After two years of studying BEd Primary Education, current PhD student Katherine Gulliver, transferred onto the BA Education course, which she graduated from in 2015.
This course introduced her to the world of research in Special Educational Needs and or/ disabilities (SEND) and inclusion, which she has followed ever since.
“It opened up a world of education. On the BEd you were taught how to teach. There were all these other areas of education that I didn’t know about.”
These areas included global education, future education and sustainability. Katherine felt that these world issues were more relevant and useful to her as a person learning to live in an inclusive society.
“This is how I found my passion through inclusive education.”
Studying an MA in London, Prague and Oslo
During her degree, Katherine took a number of opportunities to travel abroad, and by the time she had finished, she had two passions: inclusive education and travel.
It was through these two interests that Katherine managed to find the perfect master’s degree, and with the support of the lecturers from Plymouth, she applied for the Erasmus Mundus programme to study Special Inclusive Education.
This degree programme saw her study in London, Prague and Oslo, alongside fifteen other students from all around the world.
“I went to Norway for six months to do my dissertation. It was so good. We lived in an international student village in Oslo, where I mixed with students from all around the world. I learnt what it was like to live in another country and attend a university as an international student. It was important to learn about the culture and experience real life in Norway. But we also learnt a huge amount about other cultures because of where we lived.”
Whilst studying her masters degree, the students had visits from lots of scholars who would come and talk about their research. “The more they came and I heard about what they were doing, the more I realised this is what I want to do.”
For her masters dissertation, Katherine began looking at the role of teaching assistants in mainstream primary schools, and how it is becoming increasingly more complex due to supporting children with SEND.
Katherine and her Erasmus Mundus group
Katherine’s brother, Tom, has Williams Syndrome, so whilst raising awareness for the Williams Syndrome Awareness month in May, she ran a small project.
She spoke to
parents whose children have the syndrome, so she could get their perspective.
During conversations with parents, she realised that a lot of the research on Williams
Syndrome can be quite negative, whereas the parents liked to focus on positive
Katherine wrote a series of articles on this subject where she wished to emphasise the positive and wanted to move away from people seeing disability as a deficit or an abnormality, but just a difference.
After doing this research, she realised this was what she wanted her dissertation to be about, so her new subject looked at parent’s perceptions of social inclusion for children with Williams Syndrome.
Coming back to Plymouth
“I didn’t even consider doing a masters until I was encouraged by my lecturer to apply. Some people know what they want to do already. I felt like I was finding my journey as I was going along.
“I was doing my masters dissertation, then talking about PhDs and it felt like the next step to continuing my journey.
“The more you find out about a topic, the more questions you ask. I wanted to know more and join the world of academia which I had experienced abroad.”
So, after her masters, Katherine worked for a year to save up before starting her PhD.
One of Katherine's fellow researchers
Katherine’s PhD continues on the theme of experiences of
children with Williams Syndrome in mainstream primary schools. She is keen to
find out how children with Williams Syndrome experience their daily lives from
their perspective whilst enabling them to contribute to the research
“It was almost natural to go back to Plymouth because I already knew it was a really supportive learning environment.”
A lot of research on the syndrome has a psychology focus: in a laboratory where participants complete tests on a computer, which isn’t something that is a part of their normal, daily lives.
“I wanted to do something that was more naturalistic and more from their perspective. So instead of doing research on them, I invited them to do the research with me.”
She spent four weeks in different classrooms with children who had Williams Syndrome, talking to their parents, teachers, teaching assistants and, most importantly, the children themselves. She asked them to show her around the school and take photographs – she wanted them to have full choice over whether they participated in the activities she was asking them to do. Some of these activities included videos of writing or speech and language interventions with a TA (Teaching Assistant), taking photos of their school and then talking about the photos they had taken and whether they liked them or not.
“I wanted to use different methods to capture their perception, which is sometimes more difficult with children with disabilities, but it’s still really important.”
As of May 2020, Katherine has completed all of her fieldwork, and has created photobooks for each of the children, which includes the photos they took and photos she took of them.
“I wanted to show them what they contributed to research. For example, as researchers we have to write a final report, so as the children were researchers in this study it felt right for them to have a physical item for them to show their work.
“It helps them see themselves as actively participating with the research, and can be shared with their families, friends and teachers at school. And I was really keen to give something back.”
One of Katherine's fellow researchers
When she’s not working on research projects, she works with two charities.
The first one is The Williams Syndrome Foundation, where she is now the regional co-ordinator for Devon and Somerset alongside another volunteer. Together they are the points of contact for people who either have, or know somebody who has, Williams Syndrome.
They were also planning some get togethers so people in the region could meet each other, become friends and support one another; unfortunately the current pandemic has put a hold on those plans.
“We were going to do a party this year because it’s the 40th anniversary for the foundation, I was in the middle of organising it.”
Katherine has a personal connection with the charity, as it was one her family worked with when she was growing up.
Katherine and her brother, Tom
The other charity, which Katherine has worked with for ten years, is HCPT (Hosanna House and Children's Pilgrimage Trust).
It’s a children’s pilgrimage charity that sees around 1,000 disabled children and adults, along with around 500 carers, visit Lourdes in France each Easter.
It provides respite for the families and the children have an amazing time as well.
Katherine and one of the children in Lourdes, France
“The children I have had the pleasure of looking after over the years, have varied from having complex severe disabilities, to a history of domestic violence, family bereavement or various special educational needs.
“For many children, it is an opportunity to be cared for, listened to and enjoy a fun holiday in another country. On the other hand, their families and care-givers have respite where they have spent time with other siblings, had a holiday themselves or moved house.
“The children in our group taught me an array of lessons such as the importance of listening to one another; helping each other and making each other smile, despite their various difficulties.”
In 2019, Katherine was awarded, the Roland Levinsky Memorial Fund, to help pay for the costs to cover her fees and some of the fees for the two children she was accompanying.
“Through spreading awareness of the charity, I hope that others may learn more inclusive values. This ties into my own professional area of interest.
“It is hoped that charity work like this will help reduce the stigma, and highlight the joy and positive impact of working with young people with disabilities.
“I would like to promote an inclusive society, where individuals are celebrated for their differences and achievements despite illness or disability.”
Katherine and one of the children in Lourdes, France
Recommending BA Education
Transferring onto the education degree has shaped Katherine’s life for the last five years.
“The BA Education has literally changed my life. It gave me the starting point, as I sat in the classroom at the start of the inclusive education module, and also a general idea of the different ways you can work in education, and the in-depth research you can do.”
“The tutors are always there for the students, I can see that now as a PhD student, but I could feel it then during my undergraduate degree.
“They’re really committed to the students and the students’ success; they really want the best for you and for you to succeed.”