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Girls’ active identities: navigating othering discourses of femininity, bodies and physical education

This post summarises my published work Hill, J. (2015) Girls’ active identities: navigating othering discourses of femininity, bodies and physical education, Gender and Education 27(6), 666-684. You can find the paper at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09540253.2015.1078875.

While all of the research and writing I did from my PhD studies tried to challenge the accepted, to complexify what we think we know about young people and their physical activity experiences, one of my favourite things about what my participants told me has made its way into this paper. Here, I talk about girls who are physically active – although they might not think of themselves as active. Girls being physically active is a challenge to the accepted for two reasons: the field talks so much about girls being inactive and disengaged in PE; and what counts as sport and physical activity, as a physically active body, and especially as a feminine appropriate physically active body are narrowly constructed so that girls who don’t ‘fit’ cannot see themselves in the images of ideal fit bodies. Ideal bodies can marginalise and other some girls.

For the girls in this paper, the ideal was not enough to put them off being active (unlike some of their peers who I talked about in other paper). However, they couldn’t entirely get away from discourses of gender that regulated them and a system of penalties and rewards for reinforcing or deviating from gender norms.

For instance, one girl Lucy was highly active in a range of team and individual sports. But she was beginning to moderate the types of activities she did to concentrate on ones that would help her attain a slender body, rather than continuing to develop the muscular body she had. She did this because she claimed that boys at school called her fat. She was punished for gender inappropriate activity and physicality.

Other girls enthusiastically took part in physical activity as long as the environment was right and they were surrounded by similar people, that is, girly-girls. Ayesha liked single sex PE where she could be with ‘just girls’ who ‘understood each other’. She also claimed that they didn’t have to act like tomboys in this setting. While she felt included, the question remains about how excluded tomboys might have felt in a setting that still reproduced gender regulation. Neither single sex or mixed classes intrinsically have the answer.

Girls here were othered by discourses of fatness, whiteness and femininity and I discuss ways of listening to girls’ voices on the struggle to challenge gender norms, call for equality and avoid surveiling/regulating other girls’ bodies. Girls and boys can be supported to identify and make sense of gender boundaries, acceptable gendered and racialised performances, and create discussion out of instances of diversity or regulation.

Abstract

Within physical education and sport, girls must navigate discourses of valued athletic and gendered bodies that marginalise or ‘other’ non-normative performances through systems of surveillance and punishment. The purpose of this paper is to share girls’ perspectives on how these discourses affected their gender performances and activity engagement. Students aged 13–14 in one ethnically diverse UK secondary school were invited to create a photo diary of the physical activities they engaged in. Photo-elicitation interviews in small groups followed. The girls positioned themselves as physically active but had to carefully manage their activity choices and gender performances in a single-sex physical education environment that regulated deviation from the fit, slender, girly-girl. Although the girls demonstrate the difficulty of resisting, they indicate moments of positioning themselves against norms that suggest the possibilities of shifting gendering processes. The paper points out the importance of listening to ‘other’ girls’ narratives in building positive physical education engagements.

Body-positivity in dance: the importance of community

For World Ballet Day (1st October 2015), I talk about a recent research project carried out in London-based dance school Irreverent Dance, research that has been published as Hill, J., Sandford, R. and Enright, E. (2015). It has really amazed me what my body can now do’: boundary work and the construction of a body-positive dance community. Sport in Society. You can find the paper at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17430437.2015.1073946.

As a scholar of physical education and sport pedagogy, I am often on the look out for good examples of physical activity sites that offer something new for (future) teachers and coaches to learn from. It’s what can help guide developments in the ways physical education, sport and dance are taught. This led me to get in touch with Irreverent Dance, when it was coming up to a year old and offering mainly ballet classes. For me and my co-researchers, Irreverent Dance seemed to offer the sort of positive experiences and environments in physical activity that we were looking to learn from, in its challenging and alternative approaches to dance teaching and practice.

