I, Daniel Blake reveals the rich complexity of literacy – and why it matters

This post by Susan Jones is re blogged from The Conversation, Feb 9, 2017.


The Bafta nominated film I, Daniel Blake portrays the often brutal experiences of those attempting to navigate the British welfare system. Director Ken Loach has said of his film, however: “It’s for those people who are struggling against the cruelty of bureaucracy, whatever country.”

The film gives us insights into the ways in which today’s world can be particularly alienating for those without the specific skills it demands. Viewing the film through the lens of literacy, we see how letters, booklets and forms accrue as pillars of a system decried by Daniel Blake as a “monumental farce”.

Within a knowledge economy, literacy is bound up in a wider suite of policy based on an economic/financial model of human development and a narrow view of how people make use of literacy in their everyday lives. As is shown in the film, this both compounds the challenge for those in need of access to vital resources and renders their everyday experiences invisible.

Daniel Blake is not “illiterate” – he is resourceful, creative and willing to work, and we see him using his skills and sharing his knowledge. He is told that the benefit system he is forced to navigate is “digital by default”. Daniel’s riposte that he, as a craftsman, is “pencil by default” reflects one of his key challenges. The pencil is associated with versatility and being open to change. However, it can also be rubbed out and replaced, like the generations of workers Daniel represents in post-industrial society.

When he is asked to “run the mouse up the screen” of the computer in his local library, where he has sought help with his benefit form, he tries to do so physically. When he is told his screen is “frozen” he replies: “Can you defrost it?” The unfamiliarity of these processes place this man, who has never before needed state support, in an alien world.

A world moving on

New technologies may be moving on, meaning people like Daniel can be left behind, yet the film demonstrates how digital technology is a key resource for creative and collaborative responses to economic challenge. Daniel’s neighbour has been forced to use his initiative to supplement a meagre income from a zero-hours contract by ordering counterfeit trainers through a contact in China.

Daniel is left incredulous at the Skype conversation he witnesses – his disbelief at the fact that this conversation is taking place at two different ends of the globe emphasises how the world is moving on around him, leaving him without access to resources, recognition or the means to participate in society. It is this neighbour, China, who is finally able to complete the Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA) form online for Daniel, after days of his thwarted attempts in more official institutions.

Despite the stranglehold placed on claimants by the bureaucracy depicted in the film, the two most powerful texts in Daniel’s story are his own. His spray-painted graffiti makes public the individual struggles that take place within a hidden maze of official texts. The note Daniel prepares to read at his appeal, handwritten in pencil, also challenges the system he has been forced to navigate. Announcing himself as “I, Daniel Blake” in both of these texts, Daniel is defiant in reclaiming his identity from those who have sought to define him.

Insecure times

The benefits system with which Daniel grapples is the result of the most significant reform of the British welfare state in half a century: that is, in the time since Loach directed Cathy Come Home. However, the challenge for those made vulnerable by poverty is even more acute today than it was five decades ago, and media-friendly epithets of “skivers” or “strivers” hark back across centuries to notions of the feckless and undeserving poor.

Researching for his Bafta nominated screenplay, screenwriter Paul Laverty heard stories across the UK of insecure housing, zero-hours employment contracts, inflexible fitness to work assessments and punitive sanctions. Katie’s desperation at the food bank is one of the film’s most powerful depictions of the impact of recent welfare reform on personal dignity, and it reflects the reality of an eight-fold increase in their use in the last five years.

A close focus on literacy in I, Daniel Blake highlights the impact of welfare policies which are based upon a narrow view of people’s lives. It also shows how this impact is compounded when such policies rely upon narrow ways of viewing literacy and the rich complexity of its role in everyday life. Literacy education and research can and should continue to challenge reductive models of what it means to be literate, and to critically explore the implications of this for social justice. This can provide valuable space for voices, such as that of Daniel Blake, to be heard


CRACL news

CRACL is pleased to report two staff changes.

Dr Becky Parry was the researcher working on the Tale project, She now has a permanent Assistant Professor position in the school. She will be working on the new B Ed programme and the MA CALL.

