Not “just another school day”
: An arts-based dialogic inquiry into the learning lives of children from armed forces families in a UK primary school

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Children from armed forces families are often characterised in popular discourse as stoic little soldiers or vulnerable objects of sympathy. Research, mainly from the US, seeks largely to identify whether, and how, factors such as mobility and parental deployment support children’s resilience or hinder their psychological, behavioural or educational functioning. This thesis looks beyond posited disorders, norms and functioning. It aims to contribute a more nuanced, critical understanding of the complexities of UK service children’s learning lives, their priorities and interests, and the sociocultural contexts, policies and practices that shape their activity and their sense of self.

Over fourteen months I spent an afternoon a week in dialogue with seven service children aged 9-11 in a primary school. Developing a third space (Soja, 1996) which unsettled curricular boundaries and usual classroom practices, relationships and expectations, we talked, made things, drew, painted, wrote, sang, danced and played, and explored what mattered to the children. My theoretical and methodological approach combines theories of dialogism and utterance (Bakhtin, 1981, 1986) with attention to spatiality, objects and multimodality. I sought to understand the children as meaning-makers, investigating how they made sense of and presented their worlds and themselves.

This thesis makes visible the methodological, ethical and pedagogical potential of such a third, dialogic space, and its effects on the children’s sense of self and their relationships. It also contributes towards our understanding of primary-school-aged children’s affective responses to challenge and change, and how they deal with these; their desire for belonging and connectedness; their chafing at constraints; their preoccupation with relationships, and their active use of social resources, objects and spaces to create coherent self-narratives, help one another to do so, and pursue their personal development. Drawing on this evidence, I propose questions for practitioners and decision-makers that prompt reflection on policy and practice.
Date of Award29 Sep 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SponsorsEconomic and Social Research Council
SupervisorFrances Giampapa (Supervisor) & Helen Manchester (Supervisor)


  • armed forces; service children; children; primary school; dialogue; dialogism; Bakhtin; arts-based inquiry; ethnography; multimodal; literacies; meaning-making

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