Sarah is a dedicated member of staff who is a programme leader for the Creative Writing suite of programmes in the Liverpool Screen School. She also holds management roles in the wider Faculty of Arts, Professional and Social Studies (APSS), helping to ensure that our students have a transformational student experience.
Born in Lancashire but raised mainly in Yorkshire (with a short stint living in Surrey) Sarah took A-Levels but didn’t apply for university. Instead, she worked as a nanny in Lugano, southern Switzerland’s Italian-speaking Ticino region, and as a result she says she speaks Italian with un’accento brutto (an ugly accent!).
Returning to the UK she got a job working at Leeds Playhouse, as she had always been passionate about the Arts and writing. Her Welsh grandfather was a great storyteller who loved books, crosswords, limericks, puns, and unusual epitaphs on gravestones, passing the creative passion onto her. He gave her a beautiful notebook in which to write poems and stories as a child. She still has the notebook today, a notebook which she says is full of teenage angst.
It was around this time that she decided she would follow her passion for theatre and storytelling, so in 1987 she applied for a Combined Studies degree at our predecessor, the Liverpool Polytechnic, with a plan to study drama, English and art.
Sarah needed to audition as part of her application. “My mum had loaned me some smart clothes, so I turned up in a M&S green knitted skirt and top - and found all the other female students looking trendy in ripped jeans, Doc Marten boots, wearing red lipstick.” In the drama studio she was so nervous that she burst into tears, gaining a round of applause for her ‘acting’ skills. Her interview that followed ran over by 40 minutes as she debated with the lecturer about The Crucible, a play she knew inside out. She was delighted to be offered a place.
Having been financially independent, Sarah’s university grant was assessed on her income rather than her parents’. She rented a flat near Lark Lane in South Liverpool. It took her two buses and hours of travel to get to classes. Her attendance suffered especially during the winter because of the cold weather.
“Getting out of bed in my freezing flat with ice on the inside of the windows for (at least) three hours on public transport for a one-hour Art History lecture? Nah.”
She said she felt very lonely living away from campus with no money and few friends, and at the end of her first year, she ended up dropping out. It wasn’t until 15 years later that she would try university for the second time.
During her time out of higher education, she worked as a barmaid, waitress, shop assistant and cleaner. After being unemployed for half a day, she was then given a job managing the Job Club she had herself attended, leading Restart courses and teaching literacy skills, to help give unemployed people the confidence and skills to secure jobs back in the workplace. Throughout this time, she continued to write poems, but never shared them with anyone.
“I had my children, ran my own business, and suffered a bereavement. That stopped me writing – I couldn’t write about my grief, which meant I couldn’t write about anything. The one constant was books; I read and read and read.”
To rekindle her creative output, she took evening classes in pottery, in oil painting and then scriptwriting and eventually at the age of 37 applied to LJMU to study creative writing.
“From being a dropout student, I became the swottiest student in the history of the Media School. I saw any mark below 75% as a personal failure. I worked ridiculously hard – almost making myself ill.”
Sarah graduated from her undergraduate programme and was given Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funding to enrol on a master’s course in writing, which was taught during evenings over two years. While studying, she had part-time jobs at the university with LJMU Property Services and with Student Wellbeing as a note-taker and student support worker.
She was appointed as an arts administrator and programmer for Liverpool’s longest-running poetry organisation, later becoming the Writer in Residence for Aintree Hospital and the Reader in Residence for Knowsley Libraries.
In 2006, she was asked to teach as a sessional staff member on the Creative Writing programme and a couple of years later, she was recruited by the Open University, where she taught for eight years.
With her academic career now flourishing, Sarah became a permanent part-time member of the LJMU Creative Writing team in 2010 and the full-time programme leader of Creative Writing in 2017. She served as the elected academic staff governor on the Board of Governors for six years, and on the Academic Board. She was appointed as the Associate Dean of Education and Student Experience for the Faculty of Arts, Professional and Social Studies (APSS)in 2021.
As for her day-to-day role now, she works long hours but feels she is in a privileged position – leading a subject she loves, working with students and with highly-skilled colleagues. Often her days are filled with meetings, teaching or committees and responding to emails while maintaining an open-door policy - so that students and staff don’t need to make an appointment to see her if she is in the office.
“I work with a brilliant team of academics and professional support colleagues, all of whom are passionate about their subjects and who put the student experience at the heart of everything they do. I am so proud of my team, their creative practice, and their approach to teaching.”
– Sarah Maclennan
When she is not meeting with colleagues and students, preparing teaching material, marking, reviewing data, and ensuring her students and staff have the support they need to thrive, she sits on the Senior Management Team (SMT) of the Liverpool Screen School and the Faculty Management Team (FMT) of APSS and contributes towards the school and faculty’s strategic objectives.
“In my Associate Dean role, my focus is on promoting teaching excellence across the Faculty, platforming the student voice, and leading on and supporting retention, progression and employability.”
She works closely with the PVC for Student Experience, Professor Phil Vickerman, and Dr Phil Carey, Director of the Teaching and Learning Academy. She loves all her roles as they cover everything she is passionate about which is essentially education as a transformative experience.
A highlight of her experience is when students who have graduated get back in touch with her to let her know what they are doing, including students who she remembers were too shy to speak in a seminar class during their first year and now lead companies.
“My students run marketing departments, publish novels, short stories, and poetry collections, have plays and scripts produced, and win awards. They work in corporate communications, in public service, for charities, in the creative arts, in publishing or the TV and film industry. I’ll never forget the student reflective essay that opened with ‘At 11, I failed. At 62, I’m on track to graduate with a 2:1.’ At John Moores, we create conditions for our students to realise their potential, which never fails to thrill me.”
While working, she has forged relationships that have turned colleagues into friends. She met two best work friends on the Advance Higher Education Aurora Programme, which LJMU sponsored her to go on, and one has become her research partner. They got a book contract recently for their work exploring the experiences of students who have a criminal record, and in February 2024 they will have a four-month exhibition of their research at the National Justice Museum in Nottingham.
Sarah has previously won a university award for Excellence in Leadership and an Amazing Teaching Award for Personal Tutoring.
“The award-winner immediately ahead of me, Professor Joe Simm, gave an inspirational speech about the power of education. He got a standing ovation – justifiably so. Joe is a champion for social justice – an astonishing academic, a jewel in LJMU’s crown. When my name was announced my legs went to jelly and my mind went completely blank. When I was handed the microphone to speak the first words that came out of my mouth were ‘Thank goodness I’ve had a spray tan.’”
It was a total surprise for Sarah to have won another award in 2023, when she was handed the Outstanding Contribution to Student Experience prize at the JMSU Student Experience Awards.
“It means a lot, and I am very grateful to be honoured in this way. I am a huge believer in saying thank you to people and acknowledging the effort and energy people put into their roles, and not just taking their labour for granted. On a day when I might be feeling a bit ground down by the endless to-do list, the award is a physical reminder that I am valued!”
Sarah accepted the award on behalf of those that she simply couldn’t do the job without, also thanking her School Director and Pro-Vice-Chancellor, alongside her immediate team and all the professional support service colleagues who support LJMU students, including Student Advice and Wellbeing, Library, Admin, Registry, the Teaching and Learning Academy and the Students’ Union JMSU.
Sarah is the first in her family to have attended university, and for years she suffered from imposter syndrome and worried she wasn’t a ‘proper’ academic. She says that it’s good to work in an organisation that values authenticity.
“I haven’t had to reinvent myself as a corporate ‘grey suit’. This improper academic belongs heart and soul to LJMU!”