Dr Lexi Earl has been appointed to the position of researcher for TALE for the remainder of the project.

We will soon be advertising a shorter term position for a researcher specialising in statistics.


Roma Patel, who is partly supervised in CRACL, conducted her final PhD research ‘experiment’ at Lakeside. Roma is a theatre designer and she is researching how digital technologies can be used to create immersive theatre environments for very small children.

She staged, with the help of an artist, a one hour performance which was attended by volunteer research families. The performance was called The Runaway Hare, and it featured a tree that responded to sound by making light patterns, a talking grassy patch, a magic flower that laughed and boats that twinkled.

new books

CRACL members have recently published two new books. As if thats not enough, one of our PhD graduates has also published the book from her thesis.

Alex Southern (2016) The Ministry of Education Film Experiment. From Post-War Visual Education to 21st Century Literacy. Palgrave Macmillan.

Becky Parry, Cathy Burnett and Guy Merchant ( Eds) (2017) Literacy, media, technology. Past, present, future. Bloomsbury

Pat Thomson and Christine Hall ( 2017) Place based methods for researching schools. Bloomsbury

learning with Serpentine

We have been conducting an evaluation of learning in the Serpentine’s World without Walls programme. We have just reported on our interim results from an examination of two projects. One was the first instalment of Changing Play, a project conducted in partnership with the Portman Children’s Centre.

Anton did this first set of research. His investigation of the work that artist Albert Potrony did suggests the following benefits for children:

  • awareness and understanding of a range of materials and objects, manipulative skills in handling large and small materials and objects, and ability to conceptualise them in form and use
  • imaginative development in the interaction with materials, objects and other children, allowing experimentation in applying and combining of materials.
  • linguistic development in the use of words, utterances and in the construction of narratives accompanying play and reflecting on it afterwards is essential in early conceptual development.
  • the richness of children’s narratives incorporated their understanding of social relations and responses to immediate and mediated culture – many instances of children making references to familiar media characters (notably Power Rangers) and to their experience of social and cultural life (home life, rockets, putting people in prison)
  • the ability to ‘read’ materials and objects – to name things in their playworld and to construct complex narratives ­­adapting them to their imaginative purposes – are powerful precursors of literacy development
  • looking at the images the artist had taken of the children in play and then reflecting on them later, interpreting them and making narratives assisted the development of memory
  • continuity and consistency in working regularly with a particular group of children – the original plan was to work both with the Nursery and with a drop-in parent and toddler group, ‘Stay and Play’, but after reflection and discussion with staff this was modified to concentrate on working with the Nursery children
  • particularly apparent was children’s increasing sense of autonomy in the playworlds they created, affording them a clearer sense of their own developing character and personhood for themselves and in relation to others. Children were able to lead adults into and through their imaginative worlds, involving them in their play

There were also benefits for nursery staff and children. You can read our full interim evaluation report  here as a downloadable pdf. worldwithoutwalls_interimresearchreport_final-copy

primary arts are in trouble

This is a piece that Pat has just written for a forthcoming NUT publication on primary assessment.


The national curriculum guidelines affirm the value of cultural education for all children. The arts – including art and design, music, dance, drama and media arts, design and technology – are an integral part of the national curriculum up to age 14. The guidelines for art, craft and design for example begin by stating that these subjects “embody some of the highest forms of human creativity” and that a “high-quality art and design education should engage, inspire and challenge pupils, equipping them with the knowledge and skills to experiment, invent and create their own works of art, craft and design” (Department for Education, 2013).

The four domains of cultural education – knowledge, the development of analytic and critical skills, skills based in particular arts forms, and the development of personal creativity – are to be fostered through a formal school programme, as well as informal opportunities. Influential arts advocates John Sorrell, Paul Roberts and Darren Henley argue that a commitment to cultural education also means that all children should, for instance, engage with artists, visit a wide range of cultural institutions, enjoy extra-curricular arts activities and experience the pleasures of being audience, participant and producer (Sorrell, Roberts, & Henley, 2014).

