Sheffield born Dr Antony Williams is now the programme director for the Doctorate in Educational and Child Psychology at the University of Sheffield. After attending university, he began secondary school teaching which then led him into a career as an educational psychologist. He now finds himself back in Sheffield as a university teacher and one of the Co-Directors of Equality Diversity and Inclusion in the Faculty of Social Sciences.

Educational psychologists work with local authorities and schools to find the best educational provision for students who struggle in their education. They try to understand the barriers for young people in their education and how their education needs to be more specialised to help them to progress. In Dr Williams’ role with the local council he would meet struggling students, parents and schools to write psychological advice on how to support them. He commented that “the equality of opportunity is really important”.

What led you into educational psychology?

“It’s not really the sort of thing you fall into, unless you’re quite motivated to keep coming back into university and do more training and studying. For me it wasn’t planned, it was only when I got into teaching that I became more interested in the children that struggled to learn,” Dr Williams explained. As a humanities and PE teacher he was able to see students who thrived on the sports field but had ‘challenging behaviour’ in the classroom:

“I’d form a really good relationship with some of these challenging boys and get on with them well but then see them get on the wrong side of teachers. I became increasingly interested in working with and understanding children who struggle in school. I found myself wanting to explore and understand what the barriers were for them a little bit more.”

This sparked a move into teaching in an adolescent unit which supported young people with severe mental health difficulties, part of his role was to support transition back into schools. Enjoying this work, Dr Williams’ next step was into educational psychology. Once qualified Tony enrolled on the doctorate at the University of Sheffield and then decided to stay on, taking a post on the tutor team in the School t of Education.

 

What do you do at the University of Sheffield now?

Now, Dr Williams supervises doctoral trainees so sees lots of interesting research in their theses. They tend to involve phenomenological studies (exploring lived experience) of children and young people in minority groups:

“Identity I think is a strong theme and the development of identity through childhood. There’s diversity of views, whenever you’re in a minority group there’s not a minority group view, there’s always plural views and conversations going on in terms of their understanding of the world and themselves in the world.”

The research studies the experience in a range of situations, from growing up in a home with domestic violence, to Muslim primary school children’s experience.  What really interests Dr Williams is subjectivity. When looking at the pressures facing young people, he also sees the creative ways in which they engage with and understand the world.

Dr Anthony Williams teaching
Image: Dr Williams

Alongside his teaching, Dr Williams is also heavily involved in diversity and inclusion throughout the University. He is the Co-Director of the Faculty of Social Sciences  Equality Diversity and Inclusion, as well as being involved in setting up the staff BAME network in 2018.

Part of the role has involved research, one report looking into the experience of minority students at university and the awarding gap – why students of colour do less well. Another paper has been about decolonising the curriculum. Dr Williams explained that he has found these interesting in seeing what different people’s experience of university is:

 “What you get is a perception of the university that perhaps isn’t the perception the university has of itself. [When we] looked at how diverse the curriculums are we find that often senior academics think they are quite diverse but actually, if you talk to the students, and particularly students of colour, they have a very different perception.”

Dr Williams also discusses how we may begin to solve these problems: “There are ways around that, there are ways to explore diversifying that curriculum and bringing more varied and diverse references and readings into what’s taught once that awareness is grasped by those who set the agenda.” On top of this, the BAME staff network he helped to set up contributed to the university launching its race equality strategy in 2019.

 

What made you set up the BAME staff network?

Through his work, and own experience, Dr Williams understands the importance of feeling part of the community around you.  He explained that when he was a student at university, he was a runner, so had the athletics community around him. But as a member of staff at university, despite the support of his department, he felt it was more difficult. A mentor, distinct from the management of the department, or someone to help “understand the mechanics of the university” would have been helpful to talk to.

In creating the BAME staff network, “the aim was to create a space for staff of colour to be able to have a space to have a conversation with each other. If staff of colour joined the university, to know there’s a space or a place that they can join to have a conversation with people who they might have something in common with. Obviously there’s a range of views within that, all staff of colour don’t think the same, far from it, there’s a plurality of views and there’s a conversation, but there is a common experience of being a minority member of staff.”

On top of this, the students have a BME committee but at the time had no staff group to liaise with. Together they could have further conversation about experiences and strategies around issues that staff and students deal with, getting more diverse voices heard around university.

“One thing I’m clear on is that diverse groups make better decisions. If we could just have around the table a diverse group of people, then you’ll have a richer conversation and hopefully at the end of that conversation there’ll be a more thought through decision about strategy or the way forward.”

 

What advice would you give to young Black students?

Dr Williams emphasises how important it is to find a space for yourself, have people to talk to so you gain a sense of belonging. He says to talk to people whether they are in the career you’re interested in or just have something interesting to say.

“It’s important I really want to encourage all students and particularly Black students to go with what interests them or what they’re passionate about and try not to worry if there’s not too many people like them in that career. Hold on to those ambitions, perhaps you won’t get to where you want to be in a straightforward way, but if you keep your eye on where you want to be and are passionate about it then you’d be surprised how people can find themselves achieving what they want to.”

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