Chapter 5

Data Collection Methods 2:

The Implementation of the Three Phases of Fieldwork






Aims and objectives

The aim of this chapter is to outline:

  • the chronological order and narrative of the fieldwork during the study
  • how I implemented the data collection methods described in the previous chapter
  • the problems that I had when implementing the fieldwork


The first objective of this chapter, like the last chapter, is to create a linkage between the theories, and the progression of the theories of research analysis with the analysis of the data that is analysed in the following sections of this thesis. The second objective of this chapter is to support the framework of data collection that can be replicated in future research in this field.


The structure of this chapter

This chapter continues with the following segments, under bold headings:

  1. The first phase is the data I collected during my previous study (Hayhoe, 1995, 2000), and the initial pilot studies

2.      The second phase is the first tranche of fieldwork and historical data gathering

3.      The third phase of the fieldwork is a field study of former politicians and those involved in educational legislation in England and Wales, and field research in different educational settings and cultures

4.      Avoidable problems encountered during the study


The fieldwork also contained a period of fieldwork in the USA, during the third phase of my research. This added a different cultural perspective to my historical data gathering and fieldwork. A thorough narrative of all of this fieldwork is written immediately below, followed by a detailed description of the problems I encountered in the fieldwork. These are broken down into their individual methods.


The Three Phases of Fieldwork: Phase One


Initial readings and visits

In my original study (Hayhoe, 1995, 2000), I began reading around the subject of special needs education, and the education of students who are blind and visually impaired. I discovered a great deal of this research was of little use to classroom practioners as it covered a description of legal and policy issues in education. These were not the subjects I wished to focus on.


However, their introductory descriptions of the history of special needs education and disability (Dawkins, 1991; Solity, 1992) formed the basis for hypotheses. The literature also pointed to influential schools, laws and founders that provided the basis for the literature search in the previous study, and that I have continued in this study. The focus of the literature searches for this review resulted from such readings. These readings also helped to inform my choice of subjects of the synchronic study, and my choice of college.


In addition, during this initial research study, I visited museums and art galleries. I discovered that museum and gallery education appeared to be influential in including students who were blind in art education. At the time, the school of education I was based in was also next to a renowned museum studies department. I took the opportunity whilst based there to talk to education officers studying for an MA. I became influenced by one of the students in particular, who was partially sighted herself and was conducting a study of inclusion in museums.


During my visits to museums and galleries, I collected literature, particularly focusing on their inclusive policies, literature specifically produced for teachers of students who are blind or visually impaired and advertising literature containing any special exhibitions or descriptions for people who are blind and visually impaired. During my museum visits, I also visited exhibits set out to be touched. Unfortunately, I found that museums and galleries did not allow me to photograph their touch exhibits, quoting “security concerns” and so I had no way of recording accurate visual data quickly.


There was one interview from the original study that I felt was particularly important when sketching out the hypotheses for this study - it had been mentioned but not analysed in the original study.  The interview was held with a student who had just graduated from an art college in the West Country, with a BA (Hons) fine art (sculpture), Upper Second Class (his was the highest mark in his year). As I had interviewed him using formal techniques and questions before, I concluded that I could use this interview in my current study, as long as I reproduced the data collection techniques.


The use of historical literature in the choice of institutions

            During the earlier study I also collected a large amount of historical sources. These were either used as descriptive background, or not used at all. When reviewing the current hypotheses, I felt that these were distinctly underused. I also felt that the archives they derived from were highly relevant to this study. Consequently, they provided the basis for the diachronic strand’s data collection.


The original sources also provided a schema of elements which currently influence the art education of students who are blind. I had originally been able to gather descriptions from the literature about the first school in Paris in the 1780s. However, because I could not speak French, I could not search for primary source data. This restricted my historical study, but also provided it with a time and location focus. It also gave an interesting focus on moral development of art education that I found later had similarities with the original French education system.


I began this historical study by visiting one of the societies derived from the three original asylums, Bristol, and the local public record office. I also requested information from the Edinburgh and Liverpool schools, which were still in existence. Although the Bristol soc iety did not have a proper archive of their material, they had tea chests full of old documents that they had saved when they moved offices. These were stored in a corner of their factory workshop. I spent two full days sifting through what were soiled, moist documents dating back to the 1790s.


In addition, I also discovered the importance of the founding of the then National Institute for the Blind (NIB), now the RNIB, and New College, Worcester, the original fee paying school for the blind. I also found that the research library at the RNIB, which had taken over many of the original asylums and New College, held documentation about their activities.