There is research which shows that cultural education offers even more than subject-based learning. The arts support children to build a wide range of communication skills, to exercise responsible leadership, to learn and practice team work and to take initiative (Thomson, Coles, Hallewell, & Keane, 2014). Research also suggests that primary schools with robust cultural education programmes have improved attendance (Cooper, Benton, & Sharp, 2011; Durbin et al., 2010) and a more positive school ethos (Bragg & Manchester, 2011); teachers and students alike have a greater sense of well-being (McLellan, Galton, Steward, & Page, 2012).

There seems every reason for primary schools to embrace the arts enthusiastically. Cultural education is part of what they are meant to do, and has well evidenced positive benefits.  Yet a comprehensive primary cultural education offer is not the reality.

The regime of national tests, with their overwhelming emphasis on particular types of literacy acquisition, makes it very difficult for schools and teachers to offer the broad and balanced cultural learning experiences envisaged in the national curriculum and by cultural education advocates. The most recent survey by the National Society for Art and Design Education (2016) for example showed that

89% of primary teacher respondents in all state schools indicated that in the last five years, and in the two terms before key stage 2 National curriculum tests (year 6), the time allocated for art and design had reduced. In contrast, a decrease in time was reported by only 54% of independent school art and design respondents.

In practice this meant that:

35% of key stage 1 respondents in state primary schools and 63% in independent primary schools said pupils in their schools access curriculum time for art and design for one hour a week on average.

 31% of key stage 2 respondents in state primary schools and 70% in independent schools said pupils in their school access curriculum time for art and design for one hour a week on average.

This is an alarming picture. It suggests that in many schools across the country children are missing out on foundational cultural learning experiences. This places the onus on parents. But research shows that lower income parents struggle to provide extra-curricular arts activities for their children (The Sutton Trust, 2014), and that parents with higher qualifications are much more likely to ensure that their children spend more than three hours a week engaged in cultural activities outside of school (SQW Consulting & Ipsos MORI, 2013). This is clearly an unacceptable situation – leaving engagement in cultural education to parent’s capacity to pay is a recipe for a geography of cultural inequity. Parents with lower income depend on their children’s school to ensure the entitlement to arts education as described in the national curriculum.

Some primary schools of course have not reduced their emphasis on cultural education. They make sure that time for the arts is not eroded by test preparation. They employ a primary arts specialist as part of their core staff complement. They use Arts Mark as a framework to manage time spent on creative and cultural education, commissioning artists and arts organisations to work in partnership with them. They employ arts specialists to provide programmes which then release teachers for planning time. They use their pupil premium funding to ensure that children from low income homes are able to participate in extra-curricular activities and excursions. They are in regions or cities where there is additional support for cultural and creative education, perhaps one of the fifty Cultural Education Partnerships recently established by Arts Council England [1].

But cultural education should not be left to accidents of geography or the commitment of individual schools, governors and teachers, any more than it should be the gift of parents who can afford it. Education policy-makers in England must do better and do more to ensure that all children, regardless of their situation, are able to “participate fully in cultural and artistic life’. This means, as Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Children puts it,  that government must take deliberate steps to “encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity”[2].

The national curriculum expresses the learning that is important for the next generation, it spells out the kinds of learnings that are fundamental to our society and are an entitlement for all children. As imperfect as the national curriculum now is, it still has the arts as foundational learning. Policy-makers must do more than set out guidelines – they must make the outcomes achievable. Testing regimes and care-less policy are currently pushing schools away from ensuring that cultural and creative education is available to everyone. This is both inequitable and unacceptable.


Bragg, S., & Manchester, H. (2011). Creativity, school ethos and the Creative Partnerships Programme. London: Creativity, Culture and Education.

Cooper, L., Benton, T., & Sharp, C. (2011). The impact of Creative Partnerships on attainment and attendance in 2008-9 and 2009-10. Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research.

Department for Education. (2013). Art and design programmes of study: key stages 1 and 2. National curriculum in England. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/239018/PRIMARY_national_curriculum_-_Art_and_design.pdf: Department for Education.

