Making a difference in the local community: learning from the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA

With over thirty years’ experience working in his local authority, Eubert Malcolm brought a wealth of knowledge to the classroom. Having just been promoted to Assistant Director for Stronger and Safer Communities, he reflects on how the MBA has supported him to make a positive difference.

Picture of Eubert Malcolm

As local authority leaders go, Eubert Malcolm must be among the most personally invested in his community.

“Somebody said to me the other day that I’ve been in Haringey from boy to man,” he laughs, but with over thirty years’ experience in various roles in the local authority, this isn’t far from the truth. Eubert joined Haringey Council as an environmental health officer apprentice in 1988. From there, his role expanded into different fields as his skillset developed, encompassing housing, food safety and pollution.

“I made my way up the local authority and picked up Diplomas in Environmental Health and Management Studies along the way,” explains Eubert, “but I always felt that not having a first degree would hinder me at some point.”

The value of life experience

It was during the hunt for an undergraduate degree that Eubert stumbled across the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA. The idea of studying part-time at the weekends was a particular draw, but was it really possible to do a Masters level programme without an undergraduate degree?

“I went along to the open evening without much hope,” says Eubert, “but I really liked the course leaders and they encouraged me to apply. I think I was the least qualified but most experienced of that first cohort, and the idea of a co-production and developing new types of leaders seemed perfect for my role. It felt like I was in the right place at the right time.”

Seeing things differently

The collaboration between Central Saint Martins and Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics offers an innovative perspective on businesses and the problems they face. This, combined with the diverse international cohort on the MBA, gives students an opportunity to look at situations from a fresh angle. For Eubert, this proved invaluable when looking for ways to connect with the local community:

“When I first started the MBA, there was lots of gang activity and a spate of deaths in the community. I wanted to learn more about how violence was affecting young people in Haringey, so I commissioned a community group to speak to them and to people in prisons to figure out the drivers of criminality. Until you actually sit down with young people and hear from them, their teachers and their parents, you don’t really understand the challenges that they are facing. We need to engage with them and ensure that they are part of the solution.”

Eubert’s MBA dissertation was Haringey’s public health approach to tackling serious youth violence, a combination of academic research and an in-depth evidence base that came from his experience in the local authority, which informed the young people at risk strategy.

“At Haringey, we want to co-produce strategies with the community,” he explains. “Now, we’re incorporating business principles into our local authority point of view and using action learning techniques to think issues through from beginning to end, predicting the challenges we might need to address along the way. It’s an approach the managers I work with are now also starting to adopt.”

Leading in the pandemic

The rapid unfolding of events in the COVID-19 pandemic has made an agile approach essential:

“If you look at how much COVID-19 has cost local authorities,” says Eubert, “I don’t think we’re going to be fully recompensed for that. It has made us look at what opportunities could come out of it instead.

“For example, we couldn’t deliver a lot of our face to face services during the pandemic and many of them went online. We found that the young people we work with instantly took to that approach, which we hadn’t really considered before.”

Now Eubert, his team and the wider council are working on campaigns to bring the local community together to reduce the spread of COVID-19: “The approach we’re taking, trying to get right to the hearts and minds of people in the borough, is something I don’t think we would have attempted before. It just goes to show that with the right support and network in the workplace, you can be successful even through challenging times. I know that anything I set my mind to I will be able to achieve.”

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Maths for the Masses

In this blog, Ciarán O’Donohue a PhD student in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, discusses the decision to teach mathematics to the first students of the Mechanics Institute. This is part of the 200th anniversary blog series that celebrates the College’s bicentenary in 2023.   

The Massacre of Peterloo

The Massacre of Peterloo. The commander is saying “Down with ’em! Chop ’em down my brave boys; give them no quarter! They want to take our Beef & Pudding from us – & remember the more you kill the less poor rates you’ll have to pay so go on Lads show your courage & your Loyalty!”

Many of us will be familiar with the common questioning of why certain concepts are taught in our schools. Mathematics, and especially its most intricate systems, are often first to face the firing squad. It is not unusual to hear someone discussing education to ask: “Why are we not taught about credit, loans, and tax? I’m never going to use Pythagoras’s Theorem!” Certainly, when the subject of mathematics is brought up, the utility of algebra and theorems are often jovially dismissed as unimportant.

Two centuries ago, the picture was very different. The question of whether mathematics would be useful or dangerous knowledge to teach to the working class was one that was debated extremely seriously. In November 1823, the same month that the London Mechanics’ Institution was founded (which has now come to be named Birkbeck, University of London), Bell’s Weekly Messenger seized upon the propriety of teaching maths to London’s lower orders, lamenting that “the unhappy scepticism in France has been justly ascribed to this cause.” The implication was that teaching maths to the wider populace had caused them to question the order of society, and directly contributed to the French Revolution and its aftermath. Pertinently, this was an order which the British government had spent a fortune, not to mention the lives of hundreds of thousands of British subjects in the Napoleonic Wars to restore.

