The only way is Essex's: Meet the lecturer championing science for pupils with Additional Support Needs

Dr Jane Essex (photo courtesy: Royal Society of Chemistry).

University lecturer Dr Jane Essex was 40 years old when she held her first conversation with her younger sister Emma.

Five years Jane’s junior, Emma has learning difficulties and is unable to speak as a result of a brain injury at birth.

Three times Jane and her mother, a single parent, had tried unsuccessfully to teach Makaton to Emma, a sign language designed to help those who cannot communicate effectively through speech.

Not a family to easily give up, they tried again. This time, on the fourth attempt, Emma successfully acquired the skill and was finally able to talk to Jane for the first time.

Her first words: ‘I love my sister’.

Outreach events

It’s a powerful example of Jane’s patience, tenacity and never-say-die attitude which has driven her to champion science education for young, neurodiverse people with what are known as Additional Support Needs (ASN).

Children can require additional support for a whole raft of reasons – disability, family circumstances, social and emotional factors – but it shouldn’t mean they miss out on science education.

Dr Jane Essex teaching (photo courtesy: Royal Society of Chemistry).

Since joining Strathclyde in 2017 Jane has been pioneering science outreach events for ASN pupils and to date has held seven successful events, under the Salters Science Festival and Young Chemical Ambassador’s banners that have attracted more than 300 young learners from 27 schools.

In 2019 she also held the first Chemistry at Work careers event for 60 ASN pupils which was fully subscribed. Her work has gone from strength to strength since then.

This summer she will be holding an on-line Salters Science event with activity packs sent to school children for them to do in their own classrooms or homes, and she is running a sustainability summer school in Ayr for youngster with ASN along with nine other Strathclyde colleagues.

Jane, who is originally from Scarborough in North Yorkshire, has been helped in her endeavours by colleagues in the Departments of Pure and Applied Chemistry,  Chemical & Process Engineering and School of Education and a host of student volunteers.

Her efforts have been warmly welcomed by school teachers, parents and the pupils themselves, and in the summer of 2019 Jane was presented with the Inclusion & Diversity Prize by the Royal Society of Chemistry in recognition of her work to widen access. This followed her Global Game Changers Award from The Herald newspaper in 2018.

But it wasn’t always like this. A teacher by training, Jane entered the school system in Suffolk in 1986 after graduating from the University of Newcastle with her PGCE.

“Specific learning difficulties were much less recognised then,” says Jane. “There were kids who would now be mainstreamed who were often in ‘special’ schools and there was still a strong idea that these children would go on to do manual jobs. But this was Thatcher’s 80s, the year after the miners’ strike. Heavy industry had gone and you still felt the ripple of the raising of the school leaving age.

“There was push for performance and questions being asked over whether public services were providing value for money. And in that arena kids who won’t assess at a desired level go to the wall.

“So it was a very fractured system for these children and I was also very conscious that their fate was probably going to depend on how well their parents or families would push on their behalf and I felt uncomfortable with that.

“I didn’t have the word equity then, but it was an equity issue –that we should have provision in place to match children’s needs.”

Teaching methods

At her first school Jane met a fellow teacher who has remained an inspiration to her to this day.

“My first school had an amazing special needs coordinator, Margaret Minns,” says Jane. “I donate a prize in her memory each year at the Salter’s Festival.

“She’s been a career-long inspiration to me because she was just so different. She had this absolute belief that, if children are not achieving then you’re not teaching them the right way or assessing them in the right way. She was much more lateral about the whole thing, she’s been a huge influence on me.”

Dr Jane Essex in the lab (photo courtesy: Royal Society of Chemistry)

After a stint at a school back in Yorkshire, Jane, who had by then met her husband and had three children, moved to Stafford.

It was there she encountered more disparaging and entrenched views about children who struggled to learn via traditional teaching methods.

She recounts: “The head of science that I worked for would not accept that some children could not do the GCSE. He had this belief that they were lazy and just weren’t trying.

“What he didn’t appreciate is that some of these kids were badly behaved in class because they couldn’t cope with the learning.

“There was one group of seven kids who always used to congregate on the landing outside my room and they were so noisy that finally I decided I may as well bring them in and teach them.

“What soon became apparent was that some had specific learning difficulties, one who had a very difficult home life, and one who was in foster care.

“On Fridays I had a free period and so I gave this up every week to do lab work with these kids. As I got to know them I learnt a lot about why they weren’t attaining. But what I did discover was they were still trying to.