At the risk of starting on a negative point, traditional ballet teaching styles and spaces have often been considered a little exclusionary or marginalising of body sizes and shapes that don’t fit the expected in ballet. Amanda from Irreverent Dance writes here about her perspective on these aspects of ballet and why it is important to challenge them.

While there are many valuable things to say about the teaching styles found in Irreverent Dance, this piece (and the research behind it) concentrates on how the teachers and dancers worked to create a community – in and out of the studio and also online – that supported everyone in that space developing a greater sense of their own body capabilities: that is, how body positivity was encouraged. This idea, body positivity, is highlighted by Irreverent Dance in its promotional material as a central goal. Body positivity is becoming a popular idea that might counter the marginalising of anyone outside the norm. As a goal in sport and physical activity it could be useful alongside well-being, pleasure and other social or personal outcomes. So how does it work in practice? What do teachers or coaches need to do?

We sat in on some Irreverent Dance ballet classes and a showcase, and interviewed dancers and teachers, to find out what body positivity meant to them and how it was developed. Three things stood out to us:

1. Celebrating bodily capability

There was a high level of celebration of what bodies can do. This sense of achievement was expressed both in relation to specific ballet technique and in terms of general physical ability. Irreverent Dancers were able to develop their dancing ability at a pace they were comfortable with, progressing gradually through ballet grades and repeating terms if they wished. Even if the moves were not reproduced in a textbook fashion, the developments that learners had made were much more important. The learners’ reflections suggest that their understandings of the body as ‘not capable’ of doing something might have arisen in previous dance or movement experiences. Learners were instead actively encouraged to think ‘I can’ in Irreverent Dance. As a result, many felt that they could now own the identity of dancer. The community of Irreverent Dance worked hard to create a ‘freeing’ space, with a commitment to inclusion, respect and not judging others. From the first class, learners were asked to treat others and, importantly, themselves, in a positive manner.

2. Committing to gender neutrality

Alongside body positivity, another vital element of Irreverent Dance that appeared to have been built into the environment of the school was gender neutrality. Boundaries of gender in sport and physical activity are usually quite deep seated – separate competitions and classes for men and women, and distinct deals of masculine and feminine appearance or comportment. Irreverent Dance notes that traditional ballet expectations that men and women wear different outfits, different colours, do different dances and take on distinct roles can be quite limiting and normalising. Elements of dance that have typically gendered boundaries were addressed: for example, men were invited to learn to dance en pointe if they wished. Dancers commented that their perception of what their bodies could do developed positively, when heteronormative and cisnormative boundaries (in dance movement and performance) were eliminated.

3. Challenging ballet norms

A central element in the learning and community of ID was deconstructing ballet’s gender boundaries; challenging dominant notions about what gendered ballet bodies look like, what they should do and what progress must be made. Some learners reflected on how they had been looking for a dance class that would suit their ‘uncoordinated’, ‘geeky back of the class loner’ or ‘fat’ bodies. Ballet norms in the sense of technical requirements, language, music and dress styles were recognized but with gender norms being challenged or even removed, this meant that learners who would previously have not had access to ballet could find a space that was safe and positive for them.

Committing to these positions in a dance school might take a lot of work, as dancer habits can be difficult to shake off and the broader culture of ballet still promotes traditional and restrictive movements, clothing, and so on. By working together to ensure a respectful community, learning about having a positive attitude to your own and others’ bodies, identity and physical capabilities has become an integral part of Irreverent Dance, not just learning about ballet itself. In a way, this means that dancers can just learn about ballet, without worrying about how they fit in (or don’t).

My thanks again to the members of Irreverent Dance who shared their experiences.

Theoretically, this paper uses Bourdieu’s ideas of habitus and field to explore how Irreverent Dance and Dancers crossed, transformed or shifted boundaries of physical capability, gender and dance. We developed a methodology based on appreciative inquiry, a strengths-based, as opposed to deficits-based, approach to creating change.

