Monday, 12 November 2018

Why I left a full-time teaching role to pursue a passion for school food research

Kelly Rose, Graduate Tutor/PhD researcher at Teesside University, writes about her journey to help young people make healthy food choices in a guest post for National School Meals Week.


‘Why?’ was the question I was asked numerous times when I first announced that I would be leaving my role as ‘Head of health education, and food and nutrition’ teacher in a well-respected secondary school. A job everyone around me knew I had loved; it had provided me with job satisfaction and I was able to make a difference everyday (because that’s what teachers do). To add to the incredulity of those around me, not only was I leaving this hard earned role, I was taking a 50% pay cut to embark on a short-term research contract to complete my PhD with no assurance of job security afterwards!

Here is a little background about why I came to - what was for me - a very easy decision.

As an adolescent I found myself in an extremely confused state about healthy food choices, being the ‘right’ weight and having a positive mental health. Then, when I became a mum, the painful realisation that my girls may be feeling that confusion made me want to make a societal change in whatever way I could. Not really knowing where to start, at 32 years old I threw myself into a degree in Food, Nutrition and Health Science. At this stage my only qualifications were four GCSEs and a BTEC diploma in Travel and Tourism. I still don’t know how I believed I could do it!

Three years later I had become so passionate about the power of food that I wanted to teach it to as many young people as possible. With renewed confidence, my First-class honours, and an award winning third-year ‘school lunch’ poster project, off I went to complete a PGCE in design and technology. In that year I spent more time making a wooden stool than learning about nutrition (approximately three hours) because that’s how we still train food teachers – but that’s a story for another time.

I discovered that I loved to teach and, in addition to my teaching, did all I could to help young people make healthy choices. I researched interventions, registered on courses, spoke at various events including ‘Food Matters Live’ in London and was invited to speak at a dietetic student conference at The Hague, Holland. I was thriving and learning so much about the education system: the teaching leads were happy, the GCSE results were superb, and we were improving the healthy choices and the health education in the school. It was a fantastic opportunity to be in a place where the leadership supported the health agenda. Even so, after a while, it became clear that there were barriers that were much larger than the school environment: policy change had become confusing and the support in implementing food standards had disappeared. The external environment of advertising close to schools, proliferation of fast food outlets and shops offering cheap energy drinks. The social norms around eating behaviour in our teenagers had become a turbulent misunderstood tangle of factors, and this with all of the curriculum changes and budget cuts! It was in my last two years (of seven teaching) that I spent time writing PhD proposals, knowing that to make a change I needed to be able to add research to this field, to inform the decision making processes.

That is why I feel extremely lucky to have been given the opportunity to do research at Teesside University and to have access to inspirational researchers and existing work through the Fuse network, and of course to fulfil the dream of having a positive impact on the school food environment.

I am now 8 weeks into my graduate tutor/PhD researcher post and I am sure that I have made the right decision. I used the library every day in my first week, pinching myself, not quite believing I was here with time to research and learn. Every day I am learning and have so far developed a timeline of policy past-to-present, an ecological framework of everything that impacts school food choice from the macro level (government structure and policy, sustainability focus, food supply, food industry and manufacturing, behaviours etc.) to the external and internal physical settings and the individual students. I know from my time in education that consistency and communication are key components of making sustainable healthy change in schools. I hope that I will be able to provide a clear direction on where that focus should be to contribute to the reduction of the ‘obesogenic’ environment for our young people. I have far to go in understanding the myriad of methodologies required to do this work, but I will delve into past research and attend workshops to learn all I can. As I develop questions and embark on a systematic review I have the feeling that I am at the bottom of a huge mountain, ready to make the climb. It is just the beginning and I am aware that significant patience and discipline are going to be needed to get to the top of that mountain.

I look forward to meeting you on my journey.


