Contemporary school architecture reflects social interests and shifting theories of learning. The school building: Speculative models, sensory envelopes, and socio-semantic maps presents cutting edge research from the ‘Mapping spatial practices and social distancing in smart schools.’ Funded by The Economic and Social Research Council, this interdisciplinary two-year project brought together architecture, design and educational researchers to map the building as a living structure. Using sensory and digital ethnographic methods, we ask: How do students enter, traverse and inhabit school spaces? What kinds of embodied and sensory engagement shape the spatial experience? How does speculative modeling help us re-imagine and redesign the school building to incorporate these other dimensions of experience?
The exhibition features architectural documents, ethnographic interview data and sensory-digital data collected in collaboration with a group of students in relation to a secondary school in a large urban area of England’s Northwest, designed and constructed with fundings from the national program Building Schools for the Future. The data is processed, connected, and layered through a series of mappings and visualisations that re-imagine the building not as a fixed and completed object but as a living map and resonant milieu. The show explores the power of digital sensors and models to rewire the senses and pose radical questions about the forms of dwelling, living, moving that become possible and impossible through school design.
School life is made up of rhythms, transitions, intensive flows, and feelings of containment. A quiet school fills with noisy pupils entering through multiple access points, bodies in a whirling motion, traversing various stairs and hallways, rushing to or away from class. Smells of coffee and toast from the kitchen pervade the air, pushing in through the doors of open classrooms. Is that the voice of someone still chatting and messing around in the hallway? Time is tracked and packaged, the bell rings and pupils set off again, pushing, shoving, avoiding, packs of moving bodies. Can I help you, where are you going? Teachers, dinner ladies, facility staff, eyes everywhere watching. Daily data documents attendance and sensors continuously monitor and modulate school life.
Richard Remelie is a PhD student in the White Rose Doctoral Training Pathway. He writes about his 3 month internship at Parliament.
What is Parliament?
Parliament and the government are not the same thing. The government runs the country and proposes new laws. Parliament scrutinises and challenges the government, making sure the public’s interests are considered. The government cannot make new laws or raise taxes without Parliament’s agreement. Parliament consists of two chambers: the House of Commons, in which all 650 elected Members of Parliament (MPs) sit; and the House of Lords. The government is usually formed from the political party who won the most seats in the House of Commons at the last general election, and whose leader then becomes the Prime Minister. However, in the event of a ‘hung’ Parliament where no single political party wins a majority of seats in the House of Commons, the largest party can govern as a minority government (perhaps with the support of another party), or parties can agree to form a coalition government that is supported by a majority of MPs. Either way, the government is limited to 109 paid Ministers, who are appointed by the Prime Minister and drawn from the Houses of Commons and Lords.
The government is organised into a series of Ministerial departments which have responsibility for specific policy areas. Each department covers a different area of society. For example, the Department for Transport or the Department of Health & Social Care. Every government department is scrutinised by a corresponding Parliamentary Select Committee, which is a group of around 12 non-government MPs who are selected by their political parties. Select Committee membership reflects the party balance in the House of Commons as a whole, meaning that a majority of each Committee will be MPs from the governing party or parties. Each Committee has a Chair who is elected by all MPs and is responsible for leading the Committee’s work and setting its agenda. Select Committees are one of the main ways that Parliament scrutinises and challenges the government.
My Internship After successfully applying for a three-month Policy Internship with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), I was invited to work with the Parliamentary staff who support the work of the Education Select Committee. The Education Committee scrutinises the spending, policy, and administration of the Department for Education. It mainly does this via inquiries. These involve meetings with expert witnesses such as union representatives; visits to key stakeholders such as schools and colleges; and analysis of written evidence, which can be submitted via a ‘Call for Evidence‘ by anyone with an interest in the topic. Once the committee has completed an inquiry, it publishes its findings in a Report and makes recommendations to the government. The government do not have to implement the Committee’s recommendations, but they are expected to publish a written response within two-months.