Abstract

Boundaries around normative embodiments in physical cultures can be exclusionary if one’s embodied identity does not ‘fit’. Normative boundaries are particularly marked in codified forms of dance such as ballet. Moves towards body positivity aim to challenge these normative boundaries by redefining what dancers’ bodies can look like and how they should move. This paper stems from an appreciative inquiry undertaken with one such project, a gender-neutral, LGBTQ friendly adult ballet school in the UK; a subcultural context that marks itself as distinct from broader cultures of dance. Interviews with learners are analysed through a Bourdieuian lens to explore the construction and maintenance of a body-positive subculture. Findings suggest that boundaries of ability were crossed, with celebration of all bodies’ capabilities, and boundaries of normative gender expression were transformed through a commitment to gender-neutrality and LGBTQ-friendly behaviours. However, boundaries around technical and aesthetic norms, while shifted or challenged, ultimately remained in place.

Fat and Fabulous / Plus Size Wars (Channel 4) and fat acceptance

While waiting for One Born Every Minute to appear on 4seven this week, I caught the last ten minutes of a programme listed as Fat and Fabulous, although it appears to have been renamed Plus Size Wars, as this is how it is discussed on the internet and listed on catch up service 4od. This programme covered a recent move by some modelling agencies to hire plus size models and in the snippet I watched, a top model Tina Holliday was meeting fans (many of whom are bloggers) at an event in a shop in a mall.

I can’t comment on the programme as a whole but two positives stood out from what I saw.

Tina’s fans who met her made numerous comments about the high value they placed on just seeing someone like themselves in the media. They saw that she is the same size or shape as they are, and expressed how seeing her and her success made them feel better about themselves. They noted that only in recent years had they been able to find fat bodies like their own reflected back at them in fashionable and empowered ways. One mentioned that she wished she had been able to see this when she was growing up, as she wouldn’t have felt so alone. This positivity within a broader fat acceptance movement shows that as a society we could take a more humanising approach to the research populations – the people, the individuals – who are scrutinised, blamed, moralised on, and marginalised. Because it is not difficult to see what it feels like.

On my web travels to find more information on this programme I came across this piece from Charlotte at apple-charlotte.com which expresses this very nicely, so I’d like to quote a little from it:

you can not stereotype a whole group of people based on appearance and deem them ‘unhealthy’ and then use that as grounds to discriminate and isolate. […] why should I have to justify my body and circumstances? And fat people who don’t have PCOS or other medical reasons that may cause them to be big, doesn’t mean that they should experience any more or less hate than me. (we shouldn’t experience any AT ALL) When did someone’s health become a currency in life? All the medical problems you can get from being overweight you can also get from being average or below weight. You can also be fat and have absolutely no medical problems – YES, REALLY. (and also be slim and have hundreds of medical problems) You can also be fat and fit – Tess Munster herself works out 3 times a week, and she’s not alone in that. But again, why should fat people prove that they are a ‘good’ fat person who eats healthily and works out regularly? There are going to be fat people who don’t eat so good, and don’t do any exercise (and also a lot of slim people who do the same – yet face no prejudice because their bodies supposedly do not reflect their ‘unhealthy’ lifestyle) – but SO WHAT?! That doesn’t make them less of a human being. Everyone on this earth deserves complete equal rights, and if you don’t believe that because you think fat people are evil human beings or something, then you really need to think about what you’re suggesting. You’re suggesting that slim people, or people that fit the perfect image are worth and deserve more, and therefore the most important people on this planet; anyone who doesn’t fit this ‘perfect’ and ‘healthy’ image should then suffer the consequences of their failing lives.

When healthism takes visuals – body size – as a measure of healthiness and value, those deemed not to fit are dehumanised.

The second positive element in the programme came in an interview with a modelling agency (worker? owner?). She must’ve been asked something concern-troll-like such as, is it not bad to have fat role models like Tina Holliday because it can encourage unhealthy lifestyles? Her reply was (paraphrasing) I cant comment on how healthy or not Tina is. I’m not a doctor. She left it at that. It shouldn’t be, but it was refreshing to hear that when the moralising voices are so loud.

Plus Size Wars is currently available on 4od.