The RNIB’s library also held a sizeable amount of primary source material about the asylums it had not taken on, including Bristol, Liverpool and Edinburgh. In addition, I discovered that a great deal of inclusive art education had occurred through art galleries and museums. They had also run in conjunction with universities’ liberal arts departments. Thankfully many people I contacted and interviewed about courses run in these museums held publicity and descriptive primary source materials about them[1].



Influential students in the original studies

            During this original study, I gathered insightful data relating to two students in Leicester, Hugo and Sharon. They both participated in interviews and observations using similar methods to those I employed in this study (Hayhoe, 1995, 1995b). Because of this depth of data I was able to compare their life histories with their present behaviour.


I was also put in touch with a man who had become a professional artist after being blinded in a car crash. The person who put me in touch with them, one of my informers, had met him at a conference and exhibition, and was familiar with his work. This student, who I named Georgio, had recently completed a degree when I contacted him.


When we first met, Georgio was undertaking postgraduate research and teaching to earn a small stipend at the University of the West of England from which he had graduated.[2] This did not fit with my pattern of study at the time, but I felt it might add colour to the study. In many ways his was a counter situation to many of the other students I studied, and so served as a good comparison. I felt he could also serve as an example of an art teacher who was blind.


I first contacted Georgio by land letter, in it explaining my project and my academic situation. He wrote back explaining his reluctance to participate in my study, as he had been the focus of television programmes and a book. However, because he was doing postgraduate research too, he invited me to his hostel and work space in the art college. He also gave me permission to take photographs of him and his art work - I eventually only took pictures of his work.


I subsequently made two visits to Georgio in 1994, one to his hostel and the other to his university. When I visited his hostel we discussed his life before and after the accident, his art education and his work as a teacher and an artist at the time. He also raised supplementary points which I added to the data. This was collected on tape recorder, with pen and paper back-up notes.


My visit to the university led to further questions about Georgio’s educational experiences. It also covered topics I felt I had not adequately covered in the first interview. During this visit, I was also lucky enough to see his studio space and art work, which I photographed. This yielded a small amount of ethnographic data.


After reviewing Georgio’s data, however, I felt it could only provide a direction for my current study. Although Georgio’s experiences appeared to fit Popper’s formula, there turned out to be insufficient data on his past that could be corroborated. Georgio also tended to talk about unrelated issues during our interviews. He had latterly focused on his experiences and teaching techniques with students, rather than his earlier experiences. These holes in my analysis of him led to the eventual tightening of my future data collection methods – I also hope to write a paper in future using this data in a different way, as I felt his experiences were invaluable.


The beginning of the broader fieldwork

            In 1998 I began the fieldwork for this study. Things had changed a great deal in my personal life at the time. This changed the methods of conducting fieldwork. Since completing my M.Ed., I had qualified as a school teacher. I then took a teaching post in a comprehensive school in east London and began work on the current project.


During this period I could not devote as much time or get as much academic support as I had previously relied on. The process for beginning the data gathering process, however, bore similarities to the previous study. After devising hypotheses, I again began by reading around the subject and visiting some of the museum consultants, education officers, teachers and researchers in this field that I had contacted in the previous study. I also managed to meet with several education officers at the RNIB, who subsequently put me in touch with New College.


My first visit to a practioner, however, was to the special needs co-coordinator at a semi-inclusive school in the East Midlands.[3] He was a contact from my previous research, and I hoped to include him in this study. After initial correspondence by letter and then telephone calls, I arranged an initial meeting with him and a pilot interview. Fortunately his school’s Local Education Authority had a different half term week to my school borough. I therefore had a week’s grace to conduct some initial research in the school. During the meeting, I had asked if I could meet and pilot interview the art teachers in the school. My contact said that he would make these requests if I put them in writing, which after returning home I did.


Unfortunately, he later decided not to participate further in my research, but he did give me permission to use the data I had collected from his pilot interview. This interview subsequently provided rich data for the diachronic study, as I felt it would compliment the other interviews I held later.


I then changed my own teaching post to a school in Evesham, to be closer to Birmingham University and New College, which I had identified as a school I particularly wanted to study. Shortly after moving there, I contacted the principal of New College through his personal assistant. After a brief initial telephone call, I sent a written request to research the school. These initial contacts with New College established the data I wished to collect, my methodology and what I hoped to achieve. The details of these were further negotiated with the principal.