A revolution in Britain itself was still palpably feared in the 1820s, and its spectre was made more haunting by the Peterloo massacre just four years before this particular article was written, in August 1819. And so, surrounding the foundation of our College, and which subjects were appropriate, a war of words was waged.

The idea of teaching London’s working classes mathematics filled many with visceral dread. It was believed this would cause them to also become questioning like France’s peasants, eventually seeking proof for statements which they had hitherto blindly accepted.

The teaching of mathematics to mechanics, then, was considered by many to be socially, politically, and morally dangerous. Not only might it turn them into a questioning multitude, unwilling to simply accept what they’re told, it might also make them question the very structure of society and push for a semblance of equality. For critics, both outcomes could readily lead to revolution.

Henry Brougham, one of the founders of the College, believed that this catastrophe could be averted by teaching a reified body of knowledge, including a simplified version of mathematics. Writing of geometry, Brougham argued that, rather than “go through the whole steps of that beautiful system, by which the most general and remote truths are connected with the few simple definitions and axioms” it would be sufficient (and indeed safer) if the masses were to learn only the practical operations and general utility of geometry.

Similarly, many religious supporters of extending mathematical education to the mechanics believed that it would make people more religious, not less, if only it were taught in the right way. As God was believed to have created the world, the logic and order inherent in mathematic systems was held to show traces of his hand at work. An appreciation of mathematics and its traceable, systematic connections would thus create a renewed appreciation of God; not to mention for the order of the world as divinely ordained.

Likewise, moralists perceived more benefits in teaching the mechanics mathematics than drawbacks. The issue for them was not if the mechanics were to learn or read, but rather what. The key issue was that the mechanics were already largely literate. The rise of cheap literature, especially of the sentimental and pornographic varieties, preoccupied the minds of moralists and industrialists.

As the lower orders were believed to be motivated primarily by sensuality, learning mathematics was presented as a salve to degeneracy; a way to occupy their time with higher minded pursuits and strengthen their characters against wanton immorality.

Perhaps most worrying was the growing and uncontrollable availability of radical political writings. This more than anything was likely to upset the current order of society. The perceived and highly theoretical disadvantages of a mathematical education were thus infinitely preferable to such a realistic and allegedly growing threat. It was believed that the teaching of mathematics and science through a dedicated course of study, being undertaken as in the evenings, might reduce the time and energy the working man would have to devote to reading political tracts, let alone political activism.

It is, however, worth noting that, although many mechanics were literate, and most had rudimentary mathematical skills, the wider debate was far removed from the reality. Many mechanics required far more elementary lessons in mathematics before the advanced classes could even be attempted.  Although mathematics and science initially formed the centre of the curriculum at Birkbeck in the 1820s, by 1830 the reality of need had been discovered: advanced classes had been removed altogether, and instruction in elementary arithmetic was given to vast numbers of members. This was to continue to be the reality for much of the next 30 years.

How far, then, the raging debates about the inclusion of mathematics in the curricula of new centres for working-class education impacted the trajectory, is still a topic for debate.

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Banking by day, Birkbeck by night

Mina Yau studied the BSc Economics with Business at Birkbeck while working full-time at the Bank of England.

I applied for the Bank of England school leaver programme after completing my A-levels in Economics, Accounts and History. After a successful application, I was able to start full time at the Bank of England. This meant I chose to work instead of pursuing further education, however I did not want to regret this decision and miss out on university. As such, I decided to take on further studies after my one-year probation at the Bank. It was difficult to find a university where I could continue working. However, Birkbeck gave me the opportunity to pursue further education whilst working full-time by offering evening classes (and an extra bonus of part-time studying across 4 years).

The Economics, Maths and Statistics classes at Birkbeck really helped develop my career in the bank as they taught me the necessarily skills for my day to day role. Whether it was better understanding how the economy works, the maths behind the metrics or even data programming – Birkbeck really helped widen my knowledge and skill set.

At the Bank of England, I started as a school leaver in the Data and Statistics Division, where I would collect data from banks and building societies via our internal systems and process this to specialist teams. After, I moved to the Financial Stability, Strategy and Risk directorate, working in the Macrofinancial Risks Division in the Households team. Here I was able to deep dive into risk metrics relating to Households and built a very strong understanding on housing data. I then moved to the bank’s Resilience Division where I currently work; this is similar to my last role but more focused on risks and the resilience directly to banks.

Diligence is fundamental for balancing work and study commitments. Often, late nights are required at work, which meant I was unable to attend some lectures. Luckily Birkbeck does have facilities such as room recordings which means I am able to catch up with classes over the weekend. Thankfully, the Bank of England is also filled with talented colleagues who are able to explain and help with any queries on the classes or homework which makes studying a lot easier.

If you’re in doubt on whether or not to apply to Birkbeck due to work commitments, I highly recommend just going for it. It’s an excellent learning opportunity and gives high rewards. I can proudly say that not only after four years at Birkbeck (part-time study) I have completed my degree, I also have five years’ experience at the Bank of England to go with it.