“I remember doing an experiment with them that involved dissolving sugar, icing sugar, granulated, caster and big coffee sugar crystals in water and what they’re supposed to notice is that the big pieces take longer to dissolve and that the reason for this is to do with surface area.

“They asked me to do this experiment again after having already done it two or three times and because it was safe I just left them to it.

“Moments later I heard one of the most difficult pupils, elbowing her neighbour and saying, ‘It’s those particles, it’s about the size of those particles!’

“She was 16 and she would be leaving school in three weeks and for the first time she had understood the concept of particles that we had been trying to teach her since she was 11.

“No wonder she was naughty! We kept talking this foreign language that she didn’t understand.”

Jane encouraged the children to sit the Certificate of Achievement in Science and all achieved a top grade. One also tried, unsuccessfully, to pass the lowest level of GCSE. These pupils just learned differently was all Jane could conclude.

She suggested the school offer the Certificate as a regular strand of its provision but was rebuffed by the Head of Department. It was then that Jane decided she’d gone as far as she could go and left teaching in schools and instead joined Keele University to become a trainer of teachers.

Raise attainment

While still working at the school in Stafford, Jane had been studying for a Master’s Degree with the Open University.

“I managed somehow – the house wasn’t very clean but no-one starved – but I found the studying changed my outlook teaching’, she says.

“By then the OU had started a doctoral programme and I could get quite a hefty fee discount on a PhD. My husband said we could fund it and told me to go for it, so I did.

“It was mad when I look back – three small kids, my husband working in France each week; many people would’ve said no. I don’t think I fully thought it through, but I’m no ‘quitter’. It’s a bit of a failing of mine.

“My doctorate looked at whether mentoring could raise attainment at chemistry A-level, but really it was looking at how people learn chemistry and what people find hard about it. It really moved my thinking again."

Jane got involved with Salters Science Institute, having gone along to events in the past with children who attended the Chemistry Clubs she ran at the schools she taught at.

“Nearly all the kids that came were the low attaining ones, which was really interesting. What they liked was all the hands-on stuff.

“In the Chemistry Club I’d work very hard to make science activities something they could enjoy and achieve at and give them things they could be proud of.

“And because it wasn’t proper lessons we could do things differently: take pictures of experiments instead of writing them up. Using a camcorder they could do dramas about chemistry.

“It gave me a great place to experiment and the kids were really nice to me. Whatever mad ideas I suggested they were willing to give it a go!”

Hugely positive

The key to engaging with children with ASN is simple, says Jane.

“I take it the literacy requirement right down, removing things like sub-clauses from text. For example, instead of saying something like: ‘Put the cornflour in the bowl that you have previously filled with water’, I’d rewrite it to say ‘Put water in a bowl. Add flour’, she says.

“It’s also about accommodating different paces. Having points in a lesson where we’re all doing the same thing, and points where people can self-direct – either keep doing what they’re enjoying, or moving onto the next activity. Children are better learners when they are not learning someone else’s way.”

Feedback from pupils and teachers who have attended the ASN-focused events at Strathclyde is hugely positive and other organisations are taking notice, including the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the National STEM Leaning Centre in York. She has also started a special interest group of the Association for Science Education for teachers, like herself, who want to make science fully inclusive.

Exceptional support

Jane is quick to acknowledge the support she’s had at Strathclyde for her work to get to this point.

She says: “Strathclyde is the first place I’ve worked where I’ve felt there was universal support for working with a really diverse population of learners.

“Where in some other places I’ve met with pockets of hostility, Strathclyde has a much more holistic view of itself as an institution within the city, the community, the country and the world.

“When I broached this idea of borrowing the Young Chemical Ambassador Programme literature and really hacking the literacy down for ASN pupils there wasn’t a bat of an eyelid. People here are able to see the bigger picture, there’s a receptiveness. I’ve had exceptional support from our Research and Knowledge Exchange Team. 

“I intend my work to ‘nudge’ policy and practice in science education in order to address the barriers to inclusion, many of which are attitudinal rather than inherent in science.

“I think we need to understand that people learn differently. We can accept all sorts of differences. Can we not accept that people learn differently and not find ways of accommodating that?

“I’d like governments, local industries and employers to have a discussion about how we make sure we have a fully diverse and representative workforce in STEM.

“I am chuffed to have won the Royal Chemistry Society award but I really now want to use this to highlight what these young people can do, and be and achieve if we give them equity of opportunity.”