#schoolmealsshoutout #NSMW18

Find out more about National School Meals Week here: http://thegreatschoollunch.co.uk

Friday, 2 November 2018

Why dramatic enquiry as a form of public engagement gave me my most enjoyable week as an academic

Guest post by Santosh Vijaykumar, Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, Northumbria University

“It’s important to eat healthy but we also need sugars, although in moderation.” These are not the words of an expert on BBC’s Food Programme, but a Year 5 student at Chillingham Road Primary School in Newcastle, fidgety and impatient for the next activity to resume. And the caution came about not through a series of in-depth interviews by public health researchers such as myself, but through ‘dramatic enquiry’. Brad McCormick and Katy Vanden from Cap-a-Pie, the theatre company that developed this approach, describe it as one that “places participants in a fictional scenario where they are in-role from start to finish. They are placed in a situation where there is no clear ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer and where they have to express their own beliefs and values.”

Brad directing the drama

Over the course of a week, we conducted four such dramatic enquiry workshops with three schools in Newcastle, each session comprising approximately 30 Year 5 pupils (10-11 year olds). Although these workshops were part of the public engagement strategy of my ongoing ESRC funded project* that seeks to understand psychological drivers of confidence in probiotics products, we decided to explore broader themes beyond just probiotics. The aim – suggested by Brad and Katy and gladly welcomed by us – was to avoid a top-down health education approach, and instead utilise this engagement format to get children to think and talk about fundamental issues: why do they eat what they eat? Can food be healthy and unhealthy at the same time? Should the government control what foods we consume? What is the relationship between responsibility and choice in the context of food? We used these themes as a funnel to eventually involve the children in a discussion on probiotics.

Each workshop starts with the children seated in a semi-circle. As soon as they are settled, Brad catches them off guard. He starts shaking hands with one of them and says “I ate at your restaurant last week, superb!”, and then goes to another: “I read your article on raw food diets, so interesting!”, and so on and so forth, setting off a series of giggles or muffled peals of laughter among the children as they make sense of the goings on. Soon after they are informed that they are all members of the Food and Drink Committee of Arcadia (a fictional country) and are asked to take a pledge of allegiance to Arcadia. A series of dramatic games such as DilemmaRama, Shake Hands/High Fives and Stop/Go has now completely warmed them up to Brad and to each other. This lays the foundation for their enthusiastic participation in the ensuing small group activities, each of which is followed by a philosophical discussion or reflection.

The small-group activities include identifying and enacting their favourite dish in a freeze frame, contemplating what it means to be healthy, and explaining the rationale for why they agree or disagree with a certain food policy from different viewpoints (as a journalist, scientist, manufacturer, etc.). In the second half of the session, they are introduced to a fictional probiotics product, to develop a commercial for it, and then asked to make a decision about whether it should be sold after exposing them to news articles reporting conflicting evidence related to the health effects of probiotics products.

As a researcher, observing these sessions live can be tough – it’s so much fun, you want to participate with the kids and leave taking notes for later. And taking notes is not easy either, even after you have committed to it. For, you realise quickly that every activity and philosophical discussion reveals a new strand of thought among children, a sharp, counter-intuitive insight, or a larger ethical perspective. As someone who is newly baptised to this form of public engagement, I realise how uninhibited and enthusiastic kids are in terms of participating in what would seem tricky terrain for adults, and how even seemingly quieter kids volunteer to voice their opinions. I am beginning to understand how this approach lends itself to unearthing perspectives of greater complexity and nuance than a traditional research method, such as a survey or experiment would. Essentially, if one were to invest in dramatic enquiry as a means of formative research for investigating a public health problem, they would reap a rich, and dare I say endless harvest of research questions worth investigating in a format that’s fun, engaging, and revelatory.

If you are waiting to know what we learned from these workshops, I will share links to a podcast series (on this blog) sometime over the next few weeks. These podcasts will give you a more detailed idea about dramatic enquiry, how the participating children benefited from it, and some perspectives that emerged about how kids perceive scientists, media, and the industry that really surprised us.

When I first arrived into the UK academic environment in February 2017, public engagement seemed a policy or media interfacing, translational exercise for researchers. Being involved in dramatic enquiry has now broadened my personal understanding of public engagement and triggered a cascade of ideas about creative ways to get a conversation going with communities whose lives we seek to positively influence through public health research. And, without a doubt, it has given me my most enjoyable week in eight years as an academic. Brad and Katy deserve some chocolate cake, but in moderation.

*Acknowledgment: This project was funded by the Consumer Data Research Centre, an ESRC Data Investment, under project ID CDRC 085, ES/L011840/1; ES/L011891/1.