Finally, I’d like to mention Tony Humm, a fantastic lecturer for Maths for Economists – it’s a very well taught class and definitely my favourite module! If you have a choice, I highly recommend taking this class!

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“Studying in London gave me a new perspective on important issues that I may have overlooked before”

Hitomi Imamura, an international student who was awarded an international merit scholarship from Japan, tells us about studying for the MSc Education, Power and Social Change at Birkbeck and how she has made the most of her time studying in London.

After a long career in Japan, I wanted to follow my childhood dream to study abroad and make friends from all over the world. I chose London because it is a multicultural city and the best place to study with international students. I decided to apply for Birkbeck because it is famous for its evening classes and it is an environment where I could study with students who had varied lifestyles and careers.

Also, I was interested in the MSc Education, Power and Social Change as I had worked in education in Japan for many years and could not find this type of subject at other universities. The atmosphere around Birkbeck is ideal, surrounded by other universities, parks, amenities, and many university libraries. I enjoyed London life even though the cost of living is high. There are many things to do in your free time as it is such a large and historic city.

I found some things quite difficult to start with including a huge amount of reading assignments and the obvious language barrier. There were a lot of assignments to finish at the same time over a short period. It was very stressful so I had to take care of myself but it was also very rewarding. I used some of the study skills sessions provided by the university which gave me useful information on how to improve my writing.

I joined some events specially provided for international students such as the University tour and Parliament tour. They were very interesting. I became a member of the Japan Society of Birkbeck and taught Japanese to the students. The students appreciated my contribution and I received a Birkbeck Student Union award in 2019 for an outstanding contribution to club and societies.

I could meet caring tutors and nice classmates from all over the world and they helped me when I was struggling with my study.  We were able to support each other without considering the differences in the ages and nationalities of my classmates.

My dissertation theme was related to the important Japanese primary school education reform going through 2020. I interviewed 5 Japanese education experts and one American expert that included the former State-Minister of Japanese Education. I found that many changes are happening in Japan because of globalisation through my research. I’m very glad I came to Birkbeck, and think it is important to see my own country from overseas. It gives me a new perspective on important issues that I may have overlooked before studying abroad.

I aim to continue to PhD level study as I would like to continue my research after graduating from the master’s course. Birkbeck has enabled me to improve my ability to study and conduct research at a high level so I can progress on to the next stage.

I am satisfied that I completed my master’s degree and met the challenge I set for myself to make my life more positive. Unfortunately, the number of Japanese foreign students is currently decreasing. However, I feel it would be good if more Japanese people studied abroad and exercised their global citizenship as I did at Birkbeck. For me, that is a great personal achievement. I would like to thank all the course tutors and various administrative staff for making my time at Birkbeck such a worthwhile and enjoyable experience.

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Kareen Duffus: Education is the key to success

MSc Educational Neuroscience student Kareen Abdu’Allah-Duffus, 45, tells her story of coming to England from Jamaica on her grandmother’s wishes and finding joy in education at Birkbeck.

I was born in the Jamaica so my early years were spent on that beautiful island surrounded by sun, sand and sea. I am the eldest of three children and even though my parents were present, the culture in Jamaica still remains, that your grandparents are usually the head of the household. Growing up as a child into adulthood, my fondest memories and discipline were instilled by my grandparents back home.

I graduated from Secondary School in 1989 at the age of 17 and started Nursing College in September 1990. I wasn’t enjoying the course so I told my grandmother that I didn’t want to continue. My grandmother understood the education system very well so she was very strict about achieving personal goals. She was gutted when she realized that I was really giving up on the Nursing career. She told me that I needed to start thinking about another career – otherwise she would think about it for me.

I was very reluctant to do so because I was 18 years old and knew it all. I left college in December 1990 and in February 1991 my favorite uncle from England came to Jamaica to visit the family. I asked him all types of questions – what was life like living in England, whether he loved the country and whether he was planning to retire back in Jamaica – and that’s when he dropped the bombshell. He said all these questions you are asking about England, you will find out soon enough. I asked my grandma and she told me I was going to England to continue with my education.

I arrived in England on 28 February 1991. What an experience! It was cold and miserable, dark and snowing on and off. I remembered the day just like it was yesterday. I started to cry because I had never seen anything like this. It was depressing and I wanted to go back to Jamaica where my family and friends were, not to mention the sun. My uncle promised me that if I wasn’t enjoying my time here in England after six months I could go back to Jamaica.

Shortly after I arrived, I met with my cousins and we started going out raving and having a good time. I was homesick, but I was embracing the country and getting familiar with my new life. I looked at a few colleges and enrolled at Greenhill. I was also looking for a job at the time so whichever one came about first that was the decision I would make. A job offer came up at the local dry cleaners and I started working as an Assistant Manager. I was really happy about working so I could support myself. I made a decision to start working and forgot the real reason why I came to England.

