James Atherton's Home Page
These sites are largely about learning and teaching in "post-compulsory" education. This page is for those of you who rightly want to know where the author is coming from, and what makes him believe he has any right to pontificate about such matters. In practice it has grown to something of an autobiography. Sorry! Just scan the bold bits.
My name is James Atherton and I am a member of an endangered species in that although moderately well-educated, I am totally untrained for anything I currently do (or ever have done), unless you count learning to drive.
I started my teaching "career" working in a primary (elementary) school in what would now be called my "gap" year between school and university. In those days one could work as a temporary unqualified teacher at the age of 18: I had a class of 25 9-10 year-olds, most of whom had some kind of learning or behavioural difficulty. I made a total hash of it, unsurprisingly, and I would like to apologise to them now.
I took my BA at the University of Sussex in European Studies, majoring in English Literature (1963-66). By dint of great effort, I succeeded in getting my degree without ever reading "Middlemarch" (I still haven't). After my final exam, I went out and bought some science-fiction novels, and did not touch anything labelled "literature" again for twenty years, until someone persuaded me that Jane Austen was funny. This only goes to show how off-putting formal education can be, even for an academic junkie like me.
I first worked as a research assistant at Christian Teamwork (later the Grubb Institute) where I learned about applied evangelical theology (I was a more conservative Christian then than now), Kleinian psychoanalysis and systems theory in the context of group relations in the Tavistock tradition. If that is meaningless, don't worry about it. After a year it was clear that the institute's finances were too parlous to think about a career with them, so I turned to education. Such was my ignorance at that time, that I had to ring an acquaintance to find out what a "Further Education" college was. I also read a book by Fred Flower, from the institute's library, which held out a vision of how teaching language and literature could transform the lives of what we would now call "disaffected" young people.
So I became an Assistant Lecturer Grade A (as low as you can get) at Salford Technical College, teaching "Liberal Studies". This was a benign if misguided government initiative to ensure that all vocational education students (builders, engineering technicians, bakers, etc.) were "liberally educated", and attracted a very motley crew of drifters, ex-hippies, and graduates in useless disciplines to staff it. Tom Sharpe's "Wilt" novels, particularly the first one, capture the atmosphere perfectly: they present as comically bizarre, but are if anything understated.
At the outset, I was sent (by mistake, it appears) on a five-day residential course on how to teach, at Bolton Technical Teacher Training College (now part of the University of Bolton). After three days I got the impression they had run out of things to teach us, and so I decided that teacher training was rubbish. Ironic, in view of where I ended up; but I might have been right.
Since Liberal Studies was, pretty well by definition, "teaching people anything they did not want to know about", it was an initiation by ordeal, but it did demand rigorous reflection on practice, if only in the interest of survival, and of not having yet another class dominated by students ("learners" in today's jargon: school children are now dignified by the term "student", but somehow it does not apply to students in FE) having a competition for the best flight of an inflated condom...
During this period I moved through a succession of lodgings and shared apartments and houses, including a community house in Moss Side in Manchester (then, as now, a notorious area for crime and drug dealing). Here I learned to engage with (neutral term—I was trying to help through a youth club, the Baptist church and a housing project, but I was pretty hopeless at it, although my housemates were much better) homeless people, alcoholics, and petty criminals and struggling young adults. Despite the area's reputation, I was never mugged; my car was never broken into or vandalised; and the house was never burgled. That came later.
After five years of Liberal Studies, I happened to sit down one day at coffee time next to two other staff members whom I had not met. This was in the "Senior Common Room" in an FE college; my former university does not have a Senior Common Room at all. These colleagues were using terms like "projection" and "introjection"-part of the discourse of psychoanalysis with which I had become familiar. Who were they? I introduced myself. They worked on the Certificate in the Residential Care of Children and Young People course, for staff working in children's homes and "approved schools" for young delinquents.
So began a process of controlled drift into social work education. Despite my total lack of experience, I joined the course team in 1973, and became the course leader in 1974. I interviewed my future wife for the course in 1976, (and as we became friendlier I punctiliously excused myself from all involvement in her assessment). There was a brilliant (if occasionally abrasive) team of tutors, and it was there that I met a student called Fred. Fred was sailing through the course, but there was something about him. Eventually in a tutorial he admitted that although he was keen to get the qualification, it would not change his practice. He was already the proprietor of a number of private children's homes, which were thriving. He could not afford to jeopardise their success by taking on board all these "new-fangled" ideas; so he would go through the motions and get the qualification to support his credibility, but it would not make any difference. I met many "Freds" as my career went on, and it was the problem he posed which led me to my doctoral research.
At about this time I also undertook a part-time M.Litt in Religious Studies at Lancaster, ("Dependence and the Practice of Religion"). I became more interested in counselling and the then popular "human potential" movement (principally a reaction to realising that I am a bit of an uptight geek, to be technical about it), so I took courses in Transactional Analysis, and Dramatherapy with the charismatic and brilliant Gordon Wiseman. I also took up voluntary work with the Samaritans which carried on for more than ten years in Manchester and then in Bedford.