Eat better or eat less? Reporting obesity and activity studies in the news

The BBC’s news site today (23/04/15) has reported on an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine . The BBC report quotes:

In an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, three international experts said it was time to “bust the myth” about exercise.

They said while activity was a key part of staving off diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and dementia, its impact on obesity was minimal.

Instead excess sugar and carbohydrates were key.

There are a few things I would like to discuss in the news report. Although I have read the editorial itself, I assume the typical BBC News reader will not click through, and hence takes the news report as correctly representing the editorial (or more likely the press release – also available at the link above).

Firstly, claiming exercise doesn’t help is a really big claim, almost radical. Physical activity has been reliably linked to health in significant numbers of studies. But I’ll go with it for now, as the report also mentions later:

[R]esearch has shown that diabetes increases 11-fold for every 150 additional sugar calories consumed compared to fat calories.

And they pointed to evidence from the Lancet global burden of disease programme which shows that unhealthy eating was linked to more ill health than physical activity, alcohol and smoking combined.

So there could be something more important about unhealthy eating than low physical activity.

Secondly, we read at the bottom of the quote above that “excess sugar and carbohydrates were key” – presumably key to having an impact on obesity. Well, ok so far, as it’s pretty well also established that excess sugar is not a part of a balanced diet. This must be the unhealthy eating they were talking about. But it’s not part of a balanced diet for anyone at any size, so my sizism warning light was flashing at this stage. Is the problem poor health or obesity? They’re not always connected.

Which is something even the news report acknowledges:

They said there was evidence that up to 40% of those within a normal weight range will still harbour harmful metabolic abnormalities typically associated with obesity.

40% of those in a normal (“normal”) weight range. That’s a significant number. That’s quite a lot of “normal” weight range people with metabolic abnormalities. I wonder why these abnormalities are “typically associated” with obesity, if there are 40% of “normal” weight range people also displaying them. Sounds quite widespread to me.

The whammy comes next, and this is according to the BBC a quote from the editorial author:

Dr Malhotra said: “An obese person does not need to do one iota of exercise to lose weight, they just need to eat less. My biggest concern is that the messaging that is coming to the public suggests you can eat what you like as long as you exercise. (My emphasis)

Having established that unhealthy eating is bad, and unhealthy eating means excess sugar, which can mess with the metabolism of lots of people, now here’s the fat shaming right here. “An obese person … just [needs] to eat less”.

Not well, not less sugar, just less.

Obese people eat too much. Full stop, says the doctor.

This is a well established trope used within fat shaming and sizism to direct blame for overweight on the individual. I defer to Melissa McEwan at Shakesville to explain.

The logic just established in the report is thrown out in order to make a statement about how obese people just need to control themselves and eat less. I can also imagine some fear mongering going on here to scare normal weight range people into worrying about their diets, because if they are in that 40% with abnormal metabolism then they might be the ones who become obese later, no matter how much exercise they do.

I cannot find a reference to just eating less in the editorial or its press release themselves, so the source of the quote the BBC use is unclear but I’d be grateful upon being informed correctly.

The report sticks in a stock photo of a headless fatty, which is likely purely the BBC’s decision and not from the editorial, followed by two quotes to counter the editorial:

But others said it was risky to play down the role of exercise. Prof Mark Baker, of the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence, which recommends “well-balanced diets combined with physical activity”, said it would be “idiotic” to rule out the importance of physical activity.

A Food and Drink Federation spokeswoman said: “The benefits of physical activity aren’t food industry hype or conspiracy, as suggested. A healthy lifestyle will include both a balanced diet and exercise.”

She said the industry was encouraging a balanced diet by voluntarily providing clear on-pack nutrition information and offering products with extra nutrients and less salt, sugar and fat.

“This article appears to undermine the origins of the evidence-based government public health advice, which must surely be confusing for consumers,” she added.

The page positioning of these counterarguments is telling, below the photo and beyond a point many may read to. News reporters make a clear decision on the structuring of their reports and today this one has chosen a sizism message. Perhaps the message that excess sugar can harm many people and exercise will not counter the health damages that sugar can cause is too complex or not attention grabbing enough.