I worked at the dry cleaners for five years then I decided on a career change when my eldest son was born. I started working at Howdens Joinery in Feb 1996 as a Business Developer. By 2000 I was made an Assistant Manager. In 2003 my second son was born and the job was getting more demanding so I asked to be demoted to counter sales instead. In 2005, my daughter was born and I wanted to give up work totally. However, the manager at the time said I could reduce my hours and work in the office. I jumped at the offer because this means I could have the best of both worlds, I could work and be a mother at the same time.

It is every woman’s dream to have everything in life and I felt I was in that world. I was able to drop and pick up my children from school and work at the same time. But something was still missing from my life, I hadn’t fulfilled my grandmother’s wishes and she passed away. My daughter was 6yrs old and started ballet lessons so a few of the parents always sit around and converse about anything and everything.

It was a Saturday afternoon and a conversation started about regrets in life. Well, everyone got talking and I explained my story about coming to England at the age of 18 to go to University and still hadn’t done it.

There was a woman there who was interested and listened carefully to what I had to say. She was very positive and started encouraging me to go to university and achieve my goal. She kept saying you are never too old to learn. I always remembered my grandma saying that and that ‘education is the key to success’. I reflected on the conversation while I was making my way to the train station. The train arrived and I got on, sat down and looked up and there was my epiphany; an advert about Birkbeck, University of London – evening classes for working people.

I went to the open evening with the intention of finding out about the counseling course but for some reason, I ended up in Psychology. I remember thinking, “I am 40 years old, what am I doing here?” However, I didn’t feel alone because there were people there older and younger so that made me feel comfortable. I also spoke to lots of people who were in the same position as me.

Psychology was interesting; I am a curious person so I wanted to study the human mind and behavior given my circumstances. I enrolled and got accepted on the fast track Psychology course. I had to get over 50% in all my subjects to continue straight to 2nd year and I did! I knew if I could study three or four subjects per week while I was working 32 hours a week and been a mother to three children at the time I was capable of a degree. I tested myself in that year and I passed, so I enrolled in 2nd year BSc Psychology.

This was where it all began. The feeling of excitement! I was in a lecture with more than 100 students.  I was making new friends and this was my new life for the next 3 years. It was very challenging and there were times that I wanted to give up because I felt awful leaving the children in the evenings on their own. Family time over the weekends was non-existent because I had to study for my exams.  I had essays to write and deadlines to meet. I was motivated and could not give up on my dream.

My eldest son was so inspired because we were both going to graduate around the same time. In fact, he found it fascinating that I started university when I did. I was so determined to get a good degree and not letting my children or myself down. I finished my degree with a 2:1. When I saw the result I cried with joy. This was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life but also the most rewarding. The graduation took place on 9th November 2016 and my children were there at the ceremony. That was the happiest day of my life. I still get goose-bumps even writing about it now.

After one year’s break, the time had come to make the decision whether to do a Masters. I applied in May to get on the Educational Neuroscience part-time course and shortly after I applied, I got the letter of acceptance. I was really excited about starting something brand new and really exciting. As if that email wasn’t enough I got another email about the Acker Bursaries Scholarship.

My eyes lit up and I thought… All my Christmases came at once. I had nothing to lose but I could gain substantially from applying. Within a month, I received an email to say I won the award. I was ecstatic, I felt good about myself. I felt as though all the hard work I did had paid off in my degree. I was rewarded for something that I loved doing and I couldn’t get my head around it.

This bursary has helped me so much. I feel extremely proud of myself and very honored to have received it. It has given me a confidence boost and I am very grateful that I was selected for it. I felt pleased because I worked really hard and I felt worthy of it. This award means that over the Christmas holidays I can travel into Birkbeck with ease to complete my essay due in January and worked on my research for my presentation.

After almost 22 years of working at Howdens Joinery I am finally looking for work in the schools as a SEN Teaching Assistant. I need to gain enough experience working with children, as this is one of the required criteria for getting on the program. My long-term ambition is to become an Educational Psychologist. It’s only a matter of time before this goal is achieved because the help and support at Birkbeck is phenomenal.

England is now my home and I would not change anything about it.  My grandmother was right, there are huge opportunities here if you want to embrace it. I have three beautiful children supporting my dream, wonderful friends and a university where I called home. I am very happy and I look forward to a beautiful future ahead.

View our range of undergraduate courses for 2018 and apply now.

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Journalist uncovers new opportunities at Birkbeck through Chevening Scholarship

Carolyn Bonquin is a 27-year-old journalist from the Philippines. She is currently taking MA Investigative Reporting at Birkbeck after applying to the Chevening Scholarship programmeShe discusses how her studies have opened up a network of opportunities for her career.

I spent most of my childhood in a rural town in Quezon province in the Philippines. Growing up, I witnessed how poverty separated families and sometimes pushed people to do bad things.