Durbin, B., Butt, S., Saltini, F., Sharp, C., Teeman, D., & White, K. (2010). The impact of Creative Partnerships on school attainment and attendance. Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research.

McLellan, R., Galton, M., Steward, S., & Page, C. (2012). The impact of Creative Partnerships on the wellbeing of children and young people. Newcastle: Creativity, Culture and Education.

National Society for Art and Design Education. (2016). NSEAD Survey Report 2015-2016. http://www.nsead.org/downloads/survey.pdf. Accessed August 24, 2016: NSEAD.

Sorrell, J., Roberts, P., & Henley, D. (2014). The virtuous circle. Why creativity and culture count. London: Elliott &Thompson.

SQW Consulting, & Ipsos MORI. (2013). Evaluation of the Find Your Talent programme: Baseline quantitative findings from ten Find Your Talent patfinder programmes. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/le/182401/DFERR089.pdf: DCMS.

The Sutton Trust. (2014). Research brief: Extra-curricul inequality, . http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Extracurricular-inequality.pdf: The Sutton Trust.

Thomson, P., Coles, R., Hallewell, M., & Keane, J. (2014). A critical review of the Creative Partnerships archive: how was cultural value understood, researched and evidenced? Swindon: Arts and Humanities Research Council.http://www.creativitycultureeducation.org/wp-content/uploads/A-Critical-Review-of-the-Creative-Partnerships-Archive.pdf


[1] http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Cultural_Education_Partnerships_20.10.15.pdf

[2] http://www.unicef.org.uk/Documents/Publication-pdfs/UNCRC_PRESS200910web.pdf

the Ball Run factory

Earlier this year Roma Patel and Louisa Penfold were approached by the Lakeside Arts Centre to develop a children’s creative play environment that embodied the theme of ‘invention’ as part of the annual Wheee! International Children’s Theatre and Dance Festival (June 4 & 5 2016). We were interested in constructing a space that people of all ages could explore through collaboratively making and playing. The parameters of the family festival required us to design an activity that could be accessed at multiple levels of complexity and therefore relatively open-ended in nature.

The idea of building a Ball Run Factory came to us after seeing the work of the Tinkering Studio and makerspaces that design creative activities for children at the intersection of art, science and technology. We also thought it could be a fun to explore the concept of a ‘creative factory’ in Nottingham with the strong industrial history of the East Midlands. We were particularly interested in exploring these ideas with an early years and art-based framework.


In our practice as artists, and within our PhD research, Roma and I have both been drawn to Simon Nicholson’s theory of ‘loose parts’ [1] in which artists and architects construct a creative environment which includes an assortment of materials which can be used, transformed and manipulated in a large variety of ways.

Ball Run Factory was split into two parts. The first was a dedicated area for babies and toddlers featuring a cardboard ‘factory’ with tubes and plastic pipes extending out of it. The pipes and tubing were designed in such a way that children and their parents could move them and roll different balls down, allowing for the space to become a place of continuous transformation. The second area of The Factory was a much larger space where older children could use recycled and quirky materials such as cardboard tubes, plumbing pipes and wooden tracks to design and construct ball runs. We wanted the activity to be intuitive so that when children walked into the space they could have a look at the demo model and what other children were doing and immediately understand the essence and possibilities of the activity with little verbal instruction required.

In the weeks leading up to the Children’s Festival Roma and I collected an array of materials from our recycling bins, charity stores, discount shops, Roma’s daughter’s toy box and the Scrapstore in Nottingham. We also got our friends, family and colleagues to collect materials from home such as cardboard rolls, plastic food containers and cardboard boxes. This allowed us to accumulate a large amount of materials in a short period of time and within our limited budget.

Over the festival weekend we were amazed to see the large variety of ways in which children appropriated the materials. The simplicity and limitless possibilities of the materials and objects seemed to trigger children’s imaginations (pictured below):


We also loved observing the ways in which people’s creations provoked even more eccentric and creative responses from others. For example, on numerous occasions we observed a family complete their ball run and leave the space. Another family would then enter the space and start adding and changing the previous family’s run to make new constructions. The focus of the space was not on the creation of a particular physical thing but rather for children to explore the creative process, develop their own learning strategies and collaborative practice alongside their peers and adults.

