Young researchers blog

In this post, Dr Jemma Basham, NCOP Lead, introduces an innovative project that attempts to understand the barriers and address the challenges.

We trained a group of students to explore attitudes towards higher education opportunities. This was the first step in exploring whether, by training young people who live in educationally disadvantaged communities to be researchers, we can unlock fresh understanding and solutions for the future.

At Go Higher West Yorkshire (GHWY), a consortium within the HEFCE-funded National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP), we believe ‘giving a voice’ to the most hard-to-reach groups is about not just asking, but empowering people to tell their own stories. As social actors in their own right, we want young people to take a central role in exploring community understandings of and attitudes towards higher education.

The members of our action researcher group were presented with this central topic, and were guided and supported in formulating questions to ask their parents, carers and other community actors. Some participants chose to explore their questions via a survey; others opted to discuss them with their family members.

Our external evaluator supported them in devising questions, synthesising the data and producing a report. By enabling our participants to act as action researchers, we hope to empower them and challenge the typical power dynamics inherent in more traditional research relationships.

Through this work we have had three key objectives:

  • First, to give an information-overloaded generation the chance to take time to reflect as they make key decisions that will affect their future.
  • Secondly, through training young people to become researchers, to provide tools to increase their confidence, self-esteem and capabilities.
  • Thirdly, and just as importantly, we hope to collect a robust data source from a previously unheard voice about the barriers in disadvantaged communities and the solutions that could help the next generation of young people.

Conducting a trial at Castleford Academy (Wakefield, West Yorkshire), our lead evaluator on the NCOP programme commissioned initial work with a mixed-gender group of 12 Year 9 students. This was designed to test out an approach which, if successful, would be embedded within core NCOP activity.

Initially contracting with an external researcher, we used a bottom-up approach, with the pupils themselves dictating the content of their research. They chose to focus on why and how individuals from their community progressed into their careers, and what their perceptions of higher education were, especially those of young people.

Castleford Academy is located in a former mining town with limited employment opportunities across many sectors. Nevertheless, parents and guardians were optimistic about the future of their children.

They welcomed the chance for them to progress to university, a typical sentiment being that ‘I’d like you to have the opportunities for further and higher education that I didn’t have.’ Instead of focusing on career pathways, they encouraged young people to follow the choices they were most passionate about.

Most parents had not undertaken post-18 study themselves, but what became evident was the lack of knowledge surrounding institutional choices, courses and the financial implications of going to university, which the students themselves said they would like to know more about.

As one of the first attempts to use young people in action research, this case study has provided a sound example of how to involve communities actively in creating knowledge, rather than as a passive subject of study. As measured using the Research Toolkit Learning Gain Tool, participating pupils’ ability to use research skills increased by 90 per cent.

The Learning Gain Tool seeks responses to statements from each participant. Responses are given on a scale from 1 to 10 (where 1 equals ‘strongly disagree’ or ‘this very rarely happens’ and 10 equals ‘strongly agree’ or ‘this always happens’).

Responses to statements are averaged across the entire group, to determine scores and ratings before and after the project and intervention. Differences between pre- and post-intervention averages are calculated, and this produces a measure of the learning gain, learning development or distance travelled in that statement area.

The pilot has been regarded as a triple win, for building the research capacity of students, revealing community barriers to higher education, and providing an opportunity to evaluate and report on progress. GHWY now has a better platform to start widening participation activities, and intends to embed the approach across the NCOP programme area.

For the Castleford community, the findings indicate that barriers to higher education are not caused by lack of aspiration to pursue this path, but by not having the adequate information to do so. This was particularly true for degree apprenticeships.

Under these circumstances, widening participation activities in this area need to focus on filling these knowledge gaps, not just among young people but among the people who guide and motivate them. We are testing the approach in two other areas before training core delivery staff to enable the model to be delivered across the NCOP programme.

For further information, contact Dr Jemma Basham (NCOP Lead Research and Evaluation Officer), email or Dr Lena Jeha (NCOP Research and Evaluation officer), email