Our Strands


THEMATIC STRAND: Education, Equity and Public Policy

Theme leader: Mark Murphy

Policy makers and academics alike now tend to accept the view that issues of educational disadvantage and inequity cannot be addressed in isolation from other forms of disadvantage, be they cultural, social, geographical, political or economic. It is widely accepted that the causes of educational inequity are complex and multi-faceted, and are unlikely to be alleviated via education initiatives alone. This is also the case for educational trajectories and identities at the micro-level, which are subject to multiple and intersecting sources of influence.


This consensus at a policy and research level is one of the key reasons why a much stronger focus has developed on ‘inter’ work – inter-professionalism, inter-agency, inter-sectoral, inter-disciplinary and inter-sectional. Inter-agency working, whole-systems thinking and inter-professional learning are agendas that speak to the continuing need for joined-up approaches to public policy and also to the reality of social problems that often have multiple causes and complex multi-levelled solutions. Joined-up approaches are also necessary when it comes to the lived experiences of educational ‘users’, which requires assessment of the ways in which constructions and performances of identity (e.g. in relation to gender, social class, and ‘race’/ethnicity) are impacted by – and help to influence, resist or challenge – policy and practice in educational settings


By its very nature, this strand connects the work of the Centre to a range of other research and policy agendas, offering up a set of underexplored but innovative strands of intellectual and impact-oriented activity. These include the likes of a focus on:


  • Reforming the public sector – regulation and impact of accountability mechanisms on professional behaviour: do they deliver the desired reforms?
  • Unintended consequences of public sector reform – examining the consequences for street-level bureaucrats (teachers, nurses, police etc) and field of public administration more generally.
  • Partnership and inter-professional working – how do such forms of working impact on equity agendas at national and international level?
  • The impact of education on life outcomes: such as labour market success, health and happiness. With a particular emphasis on the interaction of education with confounders such as socioeconomic background and the transmission from individual to macro impacts.
  • Education and the economy: The role and impact of education institutions and associated staff and students in the (local, regional, national) economy.
  • Participation and attainment in education: Participation and attainment in education and the influence of social and spatial dimensions, access to educational provision and efficacy of institutional processes.
  • The place of culture: Student and staff experience and perceptions of educational/academic cultures in the context of changing governmental/institutional policies and practice
  • Belonging and exclusion: Issues of ‘belonging’/exclusion in educational and social life, and social power relations/dynamics
  • Identity and precarity: The relationship between re/constructions of identity, subjectivity and difference in socio-economic conditions of austerity and increased social precarity


Alongside these research agendas, this thematic strand offers an excellent opportunity to bring together a wide range of professions and services – for example, police, probation, health, social work and guidance services – that can help to broaden the remit of the Centre while at the same time contributing to an inter-professional culture in itself.


THEMATIC STRAND:  Education and International Development

Theme leaders:  Michele Schweisfurth and Oscar Valiente

Additional Members:  Barbara Kehm, Kristinn Hermansson, Barbara Read, Natalie Waters

Inequality is a global as well as national and local phenomenon, in at least two ways.  Between countries, development inequalities persist, whether we define development in terms of economic growth, human wellbeing, or democratic governance. Additionally, at the national level, lower and middle-income countries experience some of the worst income and educational inequalities in the world, with wealthy elites co-existing with extremes of poverty and deprivation. There has been recent focused investment in access to primary education by donors and national governments, and an accumulation of research evidence and theoretical work around the relationship between education and national development.  These reflect the faith that the international development community has in educational change as a potential means to address these global and local inequalities. However, they also acknowledge the need to understand more at all levels about education’s role in interrupting or perpetuating cycles of deprivation, from questions of economic investment at the macro level to classroom-level questions regarding quality provision.

Diverse expertise exists within the Robert Owen Centre, which covers this full global to local range. Some key themes in which members have experience and interest include:  pedagogical change; vocational education; macro-economics; education in emergencies; and higher education. Methodologically, we are well-equipped to work at macro, meso and micro levels and we are particularly well-placed to explore the interactions between levels through strengths in political economy and policy-to-practice analyses.

Our experience spans much of the global South as well as the world of aid agencies; current and recent projects have included work in Mexico, Brazil, Malawi, the Philippines, The Gambia, Rwanda, and China.  Current and recent projects include:

  • Case Study of Developmental Leadership in The Philippines: Educational Experiences, Institutions and Networks (Australian Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade/Developmental Leadership Programme)
  • Peacebuilding, Education and Advocacy in Kenya and South Sudan. (UNICEF)
  • The Policy Adoption of a Dual System of Vocational Education and Training in Mexico (British Council)

THEMATIC STRAND:  Economic and distributional impacts of education

Theme Leader: Kristinn Hermannsson

Education inevitably has economic and distributional implications. In the most mundane incarnation, education institutions purchase inputs and employ staff, thereby stimulating their local economies. These impacts are tangible, and in some contexts quite important. For example, the UK is a major exporter of higher education. Closer to education’s core mission, the qualifications obtained in formal education are a key predictor of individuals’ economic success, as manifested in wages and the likelihood of being in employment. Less tangibly, formal education is associated with individual life outcomes such as health, happiness, family life and even fertility. Therefore, there is a strong prima facia argument that access to education and how this is allocated influences economic output and how this is distributed across the population. Conversely, there are limits to the influence of education policy, particularly in the context of contractionary economic management and regressive social policies, which need to be articulated.

