas of a ‘golden age’ for FE – there might have been one, but how is it relevant in this world, now? We challenged the way in which English FE ‘othered’ students into tragic life stories, more significant because of where they came from, than because of what they achieved. We began to re-imagine what further education might look like, if its actors were powerful.

We spun off into different constellations. There was no masterplan, just a joyous commitment to staying connected and an openness to what came next. Many of us still have not met for real.


Initially, we hung together around a hashtag #dancingprincesses. I cannot overstate the essential importance of Twitter to our movement. If you are not on Twitter, have a think about it. You don’t have to go anywhere near Lady Gaga or the Kardashians. If it connects Dancing Princesses who can’t escape their workload on our tiny island, it can surely do the same for this vast and beautiful continent. Via that hashtag, we began to transmute from co-authors of a book to self-identified Dancing Princesses – part of something bigger. As Julie Hughes writes, compliant organisations focused on the bean-counting side of survival are hostile environments for people trying work in new ways. Silenced and sometimes afraid, we found solace in our new sense of belonging. And because we didn’t formalise #dancingprincesses into any sort of structure, unlike Brexit we kept our borders open and invited diversity in.

What came out of the Dancing Princesses movement in a practical sense was a campaigning network Tutor Voices, a conference series ReImagine FE, two more books and lots more journalism, productive alliances and, perhaps most powerful of all, a resurgence in research from – rather than about – further education. We began telling our own stories, raising our own voices. We were able regenerate professional hope.


We’ve no committee structure, no standing conference, no bank account, no logo, but we’ve got an identity and – so much more than that – a powerful metaphor which enables others to self-identify as an educator who retains hope. Many of us – by no means all – are or were teacher educators, so our reach is immense. I got into teacher ed from community education as a deliberate sustainability strategy back in the day – sustainability for the work, not for me – and the amplifying nature of teacher ed means that there are hundreds of dancing princesses out there now in FE, patiently teaching affirmative pedagogies and changing organisational cultures – carving out spaces to dance. That metaphor alone is the gift that keeps on giving. When we get bruised or tired, we find each other on Twitter and play one another something like this:


I’m not joking. I did it this morning, when I was feeling a long way from home 🙂 It reminded me I was part of something.


The Twelve Dancing Princesses begins with a mystery: how do they manage to ruin so many pairs of shoes, night after night? Like the Princesses, we keep sneaking out to dance. As well as the cost in shoes, we are beginning to notice that we are breaking up the ground.

Since we started this work, back in 2014, little has changed structurally in FE apart from not-entirely-successful forays into merged uber-Colleges and various experiments with technical education. Yet the middle ground is breaking up, due to all the dancing. We are witnessing powerful activity at educator level which might not be turning the tide quite yet, but which is holding it for certain. What we’ve done, I think, is changed the nature of protest.

Once again, I’m not discounting those who engage in more traditional forms of dissent. University colleagues across the UK went on strike earlier this year and they were dancing too, employing novel forms of activism including performance, social media and unofficial ‘teach-outs’. They were largely supported by students and ultimately not unsuccessful: here’s the Cambridge University flashmob:


Not quite Christopher Walken! But witty, engaging, impactful: a #dancingprincesses approach, perhaps, to a conventional means of protest. FE, with its low pay, increasing casualisation and confusion of trade union representation, needs to dance a different path right now – change from within.

Emboldened by ideas and alliances generated outside the institution, educators are changing cultures. A key entry in the Dancing Princesses playbook is Richard Wilson’s work on anti-heroic leadership – leadership for complex times.


Convincing educators of their own powerful agency to grow the number of anti-heroes is revolutionary work. It plays out not in confrontation but in innovation, in a newness that cuts across the stale and sticking-plastered thinking of FE. Educators are ditching the dusty old teacher ed canon – I don’t know what it’s like here, but (with honourable exceptions) it’s terrible there – decolonising their reading, switching themselves back on to professional, pedagogical practice via TED talks and podcasts, developing a new democratic professionalism which is digitally fresh and takes its inspiration from dialogue with others. We are using what’s there – turning the structures which contain us to our advantage, what Sara Ahmed calls ‘complaint as diversity work’.

The shift is palpable. What started with books and a conference now reaches into professional development programmes and practitioner research, into online and face-to-face dialogues which actively practise respectful disagreement. We might be fecklessly out dancing all night, but it sort of seems like we are growing up too.

There’s still a long way to go. The UK is in a mess, you don’t need me to tell you that, and it’s a crossroads for the public sector, facing ideological annihilation on the one hand, but also not totally fit for purpose on the other. The challenge now for the Dancing Princesses is to send out roots into policy, taking a Richard Wilson brand of anti-heroic, anti-dependency, ‘good help’ into decision-making at the highest level. We are building some strong alliances, who are putting the infrastructure into place – kudos to the government-funded Education and Training Foundation, whose professional development and professional research programmes are opening dancehalls across the country. We got to know them on Twitter.


I’d like to end by summarising the things we did that got us to here: how to be a dancing princess, if you like.

  1. Networks. These are essential. There has to be an online space, otherwise you’d just see the same old people all of the time – and I don’t mean email! The purposeful use of freely available social media has been crucial, collecting around hashtags such as #femedtech, #feresearchmeets and, of course #dancingprincesses.
  2. Constellations. Here, the work is the organisation, rather than the organisation being the work, as it so often is in times of economic and ideological survival. Constellations are time-limited, task-oriented ‘projects’ that don’t necessarily need funding, or ‘permission from your line-manager’.
  3. Dancehalls. Where are those spaces to dance? And, to return to where I came in with this, dancing isn’t just about doing, it’s about thinking too, about choreographing newness. In pressurised, casualised working environments, we don’t even have staff rooms any more. So where can people get together and talk about their work? Virtual is essential, but real-time meets, facilitated so that people think together, is what really reimagines.
  4. I don’t know about TAFE/VET, but FE has been anti-intellectual for the longest time. This is unhelpful. ‘Theory’ doesn’t have to be remote and being detached from those who have gone before – and who are thinking now – isolates us and keeps us down. Seek out thinkers who inspire and provoke – Rich Wilson, Sara Ahmed, Leigh Patel, many of the Dancing Princesses. This is not about ivory towers, it’s about developing a playbook, an imaginary of ideas.
  5. Pedagogies. Ultimately yes, it’s all about the students but the days of being told our mastery doesn’t count have got to be over. Our work is as much about enabling students to “feel hopeful, identify their own purpose, build confidence and take action” as it is to teach them about stuff, particularly I’d argue in the VET sector. Thinkers such as Michael Newman and bell hooks are Dancing Princesses too.
  6. Leadership. Anti-heroic leadership for complex times walks a personal ethics, as Azumah Dennis writes in The Principal. Forget the mission statements, figure out your own steps and don’t be told by others how to dance.

To transform further education, Dancing Princesses need to transform organisations by creating spaces for themselves and others to choreograph new steps. And if we fail? Plan B is already under discussion by some. A future where the dance leads us away from the fairytale castle and out into the fields. For those involved in rhizomatic initiatives such as the Ragged University, SenseLab, Co-operative Uni and COOCs, that moment has already come. Watch this space.