Current PhD student Julia explains her multidisciplinary approach to research
Current Ph.D. student
Alumnae Association prize-winner 2017-8 (from Nautilus 14)
My life as an independent education consultant who supports organisations to meet the needs of disabled children, has taken me all around the world and I am used to last minute changes, but the fact that a cancelled job in Mongolia resulted in my returning to university in my mid-40s was quite the surprise. My empty diary meant I was available to visit the University of Cambridge for a research day, and it was there that I found out about the new MPhil in Education, Globalisation and International Development, which was to launch in 2017.
With excitement I returned to university, keen to learn the latest thinking in my field, and with trepidation I faced the near vertical learning curve of how to study again. Having spent the past ten years writing evaluation reports for NGOs, the initial draft of my first essay led my (highly supportive) supervisor to recommend I read a book on how to write academic texts, with the suggestion ‘read chapter 3…it’s called how to write a paragraph’. A little dejected and somewhat amused I re-learned the craft of developing an argument, and no need for recommendations – the bliss of it!
The focus of my research is disability and education. Having been a teacher and an educational psychologist in a very inclusive inner city local authority in the UK, I know that it is possible for disabled children to learn alongside their non-disabled peers, claiming not only their right to education, but also making friendships that continue after school ends. However, this can be a real challenge to achieve – and even more so for countries with scarce resources. My international work has taken me to countries facing a multitude of challenges, ranging from those with high levels of poverty, such as Bangladesh and the Solomon Islands, to those facing conflict, including Afghanistan and Colombia. Achieving inclusive education in these contexts is what the Governments have committed to do but implementing this in practice is a far greater challenge.
In all the countries in which I have worked, parents want their disabled child to be educated, but with many facing barriers like poverty, conflict and lack of access to schools, it is estimated that 90% of disabled children in low- and middle-income countries are out of school (UNICEF, 2014). Despite these challenges, I have worked with lots of committed NGOs and Education Ministries around the world, trying to support disabled children to gain a quality, inclusive education. For example, I evaluated a great project in Afghanistan that went from door to door to find disabled children in rural areas, who were being kept in their homes to keep them safe from conflict. The project worked with the families and children, introducing them to a classroom environment, before supporting them to access their local schools. However, while sitting and observing a classroom in rural Afghanistan, I began to question the idea that I, as a white Western female with an understanding of disability and systems of support so clearly grounded in a completely different context, could, or even should, suggest solutions to a problem that Afghan people - who are highly knowledgeable about the local culture, its strengths and wider constraints – would be better placed to solve, given the support they suggested they needed.
Returning to university gave me the opportunity to question this further and led me to research the perspective of those who are at the centre of all the planning, yet so rarely asked for their views: the children themselves. A bombing in Pakistan, just before I travelled there to do my Easter vacation fieldwork, meant I could no longer carry out my planned research there. In a mild panic I called every country I have ever worked in to see if I could come and visit them instead, and it was there that the Colombian cool-in-a-crisis culture kicked in and my host, Gloria, said ‘sure, come on over’. Two weeks later and I was seated in a Head Teacher’s office in Northern Colombia, desperately hoping he would let me stay, and allow me to seek permission from teachers, parents and children to ask them some questions.
One of the highlights of being self-employed is that you get to choose what jobs you do, and anything is possible. A skill I have honed is graphic recording; I illustrate the content of large conferences and consultations with user groups. I think in pictures and I explain using drawings. As a central part of my research, I used visual illustration with children to gain their perspectives on their educational experiences. Having received this wisdom from an inspirational lecturer, she suggested we should ‘make it sing!’. My way of making it sing was to focus upon what children had to say, and to draw an illustration of my literature review and findings. While I wasn’t quite bold enough to submit pictures alone, this clarified my thinking, made my argument clear (with a little help from the ‘how to write a paragraph’ chapter), and, I believe contributed to the distinction that I gained a few months later.
Now I sit in the beautiful Lucy Cavendish library, half way through the first year of my PhD on Colombia and inclusive education. In the middle of a lecture, an email pinged in saying my research had won a prize for academic excellence. I have to admit that I first assumed it was a scam email and marvelled at how the scammers had used the Lucy email system to make it look genuine. However, a bit of scrolling confirmed it was true, and that I had also won £100. I was utterly delighted, and it meant that I was able to share my winnings with my Colombian host, repaying her for providing me with accommodation, delicious food and the odd cerveza to keep us going. I want to thank the Alumnae Association for the prize, but not just the money or accolade – more that it reminded me that I can do this, that the effort is worth it, and that one day I will be a post-Cambridge alumna wishing I could do it all again.