During my internship, I was able to live in London and regularly work from an office which is five minutes from the Houses of Parliament. My daily work varied, but often involved analysing written evidence and preparing briefing documents which help Committee Members (MPs) prepare for their weekly Committee meetings where they question government Ministers or key stakeholders about matters relating to Education. These meetings are usually streamed live, and recordings of sessions that I helped organise are available here and here. Attending the Committee meetings each week was one of my favourite things to do and I learnt so much from listening to the discussions. I also attended weekly team meetings with the Chair of the Education Committee. In these meetings, we discussed upcoming Committee sessions, ongoing Committee inquiries, and plans for future work.
Another highlight of my internship was attending a Liaison Committee meeting where the Prime Minister was questioned on the situation in Ukraine and the cost of living. The Liaison committee is made up of the Select Committee Chairs. It considers matters relating to Select Committees, and it questions The Prime Minister three times a year. A recording of the meeting I attended is available here.
In addition to the work experience, one of the most valuable things about my internship was having a pass to access the Houses of Parliament. I made the most of this by regularly eating in the cafeterias and spending time walking around exploring. This provided me with numerous informal networking opportunities; for example, I often spoke to the Parliamentary doorkeepers who were always so friendly and taught me so much about how Parliament works. I also went on guided tours and attended debates, both of which are open to the public. All this enabled me to get to know Parliament, appreciate the beautiful architecture, and learn as much as possible.
In between work for my internship and getting to know Parliament, I spent the rest of my time in London seeing and doing as much as possible. This involved lots of walking and visits to museums, galleries, and law courts. I also went on daytrips to Oxford, Cambridge, Bath, Canterbury, and Dover.
What have I taken away?
My internship provided me with so many opportunities and gave me three of the best months of my life so far. I would like to thank the team I was part of and everyone who supported me along the way. I now have a much better understanding of the different roles of Government and Parliament, and a greater appreciation of the many good people working hard to maintain and improve our democracy. I plan to use my experiences to help other people learn more about how our democracy works and how they can contribute to it, either as citizens or academic researchers. Spending time around MPs, government Ministers, and the many people working for Parliament has given me a greater appreciation of what is possible and what I am capable of. It has given me some of the skills and experiences needed to work in these roles in the future and, above all, it has given me the belief that these roles would be within in my reach with enough commitment and hard work.
Image 1 depicts the Education Committee in action. I’m sat near the wall on the left by the screen with the team I was working with, whose job involves briefing the members of the Committee (all MPs) who are sat around the horseshoe. At the weekly Committee meetings, the Committee Members question a panel of experts on a topic relating to Education. In this case, the topic is ‘The Future of Post-16 Qualifications in the UK.’ One witness attended this meeting in person, whereas the other attended via zoom, hence the screens.
Image 2 is a Committee session which I was responsible for organising. On the panel (from left to right) were Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive at Office for Students; Clare Merchant, Chief Executive at UCAS; Quintin McKellar Vice President for Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor at University of Hertfordshire; and Debra Humphris, Chair Professor at University Alliance. I’m sat opposite the panel, next to the former Chair of the Committee, Robert Halfon.
Image 3 and the one below depict a Liaison Committee meeting. The Prime Minister was being questioned by the Chairs of various Select Committees. I didn’t work for the Liaison Committee but was able to attend this meeting as a member of the Parliamentary staff. I sat in the front row behind the Prime Minister, third from the right.
Sometimes, maybe at the beginning of a research project or perhaps when you’re thinking hypothetically, you could be fooled into thinking that ethics in research is simple: You want to do what is right for everyone involved, you make a plan at the beginning to do what is right and you promise to stick to it. This month’s Research Ethics with Integrity seminar hosted a panel of experienced researchers who beautifully illuminated just how messy and precarious research is and how the ethics of research is entangled within this messiness and precarity.
Dr Claire Fox chaired the panel of three experienced and highly regarded researchers, each of which spoke with honesty and care around their own experiences of ethical complications within research. Our guests included Professor Cathy Lewin (Professor of Education and lead for the Digital and Innovative Pedagogies research group), Professor Deborah James (Professor of Educational Psychology and lead for Educational Psychology) and Professor Kate Pahl (Head of ESRI and Faculty Head of Research and Knowledge Exchange).
The discussion was structured around five questions from Claire, with opportunities to share challenges from each researchers’ own experiences. Topics included collaborative working, peer review, co-authorship and media relations.