The editorial itself does make more reference to healthy eating over just less eating, but it also mentions “the obesity epidemic” and that obesity levels have “rocketed” – a whole other issue I won’t take up today! It also says:

many [members of the public] still wrongly believe that obesity is entirely due to lack of exercise

If only this were true, I think the fat shaming I mentioned above would diminish. Fat shaming is tied to ideas about self-control in eating. It is also linked to exercise, but not solely.

Additionally, there’s a number of Tweets today talking about “falling into the Big Food trap” or the “quackery” of the diet over exercise argument. I mention these without comment:

Conference abstract: Girls’ meanings of their physically active bodies at the intersections of gender, race and age

This is the abstract from a conference presentation (presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, September 2014). The work is from my PhD research.

Joanne Hill

The physical education (PE) experiences of girls of a South Asian heritage, in the UK, have recently been of some focus in working for inclusive or gender-sensitive PE programmes (e.g. Azzarito and Hill, 2013; Stride, 2013). They are often constructed as inactive, their gendered and racialised bodies rendered invisible against a white feminine norm. The voices of those young people who might be othered are increasingly valuable in working towards relevant and enjoyable learning experiences. This project in part attempts to offer further contextualised research on how girls construct themselves as active as they make sense of their physical selves as they intersect with gender, ethnicity and age.
The focus of this enquiry was to co-produce visual and verbal accounts of girls’ physical activity and embodied selves as they make meaning of physical activity in and out of school.
This research used a visual ethnographic framework. Students aged 13-14 in one school with an ethnically diverse population in the UK were provided with a digital camera and invited to create a two-week long photo set of the physical activities they engage in, where and with whom. Group interviews followed, during which the participant-photographers explained their photos’ meanings to each other and to the researcher (Harper, 2002). This paper concentrates on four girls’ visual narratives.
Theoretically, the paper recalls that we position ourselves in relation to the multiple narratives that are available to us, such that we have multiple embodied selves across different spaces (Cox and Thompson, 2000; Garrett, 2004).
The girls variously constructed themselves as active or able amongst different activities, physical cultures and peers. Notable themes included negotiating gender relations and normalised (South Asian) girlhood; remaining active during transitions from girlhood to young womanhood; reclaiming team games as a choice in PE; and a desire for “free” or unconstrained activity in public spaces. These girls, representing an othered group, used their visual narratives to show themselves as active agents in creating meaning for PE and physical activity. By seeing and listening to these girls’ narratives, teachers and researchers can contribute to positive engagement in PE programmes that take into account their choices and identities.

Gender in children’s colouring books

Yesterday’s research seminar (from our almost-every-week PESP seminar series here at the University of Bedfordshire) enabled me to put together a few thoughts on a current project on gender in children’s colouring books which my colleague Dr Vladimir Martinez-Bello and I are building. We are concerned with stereotypical gender representations in books aimed at girls or at boys. That is, where a publisher produces two similar books, one for girls and one for boys, with different pictures inside. We have started with three sets of colouring books (six books in total: three aimed at girls and three, from the same publishers, aimed at boys). As a significant part of the market for children’s books, colouring books encourage some creativity and imagining different worlds that children can contribute to (even if only deciding what colour to make everything).

What gender diversity is shown among the characters in the books?
In a quantitative content analysis of the six books, the coding done by our independent (adult) coders showed that books for girls overwhelmingly contain female (girl or woman) main characters. Books for boys contained 100% male main characters.

What age are the characters represented?
Often, male characters are men and female characters are girls. As a similar project in the USA noted,

‘Boys get to envision their grown up selves, whereas girls may infer that they remain young and childlike’ (Fitzpatrick and Macpherson, 2006: p.135)

Where are they shown?
Male characters were shown outside much more than female characters, who tended to be shown indoors. Male characters were more often in static poses and female characters in

Our current thoughts on the direction of the project is to delve into a more qualitative analysis, using Gillian Rose’s outline of Foucauldian discourse analysis. This concerns images’

production by, and their reiteration of, particular institutions and their practices, and their production of particular human subjects’ (Rose, 2001: p.164)

We anticipate that the social construction of gendered bodies in these colouring books will represent body tyoes and patterns of movement and comportment that reflect dominant ideologies concerning girls and boys, and that the types of and spaces for physical activity will also reflect gendered restrictions on movement that result in marginalisation and disengagement. As the project develops I will blog more results and discussion.

