We wanted to understand the changing realities in Covid19 of children and families in the North East in order to inform schools and children’s services by listening to children. But could we find a safe and inclusive research method? We are the charity Children North East and researchers from Newcastle University and we have been working together for a number of years. At a time when many researchers are understandably turning to digital approaches, in this blog post we discuss the advantages of paper-based methods.
Ten years ago Children North East provided disposable cameras for children to take photos of what poverty looked like to them, in their local area. When children told us that the worst thing about poverty was how it affected their experiences of school, Children North East then developed Poverty Proofing the School Day to work with children and staff in schools and organisations, and began working with Newcastle University to evaluate that process.
Children have always been at the centre of our Poverty Proofing visits and we would talk to every child in a school. However, in finding out what children’s hopes and needs are during the strange new normal of Covid19 we could no longer go into schools to talk with whole-class groups. Online consultation methods offered some ways forward, with detailed best practice guidance available from the NSPCC and from Internet Matters. We soon encountered problems. Online questionnaires do not always reach those we most want to talk to. Thinking of other online platforms and social media sites, many have age restrictions and therefore were not viable options. The principle of being able to respond to any requests for help or support using online platforms or responding to safeguarding concerns in a timely manner was beyond our capacity for this project.
In the first lockdown from March 2020 lessons were delivered via online videos, messages updated through school websites and social media pages, and Free School Meal vouchers sent via email. For many families and young people access to technology and the internet was central to home learning as well as communication with friends and family outside of their household. Yet this was not the case for everyone. An estimated 700,000 children in the UK do not have access to computers and the internet and over 5 million adults in the UK have never accessed the internet. We had concerns about keeping young people safe when communicating and sharing their experiences online alongside the likelihood that using online methods would exclude a number of the children that we were most keen to include. Could we find safe and inclusive ways forward?
We considered photo consultation but found that disposable cameras were now an expensive novelty and cheap digital cameras would still need computer access to submit photos online or print at home. This led us to reconsider paper-based consultation methods as a way forward. We prepared paper consultation activity packs for an initial 400 families with more packs delivered through schools. Each envelope contained information about the project, consent forms, and templates. The templates invited children to draw, write, or cut and stick to show us their lives now, including both positive and negative aspects and their needs and hopes for the future. We hope to gather responses that are meaningful to children.
Providing printed materials is a familiar approach even in tech-focussed schools. We initially worried that a paper-based method was old-fashioned, but over the summer and during lockdown when children were not attending school we found that it offered advantages for inclusive and safe participation. Safeguarding concerns were addressed by working with schools’ existing trusted family support processes. Where family support staff were carrying out home visits, we agreed they would tell families about the consultation, drop off consultation activity packs and discuss any questions about consent and anonymity. We provided colouring pencils so children had resources to participate. On the next scheduled visit, family support staff collected the sealed envelope containing completed responses and returned it to the school. Where schools had established Covid19 protocols that minimise the need to send home physical letters and resources, distribution could be adapted to fit schools’ current infection prevention protocols: for example, leaving consultation envelopes in a dropbox for 72 hours before handling. Completed responses were then logged, assigned a code number, and scanned by the Children North East team. The practicalities of secure file storage and transfer were addressed within existing organisational protocols. Though we anticipate needing to adjust this process as social distancing restrictions change over 2020/21 it has already proved an effective way to work with children.
For researchers Covid19 disruption has brought even more attention to digital and online methods. Our concerns are not a rejection of methods that need computer and internet access, but a reminder that reliable access to technology can be a poverty-related barrier to participation and that all participation must be safe. For many children and young people the barriers faced in accessing technology were particularly problematic during initial lockdown, but often existed before Covid19 and are still a concern. It is easy to overlook this at a time of researchers’ own growing reliance upon digital communication. These barriers to participation must not be forgotten by research teams and organisations when planning projects, and in particular by projects that urgently seek to amplify the voices of children and young people made vulnerable by poverty.
Mazzoli Smith, L, Tiplady, L, Todd, L, and Wysocki, L. 2019. Fighting against poverty: case studies of school action. Poverty Proofing the School Day evaluation update 2019/20. Research Centre for Learning and Teaching, Newcastle University. Available online: https://www.fairnesseducation.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/NU_Fighting-against-poverty_AW-Web.pdf
Mazzoli-Smith L, Todd L. 2016. Poverty Proofing the School Day: Evaluation and development report. Research Centre for Learning and Teaching, Newcastle University. Available online: https://eprint.ncl.ac.uk/file_store/ production/232454/86F983AD-4159-4FE1-9F37- 3B567F2182C2.pdf
Mazzoli Smith, L, and Todd, L. 2019. Conceptualising poverty as a barrier to learning through ‘Poverty proofing the school day’: The genesis and impacts of stigmatisation. British Educational Research Journal, 42 (2), pp. 356-371. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3506
Luke Bramhall and Georgina Burt’s work in the School Research team at Children North East includes their flagship project Poverty Proofing The School Day. Children North East is currently offering a Covid19 response version of its Poverty Proofing research for schools.
Liz Todd and Lydia Wysocki’s work with a team of researchers based at Newcastle University includes a particular interest in a coproduction approach to social justice and fairness in education.