After more handwritten and emailed contacts and telephone discussions, I arranged a pilot interview with the principal. The purpose of this interview, as it was in the previous pilot interviews, was to establish topics for the fieldwork proper, and to see how my experiences of working with adults who were blind differed from working with school children who were blind.


The Three Phases of Fieldwork: Phase Two


The beginnings of the ethnographic fieldwork

            After conducting the pilot interview with the principal of New College, I managed to get permission to meet the head of art at New College. I gave him the pseudonym Gerard during this research - a thorough description of this meeting and the subsequent meeting is presented in appendix 5, and what follows is a briefer version. During our initial meeting I obtained his permission to do ethnographic fieldwork with his A Level group.


I informed Gerard that in order to provide consistency, I needed to study students who were legally registered blind, and had been since childhood. I also asked for access to these students’ school records, so I could record their specific medical conditions and previous education. Unfortunately, I was not allowed access to these records, although I understood his reasons for confidentiality on this matter.


However, I was allowed to ask the students’ permission to observe them working, interview them and gather diary reports. This consent was also given by the Principal. This was particularly important. I also managed to obtain Gerard’s consent, if the students agreed, to conduct the study throughout their A level course. Finally I promised to leave them alone during examination times.


I was also told that the principal had asked Gerard to be my main point of contact in the school from this point on. During this meeting he also asked that the non-historical fieldwork be restricted to his A Level class alone, as he felt that his other groups were too immature to complete the diaries and interviews. We both also felt that because we were focusing on academic success in my study, we should choose students who were successful enough to take A Levels.


The student observations

            There were only three students at New College taking A Level art during my fieldwork, and so I initially had to restrict the fieldwork to them alone. One later pulled out so I had to eventually focus on two alone. I also decided at this point to concentrate on observing and reporting on the individual study periods of their coursework. The total fieldwork here eventually lasted a year and a half, and included observations, interviews, diary reports and photography of art work.


My observations were focused on the individual study periods, where the students undertook their coursework. These periods were particularly advantageous as they occurred mainly after school and, after analysing their art curriculum, I felt that coursework is the most outstanding aspect of art A Level. Art is also a very different subject from other more didactic subjects, such as mathematics. Its practice usually occurs outside of classroom hours. (I also have to admit that as a part-time researcher, finding time to carry out participant observations over 15 miles away from my school was practically very difficult.)


The concurrent teacher and former student interviews

            In addition to the field study, I also conducted interviews with four art teachers from schools for the blind in England. One of these was with Gerard, two more were from the Midlands, and the fourth was with a teacher in the south east of England. This data was designed to triangulate the data collected at New College. Two of these interviews were by post/email, and the other two were face to face.


I knew from the start that finding teachers was going to be a problem. There are few art teachers specifically working and trained to teach in schools for the blind. It is such a specialist area. I advertised for teachers through the “New Beacon”[4] and “In Touch”[5]. I then contacted others in North America after an Internet search. I knew two teachers there from my previous research.


Unfortunately, these initial approaches to the US were fruitless, I only had one response from my advert on “In Touch”, and none at all from the “New Beacon”. As a result, I found that I only had the two teachers from the previous study, Gerard and the teacher from “In Touch”. I would have ideally liked more teachers, but I felt their data could be further triangulated in a cross-cultural study. I coded the three new teachers and their schools:

  • Steve from Anfield
  • Harry from The Valley
  • Asia from The Hawthorns

The US teachers will be described in more detail in my description of phase three.


Although the media changed in each case, I stuck to the same set of questions in each interview - an example of the letter I sent to them outlining my study and the questions I asked is in appendix 5; the recipient remains anonymous. I obviously could not use the open conversation technique with the teachers when conducting postal interviews. However, although tight, the questions I sent them were designed to give open ended answers. I also asked them to provide protracted examples of specific cases of children they had taught. This led to rather elaborate yet structured answers.


Through Harry from The Valley, I also found another artist who was registered legally blind. Harry had taught him whilst he was younger. I later renamed this former student, Michael. Like Georgio he had a degree, although his was in illustration. He also did not achieve the highest mark in his year – his mark however was a second, which I would argue can still be regarded a high level of achievement in art education. I concluded that he must have displayed positive learning behaviour in order to make this achievement.


I initially contacted him through letter and then telephone conversation in 2001. I then arranged to meet him at the school. I interviewed this student twice more during the same year. I took taped and pen and paper notes during these interviews. In addition, I also managed to observe a creative meeting at The Valley. This was to present Harry and Michael’s ideas for commission to a national trade union.


