Odd: feeling different in the world of education

Lead Research Organisation: Manchester Metropolitan University
Department Name: Faculty of Education


This 3-year interdisciplinary project will investigate the experiences of, and repercussions for, children who do not find it easy to 'fit in' at school. While such feelings are not always traumatic, statistics produced by Young Minds (2016) suggest three children in every classroom have diagnosed mental health issues. This proposal has been developed in partnership with the school where the research will be located, Alma Park Primary School in Levenshulme, Manchester, selected for its diverse school and local communities.

This research is timely, firstly, in its innovative approach to rethinking 'difference' to contribute new knowledge to the anti-bullying and inclusion agendas in school and secondly, in its methodology, building on the developing field of community co-produced knowledge (Facer and Enright, 2016), and focusing the lenses of art and anthropology on both the substantive inquiry into oddness, and the theoretical work of developing interdisciplinary methodology and protocols.

Over the last 5 years the UK government has invested heavily in diversity, mental health and wellbeing, with a particular focus on young children's resilience (DfE, 2016; DoH, 2014). The day-to-day work of our partner school reflects the ethos of many schools; informed by such initiatives, their commitment to 'celebrating difference' palpable, yet they express concern for individualising discourses that filter down from educational policy, collectively defining who falls outside of educational and social norms. The proposed project recognises that an interdisciplinary approach is needed to break out of conventional educational thinking about difference and conformity. We will bring together perspectives from art, anthropology and education to examine how feeling a 'misfit', 'loner' or the 'odd one out' can have a detrimental impact on some children, whilst recognising others may occupy this space more confidently. Children are perceived as capable, skilled social actors in the world, who have fascinating perspectives on this topic. Working in co-production with a whole primary school community, involving children from all year groups (aged 4-11), parents, teachers and non-teaching staff, the research will produce different kinds of practice-based collaborations to ask pressing and difficult questions of policy rhetoric and practices in school via interrogations of the generative idea of odd; what odd means; what its value is and why this matters, what it tells us about ordinary, everyday encounters with one another, places and things. The research collective will develop arts-led strategies and other resources for minimizing the destructive effects of feeling 'odd' or 'different', but will also attempt to harness the potency of difference as a force for creativity, empowerment and policy critique. For our purposes, the term odd opens a space for thinking otherwise in a school context where powerful discourses of difference, diversity and inclusion (Norwich, 2014) rub up against material processes of normalisation and conformity (Brisard, Menter & Smith, 2010). This project will generate new interdisciplinary knowledge, enhance understandings and develop creative insights into how art theory and practice, together with social science methodologies contribute empirically to an emerging field of work that attends to difference differently (Barad, 2014).

The project team have the expertise required for this interdisciplinary study: a visual anthropologist with expertise in interdisciplinary connections between anthropology and art/design (Ravetz); a socially engaged artist working in large social environments where people, object and places interact (Shaw); a co-production consultant (Pool) and educationalist (Pahl) with extensive knowledge of co-production and empirical work in schools; a PI with extensive experience of externally-funded research on children and childhood and interdisciplinary, arts-informed methodologies (Holmes).

Planned Impact

This research will generate impact in the third sector, within professional and practitioner groups, the Levenshulme community and the wider public in general. The approach to all aspects of knowledge exchange comes out of our long-term co-produced work with our partners, Alma Park School and its local community; as well as our collaborations with Catalyst Psychology, NCB and The Showroom gallery. Letters of support are attached to this application.

The project has four key impact objectives:

1. Development of new ways of understanding and responding to children who do not find it easy to 'fit in' at school
2. Provision of alternative inclusive practices in education and contributions to behaviour and anti-bullying policies
3. Mobilise the value and potential of oddness to empower children, families and local communities
4. Raise awareness of the importance and potential of research collaborations across art, anthropology and education

Pathways to achieving these impact objectives are outlined below.

Professional and practitioner groups (teachers, classroom-based practitioners and Educational Psychologists)
a) Develop practitioner reflexivity: Exhibitions, Odd celebration, training and CPD sessions, short film & user package will strengthen the critical reflexivity of Educational Psychologists, teachers and other classroom practitioners within the school, across the school's Cluster Group and in training opportunities for mental health organisations such as Catalyst Psychology to consider framings of children, families and ways of knowing.
b) Promote curriculum and school development
The outputs will inform teachers' reflective development across the curriculum, particularly in areas of the arts and inclusion
c) Initiate changes to training, school policy and practices
The project will produce a new 'Inclusion manifesto' to effect changes to school policy and practices. The work will produce practice development and training opportunities for NCB who work with children and families, national policy-makers and practitioners to research, innovate and establish best practice across the children's sector. The project outputs will force the reconsideration of labels, stereotypes, behaviour and diagnoses. Practitioners will also benefit from the use of interdisciplinary research methods.

Local community and the wider public: Community of Levenshulme, Manchester
a) Raising awareness of, and debating the importance of 'diversity', including eccentricity, quirkiness and non-conformity in communities
Families & local community will have opportunities to rethink and reflect positively on issues affecting their lives such as social cohesion and difference. The Odd Secret event among the other community-based exhibitions and celebrations will encourage community participation to harness the potency of differences in the community as a force for creativity, empowerment and policy critique.

Third Sector: Museums and galleries (The Showroom) and Charities (NCB)
a) Exhibition work
The Showroom is respected for projects that work with communities, artists and social issues to generate discussions, events and exhibitions, Odd resonates strongly with their 'Communal Knowledge' project. The school-based 'Odd Exhibition' feeds into The Showroom final exhibition, with the intention of offering a national event. The movement of the work from school to public exhibition, places new demands on the work, needing to communicate outside the school space not just within it, and generates spaces for discussions in the gallery about the role of the children as subjects and/or critics.
b) Creating new research networks
The Odd Lab will open up and sustain new networks for exploration of follow-on events and further funding opportunities. Through the Odd Celebration and Odd Exhibition, we will broaden the odd network to draw in other potential partners in the pursuit of further funding.


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