The contextual knowledge of front line professionals: what does this reveal about disadvantaged areas and how disadvantage might be tackled more effectively?

  • Patsy Hodson

Student thesis: Doctor of Education


This study is located within a set of moral and policy imperatives to tackle seemingly intractable issues of inequalities arising from poverty and disadvantage. Specifically, it is concerned with the spatial concentration of multiple forms of disadvantage in particular local areas and whether the front-line service professionals may hold ‘untapped’ knowledge about local experiences of disadvantage, which could be used to inform the development of new interventions in these areas. Accordingly, the particular focus of this thesis is on the ‘contextual professional knowledge’ that a group of eleven multi-agency front-line professionals (including myself) hold about Hollyburgh, a disadvantaged inner city area. It explores whether this knowledge can be surfaced and synthesised into a shared account, which the professionals might then draw upon when working together to develop new interventions. In doing so, it defines contextual professional knowledge as a complex blend of formal, codified ‘public knowledge’ relating to the professionals’ service specialisms, that is, the accredited body of knowledge required by their profession (Eraut, 1994); ‘personal knowledge’ generated by front-line professionals as they learn on the job (Eraut, 1994) and ‘personal biography’, the values, attitudes, skills and knowledge developed over the course of one’s own life history (Knowles, 2013). Methodologically, it reports how contextual professional knowledge was elicited through structured reflective writing activities and interviews; synthesised through a process of analysis and further explored and developed through collaborative dialogue; and then drawn upon by the participating front-line professionals to inform the development of new interventions as part of the ‘cooperative inquiry’ process (Heron and Reason, 1997). The professionals’ synthesised account takes the position that areas like Hollyburgh should not be viewed simply as the sum of their poor outcomes and that such areas often boast a unique range of assets. However their perspective is considerably more complex than the simply binaries of assets and deficits suggested in much policy rhetoric. Empirically, it explores three key characteristics of Hollyburgh: lost and emerging communities; the emergence of a new and more severe experience of poverty associated with certain ‘tipping points’; and the impact of the mismatch of policy and the lived reality of the Hollyburgh residents. Through the cooperative inquiry process, the front-line professionals - drew on their knowledge of how new social communities were emerging in Hollyburgh to facilitate the development of an ethnically-mixed community of interest for international new arrivals; were able to begin constructively to address their disquiet at not being able to respond directly to instances of extreme poverty, which they were encountering as part of their work duties; and established an area-wide pastoral tracking system allowing them to act more effectively on the Early Help policy agenda. Importantly, the study indicates that, by focusing on contextual professional knowledge about a specific disadvantaged area, it is possible for multi-agency front-line professionals to work together in ways which allow them to get beyond restricted forms of collaborative working ‘at the margins’ of service boundaries, and to pursue greater local innovation. The study is therefore significant for researchers, policy makers and practitioners alike. The understandings revealed and interventions developed are indicative of the potential value of surfacing, synthesising and creating structured opportunities to utilise professional contextual knowledge, in efforts to address disadvantage at a local-area level. This process, it is suggested, can be transferred to other disadvantaged areas, if the conditions necessary to support this are in place, or can be generated.
Date of Award31 Dec 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorCarlo Raffo (Supervisor) & Kirstin Kerr (Supervisor)


  • policy
  • poverty
  • community development
  • service provision
  • contextual professional knowledge
  • disadvantaged areas
  • front-line professional
  • professional practice

Cite this