In 2023, at 37, Jason Arday became one of the youngest people ever appointed to a Professorship at the University of Cambridge, where he teaches sociology of education. Diagnosed with autism at three, he didn’t speak until he was 11, and didn’t read or write until he was 18. He grew up in South London as one of four brothers to parents originally from Ghana. He qualified as a teacher, before moving to academia after completing a PhD in 2015. He seeks to continue trying to democratise higher education; he’s also a trustee for the UK race equality think tank, the Runnymede Trust, and has worked with social enterprise the Black Curriculum. He’s also raised millions of pounds for charities.

Jason talks with Helena Pozniak about his own experience of education and changes he’d like to see.

Helena Pozniak: You didn’t read or write until 18 – what was your school experience like?

Jason Arday: It was a privilege, it was beautiful, to observe human interaction in the stillness of your own mind without words. You learn how important touch or a look can be. You learn so many things in the absence of speech that you wouldn’t have known, if words had filled the space. I had 12 years to observe human beings in a way that we don’t normally get to do. And it’s served me well as an adult in terms of being able to read and engage with people. It’s probably not a coincidence that the only thing I’m really good at is people. For that, I see myself as fortunate.

HP: Did technology play a role in your education?

JA: One of the greatest interventions in my life has been voice recognition software (Dragon NaturallySpeaking and Read and Write Gold) – software that can read your words back and pull out grammatical errors. It’s been instrumental – technological assistance is really helpful. If kids could narrate their exams, their dissertations, it would be so helpful. Innovative technologies can really help to engage children with a wide spectrum of educational needs.

“Innovative technologies can really help to engage children with a wide spectrum of educational needs.”

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HP: Do you think your experience would be different if you were starting school today? 

JA: I think it would be very different. Our education system had a very narrow definition of intelligence, and I didn’t fit into that. Over the last decade, our understanding of neurodiversity has improved significantly – we’ve embraced it.

HP: What gave you confidence to progress?

JA: I was lucky to meet (Sandro Sandri) a tutor at (Merton College in South London) and he instilled and cemented my sense of self belief.

You start taking these incremental steps, and you find yourself at a point where you can write a sentence, and then a paragraph, and then use different tenses, and there’s a moment when things begin to make sense.

When I was 18, I did some relief work in a homeless shelter. I met someone who told me ‘anyone can end up in this situation’. That was probably the most defining moment of my entire life. I realised I had a clear purpose, I wanted to do something that helped other people, and improved social mobility. It’s hard to explain how improbable it is for someone like me to end up where I am now. It’s so important to get aspirational messages about how successful you can be – that’s what inspired me to become a teacher in the first place.

HP: What was your experience of teaching?

JA: Being a teacher was the best job I ever had. You can really have an influence and measure the difference you made in someone’s life. As an academic, that’s more difficult.

I’ve always been myself – I’ve never changed the way I talk in classroom spaces – it’s how I talk to my friends. But I’ve been very lucky that being myself was enough to get me this far.

“You can really have an influence and measure the difference you made in someone’s life.”

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HP: Why did you leave school teaching?

JA: I wanted to interrogate policy, and I knew I couldn’t do that through teaching. My best bet was to become an academic. When I was at university a lecturer was talking about her PhD, and I thought ‘that sounds interesting’. But she said to me: ‘you don’t need to worry about having one, Jason, because you are just about passing’ – and that was the truth, because I’d only been reading and writing for two years. But I thought, this is what I want to go into, and I started learning more.

HP: How are you trying to combat racism within education and what does this mean for teaching?

JA: Ultimately, it’s about changing the social order and broadening horizons. My mum was an (anti-racism) activist, so I’ve always been around issues of race and equality. We need to change how we view educators, who are the conduits and disseminators of knowledge. Leadership in its current guise is very white, very male. Historically, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people have been on the periphery and teaching has been exclusionary, westernised and Eurocentric. It’s about disrupting the view of who is fit to lead and who is fit to teach. We live in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society, and education leaders should reflect this. We need to think about how we provide pathways for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic teachers to progress up that ladder. There’s an erosion of confidence, and an under appreciation of expertise and potential. Individuals aren’t inclined to stay in a sector that undervalues them and they drop out and fall away. But the world has changed. Classrooms might have dozens of different languages – you need different kinds of leaders to inhabit these spaces.

Even ten years ago, opportunities in academia didn’t exist for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people in the same way. Thanks to a lot of work with close colleagues there are interventions in place for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people to pursue an academic career.

“Classrooms might have dozens of different languages – you need different kinds of leaders to inhabit these spaces.”

HP: What further reform would you like to see within education?

JA: We’ve seen a change – that’s stemmed from the (2020) murder of George Floyd and the interrogation of our national curriculum – how the history of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people was about enslavement, but the global history isn’t purely about that. It’s also about stories of emancipation and innovation, stories of technological, scientific and educational contributions that have been hugely influential. But people don’t like change, we’re dragged back by nostalgia as some become obsessed about preserving the past. There are certain elements that signal excellence (in education), but we need a wider view. Ultimately change will benefit us all.

HP: Are you optimistic for the future?

JA: I am optimistic – one thousand per cent yes. One of the most beautiful sights for me is watching a child make sense of the world and learning. I think it’s important to keep that sense of play as an adult, and not be afraid of making mistakes. Human beings are capable of great things, if only we can harness our collective potential. I’d like us to continue to have candid, transparent conversations about the past and use these to shape our future. As educators, our learning never stops. Now children have so much more information at their disposal and there’s a critical mass of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people, and white allies who are changing the conversation.

Footnotes

In 2023, at 37, Jason Arday became one of the youngest people ever appointed to a Professorship at the University of Cambridge, where he teaches sociology of education. Diagnosed with autism at three, he didn’t speak until he was 11, and didn’t read or write until he was 18. He grew up in South London as one of four brothers to parents originally from Ghana. He qualified as a teacher, before moving to academia after completing a PhD in 2015. He seeks to continue trying to democratise higher education; he’s also a trustee for the UK race equality think tank, the Runnymede Trust, and has worked with social enterprise the Black Curriculum. He’s also raised millions of pounds for charities.

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