Q&A with Professor Becky Francis
1 What is your role and what does it involve?
I’m the Director of the UCL Institute of Education, which involves leading this very prestigious and large scale institution.
2 How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?
I started in July 2016, having been Professor of Education and Social Justice at Kings College London for four years. My academic expertise and research has always been based on inequalities in experience and achievement in education, according to social identity, social class, ethnicity, gender, and so on. I’ve taken various policy interests and roles, including being an advisor to select committee enquiries, and was also standing advisor to the education select committee last year.
3 What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your students about the subject you teach?
You learn so much about different ways of doing things, different education systems, different expectations and modes of practice. In my own area of social inequality, it’s fascinating to see and hear how other countries’ systems are approaching this. I’ve gained all of that from students – hearing from them first hand, rather than reading the theory in books.
4 What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?
It’s difficult to narrow it down to one. I’m proud of many of my research pieces and their successful impact. There have been particular policy pieces that have had a lot of impact. I’m still involved with an annual piece for the Sutton Trust, called ‘Chain Effects’, which looks at the relative successes or otherwise of different academy chains for their disadvantaged pupils in terms of narrowing gaps in their attainment. That has been very influential for academy chains and for government, as well as other organisations and the select committee.
5 Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of you to-do list?
Currently, I’m really proud and always excited about the substantive project that I’m running. It’s called ‘Best Practice in Grouping Students’ and it takes a perennial sociological finding that disadvantaged young people are subject to a double disadvantage in schools because they tend to be placed in low attainment groups when they get to school.
The evidence shows that kids in those low attainment groups make less progress than their peers in higher attaining groups. So, given that kids from socially disadvantaged backgrounds are over-concentrated in those groups and they’re the ones that need the most help and the most ‘catch up’, they are facing a double disadvantage in our system. This project works with 140 secondary schools, with an intervention on best practice in setting - where some of the identified bad practices are stripped out - and best practice in mixed attainment grouping. Hopefully, we’ll be able to answer some of the long-standing questions about ability grouping in this country. We’re 18 months into a three year project, and I’m still excited and proud of it.
6 What would it surprise people to know about you?
My pragmatism, given that I am very strongly politically and socially motivated. I think it’s important to try to seize opportunity wherever you find it. I try to combine what I see as the pragmatic and the utopian and hold the two together; you’ve got to keep your values, your future vision and your ideals about what you’re striving for, but in the meantime – particularly in terms of education – I think we have to recognise that kids are in schools every day. So while we might want to transform the whole system, we have to work with what we’ve got and try to improve it in ‘real time’, and keep those two things going simultaneously.
7 What other piece of research outside of your own subject area interests you?
I’m always very interested in different studies of social inequality, the causes of it, and what might help to mitigate it. Those questions are addressed from every disciplinary angle; particularly from social science. Within that, one of the areas that I’m interested in but don’t know enough about is neuroscientific research; particularly epigenetics. I’m very interested in the epigenetic developments and findings about the impact of environment on heredity. I think in education we often still see nature and nurture as two completely separate sides of a coin. My understanding of epigenetics developments is that they suggest a blurring of the two, which is interesting and something that educators should be aware of.