Now, 27 years later, I still see thousands of Filipinos living under worst conditions. This motivated me to become a journalist and further enhance my investigative reporting skills — I find it unfair to see other people struggle and live in suffering because of the greed and apathy of those in power.

For seven years, I worked as a journalist for ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation up until last September, when I came to the UK for my postgraduate studies. Aside from reporting for television, I also produced stories for our radio and online platforms.

I started as a regional correspondent in the South Luzon before I was assigned to the national platform. Crimes, rallies, environment and agriculture are the areas I usually covered until in 2015, I was assigned to the anti-graft beat, which included monitoring of criminal and civil cases against public officials and audit reports on public spending.

My heart is really set on doing investigative reports.  By uncovering under-reported issues and exposing wrongdoings, I hope to affect policy changes and trigger developmental reforms. One of the last expository stories I did with our investigative team was about the alleged human rights violations of policemen in the Philippine Government’s bloody campaign against illegal drugs.

With the help of data, I want to do more expository reports that will unravel the root causes of poverty when I come home. These are the stories that would reveal corrupt and neglectful activities. This way, I feel like I could help the reported 20 million Filipinos who still live under the poverty line.

Leaving the Philippines amid ongoing chaos and cropping up issues on human rights abuses was a struggle. A part of me wanted to stay but, in the end, I realized that I need a year away to enhance my skills so I can better serve the public.

Aside from funding my study in the UK, the Chevening Scholarship programme is a network of future and current leaders and influencers that could help me realize this goal. After all, what’s not to like about being a part of a network of experts in their own field, who would work together in imparting their knowledge to help change the world?

I found Birkbeck while researching for an investigative journalism Masters programme. When I saw the curriculum, I immediately knew it was the right programme for me. I appreciate how the modules have been designed to fit the current demands and trends in journalism. This ensures we have all the practical skills needed to start (or continue) working after graduation.

I’m also impressed by the diversity of students in our class — from journalists to a podcast reporter to a political science graduate. This provides various insights and ensures mature and rich discussions in our class.

Information security experts and award-winning journalists have presented at our seminars, including Iain Overton and Ewan MacAskill (remember the Snowden files?). This is all just in the first term and I look forward to all the great things I will learn for the rest of the year!

If I could offer any advice to someone looking to apply for the Chevening scholarship or wanting to come to Birkbeck, it would be to know your purpose and your goal. All the scholars I’ve met, and even my classmates at Birkbeck have one thing in common —their hearts are set on doing something that would make an impact on other people’s lives.

It’s important to realize that we are continuously honing our skills and gaining knowledge not only for ourselves, but also to contribute to the development of our society, even in our own little ways.

 

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Everything you need to know about coming to Birkbeck as a school-leaver

This article was contributed by Cecilia Nguyen, a BA Language with Journalism student, who will be going into her second year this autumn. It was first published on her blog

What is it truly like to attend an evening university like Birkbeck? I am writing this blog as when I needed it two years ago, it was nowhere to be found.

‘Will I fit in as a school-leaver?’
The short answer to this question is yes, of course you will! I think there is a misconception that because evening studies can be more appealing to people who work in the day (of which the majority are over 25) that younger people may not fit in.

However, with the introduction of more full-time courses at Birkbeck, the number of under-25s is on the rise every year. The demographics of your classmates are highly dependent on the course you study. I study German and Journalism and find that on my German modules, there are more school-leavers, whereas my Journalism module attracts more mature students.

I truly think that you shouldn’t let this affect your decision when choosing a course if the curriculum perfectly matches your needs.

‘Is it only for part-time students?’
No, it is not. Birkbeck started introducing full-time courses in 2009 and has been working on them ever since!

But in this day and age, education takes on so many forms that I find traditional, daytime, full-time education to be highly overrated. Let’s look at an example: A full-time course takes on average 3 years to complete whereas a 75% intensity part-time course takes 4 years. The cost is the same, you get more time to study and have a healthier life balance. For me, it wasn’t a hard decision!

‘Can I change from full-time to part-time?’
Yes, you absolutely can! I think Birkbeck is rather flexible on this as they understand students’ circumstances and commitments well.

‘Is it super tiring after a hard day of work to sit in a classroom and do more work?’
Personally, I didn’t find it tiring enough to moan about. I’ve got to admit I had it relatively easy; I only worked 22 hours per week, I still live with my parents and I didn’t have any major responsibility that would induce stress.

Birkbeck campus and Senate House in springtime 

But from what my uni mates who work full-time and actually have it hard have told me, you don’t even notice the fatigue. Think of it this way, you go to a place with amazing people who challenge you academically while discussing something you enjoy knowing more about. It’s basically a fun fair!

‘Will I have a social life?’
This really amused me as it’s so typical of school-leavers to ask this question.

To put it bluntly, yes, like any other university. Or how I like to put it: you can have a social life. What I mean by that is, it’s totally up to you whether you want one or not.