The aim of this strand is to conduct and promote research on the economic and distributional impacts of education, drawing on the strengths of the School of Education. In particular, links with practitioners and educational institutions; and colleagues in other social science disciplines.

Methodologically, the focus is on combining administrative data, social surveys and economic modelling methods to analyse the overall economic and distributional impacts of education policies. Ongoing research straddles different stages of the education system, including early learning and schools, with particular strengths in further and higher education. The geographic scope ranges from national, through regional to sub-regional and spatial analysis, while applications include the UK, Europe and low-income countries.

Ongoing projects include:

  •  The economic and distributional impacts of skills from Further Education Institutions in Scotland (in conjunction with the University of Strathclyde and the David Hume Institute).
  • The expenditure and displacement impacts of higher education students in Scotland: Analysis of Scotland, Glasgow City-region and the Highlands & Islands.
  • Human Capital in Economic Development: From Labour Productivity to Macroeconomic Impact in Malawi.
  • The System-wide Impacts of the Social and Private Non-market Benefits of Higher Education.

Projects under preparation:

  •  Causal impact of pre-schools on labour supply and educational outcomes: New evidence for Scotland and analysis of wider economic and distributional impacts
  • Migration of higher education students and their drivers: A comparison between Belgium, Italy and the United Kingdom (in conjunction with Freie Universitet Brussels and Politecnico di Milano)
  • The economic impact of school improvement (in conjunction with the University of Southampton)

THEMATIC STRAND: Identities and Difference

Theme Leader: Barbara Read

This strand takes as its focus the complex ways in which social identities/ subjectivities (and related constructions of social ‘similarity’ and ‘difference’ ) are constructed and ‘performed’ by students and educators in educational and related social settings – and the relation of such identities and practices to peer/educational/academic cultures. Such identities may include, for example, those centering on gender, social class, ‘race’/ethnicity, age, sexuality and disability. In particular the strand focuses on ways in which these constructions and performances relate to aspects of social in/equality.  Historically and currently the focus of this strand is on qualitative research at the ‘micro’/’meso’  level of social analysis, although this is flexible. Theoretically, work in this strand is generally informed by perspectives such as social constructionism, structuralism, and/or poststructuralism, and by feminist and anti-racist critical thought.

The Identities and Difference strand encompasses research that is not directly related to patterns/outcomes in relation to achievement or access (which form the focus of other strands in the Centre).  Relevant topics/issues issues include:

  • Student and staff well-being
  • Student and staff experience and perceptions of educational/academic cultures
  • Issues of ‘belonging’/exclusion, and social power relations/dynamics
  • Identity, subjectivity and intersectionality
  • Policy/practice in relation to identity, difference and equality in education
  • Media/popular culture discourses
  • Youth cultures and experience
  • The relationship between re/constructions of identity, subjectivity and difference in           socio-economic conditions of austerity and precarity

Current Projects:

Adam Smith Research Foundation Research Programme 2014-16: Social Precarity


THEMATIC STRAND: Education Systems and Change

Theme Leader: Kevin Lowden

This thematic strand focuses on developing research into institutional and systemic structures and processes to provide a powerful analytical framework to understand why some children, institutions and places do worse than others educationally. The theme focuses on developing a deeper understanding of factors that promote more equitable outcomes for different groups of learners. This activity is part of an innovative research-based methodology developed by the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change (ROC) to better understand and tackle the relationship between low educational attainment and socio-economic disadvantage; Making Education Work for All. The approach involves undertaking a detailed analysis of context and then drawing on expertise located within the Centre, local authorities, schools, their partners and other relevant stakeholders to develop bespoke change initiatives which are monitored and refined in light of emerging evidence of impact. The model is underpinned by collaborative relationships and a sustainable partnership approach and is informed by a body of international research that confirms the value of school-to-school networking and cross-authority partnership work as key levers of innovation and system improvement (e.g. Chapman and Hadfield, 2010; Fullan 2013).

The approach goes beyond traditional analyses of the factors influencing disadvantage and attainment, to combine research, experimentation and developmental work to more equitable and innovative practices. The model explores the impact and interaction at three key levels: Within-institution factors, Between- institution factors and Beyond- institution factors.

  • Within institution factors. These are issues that arise from practices within institutions. For example, they can include: the ways in which students are taught and engage with learning; the ways in which teaching is organised and the different kinds of opportunities that result from this; the ways in which the institution responds to diversity in terms of attainment, gender, ethnicity and social background; and the kinds of social relations that are characteristic of the institution and the relationships the institution builds with families and local communities.
  • Between institution factors. These are issues that arise from the characteristics of local systems. For example, they include: the ways in which different types of institution emerge locally; the extent and ways in which institutions collaborate; the distribution of educational opportunities across institutions, and the extent to which students in every institution can access similar opportunities.
  • Beyond institution factors. This arena includes: the wider public policy context within which institutions operate; the demographics, economics, cultures and histories of the areas served by institution. Beyond this, it includes the underlying social and economic processes at national and – in many respects – at global levels out of which local conditions arise.

Using this approach, this thematic strand is currently contributing to major projects commissioned by Education Scotland (Schools Improvement Partnership Programme), North Ayrshire Council and Glasgow City Council with a focus on working with partners to research, develop and monitor a range of holistic strategies and practices that make a difference to the outcomes of students from disadvantaged settings.





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