One thing that clearly stood out from the discussion was that research doesn’t happen in a vacuum and this all plays into the ethics of a research project. The panellists shared ethical dilemmas that were shaped by the political, institutional and social tensions around them. This was also evident in the responsibility of research and the real consequences that can occur based on the research findings and recommendations. The panel spoke of sleepless nights, redundancies and difficult conversations that came with the actuality of working through ethical tensions.
A particular element from the discussion that highlighted how enmeshed research ethics is with the world around it was the role of funders in a research project. The panel shared examples of funders asking for changes in final reports or even preventing the publication of findings. This was particularly of interest when funders were directly linked to government, and publications were halted as the political direction changed. One suggestion from the discussion to combat these requests from funders was through publication agreements included in contracts at the beginning of the research. This sounds straight forward, but is made less simple by tender processes, time constraints and the intricacies of working relationships.
There was also discussion around working with external partners and communities in research that centred on the question of whether research of this nature can be truly collaborative. Kate Pahl drew on some of her experiences from a project that involved, ‘re-imagining contested communities’. For anyone who would like to read more, please see the book that arose out of this project.
Though we may agree that you can expect something to go array in a research project, perhaps what is less obvious is that, from the beginning, we may have different ideas on what is the right thing to do. Often this variation is created by the different histories and epistemologies of disciplines and universities. An example from one panellist showed how a particular story in their previous university’s history had shaped the ethics systems that were currently in place. Our panel of three, though from different academic backgrounds, work within the same university in the same research centre and yet varied in their experiences of how they would approach certain ethical situations. One of these differences was around naming authors on publications. As someone fairly new to academia, and getting to grips with academic publications, I am often perplexed by the importance of first author positions and the politics of authorship. Nevertheless, the recognised points system that is in place makes authorship an essential aspect of academic outputs. Some of the panel preferred to name early career researchers as first authors to support their introduction to a somewhat brutal system, others on the panel articulated it was important to recognise the collaborative nature of doctoral research between students and supervisors and that this should be reflected in publications.
A final topic discussed was that of relationships with the media and the dissemination of research to the public. Alongside a few horror stories of misrepresentation and hidden intentions it was agreed that we, as a university, need to develop our ability to work with the media. It reminds us that we must always consider who we are working with and representing within research and how the work that we create sits within the different social, political and cultural narratives that surround it.
Thank you to our three panellists for their time, words and honesty, which created such a rich discussion. This was the last seminar in this year’s series and we hope to be back in the next academic year with a new programme of events around research ethics with integrity.
The Odd Project: feeling different in the world of education is a research project conducted by researchers and artists at Manchester Metropolitan University and Sheffield Hallam University with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Over three years, the team has worked with students, staff and parents at Alma Park Primary School in Manchester, with partners from Catalyst Psychology, the NCB and the Anti-Bullying Alliance, as a loose research collective.
Throughout this research project, traditional ideas about things in school being fixed were troubled, made more fluid and understood in different ways: children’s identities, behaviours, relationships between adults and young people…school time, and even the building around them.
We understood school as an assemblage, a moving collection of bodies, of matter, of relationships and even of time. Thinking about school in that way, we needed to use different techniques to attune to its movements and energy streams. The Odd Project has used creative methods to feel, think and experience how difference proliferates in the context of a primary school.
We’ve approached ‘oddness’ in many ways, using stethoscopes for example, to listen to the school’s textures. We’ve closely considered how we work in ethical ways with young people in school, responding to the challenges presented by the interplay of power relationships between young people and adults, and us as researchers. We’ve moved towards the experiences of bodies. We’ve attempted to sense our ways into the flows and systems of school life and sought to open things up – if only briefly. Now our time in school is finished, we want to turn to others, including you.
The team wants to connect their work to your work; their experiences to yours. Click this link to subscribe to Odd Notes, a selection of highlights from The Odd Project emailed to you in the coming weeks.
