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 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

**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.
  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.






They call your strength insanity*…

A poster by Caroline Caldwell, which reads, in a society that profits from your self doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act.
(c) Caroline Caldwell @dirt_worship

Yesterday I had a mental health crisis. Don’t be tempted to pathologise me: I don’t have a condition you can label and cure, I’m just a woman who loves life and embraces all the feels. And sometimes that collapses into something briefly dangerous – when I’m incubating a virus or particularly overwhelmed and triggered by the usual stuff (1).

These episodes are brutal and short for me – a pure hit of hopeless despair. They come out of nowhere, always, and they are rare but intense. As the years pass – thanks largely to my involvement in the CLMH Research and the empirically-based good sense of Brene Brown – I’ve learned to be more open about this aspect of my life. Nobody really wants other people to know that every six months or so they rage and rave about the house, sobbing and thwarted, feeling utterly, literally worthless; I’d rather show you my knicker drawer. But as I began to write about my mental health, I noticed that other people were starting to listen. ‘Mental health’ is something we all have, for good or ill.

At the lowest point, nothing will help and I can reach out (2) to no-one but at the same time I want everyone to know what I’m going through. World, how can you do this to me?! (Yes I know that sounds ridiculously self-pitying and afterwards, of course, I’m ashamed). My thinking brain doesn’t switch off during this time so I know I’m making an utter fool of myself in front of my fiercest critic (3) but I’m all affect, at the mercy of chemicals and my emotions. At least, with the wisdom of middle age, I know it will pass. As a youngster, I thought I was mad. I thought each time that it would last forever.

Today, I had a lifeline. Because of the mental health journey we have been on together, documented last year in his extraordinarily beautiful Coping in Hagen blog, my son and I share a rescue package.

“Help,” I texted him. “I’m having a mental health crisis.”

Quick as a flash. “Do you want me to call?”

I’m shaking and crying, wouldn’t know what to say. “No.”

“Can you go for a swim?”

The pool I go to is ten miles away. Driving would be reckless. “No.”

“Then get your trainers on. Go run round the lake. Take your phone.”

It takes me twenty minutes to assemble my gear, but I’m calmer. I haven’t run out of doors since June but it helps that it’s a beautiful Autumn day and that The Chemical Brothers are already cued up on my phone so I don’t have to rummage. Self-destructive me channels all my energy into how hard it it, into every uneven surface and bramble scratch and aggressive swan. Having run myself out by the far point of the lake, I turn and walk home.

As the endorphins drop, I’m tearful, but the urge to destruct has left me; I’m no longer in danger of medicating or self-harm. I spend the afternoon sitting mindlessly on the sofa, making myself drink water and using all the energy I can muster to push away guilt. This is a work day after all.

Finally, it’s time to write.

Today is World Mental Health Day 2018 and the start of a two-day global summit on mental health culture change in London (4). Neither I nor any of my colleagues from the CLMH Research have been invited, but I’ll be curious to know if the summit addresses the question of where the problem lies – with the individual or with a society dominated by compliance and the inequality of multiple hierarchies. I’m not insane, but from the first moment I was described as a ‘highly-strung’ girl, that label has dogged me. I’m a strong and powerful person, no victim, but it’s certainly true that I don’t always fit in and that’s what precipitates each episode. My passions have made me an outsider (5) and that’s not always a comfortable place to be.

That there’s an epidemic of mental ill-health in the UK, across all age groups from the lonely senior to the anxious child, is generally agreed. I’m not a great fan of Marx (these days), but his concept of alienation as a precursor to this – the schizophrenia of capitalism manifest in consumerism and inequality – seems as logical a way as any to interpret our public health nightmare, as Rod Tweedy’s article explores. “You can be speedy, inter-connected and utterly estranged from one another,” cautions the posthumanist Rosi Braidotti, about modern life.

One of the things I learned from both Brene Brown (6) and the CLMH Research was that mental health is fragile, precious, creative and vital. We all have ‘mental health’ and the most creative amongst us often have mental ill-health too. Our emotions define us as humans and we need some space to be ourselves, even within working environments. No corporatised, sticking plaster ‘Wellbeing Strategy’ will save the health of a worker marked out for a precarious life by insecure and oppressive conditions, but raising a discourse around mental health in workplaces, families and organisations, rather like the Self-Esteem Team do in schools, is a step towards being more flexible around who people actually are. I have the privilege of a loving family, a comfortable home and a supportive network, unlike those for whom mental ill-health intersections with other oppressions. Today I am fragile, but I’m sober and I’m whole.


*From ‘Ugly Little Dreams‘ by Everything but the Girl, a song about the possibly lobotomised and certainly abused Frances Farmer. The link is to a YouTube video.

(1) For an adopted person, go figure.

(2) My son and I have a joke that you can’t reach out unless you’re The Four Tops and sometimes this cuts through. (Obviously reaching out is the right thing to do, if you’re able.)