The representative of the union that was present at the meeting was its outgoing president. He was also a former student at The Valley. As a mark of honour, this president had been given £4000 for an artistic commission to be displayed at their headquarters. He subsequently decided to use this project to promote education.


The president had asked Harry, who subsequently recruited Michael, to co-ordinate a work of art by students of The Valley. The Valley would use Harry’s portion of the money for equipment. Michael’s share, however, would be his own. Although the meeting did not include specific art education tasks, I was able to see Michael in a creative environment presenting work he had created by himself. The meeting was recorded using a tape recorder and pen and paper notes.


Continued literature searches and building research

The literature search managed to be much wider ranging than the fieldwork. It was conducted between 1999 and 2003. However, the bulk of the search was done during 1999 and 2001, as I conducted my synchronic fieldwork. I found the Internet was an excellent resource for searching for both secondary and primary source literature from associations for the blind, libraries and public record offices.


I also rejoined the RNIB’s Research Library, which provided excellent primary source data from original catalogues, reports and correspondence from early schools and asylums it had begun or taken over. Again, this data dated back over two hundred years. It also complimented the data I already had. I also experimented with different techniques of historical research, such as photographing the original buildings. After visiting a few buildings, though, I decided to reject this technique, as I could not be consistent with this recording method.


This experimental technique was useful when researching New College. I managed to find the original building used for the college – coincidentally a museum 30 yards from my home. Whilst contacting the education officer and resident historian to gain access to its interior, I also located more articles and documents, such as school reports, correspondence, newsletters and diagrams of the buildings. The resident historian provided me with leads as to its inception from King’s School. This research of the history of New College, however, took much longer than the previous literature searches combined because it has no specific archives. Many of its records were also lost or inaccessible.

The Three Phases of Fieldwork: Phase Three


Interviews with policy makers and implementers

            From my experience of teaching and discussions with teachers and researchers, I found that three factors in particular had an effect on the inclusion of pupils with disabilities in mainstream schools. The first of these was the Warnock Report, published in 1978, following a committee of enquiry set up in 1974. This redefined categories of disability as special educational needs.


The second factor was the 1981 Educational Act, Chapter 60, which was derived from the Warnock Report. The third factor, although directly unrelated to the education of students with disabilities, was the Education Reform Act of 1998. This brought in the National Curriculum amongst other things. The National Curriculum in particular made it possible for students with disabilities to study the same form of art as students who were able bodied.


For this reason, I felt it would be informative to contact the politicians and civil servants involved with the report and further education acts. In order to gauge the most useful and influential characters in the creation of the Warnock Report and the education acts I gathered recommendations through initial interviews, advice from teachers and those who worked in the field of special needs policy, and secondary source literature (Visser & Upton, 1993).


I also decided to request an interview with the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). This interview was to give a contemporary perspective on special education. Following this I requested interviews with:

  • Baroness Professor Mary Warnock (chair of the Warnock Committee)
  • Baroness Professor Shirley Williams (Labour Secretary of State for Education during the Warnock Report)
  • Lord Reginald Prentice (Labour Secretary of State for Education during the Warnock Report and after crossing the floor of the Commons Conservative Minister for the Disabled)
  • Baroness Margaret Thatcher (Conservative Secretary of State for Education that commissioned the Warnock Committee and Prime Minister during the 1981 and 1988 acts)
  • Lord Kenneth Baker (Conservative Secretary of State during the 1988 act)
  • Miss Sheila Browne (former Chief Inspector of Schools at the time of the Warnock Enquiry)
  • Mr John Fish (Deputy Chief Inspector of Schools who was involved with the Warnock Report)
  • The spokesperson from the DfES with responsibility for special needs education


Initial approaches to the interviewees

            I sent my first formal requests by post, and made some further informal enquiries by telephone. My letters contained an outline of my research and a description of my teaching position. Lord Prentice was particularly approachable and even telephoned my school to invite me to his house.  He was very willing to be involved with the research. Although the other respondents showed caution, they also helped by providing often frank answers.


Of those who felt they couldn’t help, Miss Browne referred me to Mr Fish. He was more involved with the Warnock Committee than she was. Eventually, Mr Fish, and Professor Baronesses Warnock and Williams agreed to a postal interview. All of them replied promptly, for which I am very grateful. The DfES also allowed me to interview a spokesman and a spokeswoman face to face. All but Lord Prentice, however, appeared to be suspicious of my motives. It is obviously a sensitive political issue. The DfES needed to see all of my questions before agreeing to the interview. In addition, Mr Fish, and Professor Baronesses Warnock and Williams did not want to answer all of my questions.