What is that we are doing when we co-produce research with the young people and communities with whom we work? As I wrote in a paper on the ‘co-productive imagination’ (Duggan, 2020), there are various rationales for participatory or co-produced research, from empowering participants, contributing to social justice or enacting democratic or equal relationships within the project. An underpinning logic is that the greater the intensity and extensity with which what were participants are included in research activities is expressive of research co-production. I do not question that participating in research activities is indicative of more equal relationships and more empowering but there is a risk this equates research with the delivery of projects, which are troublingly managerialising way of organising inquiry and thinking. A further concern emerges from the post-qualitative critique which reminds us that conventional qualitative social science research methods were ‘made up’ in part as a way of justifying qualitative research in the ‘Paradigm Wars’ and the ascendance of all things quantitative (St. Pierre, 2011, 2018). What therefore are we empowering or including non-academics in when we co-produce research projects? And, if we know and practice conventional research methods, even if we are developing interesting and unconventional research methods, then what other ways of knowing and taking action in the world are we circumscribing?
I worry that when we invite people to participate in research projects that the world of research seems somehow duller and less vital than other scenes or practices in which they might be involved. As academics we might get a pass because we are anything from boring nerds to doing serious work. I’ve been thinking how we might remake research in relation to community imaginaries and practices, specifically the community of Hulme. In a forthcoming paper with Dayo Eseonu, I say,
“These orientations [those of a hip-hop scene] create a series of expansive and emergent drives and loops of socio-material practices. The party needs a DJ, music, lights, fliers, a crowd, drinks, marketing, security, recycling and on and on. These are the youth cultures and processes of worlding that we as researchers try so hard to attune to and communicate in research yet arguably absent from our processes of research co-production.”
I am still thinking about this but it seems to me that as researchers we might use a zine as a media format to share research, which is great, but these zines are not those of the punk scene as interpreted by
“It was incredibly varied: zines came in more shapes, styles, subjects and qualities than one would imagine. But there was something remarkable that bound this new world I had stumbled upon: a radically democratic and participatory ideal of what culture and society might be… ought to be.” (Duncombe, 1997:2)
It is a tall order to expect research to match the cultural vibrancy and invention of the punk scene but I still think we can learn from the worlds we encounter and seek to experiment with these processes of worlding in our research.
While developing the Left on Read project I was keen not to include young people in (my) research but instead support them to develop inquiries that expanded from their concerns and ways of thinking and inquiring. The aim of the project was to work with a group of young people to co-produce arts-based and creative resources for other young people to encounter in line with the conditions of the COVID-19 lockdown to explore loneliness and isolation in safe and productive ways. During the project I was working with 42nd Street’s Creative Agents group. We met online throughout the project, exploring different arts practices, sharing what creative things we had done or hoped to do, waiting for us each to find something to develop.
I one session, Jolene exclaimed, “I’m angry. I have this rage. I just want, I just want to break things.” Rod Kippen (42ndStreet) connected this to action art, citing the documentary Cutie and the Boxer about Ushio and Noriko Shinohara whose art involves, for example, punching paint onto canvases in boxing gloves. This developed into the Action Art Room, in which Jolene and two peers wrote insults they had suffered on the walls, threw paint at the walls, and had a lot of fun.
The next phase of the research was to disassemble and explore what was happening in this form of action art as catharsis. We wanted to take this process, encounter and experience and reassemble it in forms that other young people could experiment with, without the opportunity to throw paint around their parent’s house. Drawing on her design skills, Jolene developed an amazing resource which walks the reader through from understanding emotions to doing action art practices that might help them move through difficult feelings.
I think it is more than simply personalising inquiries to the interests and preferences of the people we work with. Design, and a particular form of design, away from university and in a space where she was taken seriously (42nd Street’s Horsfall Gallery) helped her express her feelings. She hoped it would help her make her way in the world. It was a space and set of practices that buzzed with excitement and possibility. Probably the same as I feel about research when the mood takes me
What is research? What is consent? Who can we trust? These are some of the questions that arose in our second seminar in the Navigating Research Ethics with Integrity series. This seminar focused on research with young children. I was honoured to speak alongside Abigail Hackett and Christina MacRae introducing some of the ethical complexities that we have encountered in our different research projects. These projects are based within a variety of spaces where young children are present including galleries, museums, nurseries and play groups. The subject spurred a vibrant discussion with attendees showing an abundance of care for the subject matter and the importance of continuing spaces like these for sharing discussions on ethics within the university.