(3) Me.

(4) Attended by the Duke of Cambridge. I don’t usually reference Royals, but it’s pleasing to note that here’s another young man whose mum didn’t always know how to behave.

(5) I can remember Aunt Reed, in the opening chapters of Jane Eyre, describing Jane as “passionate”. I could never work out why this was an insult.

(6) Check out ‘Daring Greatly’ or her new book, ‘Dare to Lead’. Brene’s website is

Becoming Nomad

Nomad 9

I celebrated one year as a nomad pretty quietly in May, drowning in undergraduate scripts as I had for many years previously, so that nothing in that moment felt different from before. I wanted to write something to mark the anniversary, then the summer happened and it didn’t get done. But I did a lot of thinking and now I’m writing this, for myself really. I’ve learned that being happily nomadic means finding little anchors in time, moments to pause and make sense of the experience through as many lenses as I can gather. I’ve learned, too, as my friend Liz taught me years ago, that thinkers really are our friends. I write the map on a daily basis, but I take each step diffractively, breaking new ground because of other thinkers behind and around me. If you can understand it deeply enough, play fast and loose with it enough, theory supports you.

Fast forward three months and I’m mixing with the brightest of the bright at Rosi Braidotti’s posthuman summer school in Utrecht (so great to be back after missing a year). The theme this year is Posthuman Pain, Ethics and Endurance: Living an Anti-Fascist Life. This has been me, for the past fifteen months, trying to live an affirmative ethics, an anti-fascist life. When I’m asked to present an aspect of my work to the Pedagogies Panel, I decide (eek!) to talk about my new career as a nomad educator.

DISCLAIMER: I’m not incapable of complexity. I love the discipline of wrapping my head around complex thinking; after all, my idea of a holiday is not Ibiza (well, maybe it also is) but Posthuman Summer School. But I can’t live complexity, I can only live simply, so my attempt at making nomad life real involves distilling complexity into some form of workable essence.

Deleuze runs through my life like words through a stick of seaside rock.

Nomad 1Before I was a nomad, I was a teacher educator, for many years, and the teachers I worked with taught adults, often in non-traditional settings: drugs workers, prison tutors, trade union tutors, nurses, communities, family support workers. My team worked with a social purpose pedagogy, infused with posthuman thinking after Kay Sidebottom and myself came back from Summer School in 2015: if the first thing fascists seize is the curriculum, they weren’t having ours. The hallmarks of our work were slow pedagogies – pro-social, community building (1), supported by digital structures of engagement: a community of praxis which reached far beyond the walls of the institution to draw newness in – and an intentionally posthuman curriculum (2).

An effective pedagogy, by any ethical or instrumentalist measure. Within the bubble of the classroom, we all thrived.

Nomad 2Posthuman thinking compels you to question the structures and systems which close in on the bubble: the interests of potestas (3), the ‘law’ (scrutiny, hierarchy, management). Once you start looking, you can’t unsee. What happened with me is that, slowly, the organisation stopped being ‘the work’. The work became the organisation. Hierarchy asserted itself and the posthuman moment arrived: the pull of  potentia drawing me beyond my limitations. It was time to go.

I expected to be frightened, on the outside, so I asked myself what I was frightened of. It turned out that nothing was as scary as potestas in the form of a perfectionist (4) culture imposed from above (Ofsted (5)); an education system where ‘outstanding’ was the required norm. The euphoria of being released lifted the fear of having no salary and something glorious happened: the community of praxis swelled up to support me and offers of good work flowed in. Where values are shared, ‘networking’ pays.

Nomad 3So far, so capitalist. But I wasn’t prepared to be an ‘educational consultant’ raking in the cash. I’m a Deleuzian nomad, trying to live a daily practice of affirmative ethics, in a pestilent setting which, nonetheless, brings me great joy.

Adult education in England is characterised by an exploitative (6), managerialist, scarcity culture which has led to a demoralised workforce where fear, stasis and obduracy abound. To paraphrase Bergson, the sector is petrified, predated by its own infrastructure and the sharks of ‘improvement’. Despite ten thousand mission statements (perfectly reflecting the expressed values of advanced capitalism) its ethics are corrupt. Pedagogy is nowhere. Students already failed by the sausage-factory school system take endless resits and rotate through apprenticeship after unwanted apprenticeship. Lifelong learning is bitterly absent, and England is full of poorly-prepared plumbers (I’m a plumber’s daughter, so this bites).

Nomad 4So the fascists already hold the curriculum and my little teacher education bubble was just that, a tiny, isolated constellation. What’s the job of a nomad in a world like this? It’s certainly not taking on commissions to help adult education providers “get outstanding at Ofsted”.