At Birkbeck, I feel like you can be more selective when it comes to socialising. So if you want to join societies, go out clubbing or have fun, the opportunity is definitely there. But whenever you need to calm down or focus on work, it is easier for you to do so as everyone understands that sometimes you are studying alongside work or internships and that you need to balance all these aspects of your life.

‘You’ve been going on and on about the perks of evening study, but what about its downside?’
Everything has its downside. I personally felt that studying in the evening meant that I had almost no excuse to not find work in the day.

The opportunity is basically given to you and will give you so many things to talk about in your CV to boost your chances of getting employed. You can say things like ‘I can be fully committed as I have the entire morning free to focus on work,’ or, ‘as an evening student I get to hone my time-management skills and determination to complete tasks’. The list goes on and on.

Another downside is that studying in the evening means that sometimes you might have to come to class with an empty stomach as you rush from work to uni. But most of the time the lecturers understand that you have commitments and will allow you to have your meal in class, as long as you don’t let the rustling noises of your sandwich’s aluminium foil disturb the class too much!

Studying in the evening also means that sometimes you have to miss out on gatherings with friends or family. But if you can cope with occasionally not being able to go out, the amount of knowledge you’re getting back is well worth the sacrifice.

If you have a specific question you can leave a comment below or come meet me at Birkbeck’s Open Evening on 12 September (click here to sign up), where I’ll be working as a Student Ambassador.

Good luck on whatever it is that you decide to do and hopefully I’ll see you this autumn.

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Getting prospective students talking

Dave Lewis, from Birkbeck’s Widening Access team, talks about the College’s new mentoring scheme which pairs prospective students with alumni for an informal chat. If you’re interested in taking part, contact gettalking@bbk.ac.uk.gettalking

Taking the plunge into higher education can be both exhilarating and daunting. Whether changing career, leaving school or coming back to education, students inevitably have questions about the years ahead. Navigating this transition with the support of a recent graduate can make all the difference, which is why we run Get Talking.

Get Talking is a one-to-one mentoring scheme which pairs prospective students with alumni for an informal chat. After an evening of training, our dedicated alumni draw on their own experiences to provide insight into both life at Birkbeck and higher education more broadly. In turn, students are given the opportunity to talk through any queries or concerns ahead of enrolment. Students are matched with their mentor based on what they hope to gain from the scheme and as such will often receive advice specific to their chosen field.

Meetings take place in a number of coffee shops close to campus, allowing participants to familiarise themselves with the Bloomsbury area and picture life as a student here.  Once students have enrolled at Birkbeck there is a wealth of continued support (including further mentoring opportunities) throughout their time at the college.

This type of pre-entry support is integral to ensuring university is accessible to all. Get Talking is one of many Birkbeck programmes that supports students from widening participation backgrounds. The scheme really is working too, with up to 75% of students who take part going on to enrol at Birkbeck. Deon, one student who took part in the scheme this year, said:

“The meeting with Dimitrios was very beneficial to me and l hope he feels the same. I am happy to say that these programs can only be an advantage to new and prospective students starting out as l feel no one knows better than those whom have experienced the task of completing an undergraduate whilst working. Dimitrios is a very helpful and understanding young man and l can only say l am honored that l was able to draw from his experience.”

This year Get Talking also began supporting applicants to the college’s Compass Project, a fund supporting forced migrants through scholarships to Birkbeck and information, advice and guidance on higher education in the UK. One of the applicants who took part this year said: “It was great to speak to someone who was as passionate about my subject as I was”.

Finally, Get Talking speaks of how closely connected Birkbeck’s alumni remain to the college. Our alumni mentors volunteer their time to support new entrants. Prospective students are supported in their decision making and begin networking before setting foot in the lecture theatre.

Would you like to get involved? If you’re thinking about studying with us or are a Birkbeck alum we’d love to hear from you at gettalking@bbk.ac.uk.

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Action on Home Education: impact challenges

Daniel Monk, a Reader in the School of Law looks at the background to a short debate about home education that took place last week in the House of Lords

home-educationThe right of a child to an education is widely accepted as being a ‘good thing’. It is what some people describe as an ‘apple pie’ issue: something that is so obviously nice, and comforting, that no one could possibly object. But what the right to education means in practice is complicated and contested and inherently political. And nowhere are the underlying tensions as acute as in debates about home education.

This is because ‘education’ is often equated with ‘schooling’, and the latter exposes the child not only to other children but also to the ‘professional’ gaze of teachers, inspectors and social welfare agencies. Consequently, home education challenges popular assumptions about child development and ‘socialisation’ and at the same time raises questions about the state’s role in both enforcing the right to education and in defining the content of education. These latter questions go to the heart of debates about the nature of democracy and this is evident from comparative perspectives. In Germany home education is unlawful, whereas in the USA it is constitutionally protected and practiced on a large scale. This country adopts a characteristically mid-Atlantic position. It is well established in law that parents can comply with their legal duty to educate their children by means of home education. But while this is unquestioned by policy makers, what is disputed is the extent to which home education should be monitored.