After my presentation it was great to listen to the resulting discussion between MA Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy students and Sport Science and Physical Activity staff from the University of Bedfordshire. Here’s my general reflections on the perspectives from the discussion (not my own words but anonymised words from participants in the discussion).

Our project has been so far constructed around adult-published colouring books and adult researcher coding. How do children define and see gender? Does it come from nurture and the relentless difference that is constructed by adults in their organisation of children’s play and education and the selling of toys? Could children’s interpretations alongside or instead of the adult coders progress the project into new areas? How would they /respond to this? Could we co-create a colouring book with children that represents a diversity of moving bodies?

Gendering of children is ubiquitous; from new baby greetings cards to the “river of pink” in the toy shop. Presents bought for a new baby girl, or for her later birthdays, invariably reflect this. Some said that there is a clearly a market for gendered toys (toys that say “for boys” or “for girls” on them), with consumers liking to choose these products (in the fear that they might get it wrong with a gender-neutral toy?) and children, it was said, go for the toy aimed at them every time. In response: that children are hard pushed to choose otherwise given the extent of this social construction of gender. The punishment for children who do not conform is potentially high. There are very few alternatives to the extreme pinkified version of feminine girlhood. A question was asked, is this a problem? In response, another pointed out that the choice to be girly-girl or hyper-feminine needs to be reflected upon – we might consider how this relates to our feminist perspectives – and recognise this as one option for girls (I’d add, and for boys, and anyone else). The solution is not more conformity but less restriction and more options for expressing and accepting diverse gender identities. It was pointed out that as a continuum, gender is much more than the two boxes of pink and blue.

There are two points then: the construction of difference between boys and girls, and the signs or symbols that are used as a result of this difference. In books for boys it is clear that there is little diversity in terms of the characters represented, but encountering a diversity of people should be seen as highly important. By all means, create a colouring book of princesses, and one of trucks and cars, but they don’t need to be labelled as for girls and for boys, respectively. What possibilities are there instead for “green books” (a nod to the pink and blue of many toys and books) – those that represent both (or rather all) interests? As Let Toys Be Toys would say, books are for all children.

Conference abstract: Girls’ visual and verbal constructions of valued bodies

This is the abstract for a forthcoming presentation: Girls’ visual and verbal constructions of valued bodies: engagement in physical education at the intersections of gender and race

Joanne Hill

Girls can find themselves “othered” in physical education (PE), in relation to discourses of valued bodies that intersect with gender, race and body size to render ethnic minority and fat girls’ embodied experiences invisible against a white male sporty norm. This project adds to work towards inclusive or gender-sensitive PE programmes by engaging girls in creating visual and verbal accounts of how they negotiate valued bodies in PE to form their own sense of self as active or inactive.

This research drew on feminist poststructuralist theories that we embody multiple selves across different spaces, and used a visual ethnographic design. Students aged 13-14 in one school, with a predominantly South Asian population, were provided with a digital camera and invited to create a two-week long photo set of the physical activities they engage in, where and with whom. Group interviews followed, during which the participant-photographers explained their photos’ meanings to each other and to the researcher. This paper specifically draws together analysis on girls’ constructions of themselves as active and inactive, free or constrained, in different physical activity spaces within and beyond the school. Girls identified valued bodies as those that give significant effort in PE, rather than those that are sporty and competitive. They also discussed fit, fat and muscular bodies and femininity. Some girls resisted normative gender relations and racialised girlhood; they reclaimed team games and public spaces as enjoyable; and negotiated an active identity in relation to more sporty peers and images of high status athletes. Reflections are also made on the value of visual methods for engaging young people in inquiry on the body.

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