We Are Essex

Chris Nicholson's story

Chris Nicholson outside the Tony Rich teaching centre

“Education creates social change”

Robert Graves, who was a poet from the first world war, inspires me.. He wrote beautifully about children and some poetry about the odd little disconnects between parents and children. His whole writing was influenced by traumatic experiences; and so, it happens I teach modules on trauma here at Essex. Students studying BA Childhood Studies will also study trauma, because that’s one thing that children face in schools and many teachers and people working in children’s homes are facing more traumatised children than ever coming into the school’s or the care system. Those youngsters need a lot of thought, care and a different way of thinking. 

I was writing my PhD on Robert Graves I was working in a therapeutic community for troubled adolescent boys and girls and I hadn’t connected Robert Graves and his trauma with the trauma these children had suffered. Rather like a soldier in the trenches, if you’re in a troubled family you can’t advance, and you can’t retreat, you feel stuck where you are. It was the experience of working with those children that got me interested in assessing the needs of young people, thinking about the special educational needs that they might have that are partly influenced by the disruptions in the family. It’s not about an inability to learn, more a delay because all of their energy went into survival, so they don’t learn so readily, but they can learn. I was having this direct experience working with troubled, they call them ‘hard-to-reach’ because they’re difficult ‘prickly’ children and that’s what got me interested in childhood in general.

It is rewarding work, but the rewards that come with troubled children are also quite gritty and difficult. You’re right there with children who have suffered great adversity, and they’ll give you a sense of that adversity in the way that they interact with you. The trick is to learn that behaviour is a key form of communication. Children won’t tell you what they think and feel but they will show you and if you can get hold of that then you can become a really effective worker when working with children. 

We are living in a very strange age, the NSPCC say more children come into services who are self harming, we see an increase in mental health within children, we also have what we call new social media, not that new anymore children are growing up with it. This causes a particular state of affairs for children in the UK, and weirdly enough we produce a course in childhood studies; I don’t think the two things are disconnected. I think the course is a way of researching and thinking about what is going on and I am proud of this course. It is a different course because it has a psychoanalytic and psychodynamic flavour which means it is rather distinctive. It means using a route into the unconscious thinking about symbolic behaviour, and that’s rather rare, you don’t get that on many other courses. You get all of the normal aspects you would expect from a childhood studies course, with extra because we are also the department for psychosocial and psychoanalytic studies. 

The key thing for Essex is excellence in education and research but it doesn’t stop there. Why do we want this excellence? So that we can have an influence on society. The courses that we run do exactly that, they are psychosocial so they’re connecting all of these ideas about the unconscious and human beings and emotional literacy. Many of our students live and work and have placements around Essex and I had a comment from an organisation who has a student of ours on placement and they’re so grateful our students are helping them because they have a good deal working with our students. We must work with about 80 or 90 organisations who are all benefitting from the excellence that our students bring from the University and from the academia into the local environment. So for me, that business about having an influence upon society, education creates social change. That’s what I think is special about Essex.


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