Teaching and Learning Scholar: Heather James

Place of work: South and City College Birmingham
Role: English Teacher for GCSE English Language resit students and Functional Skills adult learners

My working life so far has been in community arts, youth work and education. In various roles, I have had the same ethos and always aimed to create spaces where people feel safe enough to be able to communicate freely and explore ideas in creative ways.


I spent fourteen years in Manchester, where I worked as a freelance filmmaker. I worked in a participatory manner, training people of all ages and backgrounds in the various stages of film-making – enabling ownership of what was produced to lie with individuals and their communities. A youth project that spanned several years involved me training a group of young people to become a film crew and documenting events in Manchester for a weekly internet broadcast – a lot of fun was had, and that was definitely a time I look back on as a high point – young people working as a team, gaining skills, having fun, meeting people from all walks of life, and documenting it as they went along.

In 2010 the Conservatives came to power and the age of austerity began, hence a lot of the funding for projects I was working on dried up. I retrained as an English teacher and my daughter and I went to live in Malaysia where I taught English in a language school. In 2013, we came back to Birmingham where I completed a PGCE and began working at South and City College Birmingham.

Research Outline

There is no reason why the texts we use to teach the English Language GCSE shouldn’t be ‘familiar, accessible, comfortable and engaging’ – to use the words of the AQA examination board, who provide materials in abundance to support teaching the subject.  Frustratingly, the texts selected – for teaching resources and for use in the exam – do not have these attributes for the students I teach because they are written by people who come from another world, with another set of ideals, that have no bearing on many young people’s reality; built into these selections are ‘normalising’ assumptions about class, gender, race, materialism, place, identity, religion.

Given that the excerpts from texts that we use to teach and assess English Language should not require any prior knowledge to be understood, this is an ideal opportunity to share a more diverse selection of writing with young people, that more fairly represents the diversity of the UK.

In my classroom, I have found that by choosing texts that students can more easily comment on and debate confidently, the subject of English can better address issues of inequality and cultural identity. But for this research project, I’d also like to show that attainment levels can be improved for resit students by sourcing writing from local writers, allowing for more of an understanding of the writers’ viewpoints and perspectives.

By introducing students to writers from their own communities learning English could become less like looking through a window at another world and more about looking at their own world – helping them to find ways to describe and explain their own culture and lives. I hope students will then take ownership of the subject and find confidence in using English in the exam and beyond.

Sharing resources

A couple of books I’d like to share are: Made in Bradford and Kilo by M Y Alam. It was the success I had with my learners using excerpts from these books that inspired this research and set me on a mission to find more writers that my students (who don’t read books…) will definitely love.