Concerns about raising educational standards, the number of children ‘missing education’, increased inspection of independent schools, and an emphasis on ‘safeguarding’ agendas in inter-agency cooperation, have all highlighted the anomalous position of home-educated children. And at the same time the number of home educated children has and continues to increase and is sometimes referred to as a ‘quiet revolution’. There has been a 65% increase in children recorded as home educated over the last seven years, and estimates vary from 36,000 to far higher. However, no one knows precisely how many children are currently home-educated. This is because unless a child is being removed from a school, parents are not obliged to tell anyone.

The reasons for this increase are complex and varied. Home educators include those who object to conventional schooling, sometimes on the basis that it is too permissive and liberal and, conversely, sometimes for being too traditional and overly prescriptive. But they also include parents who have felt that have no other option as a result of failures to address bullying in schools or through the much-criticised practice of ‘unofficial’ or ‘illegal’ exclusions.

Even when a local authority knows about children in their area that are home-educated there is confusion about what their current monitoring duties and powers are, and this is compounded by the fact that the current guidance produced by the Department of Education in 2007 is both out of date, unclear and provides advice based on questionable interpretations of the existing law that restricts a more pro-active investigatory role.

Attempts to address the issue were made by the last Labour government. It commissioned a review of the law, The Badman Review, which recommended the introduction of a compulsory national registration scheme. This was included in – but subsequently dropped from – the Children, School and Families Bill 2009. At the same time a report by the House of Commons Select Committee for Children Schools and Families (2009) concluded that it was ‘unacceptable that local authorities do not know accurately how many children of school age in their area are in school, are being home educated or are otherwise not at school’. The Committee heard from Sue Berelowitz, The Deputy Children’s Commissioner, who argued that it was ‘not acceptable that the state should not be able to vouch for the education of so many of its citizens’. In its final report the Committee also quoted extensively from an article of mine. This confirmed what others have found: that in an age of political sound bites, Select Committees are institutions that can often be refreshingly receptive to academic research. More recently, in May 2016, the Wood review of local safeguarding children boards, commissioned by the Department for Education, concluded that in relation to home education, that a ‘local authority is not able to assess either the quality of education being received by the child or whether there are any safeguarding issues that require attention’ and that ‘this needs to be addressed urgently’.

Despite these widespread concerns, to date both the Coalition and the current Conservative governments have refused to act. One possible reason for this is the highly effective lobbying by home education activists. While apolitical, the lobby’s arguments against enhancing monitoring cohere with predominantly Conservative parliamentarians’ concerns about expanding the role of local authorities (in particular in the context of education), the necessary additional expenditure, and perceptions of the ‘nanny’ state. However, the contingency and indeed inherent contradictions underlying these concerns came to the fore in 2015 when the government initiated a consultation about the law regarding unregistered schools. This was motivated by wide-ranging safeguarding and welfare concerns raised by OFSTED, but also by distinct concerns about ‘radicalisation’ and the perceived existence in some places of ‘a narrow Islamic-focused curriculum’. While wishing to address these issues, the government at the same time made explicitly clear that it had no desire to address issues relating to home education. In responding to the consultation I argued that not only did this further exacerbate the anomalous position of home education, but that it also failed to acknowledge that home education could be exploited by anyone wishing to avoid the proposed enhanced monitoring of other out-of-school settings.

Tying to motivate the government to act over home education is hard. But concerns about unregistered schools have, albeit unintentionally, opened the door to calls to act more widely, and for those not uncritical about the ‘radicalisation’ agenda this linkage highlights the messy complexity of political strategizing. Another way of keeping the issue of home education on the agenda, indeed any issue a government would like to shelve, is by drawing an issue to the attention of sympathetic parliamentarians who are receptive to engaging with work by academics. I adopted this approach here, and last week the cross-bench peer Baroness Deech asked an oral question in the House of Lords about the government’s failure to respond to the recommendations of the Wood review. These questions provide approximately seven minutes for a mini-debate. Condensing detailed academic arguments into a briefing note to effectively assist peers in this debate was challenging and brought to mind the quip: ‘I’m sorry this is such a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write a shorter one’. In response to Baroness Deech’s questions and to those of the six other peers who spoke, Lord Nash, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools, offered no clear answers. But the questions and the short debate send a message of support to local authority professionals who struggle in difficult circumstances to do their best to support and protect home-educated children and reminds the government that their inaction is not unnoticed.

Further information:

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Teaching American History in Michael Gove’s Britain

This post was contributed by Dr Adam Shapiro, Lecturer in Intellectual and Cultural History in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. Dr Shapiro also has his own blog: Trying Biology.

The controversy started by Education Secretary Michael Gove about how to teach history is likely to be a reference point among British historians (or historians based in Britain) for quite some time.