The first presentation, from myself, focused on research with babies in a gallery space, sharing my experience of navigating between NHS ethics protocols and the university’s ethical review system. This introduced themes on the role of co-researchers in multi-professional research and what we mean by ‘assent’ when working with young children. I covered ways to tune into the often non-verbal communication of assent or dissent with babies. As one attendee commented, this requires experience and expertise on the part of the researchers. Sharing an ‘assent promise’ with parents, whereby I am clear how I will ensure I have the child’s assent throughout the activity is important.
How do we move our attention from written and verbal communication to take note of the embodied effect of ethics in the moment when carrying out research?
Abi Hackett extended the theme of assent within her own research in play group settings with families. She shared considerations on the relationship between the researcher and the participant and what it means to be involved in research. She suggested that seeking consent and assent is an on-going process in an agreement that is never quite fixed. When considering ethics as involving the body and emotions, and not just discursive, consent becomes emergent and provisional.
There are no positions of unquestionable virtue for the researcher. I cannot keep myself pure of the messy implicated, power infused, world making, storytelling nature of research just by following certain key principles or processes
Next, Christina MacRae focused on recent work with families from a local nursery with attention to parents as co-researchers. As working with parents in this way becomes more popular, and is often regarded as good practice, it is essential to consider what this means in practice. Christina described the messiness of co-researching with parents through the pandemic and questioned what counts as co-research. She considered the role of the parent co-researcher from the initial stage of research design through to how this style of working is written about at the report stage. This included troubling the notions of ‘we’ and ‘with’ and the tensions that arise between claims of impact and the participatory nature of the research.
Research cast as ‘with’ parents can reinforce some problems associated with research that is ‘on’ or ‘about’ parents.
The seminar provoked a compelling and careful discussion which spun the initial themes into an assortment of rich threads. A few of these are included here, though there were many other threads that continued throughout the discussion.
One attendee questioned the distinction between assent and consent and suggested the use of ‘assent’ belittles children’s rights and participation. There was an agreement from many in the room that there was unease in the use of ‘assent’ and a possibility emerged of suggesting ‘legal consent’ and ‘consent’; this could be a way to show more value in this process.
Another colleague shared the idea that ethics is a pause in the research process and articulated thoughts on creating a space where it is possible to say ‘no’. A discussion bloomed around how this works in research when conducted in environments such as schools and nurseries, where children expect to have less choice in their day-to-day activities.
There was a discussion on the role of consent forms and shared concerns that the layering of legal language in consent forms could become a barrier to working in participatory ways. This led onto a discussion of the increasingly prescriptive process of consent forms and the ethical and practical implications that these create.
There was a comment from a memory of Elisabeth St. Pierre which suggested some ethics protocols are disentangled from the philosophy of ethics in research which becomes problematic and counteractive for methodological thinking.
The Chair of the Faculty of Education ethic committee stated that a lot of the topics discussed throughout the seminar are not specific to young children but traverse research with all ages. Nobody can fully know what they are consenting to at the beginning of a research process. He proposed a series of ethical principles that we abide by and communicate this to others. He suggested that, as researchers, we want to learn, not to prescribe, and that we all want to be baffled.
As we moved to a discussion of trust, a final question from Abi was: why should participants trust us? As she reminded us, we are often unknown to them, living elsewhere, entering their space and asking something from them. Perhaps this is something we should always keep in my mind when considering the ethical complexities of our own research; but, trust can take time to develop. As articulated by a colleague, we perhaps also need to imagine ourselves in the shoes of a participant, for example, how would we feel if our words were taken out of context?
Many thanks to all who contributed to this discussion and thanks to Claire for creating a space to discuss these experiences of ethics within research. Shining through the conversation was an appreciation of the work that Claire, Ricardo and others do in navigating a way for researchers to keep ethics integral to their practice.
Last month ESRI launched a new series of seminars focusing on everything to do with research ethics. The series aims to provide a space to share best practice and open up discussions around the complexities in navigating all of the frameworks, conflicting ethical principles, and managing data.
The series kicked off with an introduction to data management with Nicki Hargreaves, Information Records Manager, Jacqueline Vigilanti, Research Support Librarian, and Ben Goddard, Deputy Data Protection Officer.
Nicki discussed the life cycle of the research project and the data that goes with it. The main tip was to keep all data together as much as possible and tidy it up as you go along. Did you know, for example, that short term notes that are no longer relevant in your data can be discarded leaving only that which will be useful? Nicki cautioned that there are risks of under and over retention!
