Atkins, Liz (2008) Tears of the phoenix: how nurturing and support became the 'cure' for further education. In: British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, September 2008, Edinburgh, UK. (Unpublished)

There is rising concern that the uncritical use of therapeutic educational interventions such as circle time or personalised learning in education is leading to a ‘diminished self’ (Ecclestone, 2004; 2007) - individuals who are disempowered and whose potential for agency is reduced by the well intentioned but uncritical discourse of fragility and the implementation of pseudo-therapeutic interventions in schools and colleges.

Existing debates identify a broad range of formal interventions such as those mentioned above, which might be described as therapy based. More informally, this paper, which is contextualised within the emerging literature in this field, (e.g Furedi, 2004; Cigman, 2004; Ecclestone 2004, 2007; Kristjansson, 2007) explores how teacher education, education policy and popular belief interact to generate and perpetuate an uncritical nurturing ethos amongst education professionals and considers its possible consequences for teachers and students. The paper draws on a range of qualitative data from an ongoing exploration of the changing identities of part-time inservice trainee teachers as well as from a recent case study of 30 level one students in two further education colleges.

The paper finds a well meaning, nurturing mindset amongst teaching staff, supported not by research but by received wisdom such as the value of personalised learning and a belief in the need to build self-esteem. It argues that this mindset contributes to the pervasive ethos of nurturing and dependence in Further Education which forms the focus of this discussion. Further, it suggests that whilst in concert with current government rhetoric reflected not only in official papers but also in LLUK and OfSTED requirements, this ethos is at variance with the students’ perceptions of themselves as agent individuals working towards ‘good’ qualifications.

The paper argues that the origins of such a nurturing mindset are two-fold, arising from the nature and purpose of teacher education in the Lifelong Learning sector and also as a consequence of the uncritical acceptance of a discourse of fragility by government and institutions desperate to resolve perceived problems around issues such as retention and achievement. It goes on to suggest that existing teacher education programmes engender an uncritical ‘tick box’ uncritical approach to the education of teachers, in which there is no requirement for trainee teachers to be encouraged to question contested concepts such as notions around self esteem, but where some contested concepts are required to be taught as ‘fact’. Further, this is compounded by government and institutional endorsement of more formal ‘therapeutic’ initiatives such as the use of learning styles questionnaires by integrating them into everyday practice as a matter of policy. In this way, the paper argues, research informed practice becomes indivisible from that based on assumption and guesswork, engendering and perpetuating an uncritical mindset amongst teachers, ultimately leading to a denial of the potential for greater agency amongst professionals as well as amongst students.

Despite the rhetoric suggesting that pseudo therapeutic approaches will act in the same way as the tears of the Phoenix in respect of perceived personal and institutional difficulties, the paper concludes that this is not the case, and that the uncritical, nurturing ethos underlying many such initiatives leads not to empowerment but instead to low expectations which are legitimised in the context of often misunderstood notions and (mis)interpretations of inclusion. Ultimately, this limits the potential for agency and denies opportunity, according with Ecclestone’s concept of the diminished self and raising serious questions about the state of initial teacher training in England, in that such approaches are apparently taught, accepted and implemented as fact in all parts of the education system.

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