Lucy Cavendish College and Education

by Sheelagh Drudy on 8 November 2017


Sheelagh Drudy
Gulbenkian Research Fellow and Visiting Fellow 2007-08       

It is entirely appropriate that this issue of Nautilus is devoted to education, as Lucy Cavendish College has made an extremely important contribution to the field.  Indeed, the title of the College is synonymous with women’s education, insofar as it is named in honour of a revered campaigner for the reform of women’s education – Lucy Cavendish herself.  Since its foundation the College has made an enormous contribution to women’s higher education in the broadest sense.  It has also fostered educational research and teacher education through its 208 educational alumnae at graduate and postgraduate levels and its Education Fellows – the latter numbering up to 10 distinguished scholars.  The alumnae have gone on to contribute to education systems all over the world, reflecting the College’s (and Faculty of Education’s) truly international composition and focus.

I came to Lucy Cavendish College as a Gulbenkian Research Fellow in the 1970s. At that time the College was much smaller though it was, by then, located on Lady Margaret Road.  Nevertheless, the culture of the time would be very familiar to current students and researchers and to recent alumnae. That culture was one of ambition, high standards and academic excellence for all members.  The College strove each year to ensure that student achievements rose higher and higher.  However, contrary perhaps to prevailing norms of the period in other parts of the university, it was also highly hospitable and supportive of women with family responsibilities.  Some of you might remember the slogan by some eminent male members of the University Senate in response to the demands of women for a university crèche - ‘Books not babies’.  We’ve come a long way!  The College itself had an international cohort of students even then.  It also had a vibrant social life and I can recall many stimulating discussions and great evenings at formal hall and in the College bar. I was also attached to the Faculty of Education where I completed my doctorate.  We were located on Trumpington Street, in the building which is now a very smart hotel.  Although beloved by members, Trumpington Street was small compared to the present splendid premises on Hills Road.  

In the intervening years since leaving Lucy Cavendish I worked in a number of higher education institutions in Ireland and, in the years preceding my retirement from full-time work, acted as Professor of Education and Head of the School of Education in University College Dublin, where I am Professor Emeritus.  I returned to Lucy Cavendish as a Visiting Fellow in the academic year 2007/2008.  It was wonderful to return and to see all the impressive developments that had taken place in the College over the previous almost three decades.

Lucy Cavendish College’s contribution to education is important for a number of reasons.  The world is a rapidly changing place.  Globalisation, recession, migration, conflict and conflict resolution are all around us.  Technological change is more rapid today than it has ever been and the re-structuring of economies continues.  Social change is equally rapid and, I regret to say, in some countries social and educational inequalities are both deep-seated and worsening.  Thus, educators must prepare students for worlds that are hard to envisage.  Who knows what social, economic, environmental and climatic challenges the world will face over the next generation.  These are precisely the boundaries which educational researchers and teacher educators must explore and prepare students to face. Students who enrol in Lucy Cavendish to undergo teacher education are exceptionally fortunate to be attached to a university faculty which is at the forefront of teacher education and which has a truly global reach in its research, policy development and professional training and development. Involvement by the Faculty in developing countries offers great opportunities for Lucy Cavendish students and researchers.

In my view, the work of the education sciences and professional educators is key to social, cultural and economic development, as well as personal fulfilment.  A focus on equality, inequality and inclusion in education has been a significant feature of my own teaching and research. This is because of the marked variation in educational experiences and outcomes of a number of social groups. Research on equality and inequality poses questions vital to successful policy making, concerning the capacity of schools to foster social solidarity, inclusion, academic achievement and personal growth, on the one hand, and to assess the impact of power and inequality on the outcomes for different groups, on the other. Equality is a concept about which there is sometimes a lack of clarity.  It does not mean that the ambition is to make everyone the same.  On the contrary, equality involves respecting and valuing diversity.  Nor does it mean treating all individuals exactly the same.  Sometimes trying to achieve equality necessitates giving additional resources to disadvantaged groups.  Equality of outcomes for different groups is a more challenging aim than equality of opportunity, insofar as research has consistently found that even when improvements in access and participation occur in the school population as a whole, there are still persistent inequalities between the different sub-groups.

Another closely linked concept is that of inclusion. Inclusion is essentially a principled, rights-based approach to education. Inclusive education is an approach for all learners, not just those who are perceived to have different needs and who may be at risk of exclusion from educational opportunities. This is an important distinction, accepted at international level. It shifts the focus of inclusion beyond meeting the needs of specific groups of learners (e.g. those with special educational needs).  Thus, inclusive education is an approach for all learners. This involves a move away from seeing inclusion as an approach for a minority of learners, based on identification of their differences, or a consideration of labels that may have negative consequences for learning.  Thinking has moved beyond the narrow idea of inclusion as a means of understanding and overcoming a deficit and it is now widely accepted internationally that it concerns issues of gender, ethnicity, class, disability, social conditions, health and human rights - encompassing universal involvement, access, participation and achievement.

A third key concept is that of human rights. This is often associated with legal and civil rights but is also core to current debates on education and equality.  As human rights thinking and international instruments have developed, the concept of human rights now incorporates social, economic and cultural rights as well as political rights.  Education is obviously of core relevance here. Education is a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights. It promotes individual freedom and empowerment and yields important development benefits.

There are many different dimensions to the work of the education sciences and teacher education, too numerous and complex to detail here.  The College has been very fortunate to have had the contributions of a number of distinguished Fellows, including the work of Fellows such as Dr Jenny Gibson and Professor Christine Howe in the psychology of education and Dr Edith Esch in bilingualism and second language learning.  I look forward to Lucy Cavendish continuing to build on its invaluable contribution in the field of the education sciences and teacher education.