Jacqueline introduced us to the FAIR principles of data which ensures your data is findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable. The library holds a wealth of data management guides and offers workshops that are open to staff and students. They can offer support on data management throughout the research process, for example, they offer one-to-one support on writing a data management plan. The library guides on data management can be found here.
Ben‘s presentation focused on data protection and the handling of ‘personal data’. This included consideration of how we share data, particularly if we are working in collaboration with colleagues at other organisations, using external suppliers (e.g. transcribers) and using online application service providers, such as MS Teams for our research.
This final section led into a discussion that focused on virtual data collection, something that has become a focus for many researchers over the last year, and how to navigate data management practices from different online platforms. There is a list of pre-approved services that have been assessed by the data management team as acceptable for us to use. It is clear that more attention is needed to ensure that research can be carried out online in the fairest and safest way for participants.
There were also a number of questions about data retention and Nicki provided links to some webpages under Records Management that can be accessed here: https://mmuintranet.mmu.ac.uk/Interact/Pages/Section/Default.aspx?Section=4434. There was agreement that when it comes to data retention it can be difficult, and it really can vary from one project to the next (depending on contractual or legal requirements) but Nicki is happy to help Principal Investigators work out which retention period applies.
Finally, Ben acknowledged there are challenges when working with audio and visual data; it can be difficult making the data anonymous unless it is transferred into written form. The key, Ben explained, is to be transparent with research participants about how the data will be managed.
All three presenters said that they are very happy to be contacted directly for any queries around data management for research, which was very reassuring to many of us struggling to adjust to all of the new procedures. Thank you Nicki, Jacqueline and Ben!
On March 18th 2021, the Education and Social Research Institute (ESRI) at Manchester Metropolitan University and the Research Lab on Digital Education Governance at Helmut-Schmidt-Universität (HSU) in Hamburg hosted an exciting online event to explore strategies for building data literacy with the teaching profession at global scale.
We organised this event to facilitate professional conversations about the growing datafication of the education field, including quantitative performance measurement, algorithm-based learning analytics and various other forms of data-driven governance.
Teachers around the globe are not only increasingly required to produce, analyse and use data in their work, but are equally subject to problematic impacts of data (e.g. performative accountability and the rising power of EdTech companies or data agencies). To protect and enhance teacher professional autonomy today, the profession must continually develop its understanding of how data, algorithms and education technologies are actively reshaping schooling.
Data literacy is important in order to (1) make appropriate use of available data, (2) contest detrimental uses of data; and (3) develop alternative uses of data and/or alternatives to data-driven approaches.
While scholars around the world are increasingly bringing attention to the complexities and challenges of datafication in education – thus sharpening our understanding of what data literacy should entail – there is a pressing need to engage actively with the profession, including teacher organizations. Teacher organizations play a crucial role in setting and contesting political agendas in education and in helping to translate academic research for their members.
Recognising the need for stronger alliances between academic researchers and teacher organisations in relation to this important issue, the Building Data Literacy with the Teaching Profession at Global Scale workshop brought together nearly 100 academics, teacher organisation staff and other colleagues to discuss needs, challenges and promising strategies for developing data literacy and building new collaborative networks.
The workshop opened with keynote presentations on the present state of datafication in education and the challenges it creates.
Professor Bob Lingard (Catholic University Brisbane) provided an overview of ongoing datafication research in schooling globally.
During the midday session, participants discussed data literacy initiatives from various countries and educational contexts in parallel breakout sessions. A list of all initiatives, including abstracts and contact information can be found below.
In the afternoon, all participants returned for a plenary discussion of the work of teacher organizations in relation to datafication, digital technologies and algorithms. Presenters from Education International and from teacher unions in Germany and Belgium, as well as an academic researcher working closely with and the Iceland teachers union, discussed their perspectives on fostering data literacy with teachers and collaborating with academic researchers.
We would like to thank all participants and keynote speakers for a highly inspiring event! Feedback indicated that the workshop sparked a number of productive discussions andhelped to establish new connections and ideas for developing this important agenda further.
By Sam Sellar (Manchester Metropolitan University), Sigrid Hartong (Helmut-Schmidt-Universität) and the organizing team.
