Please tell us a bit about your background, ie where you came from, your education, your current family situation.
I am a Londoner (born in Brixton) but was raised mainly on the South Coast. I went to a state comprehensive school and am in the first generation in my family to go to university. Initially wanting to be a linguist, I decided to study Law at university in order to have a secure career option at the other end. I completed my undergraduate degree at Magdalen – the four-year course, with a year abroad in Konstanz, which I really loved. After the BCL, I pursued further graduate studies in Canada and started my teaching career at the University of Alberta. I have been back at Oxford, teaching rather than studying, since 2007. I think the time away helped provide me with a valuable perspective on why we do what we do here at Oxford and how we might do it better. I am also a qualified barrister and Associate Member at 1 King’s Bench Walk in London, a specialist family law chambers.
What led you to a career in academia?
Just before the start of my final year as an undergraduate, I accepted a training contract with a City solicitors’ firm. I had always intended to do the BCL, and the firm agreed to defer my place. I then spent the summer after Finals carrying out interviews for qualitative family law research for John Eekelaar (then a fellow at Pembroke). I enjoyed it so much I changed my mind about my training contract. I ended up pursuing graduate studies in Canada as I followed the scholarship money. I had been funded by AHRB (now AHRC) for the BCL and was offered a Commonwealth Scholarship and a Canadian Rhodes Scholars’ Foundation Scholarship to study in Canada, as well as some additional local funding. This exceeded what I had been offered by US universities so the decision was made.
What are your research interests and why have you chosen those particular areas?
I have always specialised in family law, though I tend to focus more on the children’s law side of matters than I used to. I am particularly interested in children’s rights theory. I was and still feel particularly drawn to this area because of the unique blend of law, social and public policy, empirical evidence, and theory at stake in relation to any particular issue. In each case, before you can argue for what you consider to be the right approach or the right outcome, you have to first develop and justify your view as to what type of arguments should matter and why. I also have an interest in education law, particularly exclusion from school. This grew out of some early work with colleagues of the Department of Education, and I would like to see education law taught here one day.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have a few smaller projects on the go, including work on grandparents’ rights, but I am mainly working towards completion of a monograph on children’s rights theory, in which I argue for the need to prioritise children’s rights and interests over those of others (ie. that the paramountcy principle in respect of children’s ‘best interests’ should mean exactly what it says). I am also part of an ESRC-funded research team looking at exclusion from school across the four countries of the United Kingdom. That project is due to complete in 2023 and I am hopeful that we will be able to offer the first real evidence-based insight into why the exclusion rates differ so significantly between UK countries, what the costs are for the current approach, and how we might do better – for affected children, their families, and others involved in the education system. It is a truly multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary project, which has been an interesting challenge in itself!
Why did you take on the role of Associate Dean and what do you want to achieve in the role?
I wanted to improve student experience. I did not have any grand vision for what changes that might entail and, in practice, small reforms have had the potential to make a significant difference. For example, we (the Faculty, via student surveys) have consistently received feedback from students that they do not fully understand why they receive the marks they do on tutorial essays and how this relates to the classification criteria for Mods / FHS purposes. As a response, last year we developed a model marking cover sheet that colleagues might use to help explicitly tie the mark received to the classification criteria. It takes very little time to complete but brings significant benefit. I hope that, in the time I have left in the post, I am able to introduce a few more such improvements.
What is your favourite thing to do in your spare time?
I do not have a great deal of spare time at the moment (-see next question!). I like to get outdoors into nature when I can and my last big holidays have involved lots of hiking and sunblock. Locally, there are a few particular routes and places I like to visit but I could not tell you where as one of the attractions is how peaceful it is!
Do you have any other accomplishments besides your academic career?
I am in my final year of a part-time BA in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. It has given me a broad education on theoretical perspectives and issues relevant to my research, pushed me to think in a different way, and made me rethink what matters about academic writing. Last year, when I told undergraduates I empathised with their situation with the changes to assessment due to Covid-19, I really meant it!