I began thinking about the potentia of nomadic work to find new lines of flight, to deterritorialise spaces claimed by the machinery of state, however briefly. Since 2015, I’d been getting to know other educators who also hadn’t got cynical; we referred to ourselves (informally, rhizomatically, tongue-in-cheek) as Dancing Princesses (7), after a book some of us had been involved with, and we gathered princesses along the way. I figured that my work should be amplifying (and diversifying) those networks, generating potentia energy and smoothing out ‘spaces to dance’.

Nomad 5It took me a while to climb out from under conventional ideas of what a career should look like, to establish legitimacy for myself. (Thankfully I’m too old to worry what anyone else thinks about me). Stumbling across a research methodology based on the Australian bowerbird shifted me to another plateau (8). Suddenly the players were assembled and the fragments of what I was trying to do locked into place onto a plane of immanance (at least that’s what it felt like). The satin bowerbird (9) creates its beautiful structure to attract a mate, decorating it with (usually blue) objects. As Tess Brady writes, to create an ethical career out of shiny blue things requires “nerve, a good eye and a lot of know-how.” Realising that with the tax breaks afforded to the self-employed (10), I didn’t need to be greedy, I began a daily practice of ethics: walking my boundaries, as it were, in order to try and live a life of radical transparency. It is at once the most difficult and the easiest thing to do, especially when it involves turning down work, and I am grateful to the continued practice of the Thinking Environment (one of the slow pedagogies, also a peer coaching technique), to keep me grounded in my own ethics.

Nomad 6

Nomad life takes discipline and I don’t always get it right. I dither over decisions and take too much on; I still end up working punishingly early mornings, overdoing it and sleeping all day but I’ve no-one to blame for that now.  Rosi Braidotti’s rule of thumb is that a good career is two-thirds potestas to one-third potentia. This has been a useful guide and certainly helps me balance paid and pro-bono work, as well as map where my influence is strong. Staying on the move and outside of power relations takes energy and there’s no sick-pay safety net in self-employed work so I have to keep rested and well; in many ways (not least being released from the sickness of perfectionism) this move has been good for my health.

Sundays I’ll rest up if necessary but more often I’m getting ready for the week; working across constellations takes some thinking about (11) and there’s usually housework to be done. Mondays I run five Slimming World groups, my bread and butter and the best public health work ever (12). Tuesdays, I count my cash (13) then I have three days to work on whatever constellations are live: digital community building, professional development training, Thinking Environment coaching, public speaking, lecturing, mentoring, community development, (minimal) meetings, policy work – and the rest. Fridays are for writing – education journalism, academic articles, an ebook, for my PhD – and I go to a co-working space to escape the tyranNomad 7ny of my increasingly untidy home. Saturdays I take my mum shopping (14). All held gently in a web of social media engagement so that I’m constantly thinking diffractively, re-walking my boundaries moment by moment.

The concepts I’m working with are familiar to all students of the posthuman: rhizomes in the form of constellations of praxis, de-accelerating the manic velocity of advanced capitalism with slow pedagogies of joy and hope (15). To guide my daily praxis, I seek out what I forgot to forget, not trying to mend or rescue but, with others, to do something new, in pop-up spaces which we briefly smooth out. I’m guided by a belief in ‘enough’ and it’s working, to resist the apocalyptic demon of scarcity thinking.

I’m not saying this work is better. I’m saying this work is my work. It’s still reactive – a dilemma I Nomad 8face at the moment is that to truly bring newness in it’s looking like I need some sort of organisational vehicle (16). I can’t piggyback forever and I can’t always work (formally) alone. Of course this feels like reterritorialisation and I’m pondering how to make that happen without becoming incorporated – in the UK even a social enterprise gets weighted down with potestas and before you know it you’re sitting in meetings every day. I’d certainly be living my best life if I never had a proper job again: in fact I think I’m unemployable as I’m allergic to any hint of ‘line management’. I still can’t drive past an Ofsted school banner without feeling sick so unless things radically change I’ll never work in education again (17).

Complacency is a real and present danger – Bergson’s petrification – and the pull of reterritorialisation is strong; it takes energy not to be drawn into power relations. A diffractive practice (readings, conversations, social media) helps me focus on newness: after all, the whole point is to change systems, structures, assumptions – everything. To shift into a post-Vitruvian, post-anthropocentric world.

There is so much potential for working with others – human and non-human, within and outwith formal education structures. I see the balancing of constellations as ‘tending to the vines’ (18), permeating institutions and forming relationships with those princesses on the inside who want to create spaces to dance. In the future, who knows? Next year marks one hundred years of co-operative education in the UK and perhaps a Co-operative University could sit at the heart of this rhizomatic world. It’s a compelling thought and one to keep thinking. In the meantime I’ll keep smoothing out and dancing along.