There was no Master's course locally available in social work education, so I signed up for an M.Ed in Teacher Education at Manchester University, which I completed in 1979. Everything I have studied since my undergraduate degree has been on a part-time basis (apart from my sabbatical in 85-86), so the opportunities and challenges of part-time study really resonate with me.
In 1979 I was invited back to the Grubb Institute to undertake an action-research project replicating their initiative in to help young people in crisis with their families. Although this ultimately foundered because of the change of government, I have to face the fact that I was just not up to the job. I jumped before I was pushed.
So it was that through a marginally nepotistic process (in that I was acquainted with my predecessor), I became Head of the Social Work Education Centre at the then Bedford College of Higher Education. This was an almost autonomous centre dedicated to in-service courses and continuing professional development for social work and social care staff, which enjoyed considerable freedom from the college bureaucracy. We were a team of between five and seven, who worked together very closely, and professionally this was one of the most satisfying and productive periods of my life: we developed many short courses, and in particular did an enormous amount of training for social workers for statutory duties under the Mental Health Act 1983. I owe a great debt to Andrew Sedgwick, Lynne Freeman, Janice Harper, Maureen Sears, Maria Ruegger, Robert Johns and Elizabeth Sullivan for those years.
In 1984, I found a form in my pigeon-hole to apply for a sabbatical. Since I was living away from the family mid-week (FLAW - Father Lives Away Weekdays) it seemed like a long shot to get some time at home in Bolton. I filled it in, in a spare ten minutes. To my amazement, I was awarded a year on full salary to start my doctorate. Manchester University took me on, and after several hiccups and delays, I completed in 1991. It was all down to Fred.
While on sabbatical I was invited to join the Independent Review of Residential Care-- the Wagner Committee, which reported in 1988 (it appears that the report has not made its way onto the web). I couldn't get to the 20th anniversary lunch, but it appears that its impact has been limited.
In 1994, our bit of the College was partly taken over by De Montfort University, which already had its own social work courses—so I changed horses. I was never a social worker anyway, and my chief interest was learning and teaching, so I moved into the School of Education. Just as I was never a qualified social worker, so I was never a qualified teacher, but it did not seem to matter.
From 2000-2002 I was also privileged to work as a consultant on a project for the School of Health and Social Welfare at the Open University, which offered great insight into what goes into developing state-of-the-art resource-based learning.
So I retired as a Principal Lecturer in Education at De Montfort University Bedford. I was the Programme Leader and a contributor to the MA in Learning and Teaching (of blessed memory; it closed when I left, which is a kind of back-handed compliment) and also taught (and still do, when they let me) on the part-time Professional Certificate in Education and Certificate in Education programme in post-compulsory education, as well as supervising MA Independent Studies students and doctoral candidates. (The Bedford campus of DMU is now part of the University of Bedfordshire.)
I became a University Teacher Fellow, and a National Teaching Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (2004 cohort), thanks in large measure to you, the visitors to this web-site.
Since then I have done sessional work and external examining to keep my hand in, and was also privileged to spend six months in 2009 working part-time for the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.
For the record, I'm divorced but living happily (most of the time—don't we all?) with my ex-wife. We have two sons, one of our own who just might have found a career in fitting floors five years after graduating in philosophy and sociology and a former foster-son who is a brilliant and punctilious landscape gardener. And I mustn't forget the dog (Rupert, our third Westie. (I've just searched the net, and the stuff on Westies is not merely pathetic but objectionable. It's all about conformity to breed specifications. Who cares? Rupert is Rupert. He's now 13, diabetic and blind but still enjoys life [we think]. We love him.)
I'm not much of a formal researcher, but I do specialise in building informal models of professional practice on the basis of listening hard to my students' experience. For the past thirty-odd years I have had the privilege of working with experienced practitioners, first in residential social work, then in social work in general and in counselling, and latterly in adult education. So what do I teach them? Good question ...
Publications? Yes. A couple of books on residential social work, one respectable sociological article (in 1971), a few education articles (some of which are referenced on these sites), but very few people ever read them.
These sites, on the other hand, get almost a million unique visitors a year, and are linked to by a thousand or so other sites across the world. One individual has done me the dubious honor (the US spelling is deliberate) of lifting the entire content of an earlier version of one site and posting it, with only the most obscure acknowledgement, as his own.
I'm not good at playing the academic game. I have never even been entered as far as I know for the UK "Research Assessment Exercise". I do not read the journals unless I am looking for something specific, and the quality of what passes for "educational research" generally appals me: most of the articles seem merely to serve the purpose of being fodder for the "due diligence" (a.k.a. "literature review") of my postgraduate students. Having alienated a fair proportion of my readers-particularly those of you in a position to recommend the sites-I had better shut up!