It was fantastic to observe how children creatively problem solved the unexpected glitches in their runs. For example, many children experienced the issue of the balls being too bouncy and discovered that placing soft materials and fabrics along parts of the runs created enough friction to slow down the ball and prevent it from bouncing off.

After the festival, Roma and I met again to watch over the visual documentation we took of the children. We used video and photography to critically reflect upon our initial intentions and how children’s appropriation of the materials reaffirmed or challenged these notions. Whilst reviewing the footage, we talked about how the children used the space in unexpected ways. For example, the baby and toddler area featured three different sized balls and three different sized pipes. The toddlers in particular spent a lot of time investigating which balls went down various pipes. When we were making the initial selection of the balls, we did so based on their sensory qualities (i.e. one had bells inside and made jingly noises, another was soft and squishy and the third had soft plastic spikes) and did not really consider their size. In out next iteration of Ball Run Factory, whenever that may be, we would like to explore this idea further to see what other sized pipes and balls could be included.

Overall the construction, delivery and critical reflection of the Ball Run provided a fantastic opportunity for us to explore the construction of a ‘creative laboratory’ in a site of informal learning. We have plans for future of Ball Run Factory and the development of new ‘creative laboratories’ in Nottingham in the future.


Roma Patel is a scenographer currently undertaking her PhD at the Horizon Research Institute and is based in the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham.

Louisa Penfold is a children’s curator currently undertaking a PhD in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham in partnership with Tate (United Kingdom). Her research is investigating the construction of child-centred practice in early year’s immersive environments in art galleries. Louisa blogs on creative environments for children in art galleries.


  1. Nicholson, S 1971. How NOT to cheat children – The theory of loose parts. Landscape Architecture, 62, p.30-34.


Further Links

The idea of a ‘marble run’ has been explored by many scientists, artists, engineers and children. Here are some links to help create and inspire making your own runs at home or at school:

The Tinkering Studio at The Exploratorium


Instructions for how to build the wooden frame of a ball run:



Rube Goldberg

Rube was an American cartoonist who drew cartoons of crazy contraptions that perform simple tasks in very complicated ways. His pictures have inspired many people to create their own contraptions, including these:


Pythagora Switch

This popular Japanese TV show always starts with a Rube Goldberg-inspired contraption. Here is a sample:


‘Raceways: Having Fun with Balls and Tracks’ by Bernie Zubrowski is a great introduction to marble runs and track making:






thinking research at schools day, tate modern

We weren’t the only ones interested in what the children and teachers made of the event

On Thursday 16th June, Becky Parry and I (Pat) went to the opening of the new Tate Modern extension. The entire gallery was closed to the general public and the only visitors were 3000 school students. They’d come from all over the country, many nominated by the regional contemporary art galleries that are part of the Tate Plus Network. The students were of all ages and stages – there were lots of very young children – and included special schools, and schools that served communities struggling to get by in austerity Britain.

It is very unusual for a gallery to give itself over to children. The new Director of TM, Frances Morris, told Emily Pringle and I about a gallery in Barcelona which opens in the morning, every weekday, for schools, and the public is admitted at lunchtime. While this won’t be possible at TM, it is nevertheless clear that the experience of ‘the children’s TM’ has given everyone at the gallery something to think about.

My particular interest on the day was to think about what might be learnt from hanging about looking at what children and teachers actually did in the gallery.

I ‘ve been thinking about extending the ethnographic work I’ve been doing with the Schools and Teachers team. We’ve speculated whether it would be worthwhile investigating booked school visits to the gallery. The Schools and Teachers team are interested, as am I, in how the gallery is used, and how the resources supplied to teachers are actually deployed on the day.

There are clearly a couple of options for how this could be done:

  • I could hang about with a school, shadowing the students through a visit
  • I could choose a particular room and watch what students do in it over a series of visits. It would be possible to cover three to four rooms in a single day and then repeat this activity several times with several different schools.
The day began with reading a manifesto 

However, both of these options depend on the researcher, me, having some idea of what she is looking for – or at. So the TM schools day was a good opportunity for me to hang about and look.