Conducting further research in North America

            In the process of this research, I discovered there were connections between British, Continental and US institutions for the blind. I felt that this was both an important link and an interesting further cross-cultural triangulation for both the synchronic and diachronic studies. I then made contact with teachers in these locations after an initial internet search.


Through my previous research, I also made a useful contact with an organisation in New York called Art Education for the Blind (AEB). They were particularly interesting as they were co-ordinating a collaboration called “Art Beyond Sight” - this collaboration at the time represented national and local organisations, galleries and schools in the US, although they are now global.


As a result, in the summer of 2003 I asked AEB to provide leads and help in co-ordinating a US study of art education and blindness. For financial reasons, I wanted to restrict this to the north east coast after being provided with contacts from AEB, and I made formal approaches to request visits to several museums, galleries and schools.


I made my initial approaches to the schools through email in the late summer of 2003. Unlike my previous approaches to the schools, however, these were more successful, perhaps because this time I had approached the schools directly, and I had the influence of AEB as an informer. I visited the US in the early autumn of 2003 to complete this study.


I also gained permission to conduct literature searches of historical material in the Perkins School, Boston and the Overbrook School, Philadelphia – two of the original schools for the blind in the US. During this time, I was also given permission to photograph the buildings of one of the schools. However, the other schools did not give me permission, and so I felt that I could not use these photographs as data.


In addition, five teachers gave me permission for face-to-face interviews. During these interviews, I used the same techniques and open question topics as my previous interviews. In addition, I also bought a new digital recorder, which allowed me to download sound files directly onto my laptop computer. This technology was particularly useful whilst travelling around. I did not have to worry about tapes, labelling, batteries easily running out, or the microphone’s range.


Three of the teachers were in schools for the blind (two upper schools, one lower school). The fourth teacher previously conducted art courses and ran exhibits for students who were blind in a major museum. The last teacher was an itinerant teacher of students who are blind and visually impaired in mainstream settings. Although the last teacher did not specialise in art, she had great experience of supporting art teachers with students who were blind. I gave these teachers and their locations the following pseudonyms:

  • Taylor from Ashton Gate
  • Cassie from Highbury
  • Stacy from Highfield Road
  • Petra from St Andrew’s
  • Cheryl from The Walker’s Stadium


In addition, I visited museums and galleries in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. These opportunities arose through further contacts with informers in the AEB and The Perkins School, Boston. All of these institutions but one was large – the small institution was made of three small tenement houses in Greenwich Village, New York. It also had no archive or specific research departments. They included:

  • The Metropolitan Museum, New York (large)
  • The Museum of Modern Art, New York (large)
  • The Tenement Museum, New York (small)
  • The Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art (large)
  • The Boston Museum of Fine Art (large)


During these visits I was fortunate enough to be shown around by the education and inclusion officers, or at least see the touch exhibits myself and interview the relevant officers. In addition, I gathered all of the publicity material and policy documentation I could at the time. Like the British museums and galleries earlier, however, I was not allowed to take photographs of the exhibits.


The final stages of the research

            My fieldwork ended in the autumn of 2004, after I had returned to London. Here I visited the following galleries and museums, to gather vox pop impressions through access publicity for people with visual impairments, as primary source data. Although I did not travel outside London, I chose a mixture of large and small galleries. These institutions included:

  • The Tate Modern, Bermondsey[6] (large)
  • The British Museum, Bloomsbury (large)
  • The Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington (large)
  • The Serpentine Gallery, South Kensington (small)
  • The Whitechapel Gallery (small)
  • The White Cube Gallery[7], Hoxton (small)


Unlike my initial visits to museums and galleries during my study in the 1990s, this was more formalised. I decided, therefore, its data could be analysed as primary source literature with random participant observations. Although I explained who I was to the staff during these visits, I called in without prior notice. This allowed me to see what literature they had available or facilities they had in their displays. The staff at these institutions did not appear to mind me taking this literature or visiting their displays. They treated me with civility.


I am grateful to the staff for their help, at what in hindsight could have been ethically questionable. However, I felt their spontaneity also allowed me to discover perhaps otherwise hidden factors, such as non-pre-booked access to the galleries for those with disabilities. Museums in Britain are also subsidised and legally required to have these facilities available under the 1996 Disability Discrimination Act. This came into force in educational institutions as from 2004.