Coproduction of knowledge and participatory research are all the more important in the context of COVID-19. Social distancing, emergency legislation, and a lack of institutional transparency and accountability are likely to exacerbate current inequalities and further disempower those voices historically excluded by society. At a time of extreme pressure on the welfare state, there are also opportunities to “shake up” the system and including marginalised voices in this process of change is all the more important. Research can play a crucial role in bringing these voices closer to the ears of policymakers.
In a recent event part of the ESRC’s Festival of Science, Sonia Bussu and Nigel Allmark from MMU spoke with Suzy Solley and Mat Amp from Groundswell about the opportunities and challenges for coproducing research at a time of social distancing. Groundswell is a national charity who provide people facing homelessness the opportunity to coproduce solutions to homelessness through research and advocacy. Their work has an impact on both public policy and services.
The pandemic has been a time when the issue of homelessness has become central to public health. The spiralling economic crisis is putting many thousands of households into poverty and at risk of losing their homes. At a time of social distancing ensuring the voices of those experiencing homelessness are not lost is as important as it is challenging. The constraints imposed by the pandemic have forced the team to reinvent and develop some of their work in creative and powerful ways, which rely more on peer-led reporting and the use of new media, audio, photo and video to reach out to people and bring their voices together. A group of national reporters with experience of homelessness shared their own experience of COVID-19 and what was happening in their local area.
There are several challenges when trying to achieve this, from digital exclusion (which right now can raise ever-deeper barriers to participation) to the difficulty of supporting people emotionally and physically from a distance. The current situation has also triggered new thinking to adapt old models of working while continuing to invest in building meaningful relationships with the people involved in the peer-led reporting research. Reporters are supported remotely by a Groundswell mentor and have all the equipment they need for the role (phones, credit and tablets) to ensure nobody is out of pocket. As it has become harder to reach out to people, methods have also adapted. For instance, Groundswell have introduced data capture methods to allow non-research staff to input what they are experiencing on the ground.
Probably more than ever before coproduction of research is needed as an empowering process that can bring isolated people together around common needs and issues, contextualising what might otherwise feel like individual problems or ‘weaknesses’. In the typically risk averse homelessness sector, people with experience of homelessness often are not trusted. The opportunity to participate in research, and be trusted to do so, can be an important step in challenging unequal power relations. Issues of power differentials also exist within coproduced research and require careful negotiating of relationships, particularly when vulnerable people are involved. Vulnerability does not negate the fact that everyone has unique strengths. The word vulnerable can be problematic, because there is an assumption that participants might need protection and it promotes the self-empowerment of those who act as “protectors”. These ideas are often based on an underestimation of participants’ ability to resist power. The system often depicts people as ‘receivers’ of services so ‘giving back’, participating in research and feeding into responses to homelessness gives people an opportunity to correct the power imbalance. Importantly, key stakeholders from the National Health Service and Department of Health and Social Care are keen to listen and the shorter feedback loop that comes with mobile reporting means that crucial insight can get to them in real time.
Coproduction of research can help challenge the system of knowledge control established through mainstream research, as we try to change a status quo whose contradictions and unacceptable inequalities have been laid bare by Covid-19. At Groundswell volunteer reporters, researchers and advocates have a shared experience of homelessness and related traumas. These shared experiences mean that empathy and trust can be quickly built. Anyone who has faced homelessness has survived exceptionally difficult circumstances and has a great capacity to contribute new ideas to help rethink and strengthen the welfare state and the way society and institutions understand and respond to homelessness. In this way, we find that the process of conducting research for people experiencing homelessness can trigger current or existing trauma but revisiting those traumas can also be crucial in the process of healing. As one of Groundswell’s peer researchers explains:
“So the experience of meeting homeless people like you – not only the research it helps on a personal level like … when you’re feeling down, it brings back memories when you were in that situation. And how far you have come away. It reassures you that I am not doing that bad. It gives you some motivation”
What Groundswell has been able to maintain, in these exceptionally difficult times, is a team of people, many, but not all, with lived experience of homelessness, working together in an equal relationship where everyone’s strengths and vulnerabilities are equally recognised and valued.
Sonia Bussu, Suzy Solley, Nigel Allmark, and Mat Amp