John Hammond

Andrew Cole meets Dr John Hammond to talk about his influential work developing an inclusive curriculum in physiotherapy education

In profile: Dr John Hammond (Photos: Brian Lloyd Duckett)

Although he is now head of the prestigious rehabilitation sciences department at Kingston and St George’s universities, John Hammond has always seen himself as something of an outsider. And that sense of not quite belonging has, he says, informed his long-running work on inclusivity in physiotherapy education.

Even when he was training to be a physio in his native Australia back in the 1980's he never felt he quite fitted in with the prevailing ethos. He wasn’t sporty as most of his colleagues were, he wasn’t interested in the obvious career paths and he was gay.

As soon as he had qualified he left the profession and went travelling. By the time he returned, to the UK, he had come out as gay but still felt more attracted to the marginalised than the mainstream. ‘Those three years away enabled me not to be bound by what I thought I needed to do or needed to be,’ he says.

So working in musculoskeletal physiotherapy, for instance, he was drawn to the ‘Cinderella’ area of chronic pain management and those with complex needs. ‘I thought these people need help just as much as everybody else. It’s something about fairness and justice that’s always been important to me.’

Since moving into education at St George’s, where he has worked for the past 15 years, Hammond has been particularly concerned about the marginalisation faced by some students both in terms of access and in their educational experience once in training.

Initially this involved local initiatives to widen recruitment and attract a greater diversity of students. Hammond and his colleagues are now concentrating on making the work environment more welcoming after research by local universities in south east England showed that BAME physio students fared less well in their observed assessments – both placements and practical exams. 

‘It’s no good getting people in the door if we are then setting them up to fail,’ he says. ‘The focus is now shifting more to trying to make an environment that’s inclusive for diverse groups.’

That includes offering extra support, including mentoring, for some groups as well as re-examining the language the university uses. ‘If everything is framed in a language that’s for students who already know about universities that can be off-putting.’

Opportunities for diversity

This re-examination extends to the curriculum itself, he says. ‘There’s currently a lot of white privilege in the curriculum and it’s very Anglo-centric. So some students don’t see authors that are necessarily representative of themselves. And staff working in higher education are still predominantly white. We need to find opportunities to bring in colleagues from diverse backgrounds to teach.’

But this goes much wider than St George’s, he points out. ‘From the professional perspective how do we work with the CSP and the wider profession to think of ways we can start to do that more broadly?’

John is responsible for overseeing the pre-registration programme for over 300 physiotherapy and OT students

‘We all have our biases and preferences but many of us don’t realise it. I recognise and reflect on that and try to change what I do accordingly. I suppose that comes from those years when I was feeling marginalised as a gay man and knowing what it feels like to be an outsider. From my point of view of privilege I want to give something back.’

Hammond admits he has reached his current elevated position without any ‘five year plan’. ‘My career has been a bit haphazard. Things have just come along and I say yes, I’ll go for that.

‘I like to maintain a balance of work within the healthcare professions but also bringing in that commitment to social justice and diversity and inclusion. If there was a job that didn’t have any responsibility around that then I wouldn’t go for it.’

Students are individuals

Before making the big break and moving into full-time education in 2004 he had worked in many different fields including neurology, orthopaedics and rheumatology, and then spent three years as a lecturer-practitioner which at first seemed the perfect combination until he realised it was the equivalent of doing two full-time jobs.

At the same time he began to realise that the rewards of helping students achieve their goals actually surpassed those of preventive hands-on work with clients. He could also see that he was quite good at it.

‘I always try to think of students as individuals rather than just the student,’ he observes. ‘I try to think about how I can tap into what motivates them individually rather than just telling them what I know.’ 

Over the last 15 years he has worked his way up from senior lecturer to course director to associate dean and now head of department. Throughout this time his work on inclusivity has run through everything he does like ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock. 

So, for instance, his doctorate on gender stereotyping in physiotherapy education examined the way that both men and women are expected to match up to certain physical ideals. ‘Women entering the profession are still judged on their physical capability to do the job and it’s seen as a disadvantage to be petite, for instance.

‘But there are lots of different shapes and sizes in physiotherapy and lots of different ways of doing things.’ He seeks to challenge the stereotypes in the classroom but recognises this won’t be enough in itself. ‘We also need to talk to patients and families who will hold these same expectations.’

His physiotherapy skills have been integral to most of his work, even when that’s not been within the profession.  Perhaps the most valuable have been communication skills and working with others towards a common goal. ‘It’s about recognising what makes that person tick and wanting to understand them rather than making assumptions about them.’ 

Hammond is currently responsible for overseeing the pre-registration programme for more than 300 physiotherapy and OT students. This represents a big increase compared with when he started out. One factor behind recent rises has been the shift from bursaries to tuition fees and the question now has to be whether the jobs will be there to match this spike in supply – but Hammond is optimistic. ‘I think it will work out. And there are now so many possibilities out there.’ 

Tips for students

  • Learn from every experience you have in your work and don’t assume there is only one career pathway. That is Hammond’s advice to physiotherapy students about to become qualified practitioners.
  • ‘Students who are graduating can go into many different roles and they don’t even have to be in physiotherapy,’ he points out. ‘They could for instance go into quality roles in the NHS. There are also lots of different independent sector roles and charity roles. The skills you’re learning through your education can be applied in different settings. It’s allowing yourself to see beyond the rotational physiotherapy role and seeing what there is out there.’

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