Emily Pringle, who not only directs the learning teams at Tate but is also a special prof in CRACL, was able to spend the day with me and we talked about what we were seeing, and what this suggested about research observation. I always find that talking things over at the time is a pretty useful thing to do. And as it happens this has been a year when Ive had less of those conversations, so it was a real treat to just hang about with Emily all day.

I also took some photos with my phone just to see what I might ‘get’ using images as part of an ethnographic project. Fortunately, all of the schools and parents had given permission for the children to be filmed: those who’d refused were wearing big yellow dots on their clothes so that the two film crews working on the day would know not to include them in any filming. I avoided the dots too.

Emily and I concluded that some of the questions that it seems possible to ask and answer simply through observation/listening in the gallery are:

  • What works in the collection are the students drawn to? Do they read the labels and at what point? Do they talk to each other about the works? Do they talk in front of the work or elsewhere? What do they say?
  • How many students do the activity that is on offer? Who doesn’t? What do they do instead? What level of sustained activity is there (may need individual children to be selected)? What could they do in the activity? What do they do? What resources do they seem to be using – are they bringing in ideas from school or outside, and if so what? Are they working individually or together? Do they talk to each other? How often? About what? Are they asking questions or offering interpretations?
  • How “school-like”is the activity and/or the responses?
  • What is the teacher doing? Are they using supplied resources or have they set their own activity? If so what? What kind of introductions do they make to the activities? What scaffolding do they provide? Modelling?  When do they intervene and about what?
  • How comfortable are the children in the building? Do they move around freely? How much of this seems to be about learning gallery behaviour as opposed to engaging with the works and activities?
  • Are the students taking photos? Of what? Are they sharing the photos, talking about them with each other face to face or with others elsewhere?
The usual rules about behaviour were stretched. But who could resist going under the spider?

There is no doubt that some judicious questioning could also be helpful. I did a little bit of this just to see whether the students would be comfortable talking to me. However it was such an unusual day, with so many adults about, that this wasn’t really a good test.

It does certainly seem possible to find out, through a very quick chat, what kind of preparation has been done at school and what will happen after . This could be one line of casual questioning. There could also be a bit of informal chat  about whether the students had been to TM before, other galleries etc. And certainly a bit of conversation about what the students make of some of the activities and works. We did notice that it was the teachers who were likely to strike up a conversation with us. But the real and most important issue is how much this research questioning and chat would cut into the gallery experience and disrupt the integrity of the visit.

This initial foray is certainly something to talk further about as part of the process of deciding what and where to continue the research in the gallery. And I’m looking forward to that, as well as going back to explore the new hang and the new works by myself.



new learning spaces – what and how

Our next public seminar is coming up.


Professor Jill Blackmore from Deakin University, Victoria , Australia, will discuss innovative new learning environments. She will report on research which investigated twelve schools designing new buildings and redesigning spaces in existing buildings.

The research was part of an international OECD project which examined the ways in which innovative teaching might be supported in new technology-rich spaces.

The Australian project has a website, the Learning Spaces Portal,  which contains a range of resources including case studies, a literature review and a paper on visual methodologies.


Jill will argue that flexible learning spaces, as learning technologies, can, but do not necessarily, enable pedagogical reform and she will highlight the factors and practices that do make a difference.

Jill is a special professor in CRACL.

Where? A32, Dearing Building, Jubilee Campus

When? Thursday 12th May 2016 (17:30-19:00)

You can register for the event through Eventbrite.


serpentine project


Pat Thomson and Anton Franks have just been awarded a contract to evaluate the Serpentine’s World Without Walls programme. Louisa Penfold and Nicky Sim will also be working on the project.

The Serpentine programme has three elements: an early years programme where artists work in an early years centre; a primary to secondary transition program operating between a primary and high school; and a youth transitions programme working with an academy secondary school.

The evaluation will examine the learning of children, artists and teachers. It will also develop a “model” of artist-school programmes with a view to thinking about how these can be made more sustainable.