EDIT: For the sake of transparency, since we can’t escape (yet) living in a capitalist world, it’s important to say that I had no rich parents, no contributing partner, no savings behind me (in fact, after raising a child alone for 20 years I had debts). I remortgaged my house, cashed in an insurance policy (both privileges) and with what I had owing from my former employer, I made it work. To use business parlance, I broke even after six months. 

Nomad 10

(1)  Thinking Environment, Community Philosophy, Restorative Practices.

(2) Here is my take on a posthuman curriculum and here, more usefully, is Kay Sidebottom’s.

(3) From Spinoza: potestas = hierarchical power, politics as usual/potentia = the campaigning spirit, the vital politics of change.

(4) See Brené Brown’s work on blame, shame and vulnerability: consequences of perfectionism (‘Daring Greatly’).

(5) Public education scrutiny, UK-style.

(6) Zero-hours contracts, more teaching hours, less pay, infantilising ‘line management’, remedial approaches to professional development, that’s just the staff.

(7) Daley, M., Orr, K. and Petrie, J. (2015) Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. London. Trentham Books. See also same editors, (2017) The Principal: Power and Professionalism in Further Education. London. Institute for Education.

(8) While shopping online for perfume. Strange but true.

(9) Irritatingly, this is the male bird, although the imaginative researchers who came up with the concept are all female (Australian scholars of creative writing): Tess Brady, Pam Greet, Helen Lillecrap. After my first ever presentation about the bowerbird, I was delighted to learn from a Tasmanian colleague that the female selects the bower of her choice, after which all the other blokes’ bowers get kicked over.

(10) Yet another way in which advanced capitalism replicates itself.

(11) I could write a whole other blog about how to balance lots of constellations which would basically boil down to a) do what works for you visually and b) use Trello.

(12) If you’re surprised by this, that’s great. I love it when that happens.

(13) A lifelong socialist (whatever that means these days), I never thought I’d be nostalgic for old-fashioned, non-advanced capitalism: a direct transaction of exchange. And shopkeeping.

(14) This is a whole-day endeavour.

(15) Read bell hooks.

(16) For two reasons. One is because not everyone will contract with an individual. The second is to bring new people into the constellation.

(17) At least I’m not a hypocrite. I don’t care if I’m at the top, bottom or middle of a hierarchy, I don’t want to be enmeshed in those power relations.

(18) Botanically inaccurate. Vines have a single root, they are not a rhizome.

Repowerment: a social purpose pedagogy

Lecture for Leeds Beckett University’s Education for Social Change pathway 18.11.17 At the start of the session, I set up the conditions for ‘freshest thinking rounds’, one aspect of the pro-social pedagogy Thinking Environment, and the lecture broke to accommodate these rounds at various points.

Hello and welcome to the session. Please feel free to tweet using the hashtag #repowerment.

I left teaching when I could see that education was going to hell in a handcart and my efforts to change things were just tinkering around the edges. I also fell out badly with the concept of ‘management’ and how managerialist cultures are concerned not only with bureaucracy for its own sake but also with the enactment of power. I saw this damaging the mental health of the workforce and it was time to get out. I divide my time now between what you might term ‘community education’ – such as the brilliant #iFemale financial digital empowerment programme with women offenders here in Leeds – and trying from all angles to influence education policy. I’m a professional thorn-in-the-side.


My conviction comes my values – not in a woolly unformed sense but in their intentional practice. I check in with myself so often that I recognise the physical feeling now of being out of kilter when I don’t get things quite right. I teach with integrity, where integrity is what happens when all my values are being fulfilled. I’d like to take a moment to check in with you. What is a value that is of most importance to you in your practice? What is Postcards representing the Ten Components of a Thinking Environmentthe practice principle you have put in place to enact that value? I’ll give you a simple example to get you started. As a community educator, I get there early on Mondays to switch the water boiler on, so that everyone can have a hot drink while they arrive. This is grounded in a value of empathy for me. A simple practice, but the ‘feel’ of the welcome would be very different if I didn’t bother to do that.

The exercise we’ve just done is one which opened teacher education courses for a decade in my previous work – and still opens them now. My mission here today is to encourage you to develop your personal pedagogy and at the heart of that should be your own values. These will guide you not only in your practice but in the choices you make about your career down the line. Enact your values in every action and you fundamentally can’t go wrong.

In education, one of the places values play out is in the language we use – about ourselves, what we do and the people we work with. I’ve been working recently on a community education research project, which has enabled me to glimpse community learning practice across providers nationwide. I’ve noticed that paternalising language plays out in protective practices which, although invariably well-meaning, have the effect of infantilising students, extending dependency…a sort of anti-social mobility, if you like. You may work with children all the time, but there’s still no need to infantilise them (unless they are literally infants, and as human beings they still deserve to be treated with respect). So you will hear me refer to participants in education as people, more often than not, occasionally as ‘students’. Never as ‘learners’ or some of the other words we use to distance people from ourselves: in various forms of education, ‘children’, ‘parents’, ‘women’ are all used with an othering inflection from time to time. OtheringThe word ‘parents’ is an interesting example; in family learning, I’ve frequently heard ‘parents’ used to as code for a certain type of parent: often by people who are parents themselves (just not that type of parent). A ‘parent’ from a “deprived” or “hard to reach” community carries a train-load of social coding baggage: poor, possibly single, on benefits, unhealthy, poorly educated, feckless…you can imagine my feelings about the terms “deprived” and “hard to reach”!

