Ordinary Lives; Extraordinary Circumstances


In this thinking piece, Sandra Mole tells us what had inspired her and her colleagues to undertake this piece of research which looked at people connected to their centre and their stories at the time when the first UK lockdown was eased last summer. She also explains why it was so important for them as an organisation to undertake this ethnographic study.


Over the years Corby has been at the forefront of social and political changes, what happens in the ordinary lives of residents is a window into each unique period of history. The families of Corby have borne witness to the creation of a new town, steelwork closures, mass unemployment, demonstrations and marches, European migration, toxic waste and the subsequent making of legal history.  The town has been visited by the Queen, the Olympic torch and countless politicians. Pen Green were part of pioneering the Surestart programme and have been championing the rights of children in the early years and their educators for the past 35 years. 
At Pen Green we are able to support the education of individuals, from pre-birth to PhD, all of this work is informed by research with, and by, the families who access the Centre. Nowadays these may be pregnant young women, mums, dads and grandparents using the space as a second or third generation, practitioners from local childcare settings or master’s students from across the globe. We know that learners of any age learn through, and with, the people they love and care for. It helps us to develop our approach if we know about the families, and wider contexts, within which our learners reside. 
We have often adopted an ethnographic approach to research and capture the lived experiences of families across the community. The arrival of a global pandemic in Corby had a profound impact on the functioning of us all, including the Centre. The Nursery remained open to care for the children of key workers and vulnerable families. Children’s Centre staff were redeployed or worked from home, maintaining contact with families across the community, delivering parcels of resources and food supplies. Adult learning experiences went online overnight ensuring students could complete degree studies. All staff tried to offer a consistent figure of support during a very inconsistent period. 
As the restrictions on everyday life began to ease over the summer it was important to us that we capture snapshots of the moment in time, we wanted to record and enshrine in history the initial thoughts, feelings and memories of individuals from across the Centre – those who work here, brought their children here, studied here and were connected to our work.  We asked four, open-ended questions, encouraging individuals to reflect on their experience of the first lockdown. Each contribution is so unique and so fascinating, contained within the ordinary lives of families in these extraordinary circumstances are tales of economic instability and difficult employment conditions; the pressures of multi-generational care and working from home; the trauma of physical and emotional disconnection; the benefits, and limitations, of having more time at home and the joy of spending time with loved ones. 
Initial findings revealed three themes – the disconnect between media narratives and participants experiences, the importance of love and family and recognition of place. On reflection we noted that most participants spoke of the value of being able to ‘tell their story’. There had been worries shared by prospective participants that they had not really done anything, or ‘had it better’ than others. We shared with them our belief that everyone has something to say and that our interest was in the seemingly ordinary, how participants had lived their ordinary lives in these extraordinary circumstances.
We came to recognise that the true value of the research was contained in the process of being invited to tell, knowing that the very act of telling the story can help bring it together and help it make more sense.  Individual stories were shared on a daily basis through the two week centre shutdown and proved to be very popular, website traffic increased by over 100% and anecdotal feedback highlighted the intrigue and joy we feel as humans when we are offered an insight into the lives of others. What we really learnt is how valuable the very act of storytelling is.



Sandra Mole and Emma Hewitt of Pen Green Research, Development and Training Base will present their research at BECERA Conference 2021, Symposium 4,  Wednesday 17th February | 12.30 – 2.00pm .


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