Avoidable problems encountered during the study


Problems that developed with the observations

            There were two major problems I found with my approach to the participant observation. The first was that of data collection. Because the information I collected was mostly arbitrary and spontaneous, I did not have time to record it word for word. For instance, when I was moving around the classes, or handling objects at galleries, I found I could not write down what I saw immediately. Consequently, I stuck to writing what I saw after the event, immediately after every visit, when everything was still fresh in my mind.


The second problem I found was that of becoming too attached to the students and informers in the institutions I observed. I later found that this was a general criticism of participant observation in particular. The most identifiable cause of this problem was that its method involved a large amount of introspection on the part of the researcher, which made it subjective. The most relevant description of this problem I was able to refer to is the experience of “going native,” described by Pollard (1984) during his M.Ed. and Ph.D. field work.

The phrase ‘going native’ essentially describes a state of mind in which, through a very close and emphatic identification with the subjects of the research, the demands of the research project itself fail to be met.

Pollard (1984: p.219)


Whilst studying this method of classroom research, Bell (1993) and King (1984) also found a similar problem. They discovered that objectivity is particularly threatened when they mixed socially with the teacher and the children during the school day. In these circumstances, they argued, personal relationships are bound to be formed. It is also an apparently inaccurate premise of participant observation, they continued, that pre-formed opinions can be left at the door when beginning fieldwork.


I found “going native” potentially affected the observations, especially my relationship with the teachers that I worked with. Because I was a teacher myself, I related my own experiences in a mainstream school with theirs. Additionally, I found I had great admiration for many of the long-serving teachers I worked with and interviewed. I felt that this could have partly been because of my general respect for those that were older than me.


However, I also felt that this problem could have been due to their skill in teaching - similar skills to those I had learnt from my mentors when training to be a teacher. It has to be noted that teachers who stay in the classroom are usually regarded by peers as more dedicated to the children they work with, rather than teachers who choose to go into senior positions or academia and who only have minimal contact with students.


Apart from these problems, there was also the issue of the close, physical contact of the small art classroom. This made social contact very polite but restrictive. This problem was particularly acute as I was working in schools in rural and semi-rural locations, and from experience, I have noted that these environments have closer communities. In these settings it is almost unthinkable to ignore people, even for business purposes.


As a result of these problems, I also found myself becoming too sympathetic with the students when they gave me personal information, as this was similar to information I am used to discussing with some of my own students. In one student’s case in particular our discussions included his emotionally charged negative learning experiences during his early years at school. Added to this, the age of the students heightened this problem, as it made them socially closer to me, and their articulate conversations led to my growing sympathy.


I have to admit that eventually it was very hard to distance myself from the students and staff involved in the observations. I felt a need to believe them, even though I could not check their stories. However, I also felt I could trust them, as they appeared to be reliable teachers and students who had been recommended to me from genuine sources. In addition, I also had the formality of the interviews and the checking of similar case studies from the other research subjects that I was socially distanced from. I felt that this ameliorated the problem of “going native.”


Problems with the interviews and diary reports

            During the face to face interviews, two major problems were identified. The first was the open environments I used. For instance, in my most researched school I interviewed students in the art classroom. It was small but had high ceilings and echoed, which was made worse because it was uncarpeted.


The interviews were also recorded around a table in the middle of the room. Although the interviews were held in the evening, this room was also open to other students doing their work. The art room was also close to a main foyer and a drama studio, so I also had to contend with people walking outside as well. This led to instances where I had to stop recording.


I found the same problem when I interviewed teachers in the US, and this problem was heightened when I interviewed primary school teachers, as children in these years constantly entered the room without notice. More problematically, the itinerant teacher I interviewed had no base and I did not have permission to visit any of her schools.


This exclusion from visiting her schools meant that I had to meet her outside her city’s public library, and interview her in an adjoining public square. This had a café, where we found many loud locals were talking, sometimes shouting, beside us. It was very much this kind of city, and had to be recognised as such during my research.