Adults, however young or old, should not be infantilised, or how will they ever take up the reins of power in their own lives? According to my values-set, education is fundamentally about change and growth. Its social purpose is to enable people to feel powerful enough in their own lives, to make personal decisions which are positive, compassionate and healthy. Sometimes this sort of work is referred to as ’empowerment’, but that ignores the disempowering influence of society, placing the ‘problem’ firmly with the person. And sometimes people have plenty of power, they just use it oppressively!  I’ve been playing around with the term ‘repowerment’, to disrupt conventional thinking a little and see if anything fresh emerges, which might help us reimagine what education should be.

I call upon you to question the language used in your practice context. What does it say about you and the way that you think? What’s your freshest thinking about this?

Before I go onto share some thinking around professionalism, I would like to say a little about subject knowledge, considered by some to be the Holy Grail of teaching. Obviously we often teach to pass on knowledge (sometimes we teach to pass on a skill, or change attitudes and behaviours). Sometimes all of these. This requires us to be accurate, precise and up-to-date in what we know about the subject(s) we teach. This for me is a given, as it gathering accurate data about the work that we do, and there is no need for all the hot air wasted in pointing it out in discourses about education. There is no ‘traditional vs. progressive’ – that’s a made-up argument to distract you from getting on and changing things about education that are not working. What often gets missed in this dialectic is 4 Whiteness Glugthe importance of knowing the history of your subject – all its histories. Its female history, its Black history, its LGBT history, its colonial history. It’s an argument for another day but if we only teach our subject’s white curriculum, nothing will change in an unjust world. To read more about this, I direct you to Lola Olufemi’s open letter to Cambridge University, which caused a media storm in recent weeks.


If values are one half of the magic formula in education, professionalism is the other half. Another set of values, of course, but these too should be yours, alongside any codes of conduct that you are expected to work within (if you can’t, you may find you are in the wrong job, or working for the wrong organisation). In adult education, we work within the Professional Standards for teachers in FE and if you work in schools there will be something similar I’m sure. Professionalism exists in three dimensions and the final part of this lecture explores what this means for educators, in the broadest sense of the term:


Democratic Professionalism – educators who are committed to working critically and collaboratively to maintain the integrity of the profession.

Education’s future relies on a collective, distributed leadership, a leadership of new ideas and thinking. There’s precious little of this happening in policy-making and it’s up to us to influence that. Education is not working and we can’t leave the future in the hands of those fewer and fewer people who pop up everything, controlling things from the top to keep them just as they are. Being an education professional is not just being a classroom teacher: it’s being a leader, a researcher, a thinker. The structures we work within are actively policed to keep us in our place (and keep students in their place). Tait Coles (heard of him? check out his book, Punk Learning) wrote, a couple of years back:

Education is produced for and by the white middle class to help maintain the social and economic status quo. It deliberately fails to consider the values and beliefs of any other particular race, class or gender. Young people who enter the educational system and don’t conform to this vision are immediately disadvantaged by virtue of their race, income or chromosomes.

Whatever the space is for you to influence the future of education, find it and contribute your own unique and diverse perspective. Education needs new voices and that includes yours. Whether this is your trade union (unlikely, but I feel I should say it), a regular Twitter space such as #ukedchat or #ukfechat or looser networks that grow up around This is an impressionistic image of dancing men and women taken from the story The Twelve Dancing Princessesenergising events such as Northern Rocks (held here in May, don’t miss it), figure out what you think and then say it. Don’t just be absorbed in the machine. We can dismantle oppressive thinking by refusing – affirmatively – to buy into the structures that support it, such as white-only, male-only reading lists just to use one example. Read what excites you and read what makes you cross. It will all make you think.

Don’t put your faith in institutions, put it in each other. We have somehow acclimatised to the ‘fact’ that the world has to be about making a profit, that education is about the financial bottom line, but it’s institutions that demand that, not teachers and students. What we do is try to subvert what we are given, rather than change things. Question everything and as Rania Hafez writes in Dancing Princesses, remember that subversion has its limits and its cost. There comes a point where we have to hold out for fundamental change.

Dialogic Professionalism – educators who open up new dialogic spaces in which to meet students as equal critical thinkers.

