Impressions from the Third International Conference on Geographies of Education

12th November, 2018
PGRG Blog #13
Jacob Fairless Nicholson


Jacob Fairless Nicholson is a postgraduate researcher in his third year at King’s College London. His work charts the geographies of ‘Black education spaces’ in London 1960-1990. Jacob visited the three-day Third International Conference on Geographies of Education at Loughborough University (Monday 3rd September to Wednesday 5th September) with the assistance of a bursary from the Population Geographies Research Group.


As I took my seat for Johanna Waters’ (UCL) keynote – the opening session of the conference – and flicked through the programme, I was struck to note that the ‘GoE III’ conference was made up of less than 60 delegates. Given that the last two international conferences I’d attended were the AAG in New Orleans and the RGS-IBG in 2017, this was a refreshing realisation and one that left me safe in the knowledge that the next few days were likely not to be as stress-inducing or discombobulating. Much to my delight, I found that GoE III acted as an antidote to such large, overwhelming conferences, providing a concentrated insight into the emerging, established and future research trends of one – albeit broad – subdiscipline of human geography though with much the same range of attendees (PhDs, ECRs and leaders-in-the-field). Before Waters could start, we were offered an insightful welcome to the university from Heike Jons, who illustrated with acute detail the rich history of geography at Loughborough and the individual and collective efforts in the department that have shaped the current verve in geographies of education. Jons’ welcome was emotional as well as informative, including a tear-ridden tribute to her long-standing colleague and collaborator Peter Meusburger who passed away in December 2017.


Waters’ keynote ‘Mobilities and materialities of cross-border schooling: children’s education and lives between Hong Kong and Mainland China’ was a fantastic start to the conference and elucidated a topic I was wholly ignorant of. A focus of her lecture was women and their bodies, a topic that Waters suggested geographers of education could address more, and which she broached in this talk through the experiences of border-crossings by Mainland Chinese families to Hong Kong. This journey affords Mainland Chinese children an education in Hong Kong, and is experienced by children and (overwhelmingly) mums on a daily basis. For Waters, this quotidian experience encapsulated many of the controls that Chinese women have imposed upon their bodies, from the now relaxed one-child policy to the interception of pregnant women wanting to give birth in Hong Kong, to the struggle over extra-curricular activity provision by mums for children exhausted by border crossing travel.


Waters’ afternoon keynote was followed by two paper sessions, a welcome from the Vice-Chancellor and a keynote by Kathryn Mitchell (UC Santa Cruz) on ‘Education and Public Scholarship: Intersections of Theory, Policy and Practice’. Mitchell’s talk, which I described as fantastic and foreboding on Twitter, highlighted that mainstream education in the US is a critical battleground right now and that public-school closures; the rise of Charter schools opening in African American neighbourhoods; the ineptitude of Betsy de Vos; and the involvement of tech billionaires in public education reform should be tacitly lamented and opposed. The lecture drew on vignettes from Mitchell’s career and focused on her realisation – and subsequent commitment to public scholarship – that her work was not being disseminated to ‘the masses’. She described  conflicts between her current  administrative leadership position and her new book ‘Making Workers: Radical Geographies of Education’ (Pluto Press) (one of the tech-billionaire reformers critiqued in the book is also a donor to UC Santa Cruz) and reflected on the inherent difficulty of producing both robust critique and working in the neoliberal academy.


Day two of GoE III kicked off with similarly evocative contributions in a paper session on ‘Education and ideology’. Among others, Sarah Mills (Loughborough) discussed education as a ‘battleground for children’s minds and bodies’ and bemoaned the current obsession with ‘grit’ by policymakers rather than structural inequalities as shapers of individual young people and children’s journeys to success in UK mainstream education. Mills’ talk included encouragement for work in geographies of education with a cultural/historical focus, citing her own recent success in informing UK stakeholders’ decisions as evidence of the importance of research in these areas. Jo Norcup’s (University of Glasgow) paper on ‘Public library geographies and geographies of education’ offered a provocation to think about how we use libraries, and the news that these treasured sites are under threat not just from closure but also in regard to the regulation of access conditions that includes opening hours and the constriction of age thresholds for visiting members.


My attendance at the remainder of the day’s session was compromised by my compulsion to perfect my own paper in a lively session on ‘Education and inclusion’ that evening.  However, amongst the preparation and refinement I was able to catch Tim Freytag’s (University of Freiburg) fascinating post-lunch keynote which drew on his PhD research from 2003 to show how higher education contributes to the renewal and perpetuation of segregated areas in New Mexico. Tuesday evening also heralded the turning of our collective attention to drinks and food at the nearby conference dinner. The evening represented a chance to connect with other delegates and reflect on the conference contributions thus far.


The third and final day of the conference kicked off with a keynote by Parvati Raghuram (Open University) on ‘International student migration and development’. Through case studies of open-learning institutions such as South Africa’s UNISA, Raghuram was concerned with how geographers of education might begin to foreground education rather than mobility in the experiences of international students. How, for example “does the global political economy shape aspirations in developing nations?” (e.g. variations in oil prices impacting student mobility), and “how do we theorise this in the geographies of education?”, she asked. The penultimate session of the conference on ‘Regional views on education and learning’ saw contributions on school journeys as learning experiences, itinerant education institutions, children and young people’s experiences of belonging upon family’s return migration, and educational inequality as a result of the Hukou system of household registration in urban areas in China.


Of these, I was particularly drawn to Christian Hanser’s (University of Glasgow) paper on ‘Vagabond learning in a ‘tiny house’ shepherd’s hut’. Hanser’s work reflected my own interests in community education, education at the margins of society and hospitality in education. Hanser recalled how the tiny house was towed around France in a ‘pilgrimage’ which allowed encounters between different groups of people to unfold in public spaces, events which posited the idea that everyone is an expert in their own life story and that the experiences therein are worth sharing with one another. Though the  hut represented a logistical impossibility in terms of its appearance at the conference, Hanser communicated its presence and impact through beautiful photographic and video representations. As Hanser explained, the hut was a physical manifestation of the utopian possibilities inherent in education and a record of the challenges and paybacks in experimental forms of learning.


GoE III offered me an opportunity to network with, and present my research to, colleagues working in the geographies of education subdiscipline for the first time during my PhD. Throughout the conference I received invaluable encouragement and support for my own work and gained insight into that of many others, some of which I was familiar with and others not. I look forward to the next International Conference on Geographies of Education and warmly express my thanks to the Population Geographies Research Group (PGRG) of the RGS-IBG for their kind bursary which allowed me to attend.


The conference programme can be found here

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