I found no ultimate, overall cure for this problem, though there were four solutions that eased it:

  • The first was that my improving finances slowly allowed more sophisticated digital recorders in my later interviews. Because I also took pen and paper notes, I did not have to rely entirely on the accuracy of the recorders when I replayed them
  • The second solution was to repeat what people had just told me back to them at frequent intervals. This allowed me to clarify whether I had heard the subjects correctly
  • The third solution was that my hearing problem makes me a more efficient lip reader. This allowed me to pick-up visual cues whilst I was taking notes during the interview
  • The fourth solution was to use powerful cassette players to play back my notes and check their contents


The second problem I had was the cheapness of the original tape recorders. The first one I used was particularly problematic. I began checking it before every interview, as in previous fieldwork I found it could stop randomly, and its variable sound quality also added to the problem of recording in an echoey classroom. This meant I relied increasingly on my pen and paper notes. However, I felt this did not cause much damage to the validity of the interviews, because, as I mentioned above, the main points were checked with the interviewees by repetition.


I also found three particular difficulties implementing my diaries at the main school in this study. The first was the time it took to get the tapes back from the students. This problem happened even when I reached an agreement about my visiting times and the importance of students’ punctuality. It is true that some of these delays could not often be helped, as the students had other commitments. They were not only completing art projects but other coursework too. However, part of the reason for choosing these sixth formers was because of their reliability.


The students’ reports were needed as background information for the analysis I was compiling as I went along, which made punctuality of particular importance. As a result of their unpunctuality, I had to postpone any further analysis until I could continually encourage the students into handing them in. They did, however, eventually hand over their diaries, although the delay made the time lag between this and the other field work messy.


Fortunately this never became too much of a problem as to ruin the data. I admittedly felt stressed worrying about the knock-on effect, as this was a once in a lifetime situation. These particular students would not be available again. But eventually, all produced their reports within their month; it also helped that I eventually elongated the time frame. I also arranged to record the reports with the students each month. Consequently I did both the tape recording and the writing. Additionally, the later data from the reports was also of a sufficient quality to make my on-going analysis a rapid process.


The second problem was the initial amount and type of information given by the students. The amount of information differed in particular. Even though I prompted the questions as I took notes, I found the students’ replies would shorten if their minds were elsewhere. The amount of detail also differed radically when they did not feel a topic was relevant or they had been doing much of the same work on their project. It was therefore difficult to explain the bigger picture about the importance of their data to them without destroying its objectivity.


I eventually cured this problem by making the content of the diaries slightly less detailed, and lengthening the amount of time between each of the recordings. This longer time lag allowed the students to see the general process of the work as it was developing. The time difference also allowed them to synchronise the diaries with their written notes for their coursework. This made recording the diaries less of a chore for them, and saved effort on my part.


The third problem I discovered was the lack of structure that the students had when completing their diaries. This was despite the structured topics I gave them to work towards. For example, I found that the students would begin with very general descriptions of their present work, such as the approaches they had been comfortable with, and then they would range off into personal or technical issues, such as the texture of the clay or whether they enjoyed working with mixed media. These fell outside of the given topics, and it made it particularly difficult to personalise my questions whilst maintaining the focus of the diary.


To resolve this problem, I compromised with my structure at first, but found this unhelpful. I then asked Gerard about their projects, allowing his observations to fill in any gaps that were appearing. However, I realised that this second hand information could compromise the integrity of the data. Subsequently, as I said above I started recording the diaries with the students in front of me.


As I did so, I found I could impose more structure on what they said, and also guide them back to talking about relevant aspects of their projects. This generated a different angle in my analysis, and helped to develop my relationships with the students. I feel that this helped with their co-operation throughout the project.


Less particular problems I encountered with the fieldwork methods


The problems with the research situations

The most serious problems I encountered during this fieldwork were the unorthodox situations I found myself in: trying to be a researcher in one school and a teacher in another. This problem occurred in phases one and two of the research. In particular, when I began teaching there were growing demands by the government for practitioner research in education - and this notion was also emphasised in the growing importance of continuing professional development in the teaching profession. However, despite these demands, the government do not appear to have produced an effective model or guidelines that can make this happen effectively.


The difficulties I found as a part-time researcher were often compounded by tricky social situations. This arose out of researching schools that were increasingly becoming highly political settings. For example, New College was undergoing extreme changes: it had not long undergone a change of Principal, and was just becoming a government Beacon School.[8]


Furthermore, during my fieldwork, funding in the study’s most important school was in an increasingly precarious position. Disability was becoming a “hot” media issue, as David Blunkett[9], the then Secretary of State for Education of England and Wales, had not long made a personal attack in the media on schools for the blind, based on his own early experiences. Therefore all of the schools I was studying in England felt particularly vulnerable, raising all kinds of further ethical and practical issues, and making my part-time status even more hazardous.