Dialogic engagement, as described by Richard Sennett, is about equality and it’s about exploring the middle ground, rather than defending binary positions. It’s about thinking critically and differently. Yes, we enter a power relation with a student when we mark their work, but we can be honest about that and still be equal as thinkers. As I implied earlier, I hear a tone, increasingly, when tutors talk about students (worse still when students are referred to as ‘learners’, but that could just be me). It’s an ‘othering’ tone. It’s a tone of oppression and inequality. It’s an ‘us’ and ‘them’. That has to stop.

Dialogic professionalism is about creating ways to get students thinking for themselves. I use “pro-social” facilitation processes such as the Thinking EnvironmentCommunity Philosophy and Restorative Practice, to ensure engagement as equal thinkers, whatever our identities, starting points and places of pain. We’ve done some of that today. These are techniques which teach both listening and critical thinking; they grow community and encourage individuals to be accountable to themselves and to the group in which they operate.

These pedagogies are my practice of nearly 20 years now and when I was part of a team that was scrutinised and judged, as educators in a formal setting, we came out like shining stars. Our grades were the best, student behaviour superb, our widening-participation reach meaningful and enviable. This stuff works.

Digital Professionalism – educators who navigate and exploit the affordances of the digital age, to enhance critical education.

The resistance to digital pedagogies is right here, right now and yet they are the perfect Various images indicating the FAB spectrum - first principles, purpose, support, fluency leading to digital resilience and hence literacycompanion to dialogic approaches. Raise your expectations about what students are capable of digitally and save the time you’re together to do the deep dialogical work I’ve described above. I’ve been saying for years now that if you’re not digital, you shouldn’t be teaching and I am no longer apologetic about it. This is not about laptops in classrooms and state-of-the-art whiteboards. It’s not about loaning iPads (then carefully counting them all back in). It is about broadband reach and the digital divide, but there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors about the latter which is really just about institutional resistance.

Instead of sitting sulking with folded arms, because you think you’ve been asked to do something ‘extra’, get over your ego and get down with your students in figuring out new ways of learning and being. Why? Because they are leaving you behind and you are doing them an ethically unacceptable disservice by under-skilling them for life and work, particularly in terms of keeping themselves safe and effective online.  And the bigger why? Read David Price‘s ‘Open’. Open education, open media, open research…this is how the world will transform.

In the past few years #FELTAG and ETAG spelt out the need for rapid digital growth in education and others since have clarified and refined the message. Jisc see digital as a  “set of spaces, not just a set of tools.”  The professional imperative is there and it’s up to you to seize it. If you’re resistant, unfold your arms and check out the FAB Model of Digital Resilience. It’s a really effective way of both teaching and challenging yourself and it’s worth investing some time in practising it here.

My final challenge to you is a bold one. Education is reaching a crisis point. If you don’t buy into new ways of being, into pedagogies of change and hope, it’s not just that you’ll get left behind.  There won’t be much left, for you to be left behind from.



Coles, T. (2014). Never Mind the Inspectors Here’s Punk Learning. London. Random House.

Daley, M., Orr, K. and Petrie, J. (2015). Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. London. Trentham Books.

Daley, M., Orr, K. and Petrie, J. (2017). The Principal: Power and Professionalism in Further Education. London. Institute of Education.

Becoming Capitalist

When I was a kid, apart from a Mary Quant Daisy Doll and a plastic nurse’s apron (free with Twinkle), my favourite toy was a Post Office set. It’s taken me half a century to This is a photograph of a Daisy fashion doll, designed by Mary Quant in the 1970s.realise that I’d chanced upon the perfect combination of public service and shop.

Fast forward fifty years. I’m approaching six months as a freelance worker and born-again capitalist. And after a rabbit-in-headlights ‘honeymoon’ period (well, hardly),  I’m finally starting to feel I’m holding it all together. Shopkeeping is definitely a big part of the mix. I’m feeling anticipatory about having a stall at Wath Christmas Market for my Neal’s Yard stuff later in the month (I make zero money from this enterprise, as I spend it all on nice things). And I go to sleep after Slimming World on a Monday unbelievably thrilled at the thought of counting up my cash the following day.

I’m no Fagin. But what’s it all about? I genuinely don’t think it’s avarice, I’m not greedy This is an image of a tabby cat protectively hoarding gold and silver coins.and I don’t actually care how much it adds up to, as long as I’ve covered my backside financially. But I’m shocked by how liberating it is to earn money this way – and by how thankful and relieved I am not to work in the public sector any more.

I have these conversations with my friend Mel Swanwick, who opened the Wath Tap micropub* in our village 18 months ago, after a long career as a community worker. We excitedly tell one another how nice it is that the harder we work, the more financial reward we get – and then we giggle together guiltily, even look around to be sure we’ve not been overheard. We might describe ourselves as public servants in recovery 😉 

And yet…our work still provides a public service; it’s just that these days we are social entrepreneurs. Mel set out to open a pub where seniors like her dad could feel comfortable. Dogs and takeaways are welcome, Yorkshire Tapas** and left-over chips are often found on the bar and when there’s a singalong everyone joins in. Mel is involved This is a photo of Millie, a regular dog visitor to Wath Tap, with a pint of beerin local politics and does sterling community work, bringing together local traders and consumers in our ungentrified, former coalfield village.

