‘Having a social mission keeps my feet on the ground’

26th February 2016 at 00:00
The UCL Institute of Education’s first female director wants research made more relevant to teachers

Education researchers would benefit from a better understanding of what teachers and policymakers need from their work, Professor Becky Francis says.

And what Professor Francis says matters. She has been just appointed to arguably the most influential position in UK education research: director of the UCL Institute of Education (IoE).

“Definitely, there’s room for educational research to be more constructive and useful,” she tells TES. “And perhaps in the past it could be argued that it’s been better at bringing the problems than the solutions.

“A better understanding sometimes of the needs of practitioners and policymakers would help academic research to be more useful.”

Being useful has been a consistent motivating factor for Professor Francis. The daughter of Quakers, she was influenced by the religion’s commitment to social justice. She grew up in the 1980s, with teachers’ strikes and budget cuts punctuating her education.

She describes herself as “a long-standing anointed sociologist of education”, and is currently professor of education and social justice at King’s College London.

But a career as a sociologist was not inevitable: her first degree was in English, and she graduated into the middle of the 1992 recession. After a stint selling perfume, she applied for a doctoral scholarship, researching boys’ and girls’ primary education at the University of North London (now London Metropolitan University).

“I suppose I’d got A-level sociology, and that’s where the sociology of education connection came in.” She pauses. “I must have done a good interview.”

Gender and achievement

Her PhD was a revelation: she was surprised by how much she enjoyed working in schools and talking to pupils. “But what’s stayed and has been consistent is my commitment to social justice and equality. As every teacher knows, school is a microcosm of society.”

As an academic, she is best known for her work on gender and achievement. She has repeatedly argued that too much attention is paid to boys’ underperformance in exams. After all, she points out, those boys go on to command higher salaries and dominate top jobs as adults.

But her research has also focused on the importance of that term much-loved by academics: intersectionality. In layperson’s terms, this is the way in which all elements of children’s backgrounds – including sex, race and class – work together to influence their chances of academic success.

“The socio-economic gap and parental background has been the longest-standing and clearest predictor of educational outcomes,” she says. “And it always has been. So it’s right that government is focusing on that through the pupil premium.”

When Professor Francis takes up her post in July, she will become the IoE’s first female director. “I’m proud to be the first woman,” she says. “And it’s exciting that they have appointed a feminist.”

But she is also quick to point out that she was not appointed because she was a woman: her research record, she says, speaks for itself. And she insists that it is not a surprise that the IoE or UCL should appoint a feminist. The University of London, of which UCL was a founding college, was the first English university to admit women as undergraduates on equal terms with men.

“The [IOE] make a lot of that in their self-identity,” she says. “And, of course, the IoE was an institution that was absolutely at the fore of inclusivity and socially just agendas. Given my own research agendas and my personal passions, I think that will be a good fit.”

Higher purpose

This is not the first time that her own career has involved practical application of her social-justice principles. Last year, she was appointed adviser to the Commons Education Select Committee.

Before that, she has worked as director of education at the Royal Society for the Arts, and has previously written reports for the Sutton Trust charity, highlighting issues of social disadvantage.

“Academics get terribly excited by their own agendas and their own interests – which has certainly been true of my career,” she says. “But having an impetus to improve education – whether improving the quality of education or wanting to narrow gaps – and having a particular social mission: these things help us keep our feet on the ground.”

Professor Francis has therefore always made an effort to appear approachable. Her research papers are notable for their clarity of language. And she gives the impression of someone who would rather have a nice chat about forthcoming holiday plans than pepper her conversations with terms such as “praxis”, “nexus” or, indeed, “intersectionality”.

“Of course, some academic research is hard,” she says. “It’s academic, and it’s post-PhD level. But it’s also about being aware that, if you want to impact society, people other than your immediate academic circle need to be able to understand what you’re saying and see the relevance to it.”


CV: Becky Francis

Born on 7 November 1969

Attended Ralph Allen School, a comprehensive in Bath, followed by Bath Tech for A levels

BA in English, University of Wales, Swansea

PhD in social studies, University of North London

1996-2000 University of Greenwich

2000-06 Deputy director of the Institute for Policy Studies in Education, London Metropolitan University

2006-10 Professor of education and director of the Centre for Educational Research in Equalities, Policy and Pedagogy at the University of Roehampton

2010-12 Director of education at the Royal Society for the Arts

2012-13 Director of the Pearson thinktank, creating a policy research unit for Pearson UK

2012-present Professor of education and social justice and director of research, King’s College London

July 2016 Becomes director of the UCL Institute of Education

What the academics say

Dylan Wiliam, former deputy director of the IoE:

“Appointing Becky Francis as the 11th director of the Institute of Education is a great decision by UCL. She is an excellent scholar, a great communicator, and a passionate campaigner for social justice. She is an ideal choice to take forward the work of the institute.”

John Hattie, director, Melbourne Education Research Institute: “I know her work on gender and achievement and it is outstanding. If it’s anything to go by, IoE has attained a stunning academic.”

Louise Archer, professor of sociology of education, King’s College London: “I am delighted to hear of Becky’s appointment – her feminist and social justice credentials, coupled with her personable nature and academic brilliance, promise a principled, caring and dynamic approach to management.”

Stephen Gorard, professor of education and public policy, Durham University: “The London IoE (where I trained as a teacher) and UCL (where I was an undergraduate) are institutions with worldwide reputations. As the first newly appointed director since the merger, Becky Francis has a wonderful challenge and an enviable opportunity. I wish her luck.”

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