Q&A with Ursula Hoadley


The aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. This is the fourth interview in the series. Ursula Hoadley is an Associate Professor at UCT’s School of Education

1)   Why did you decide to go into education and how did you get where you are?

 I did a teacher training diploma after my degree, unsure of where I was headed, but wanting a qualification that would guarantee me a job. In the course of the Diploma I did a module on the sociology of education. I was absolutely transfixed. The lecturer (Dave Gilmour, who is now a colleague in the School of Ed at UCT) showed us the British documentary 7-Up, and thus began my interest in the relation between education and class, it’s reproductive processes and later, how to think about interruption. After the diploma I went straight on to do a Masters. I taught for a short period and then was offered a position on a research project based at UCT, part of the President’s Education Initiative study which was the first attempt at a systematic investigation of classrooms in South Africa.

 2)   What does your average week look like?

Spread between teaching, working with post grad students, research, admin and work with people and agencies outside my institution, like Equal Education Law Centre, UMALUSI, the fabulous Stellenbosch economics crew…! I try to run three times a week, and my university job is sandwiched by my other (wonderful) job – my 3 and 5 year olds.

 3)   While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick two or three that have been especially influential for you which two or three would they be and why?

Very hard to answer this question. There have been many. The foundational sociology texts were fundamental to my thinking about education – especially Durkheim and Marx. Durkheim’s “Division of Labour in Society” and “Elementary Forms of Religious Life” especially provided a particular way of thinking about education as the specialisation of consciousness, a social process whereby the “outside” (society) becomes “inside” (to the individual consciousness). Basil Bernstein’s work opened up for me the abiding question in my own research  – why does schooling fail the working class? His work has been the most influential on my own work, because of the concerns but also because the theory is so generative in relation to empirical elaboration. There have also been a number of particularly influential texts in education: Dan Lortie’s ‘School Teacher’. This book completely fascinated me in its account of a systematic sociological analysis of teachers in the US. Who they are, why they are there, where do they come from etc. I’ve always wanted to do a replication of this type of study in South Africa. David Labarree: How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning. His historical/sociology analyses of education systems and their evolution is great.

 4)   Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?

I like the bloggers and tweeters, like Diane Ravich and Doron Isaacs. You’re good like this too. Up to the minute responses to things that are going on, that are critical and thoughtful.

  5)   What do you think is the most under-researched area in South African education?

I think one is our teachers. I have wanted for a long time to do a study along the lines of Lortie (see above) – which uncovers who our teachers are, why they are there, how long they stay, what they read… I don’t think we clearly understand why teachers do the things they do in the classroom (and these are quite enduring things, that have some uniformity across similar contexts). Part of understanding that is understanding why and how teachers come to be in the classroom in the first place.

  6)   What is the best academic advice you’ve been given?

Read thinkers in the original. Don’t rely on secondary texts. I remember reading a lot about Durkheim, the division of labour etc. and then finally reading Durkheim in his own words. The ideas are very different in the original, generally more interesting and engaging and I find they stay in the mind. He writes beautifully. Like a very sophisticated old gentleman.

  7)   If you ended up sitting next to the Minister of Education on a plane and she asked you what you think are the three biggest challenges facing South African education today, what would you say?

Overshoot, overambitious plans. Why is a pre Grade R even being proposed at the point at which we can barely afford Grade R and have so little capacity in the system to deliver quality there? Why are we proposing a third compulsory language when we don’t have sufficient skilled language teachers, nor enough good texts, to teach a first and second? We need to be more modest in our goals.

The second is a lack of differentiation within the system. We can’t have the same plan for every school and every university. This is hard, but trying to hit all nails with the same hammer is buggering up the coffin… or something like that…

 8)   If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?

  A documentary film maker. I have no idea whether I would be any good at it, but I have a fascination for the way an unusual or specific issue phenomenon is considered visually, and an argument constructed through film. I would love translating the research involved into an angle with an aesthetic.

9)   Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?

  Total skeptic, as you well know!

 10) If you were given a R5million research grant what would you use it for?

 A Lortie-style Sociology of teachers in South Africa study…


Some of Ursula’s recent research can be found below:

  • Muller, J. & Hoadley, U. (2012, forthcoming). Knowledge mobilisation in South Africa. In B. Levin (Ed.), Knowledge Mobilisation in Education. Policy Press.
  • Gamble, J. & Hoadley, U. (2011). Positioning the regulative. In: G. Ivinson & B. Davies. Bernstein’s sociology of knowledge: New developments, new possibilities, thinking outside the frame. London: Routledge.

Some of the other academics/policy-makers on my “to-interview” list include Servaas van der Berg, Martin Gustafsson, Veronica McKay, Hamsa Venkatakrishnan, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Eric Atmore, Linda Biersteker, Jonathan Jansen and Jon Clark. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

5 responses to “Q&A with Ursula Hoadley

  1. I repeat: too biased towards white academics who are part of your circle. It is important to get different views from different kinds of education experts
    Bad idea as it will not go down well with all and will lead to unnecessary tensions

  2. Hi Francine, one of the aspects of a Q&A series like this is that I usually cannot get to the participants in person so I ask them to fill out the questions and email them back to me – this requires time and effort on their part and in a sense they are doing me a favor. Because of this I decided to start with the people that I know and who would be willing to oblige. As I’ve said before, I am very open to suggestions and have emailed almost all of the names that have been suggested to me by others via comments and emails. If they don’t respond to my emails – and they are less likely to if they haven’t had any past interactions with me – there is very little that I can do about that. Further, in your previous comment you suggested I should get “people who are not close to you but think out of the box in a different non-euro-centric way”, while I agree that including people with different cultural backgrounds, educational viewpoints and life experiences is obviously beneficial to all, I do think it is a little harsh to say that those I have included so far do not “think out of the box.” In future, rather than just criticise my choice of participants, please give me specific names of individuals you have in mind and I’ll do my best to decrease my “bias towards white academics who are part of my circle.”

  3. christinedownton

    Hi Nic
    I really liked thus one as I have heard a lot about Ursula but not met her yet. I would suggest you add Al wittan of NMMU he is an advocate of community schools

    Christine Downton

  4. Hi Nic

    I’d love to see Dave Gilmour and Pam Christie interviewed …

  5. Pingback: My 10 take-away themes from #sabec | Change Story

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