Similarly, I’m blogging not blagging when I describe my freelance Slimming World career as the best community empowerment I’ve done. Those Mondays in Mexborough give me a reach I could not have achieved as a community worker employed by the NHS, the local authority or even the This is a photo of empty Neal's Yard blue bottlesCommunity Partnership, which was as riven by politics as any similar organisation. A broad (for Mexborough) social demographic of women (and men) come for unpatronising, non-infantilising group coaching and over the past weeks I’ve watched confidence, agency and personal power blossom exponentially in relation to pounds lost. It truly is social purpose Slimming World and while I don’t make the same grand claims for selling the little blue bottles I can certainly account for a few more people in the world (including myself) practising their values by making ethical skincare choices.

I still do the education things I did before – writing, speaking, teaching, coaching, researching, social media – but now I get paid for (some of) them, rather than doing five of them for free on top of my #moreforless working hours.

The difference is freedom – from hierarchies, structures and systems. I was fortunate to learn my craft, start thinking for myself and explore my personal/professional values as part of a public sector which arose from the undeniably sound principles of the Beveridge Report. I probably couldn’t have forged this new rhizomatic path any time before now. Certainly it took decades before I figured out that I didn’t have to work for anyone – that I This is an image of Johnny Cash making a rude gesture, with the words Work - stick it to the man superimposedcould, in fact, manage myself in working for public good. My reasons for that are complex and I hear their echoes all around me, but essentially we are all caught up in the death dance between capitalism and a Marxism which finds its expression in state control. Even now it is incredibly difficult to talk, tweet and write about this without being perceived to be on one ‘side’ or another.

On my way back from Wath Tap, after a few drinks with my son, I have an occasional This is an impressionistic image of dancing men and women taken from the story The Twelve Dancing Princesseshabit of inventing new political systems, which I’ve then inconveniently forgotten when the next morning comes around. So I don’t have the answers. But I’m actively seeking out others who think similarly to me, that it is possible to re-imagine a public service where we all contribute equally, without any individual being patronised, disempowered, oppressed or ignored. My own ideas are emerging. Watch this Dancing Princess follow those new golden threads.

Campfire Convention

Flatpack Democracy

Co-operative Colleges

The Ragged University

*Disclaimer: my son works @wathtap when he’s not at uni. Welcome to Dearne Valley village life!

**Black pudding, dripping cake, pork pie…you get the picture #pigproducts


The Practice of Values

The posthuman philosopher Rosi Braidotti talks about the “ethical imperative” of finding new ways to challenge the world order, a drive that mirrors the ultimate aspiration of many. It certainly suggests that values must frame any political engagement that seeks to disrupt the status quo.  Braidotti believes that genuine ethics work from the inside out; by individuals touching base with their own integrity and for her, as for her inspiration (the seventeenth century philosopher) Baruch Spinoza, that resonance is physical. As thinking humans, we also ‘feel’ when our integrity is provoked. We talk about being Postcards representing the Ten Components of a Thinking Environment‘unsettled’, ‘uncomfortable’, ‘uneasy’. Our ethics are inescapably embodied, even when that means that our bodies betray our intellectual position and niggle us into reflection. Feelings are so often the trigger for rethinking situations.

Conventionally, ethics are externally imposed – particularly in schools and workplaces, where codes of conduct abound, but also in families, whether real or metaphorical. Certain behaviours are considered to be typically Christian, middle-class, female, Jamaican etc and there are sanctions for those who step outside.  These are an ethics to be obeyed; passive in their nature on the whole, though brought into play by “doing good”, accepted not scrutinised, sometimes rebelled against, ultimately accountable outside the self to a higher power, whether that’s Mum, God or ‘tradition’.

An internally-guided ethical compass is less straightforward and arguably harder work. Climbing out from under our parents/teachers/managers/clerics/community leaders’ ethical expectations is precisely what maturity is about and it’s not easy. Developing a personal ethics takes humility and self-awareness, a commitment to testing yourself, to persistently travel to the sharp edges and dark corners of your psyche. It’s work that never ends; a daily walking of your own ethical boundaries to avoid sinking into complacent smugness: ‘knowing’ you’re a good person is not the same as enacting goodness in the world.

The difference is between ‘being’ and ‘doing’ (even ‘doing good’). Being loyal to a friend going through a hard time is not the same as showing solidarity with them when they Clouds over a beach, representing the Thinking Environment component of Equalityare under attack from others. Recognising that an injustice has been done is not the same as speaking out about it. Braidotti’s ‘ethical imperative’ is concerned with enacting our ethics; of living a life which accommodates a consistent, mindful, embodied practice of values.

