Speak to Dr Jane Essex, Senior Lecturer in Chemistry Education at the University of Strathclyde, and you’ll quickly come to understand her unwavering commitment to all things inclusivity. She is always the one to ask the important questions: “Who isn’t here? And why aren’t they here?”
Jane has focused on improving the accessibility of science education by supporting both teachers and students, for which she received the Royal Society of Chemistry 2019 Inclusion and Diversity Prize. Jane's next goal is to commit her expertise to writing and hopes to publish a book about science education for children with learning disabilities.
However, Jane’s journey to where she is now has been anything but conventional. Her fight for the forgotten and the excluded was established early on in her life. A big part of her childhood was influenced by the arrival of her sister, who was born with serious learning difficulties.
“I watched my mother, a single parent, grapple with the daily struggles of getting access to an education for my sister. It was dreadful. I suppose truthfully, when you come from a background of poverty, you have a sibling with severe disability, a father in prison, you understand that the world does not function like a fairy tale. So I've always had an interest in the people whose stories aren't being told, and because I'm a chemistry teacher and a science teacher, I'm interested in those people that aren't engaging and can't engage and in trying to help them.”
Jane herself was diagnosed with type one diabetes when she was just eight years old, although this sparked her interest in science, which was to become her favourite subject at school.
I’d not done science at primary school, but when I got to secondary I discovered that I was quite good at it! Chemistry to me was the perfect blend of a sort of systematic coherent account of matter, with lots of very evident relevance to everyday life. It was just something about that discipline that I warmed to especially. Chemistry was home.
At first, Jane thought she wanted to go into medicine and was excited at the prospect of making her mother proud. But it became quickly apparent that this wasn’t the right path for her.
“I was going to be the golden girl and become a doctor – or so I thought. But no, I just hated it. I'm unbelievably squeamish. I thought that would get better with exposure, but no, it got worse. And I actually really hated the ethos of medical school at the time, which seemed focused on people as recipients of interventions by very authoritarian doctors. Maybe if I’d gone at a different time, without all the baggage of a fairly challenging childhood, I'd have found ways to resist and cope, but I didn't.
“Quite honestly, one day I thought about killing myself. Then I thought, what job is worth dying for? And that was when I decided to have a big rethink.”
Luckily Jane found a clearing space at the London School of Pharmacy to study toxicology and pharmacology, and took the opportunity to reflect further on what she wanted to do in the future. It was when Jane had decided upon doing research that her mother got a terminal cancer diagnosis.
“My two brothers and sister were still at school, so I came back to the north of England to try and play mother – I was 23 at the time, so it was hard. I got myself a place on a PGCE that meant I could travel home every Friday and look after my siblings.
“Everyone else had always said to me, ‘You should be a teacher!’ But my mum was a teacher, my grandfather was a lecturer, my great grandfather was a village school master in the north of Ireland. I didn’t want to do what everybody else did. But this all went out of the window because I went to my first day in a school and fell totally in love with it. I thought, ‘This is so totally amazing! Why would I want to do anything else?’ And I'm still in love with it as a job.”
Since training as a teacher, Jane has taught in Suffolk, East Yorkshire and Staffordshire, got married and had three sons, and returned to part-time study, for a Master’s and a doctoral degree. Then a job doing teacher education came up at Keele University, the perfect role for Jane. It was at this point that she became a member of the RSC.
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“Truthfully, I never really felt good enough for the RSC, which I realise now was silly really, it was my own anxiety that put me off. Of course the minute I joined I discovered it wasn't elitist at all! I was invited to get involved with the local section and everyone made me incredibly welcome. It was like going through the back of a wardrobe in a CS Lewis novel. What looked like a place where old coats were stored turned out to be this whole interesting professional landscape! It’s been fantastic for networking. And to be honest, I’ve had better professional recognition from getting my Chartered Chemist (CChem) and Fellowship with the RSC than I’ve had from my work over the past 18 years! For me, the RSC has given me markers of career progression that I have really valued. I tell people, ‘Try it, you’ll get a lot more from it than you ever need to give."
Jane is also a member of the RSC’s Education Division, the Secondary and Further Education group, the Historical group and the Chemical Education Research group, sharing her unique experiences and perspectives that cover a broad view of the whole education system.
“I get involved because I hope to speak up for the silent majority of people who are studying or teaching chemistry. Maybe not grabbing attention but just day-on-day doing the best they can with what they have.”
More recently, Jane has been impressed by the RSC’s inclusion and diversity benchmarking work and has received two grants from the organisation’s dedicated Inclusion and Diversity Fund. Using this she has been able to conduct research into inclusive science education, covering inclusive STEM curriculum design and assessment, especially for learners with intellectual disabilities, and the preparation of teachers to deliver this.
“I got to work with a school for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties that wanted to introduce science into the curriculum. I very quickly ended up in this very bizarre dual role, both observing for the report and being their informal science advisor! So I got a lot of data and exhaustion for my £2,000 funding but it was really worthwhile.
It really showed how science can be a meaningful thing for everyone, even the kids that are being tube fed and ventilated in the classroom. They need a different sort of science and a different sort of teaching but they benefit hugely from science and they can do science.
“It’s about understanding the world around you, strategic thinking skills, predicting results, all of which can be done with hands-on sensory learning. My conclusion was that many more subjects should be taught to these children like science.
“Then this year I went into a local school and observed children with learning disabilities in a normal classroom doing science to work out what the impediments are. I shared my findings with the teacher and she had no idea that those things were happening, they’re so ingrained. And that - along with getting the RSC prize last year - was the final push for me to think someone needs to set this down somewhere. So that’s why I’m writing a book!”
With her determination and hard work to give everyone access to science, no matter who they are, it’s no surprise that Jane was awarded the Inclusion and Diversity Prize last year.
“I was very shocked and completely delighted! It’s lovely to have received the medal at this point in time. Inclusivity has been my focus all the way through my teaching career, even when no one else really seemed to care about it. I’ve waited and persevered and the time has come, there’s a shift happening and now nothing is more important than equality.”
Apart from her new book, Jane is also looking forward to running her next Salters’ Festival – based on the science of a chocolate caramel wafer, thanks to a sponsorship from Tunnocks – when it’s safe to do so.
Summing up her journey so far, Jane references a favourite quote of hers:
“‘Learning resembles rather more the flight of a butterfly than the path of a bullet. And I would certainly say that about my life.”