Children writing in the park - PIoE 

“I will confess that sometimes I develop lectures in a provocative way because I want my students to go, ‘hang on Verity, I’m not sure I agree with you’. And I’m thinking, ‘brilliant, bring it on! Why don’t you agree with me?’ because I can see them thinking about what they're doing and becoming the best advocates for young children they can be.”

Verity Campbell-Barr loves working directly with her students and has not let lockdowns and teaching online get in the way of building a thriving learning community. Alongside getting to know which of her students have dogs, Verity has also met children and parents – with Verity’s own son sitting in on tutorials on occasion, too.

“Our core teaching philosophy is creating the best graduates we can to help the wider education community. A lot of our graduates stay in the local area, so it feels like we're building a community of passionate educators within the South West.”

Verity first came to Plymouth to study sociology in 1998 and it is the sociologist in her that really enjoys being able to get out and talk to people who work with children, finding out what it’s like and the challenges they’re facing. 

“I’m always thinking about how I can support my students in terms of addressing these challenges in the future, but also how as a researcher I can make my research useful to those people and hopefully make some kind of difference to their practice.”

Now Associate Professor in Early Childhood Studies and Associate Head of Research at Plymouth Institute of Education, Verity has over 15 years of experience researching early childhood education and care services. Her research interests centre on the quality of early childhood services, particularly the role of the early childhood workforce in supporting the quality of services.

“What I’m really passionate about is making sure my students become good graduates because that's going to be good for the children that they go on and work with.” She has a particular interest in the concept of child-centredness and what it means for quality pedagogic interactions within early years services and has co-led two European projects in this area.

Verity grew up in a town not far from Gatwick called East Grinstead and lived there until she first came to Plymouth to study her degree. A masters in London took her back up to the South East of the country, which was followed by a short move to Kent for a PhD opportunity and ever since much of Verity’s research has maintained a policy connection. 

After completing her PhD, she went on to work for the Policy Studies Institute, which saw her undertaking research into lone parents going back to work and the role of childcare and early education in that. “It was really the dynamic between family life and early childcare services and how they can complement each other that motivated me”. This led Verity to make the decision to find a job that was more specifically linked to looking at children and families. As luck would have it, a position came up at Plymouth and Verity has remained here ever since. “It’s always going to be my university.”

Dr Verity Campbell-Barr

Drawn to writing at school, Verity initially had the hope this would lead her into a career in journalism. However, a sign of the times under the new Labour Government saw a lot of investment poured into early childhood education and many of Verity’s undergraduate and masters projects became linked to education. It was during her undergraduate dissertation when she realised that what she was doing – and really enjoying – was in fact a form of ethical journalism. “You do your research and write it up and that felt really good to me”.

As someone diagnosed with dyslexia at school and who was told by her English teacher that she wouldn’t get her GCSE in English, Verity took great delight in later sitting proudly in the front row of her A level English class. It is this self-proclaimed stubbornness and drive which has not only seen Verity succeed at every level, but continues to push herself to greater heights to serve her students and community.

Alongside her colleague Dr Jan Georgeson, one of Verity’s research interests is around the complex term, ‘child-centredness’. “One of the things that I’m really interested in, particularly in terms of students learning to work with young children, is how many different aspects of learning – knowledge from lectures, experience from placements – come together to make them good educators.” Verity acknowledges this is a real motivating factor and is very much driven by the fact that when you have good graduates it means children are going to have wonderful experiences.

An inspiring career highlight for Verity was spending 18 months living in Hungary after being fortunate to land a Marie Curie European research fellowship project around the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed for working in early childhood education and care. Verity felt privileged to work on a project that engaged with those working in early childhood education care and with students as well. 

“The fellowship was really pivotal for me in terms of my career and it has shaped a lot of my teaching and research ever since.” 

Upon moving to Hungary, it meant that her partner and son, Reuben – having just completed Year 1 at the time – relocated with her to Eastern Europe. Aiming to follow the National Curriculum while Reuben went into the equivalent Hungarian kindergarten programme, this gave Verity a taste of the ups and downs of homeschooling long before it touched many of our lives during the last year.

Throughout lockdowns there has been concerns from some quarters around the idea of children potentially falling behind Government measures. Verity though hopes for a broader look at the notion of what we see as academic success and the knowledge and skills children are going to need in the future.

“My son is way more proficient at using technology than I am, and a lot of that has come down to the fact that he was using a laptop to do all his lessons and socialise.” 

At the same time, Verity feels that children could have benefitted from experiencing the sense of community around keeping each other safe during the pandemic. From doing chores and completing projects with their families, a different type of learning was engaged through play and discovery. The pandemic has altered many a routine and it has been a process of adaption for us all. Verity acknowledges she sought solace in daily walks and a new found passion for pilates to help her unwind from a working day, while her love of attending tap dance classes had to be swapped for dancing in the kitchen.

Child playing with Plasticine models and animals (education and teaching children)

In a perfect world, all of Verity’s students would be completing and reflecting upon their own practice with groups of children in real settings, but with recent restrictions making this difficult for everyone, alternative ways to stimulate practical discussions included tasking students to go out and play. 

For those students that have been out in practice, they have been on the front line, working with children directly, quite often working with the most vulnerable because during lockdown those are the ones that have been prioritised in terms of access to education.

Verity recognises we do not know yet the full extent of how the recent restrictions have affected children's lives. Nor do we know how it will influence the way in which education is delivered in the future. 

“The last 18 months has shown that we can't predict everything. So maybe this is the time to be rethinking education”. 

This line of thought fits in with Verity’s participation in the University’s Research Festival taking place this July. Under the title ‘Learning Futures’, Verity and colleagues are working hard to reach out into the education community to support the professional development of those working in education in the broadest sense, alongside research partners, in the South West.

Thinking on a global level with the G7 Summit taking place in Cornwall in June, Verity acknowledges that we are privileged to live in a country where there is equality of access to education services from pre-school all the way through, which is not always the case.

“As somebody who advocates early childhood education, of course I’d want to see equality of access to it. But we need to be conscious about the ways in which education provision can still respond to local communities across the globe and not be fooled to think that one size will suit all.”

Up next for Verity is a continuation of the European child-centred work with Dr Georgeson. “We're looking from September to roll out a series with an eBook and connected resources to support our students and those of our European partners to become child-centred.”

Verity is also in discussions with a research partner to build on the work the Institute has done around analysing degrees and ensuring that we continue to support our students with challenging aspects of their roles, such as issues around child protection and supporting children’s rights.

Whether it’s thinking about her students or her team of colleagues, everything returns to the idea of community. Under Verity’s leadership, this forward-thinking collaboration of students, academics and partners will ensure Plymouth continues to offer a quality degree experience which nurtures passionate early childhood specialists to make a real difference in the community.

My colleagues are really strong advocates for their local education community and they work really closely with that education community. We want to continue to make the most of those relationships to see how we can further advance the provision of education services in the broadest sense across the South West.