Particular problems with part-time research and a full-time teaching position

            There were also other problems during the course of this study that appear to effect part-time researchers in particular. The first problem is the maintenance of a relationship with informers, other teachers and the students. I was lucky in that the special schools involved in this study had mainly boarding students, which meant they existed as a community after my teaching finished for the day. However, not all of the research study had this luxury.


On a different point, the nature of the specific subject and disability I was studying also limited the number of students and teachers that I could work with. This also meant that I had to move to areas where this education was taking place from an increasingly shrinking pool of opportunities. I also found that the boarding, special status of the schools, students and teachers could work against me.


For instance, I only had time to meet Gerard on his duty nights or on the rare occasions that he stayed after school. When I could arrange meetings with him, his time was relatively limited and suffered interruptions from students when they booked into rooms. I could also only see the students that I was studying when they were available because of their other numerous evening activities.


These issues made it difficult for me to meet the students or address their concerns. Although I overcame this problem by having regularly timed meetings, this situation always meant I had to work harder to get my results. I tried to overcome some of these problems by holding all of the meetings with the students and Gerard in the art room. This allowed us to talk about the students' projects with their work at hand, provided me with an educational aim to the meetings and a glimpse into the environment they worked in.


Furthermore, I found that the immense problem of threatening the security of special schools was made worse by being a part time researcher. Although I gained trust eventually in my main school, this was hard won by delicate negotiation and of courting the school’s staff, but I did not have this luxury with schools with which I only had short bursts of fieldwork.


I was worried that this problem would be especially acute in the US, particularly with my British accent and their recent problems. My appearance is also occasionally a little frightening, as I have a short crew cut and scars. However, during my research this tended to work in my favour, as many liberal Americans are particularly polite to foreigners and genuinely open. It was in Britain, within the system that I inhabited and worked, that this was a big problem.


Importantly, I have found myself more easily accepted when I have gone into communities for continuous periods of time, as this full-time arrangement has also meant that I was formally introduced in meetings allowed a “fuller”, more acceptable presence. On the other hand, because of administrative changes at my main school, my anonymity and part-time status were also seen by the other teachers as less threatening as ironically, under these circumstances, my research was not ambiguously linked with the school’s new establishment.


The final problem that I had to address by being part-time was the initial loss of control over the practical aspects of the fieldwork. This I found to be the most frustrating. Initially it was my intention to give much of the ownership of the data to the subjects of the study. But I found that being part-time made it hard to gauge how much authority I had and how I could control my own deadlines. Although I did not anticipate these problems, I found that this problem was similar to the teacher’s dilemmas when gathering coursework and homework from students.


For instance, whilst teaching in my last school I found it hard to maintain a pattern of work from my year nine groups whom I saw only once a fortnight. This was less of a problem with my GCSE and A Level groups whom I saw regularly. In terms of this research, I found a similar lack of contact gave me less authority in the schools I studied, which had more pressing priorities with their own survival and teaching commitments. This is arguably a problem of research in general, as it remains abstracted from, and even in conflict with, many schools’ functions and outcomes.


All of these factors aside, I would argue that this fieldwork created rich, unique and what can be considered to be scientific, structured, replicable, rigorously checked and overall objective data. It also provided me with experiences of a dual role in education that put me at an advantage to many mainstream researchers who have given up classroom practice. I consider myself richer for this experience.


What now follows is the analysis of this data. It begins with my analysis of the diachronic history of blindness in art education, and continues with an analysis of my fieldwork with students and teachers.

 © Simon Hayhoe 2005, 2007


[1] I would particularly like to thank Rachel Sullivan for her contribution of a large amount of documents she had collected for her own research. Her generosity was boundless, and she remains a great inspiration!

[2] Again this was in Bristol, where half of the observations, a meeting with a leading psychologist and the original asylum visit took place. This was pure coincidence, although it was useful having so much data located in one place.

[3] The name of this school remains anonymous, as it not relevant to the eventual fieldwork.

[4] A journal published by the RNIB

[5] A nationally broadcast program for people with visual impairments.

[6] Now re-termed Bankside, since its gentrification. I would argue that this in itself is a telling cultural point.

[7] This is where Damien Hirst exhibits his new work. It promotes itself as a radical, cutting edge institution which questions social values and our observations of our world.

[8] These are schools identified by the government and their inspectors as having outstanding merit of national importance.

[9] David Blunkett is legally registered blind, and has been since early childhood.


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