As a teacher educator, I would do ‘values work’ with every new cohort. We’d collectively define what a value was, then wordstorm values commonly found in teaching: equality, empathy, fairness, growth etc. I’d then ask each participant, including myself, to identify one value they hold dear and identify how it plays out in their practice. The intention of the exercise was to link practice principles with values as the first step on a journey to developing self-aware teacher identity.  The shocker was how few people had ever thought explicitly about what their values were Snowy Cliffs, representing the Thinking Environment component of Diversitybefore – shocking because, in the main, these were people who were already teaching, in many cases for years and in most cases their ‘students’ were young people and adults from marginalised communities. Contrast this cultural lack of reflexivity with the centralised promotion of “British Values” – in the public sector, at least, and more implicitly in news media propaganda – and it’s easy to see the continued dominance of the externally-imposed ethical model.

If we agree that the work of the moment is finding new ways to challenge the world order, perhaps explicating the practice of values is one way of approaching that. Certainly for me it’s been a lightbulb moment and it’s a practice I’m going to continue to work on – and write about – in the days and weeks to come.

This piece was first published on the Campfire Convention website in 2017.

The Professional Literacy Blues

This was first published in FE News on 8th May 2017. Still feels relevant.

Ever been in a bad relationship with a good person?  It’s all gone sour, but you can just about remember why you fell in love with them in the first place so you keep sticking it IMG_6251out, hoping things will change.  You might daydream about them leaving you and how brave you’d be in the face of that inevitable pain. Or is that just me?

In these turbulent times, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to figure out that further education is going to face five more uber-tough years and we’re not likely to stop rolling with the punches any time soon.  Our tortured sector has taken so many hits that as educators we’re virtually out for the count.  Like that bored and tormented couple, we drag ourselves out of bed at the start of each week, wanting it to all to be over.  It’s hard to cling to a pedagogy of hope in these dire days.

But we must.  What’s happening here is a terminal case of low professional self-esteem and nobody is going to fix that for us if we don’t take up the reins ourselves.  We are victims of ideology, passively awaiting the next indignity with maybe a bit of deskside moaning to keep us feeling miserable.  Yes the work we love is going to hell in a IMG_6032handcart.  Yes we find ourselves constrained and tormented by ‘market values’.  But we need to get out there and inflict ourselves – our values, our passions, our creativity – on the world, instead of waiting to be done to.

I love a good rant, but when I hear teachers’ voices raised in public there’s a negative, reactive, often fatalistic tone.  We are so downtrodden that we choose to believe we have no power.  Or that we only have the power to be subversive, to dance when nobody’s looking.  Inevitably, that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  In her chapter for ‘Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses’, Rania Hafez wisely identifies what’s at the sorrowful heart of our loss:  autonomy, authority, trust.  Powerful elements of professionalism, which have been eroded over the past twenty years.  But that doesn’t mean we have to be cowed by these acts of vandalism.

If adult education is to have any meaningful future, educators must take control of their own professional literacy; in fact it should be mandatory for any teacher education programme to model how to do this, rather than the jaundiced passivity, which is often what’s passed on.  Professional literacy starts with that fire in the pit of the belly that A shabby whiteboard house, with the following words graffitied in black paint: "Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes."almost certainly got you into teaching in the first place.  In adult education that’s almost always the desire to ‘pass something on’, ‘give something back’, ‘make a difference’ (let’s face it, it’s not likely to be for the zero-hours contract).   Making that early connection with deeply-held values (whether or not they are the values of your organisation) is what will keep you doing what’s right in the face of provocation.  When values are satisfied, integrity is present.  Pay attention to what it’s telling you.

Professional literacy is also about knowing the history of your subject:  all its histories, not just the “white curriculum” that’s easiest to find.  Seek out the hidden corners and silenced voices of your specialist area; don’t be told how to teach, or tell yourself it’s not possible to do interesting work against a background of dull-as-ditchwater qualification structures.  It’s about joining with others in communities of praxis, on and off-line, to take strength from one another.  It’s about dancing in the middle of the fighting – as IMG_9727Rumi wrote – even if it’s in your own blood.  If you’re not up for that, if you think it’s OK to churn out useless qualifications and squander young (and not so young) hopes, should you really be teaching?

In this post-election gloom, when maybe the least educators hoped for was that febrile breathing space before a coalition is announced, Owen Jones talks about a politics of hope.  We know that for today’s politicians, further education is where other people’s children go, to get their ticket to work.  They don’t have the privilege we have, of knowing what education can really be.  Yes it’s hard to imagine an education of hope right here and now, but that’s what each of us should be about.  After all, who’s going to make it happen if not ourselves?