Parents as informants: Walk like (an Egyptian) a researcher to have IMPACT on lives (John Hattie, John Smyth, Jack Charlton and Tony Pulis)

I have a great deal of respect for Professor John Hattie, the man, and for his work. In a former role, along with colleagues, I immersed myself in his prodigious body of research and we worked on embedding elements of the principles John has drawn out over decades of study. Further, I have heard John present on more than a few occasions and, better still, have had the pleasure of two lengthy conversations with him. John holds strong views, he does not beat about the bush and, as he will tell you himself, he has been misquoted far more times than he has been quoted with accuracy. So, it is with some trepidation that I move forward with this but John has said it more than once…

Researching is a particular skill. Some of us took years to gain that skill. Asking teachers to be researchers? They are not. I want to put the emphasis on teachers as evaluators of their impact. Be skilled at that. Whereas the whole research side, leave that to the academics.

TES, 22 April 2015

I don’t care how you teach but I do care about your IMPACT!

If I have heard John say that once, I have heard it one hundred times. There is a debate raging on Teesside at the moment. Football supporters are the same everywhere. Take a look at the top half of the Championship Table as it stands today, as I write this.

EFL Championship Table 21st October 2018

Tony Pulis is having IMPACT, John. Yes, I know we are only 13 games in but this particular league table is pleasing to my eye. However, to some Teessiders, the football we are playing is not pleasing to the eye, and they are grumbling. Our most successful managers over the past few decades had us playing the game in significantly varying styles. Some big names, indeed. Get this… Jack Charlton, Bruce Rioch, Bryan Robson, Steve Umbrella McClaren, Gareth Southgate, Aitor Karanka… Very different in profile, personality and favoured style. All had IMPACT.

A tenuous link to my key motivation for writing this blog but I have spent so many happy afternoons watching the Boro with coach loads of children from school, along with parents. Treasured times! We did not always win but we made lots of noise, ate dodgy pies, and I enjoyed a beer at half-time with mums and dads alike. It was occasions such as those and the long walks we used to take on the North York Moors (always ending at a pub) where relationships were built, through personal stories told and listened to.

Those of you familiar with the content of my blogs will know that I have an interest in how schools might place themselves within and alongside their communities. How do we work with those unique families that choose each one of our unique schools, in a unique way, that absolutely has IMPACT on the personal, emotional and academic life of each one of our unique young ones?

I do wonder, then, just how Professor Hattie might respond to the suggestion I am going to put forward. My proposal is not so much that we be researchers in the field of family engagement (I am, John, but you know that, and I have taken a particular route and I recognise I have a long way to go) but that we might behave as researchers do; walk like them. I qualify this by saying we might behave as one particular heavyweight of socially critical research, Professor John Smyth, does. I will elaborate.

John Smyth offers the notion of ‘creating a space’ as part of a deliberate political process in his work, enabling communities – especially parents and students – to have a voice. What he sometimes calls in his writing, defiantly ‘speaking back’ to processes that demean and disparage. In order to do so, John suggests that critical scholars should exemplify a number of consistent ‘doing’ attributes:

  1. the need to actively listen to the lives of those most adversely affected by the workings of power;
  2. the necessity to not be neutral but to take on an advocacy position with the groups he/she works with towards improving things;
  3. to be an activist in working with schools, teachers, students and communities in producing ‘local responses’ to globally generated issues – which means opening up a space in which people who have been marginalised can speak back in the struggle for more just policies.

Professor Smyth’s use of one particular word encapsulates the beauty of his sociological imagination, for me. The word is ‘informant’. In being a critical scholar activist, view participants in your research as informants. This, in order to ‘get up close’ to how people live and experience their worlds. John says that one of the things he never presumes is to know the existential reality of worlds he is investigating, indeed, he regards it is being presumptuous to even know what might be significant questions of the informants in these contexts. John says that his ‘warrant to know’, comes from the lives of the informants he is working with, not from “knowledge gleaned while sitting in his office or from the academy.”

So, Professor John Hattie, I am calling you out on this one (Yikes! How dare I?!) but I am hoping you will see my point, if you ever read this. Ayresome Park and, now, The Riverside Stadium offers the space for the Boro Family to speak back. Jack Charlton, Bruce Rioch, Bryan Robson, Steve Umbrella McClaren, Gareth Southgate and Aitor Karanka knew that. As does Tony Pulis, regardless of impact.

Ayresome Park, 1972.

The question is, How do we create space for our families and community members to speak back? How well do we actively listen, aware of and accounting for the way power plays out in family-school relationships? How well do we take on the role of activist, encouraging activism as we work with our communities to seek ‘local solutions’.

One of the most fascinating things that I am finding in my work with schools across the U.K., in a community capacity building coaching capacity, is that what might appear to be deeply personal, private issues are often, in fact, shared public concerns. When schools and families get to work on those issues, the magic happens; relational power grows, relational trust multiplies, and outrageous possibilities come into view. We can do this by walking alongside our families and communities, as socially critical activists, viewing parents/carers as informants.


By the way, I think Tony Pulis, John Hattie and John Smyth would get along famously; all three call a spade a spade. And you keep on doing what you are doing, Tony. Up the Boro! #UTB

By the way 2, The Boro’s Chairman and owner, Mr Steve Gibson, regularly gets ‘up close’ (another of John Smyth’s anchor points) attending fans forums and being attuned to his community members, seeking out their voice. Name me one other football club chairman or owner who has his name chanted, regularly, every game, no exception. Teesside folk know when they are being listened to.

Walk like an Egyptian? Nothing more than the fact that I am one of those people who start to say/write a particular line and I hear a song from the archives… Probably politically incorrect but great tune!


More on the community capacity building coaching provision I am offering schools here

If this is something that interests you and you would like a first conversation then please contact me on 07793055719 or email me at

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