As a lecturer of American history in the UK, I asked my class for their reaction to Gove’s column, which focused mainly on the historical causes of the First World War and the large number of events commemorating its centenary this year. Several points came up:

Moralized Histories

With my current cohort we haven’t yet reached the First World War from an American perspective, but it is clear that the US perspective on the War would look very different to the British one. While William Jennings Bryan, the US Secretary of State from 1913-15, would have had no problem agreeing that at the outbreak of World War One Germany had “the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order,” (as Gove describes them) he nonetheless disagreed sharply that these elements “all made resistance more than justified.” Indeed, Bryan placed the blame for war not solely on the German governing elite, but in governments that were too supportive of promoting the industries that found war to be profitable. Decades before we saw Eisenhower’s warning of a military-industrial complex, its precursors can be seen in the conjunction of Bryan’s pacifism and economic populism. But perhaps for Gove, Bryan is another leftist who simply refused to acknowledge the existence of evil.

In class, this led to a discussion of what I might call a Manichean approach to diplomatic and military history.  People don’t tend to call their enemies by names such as “the Evil Empire” with the caveat that their own force is only slightly less evil. That kind of rhetoric is designed to make a clear moral distinction. In our discussion of the US civil war, we discussed whether the victory of the North could be expressed in moral terms: that the North won because its cause (against slavery) was morally superior to that of the South. We considered whether this explanation served better than a claim that the North had military or economic superiority, or whether the South was beset by subversion within its ranks.

We turned to the account of the war written by Confederate General Jubal Early. Early ridiculed the claims that the cause of the war was slavery, pointing out that the North had profited by it almost as much as the South. Slavery was “used as a catch-word to arouse the passions of a fanatical mob,” Early wrote in his memoir.

Early’s narrative shows the Southern fight for independence as just and moral, and that the Northern leaders invoked slavery to distract from their own desire for economic exploitation of the South through conquest. The North won not through moral right, nor through military skill, but through sheer force of numbers. The story Early gives is one in which the South suffers a defeat, a punishment, almost in religious terms as a test of faith.

As an experiment, I asked several friends and colleagues about a passage from Early, while withholding its context

“the people of the United States will find that, under the pretense of ‘saving the life of the nation, and upholding the old flag,’ they have surrendered their own liberties into the hands of that worst of all tyrants, a body of senseless fanatics.”

Out of context, people thought that it was a liberal critique of the Patriot Act or the NSA. This led to the question as to whether or not ‘fanatic’ was simply a term that anyone could invoke at any time, to demonize their opponents. At which point, referring to opponents as fanatics says more about the person using that rhetoric than it does about the opponents themselves.

Morality and Individual Agency

So did it matter whether Jubal Early, or a soldier killed in Pickett’s Charge thought that their actions were morally just and in opposition to unjust tyrants? Did it matter for the British Soldier going over the top in the Somme? It matters in a personal sense—it matters to them, and to the people who knew them. We can recognize the moral behaviours of individuals, where the evidence permits, but does doing so explain anything about the outcomes of the war? The importance of the moral character of soldiers in the outcome of war is a question as old as Thucydides, but it does tend to suggest that history is a composition of individuals acting as personal moral agents and that there are no social facts that constrain, influence, or reward individual behaviours. It might be that the soldier in the Somme was conscious of the moral virtue of his action, or he may have felt trapped in a situation he could not control. A lack of emphasis by historians of the heroism of these individuals does not diminish their sacrifice or their heroism; it recognizes that there were other causes at work than simply individual moral actions. That despite the moral virtue of some individuals, they lost battles, or despite the moral depravity of their opponents, they won. At such a point, we need something else to explain historical cause and effect.

And this is where the issue becomes practically important, because if it’s the case that individual moral virtue is insufficient to be universally rewarded, then that has an impact on political ideologies that emphasize purely individualistic approaches to the solving of problems in society. If crime must be addressed solely by punishing criminals and never looking at the social systems that perpetuate criminality. If poverty and unemployment are seen solely as referenda on the moral heroism of the poor and unemployed (or the wealthy and employed) then they cannot be treated by social interventions.

History and Ideology

If history explains how causes and effects work in human behaviour, then it offers us guidelines by which we can assess personal and political action. Students generally agreed that it was an error to see the point of history as validating ideology – the point of history is not to compel all facts to fit into a grand narrative of class struggle, or a battle between forces of good and evil waged by heroes and villains, it ought to be a discussion of the balance of causes pulling at different levels. While Gove may have a point that some historians are committed to an ideology, replacing it with a different ideology seemed a poor fix.

Ideology and School History

What struck me as odd was the fact that so many people regarded the politicization of the history curriculum as something new. And yet my students were aware that it had been a longstanding issue in American education. Perhaps this was because there’s no single unitary curriculum under national control in the United States, but my class had looked at examples of US and Canadian politicians citing interpretations of history to support differing interpretations of the same event. For some, it was easy to recognize differences in political ideology lurking behind Columbus Day proclamations issued by Presidents Bush and Obama.

We also raised a question for later: how can we remain historically detached when discussing the history of the history wars?

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