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Schools and researchers – strange pairing or recipe for success?

Historically doing research in schools may seem like more hassle than it’s worth but, to celebrate Children’s Mental Health Week, we’ve released a new podcast where members of the REACH project share why the pros definitely outweigh the cons – plus their advice for doing first-rate research in schools!

Katherine Lofthouse

Did you know that Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg collaborated on a cooking show?

Neither did I – until I started researching ‘weird pairings that actually work’ for a podcast about research in schools. From my research I learnt two things.

First, Martha and Snoop are friends, and it’s glorious. Second, doing research in schools probably isn’t going to be easy – but it can really be worth it.

“You hear the word research and you think ‘crikey’”

So, mental health research in schools – is the juice worth the squeeze?

Honestly, it might not seem like it. If I peer back through the sands of time to my own school days, I’m pretty sure my teachers were busy making sure we passed our exams, and we were busy trying to pass exams and get invited to house parties (or, in my case, watching Lord of the Rings on repeat).

Having chatted to some of the people who’ve been there and done it though, it actually makes a lot of sense.

A project that successfully includes schools and researchers means research teams can access large groups of students, making their work easier and getting better results, and schools can gain insights they can actually use to shape their curriculum. The students also get opportunities to learn new skills, have a real-world impact, and explore their mental health.

Despite being initially sceptical of the work:reward ratio a school research project would involve, this was also the experience of the team in a recent study we were involved with.

“Without REACH I would not be where I am today”

The REACH (Resilience, Ethnicity & Adolescent Mental Health) study was launched in 2015 to look at mental health problems in young people from diverse backgrounds. It set out to explore which factors increase and, crucially, decrease the risk of developing mental health problems as the young people grew.

READ MORE: Take a look at the guide for more information

The research team collaborated with 12 secondary schools in South London, which saw a whopping 4,000 students aged 11-14 taking part, with 85% from minority ethnic groups.

Each year the students completed a questionnaire about their mental health, social circumstances and experiences, with 800 of them also doing more in-depth one-to-one interviews and assessments with REACH researchers.

Students were also involved in shaping the study, as part of a YPAG (Young Person’s Advisory Group), and as Community Champions helping to support the next generation of participants.

We used the study as the basis for a podcast and guide on how to do research in schools in a way that benefits everyone involved.

“The benefits far outweigh any effort you have to put in”

This meant speaking to researchers, teachers and students involved in the project, with the help of our fantastic co-host and Young Person Co-researcher Thai-Sha.

In the podcast the interviewees share their experiences and some top tips for doing research in schools, and why they feel the benefits outweigh the costs.

The guide then offers a more comprehensive look at the study, and advice for getting involved.

So, take a minute to pop the podcast in your ears (or read the transcript below), and download the guide, because if Martha and Snoop can pair up to create the perfect dish, imagine what you could do.

McPin Foundation · How to do great research with schools

Listen to the podcast above, or find it on major streaming services, and visit the REACH website for more information about the project.

UPDATE: The supporting guide on how to put schools, young people and communities at the heart of research is now live – download it here:

Young people can also sign up to the McPin Young People’s Network for more opportunities to get involved in research.

Last but not least, a massive thank you to everyone involved in creating the guide and podcast!

Listen to the podcast on Soundcloud, or search for McPin on major streaming services


How to do great research in schools – podcast

Intro

Just like ham and pineapple or Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg, at first glance schools and researchers may seem like a strange pairing. Teachers are overstretched, young people are struggling, and research teams are trying to get results at a time of rising uncertainty and falling budgets. 

Historically, this has led to distrust and resistance on both sides. However, a shared understanding of these struggles, as well as a common goal of improving outcomes for young people, can actually allow partnerships like this to flourish. And, just like Martha and Snoop, it’s the differences that can bring a little something extra to each other’s work.

So, whether you’re a researcher, teacher or even a young person wondering why you should care about research, we’re here to break it down for you. My name’s Katherine and I’m on the comms team at the McPin Foundation. We exist to transform mental health research by putting the lived experience of people affected by mental health problems at the heart of it.

In this podcast we’re talking about how schools and researchers can work together to get some incredible – and mutually beneficial – results.

Introduce REACH

We’ll be using a project called REACH – which stands for resilience, ethnicity, adolescence and mental health – as a case study. It’s based at Kings College London and is a cohort study, which means that a group of people with a characteristic in common were tracked over time.

It involves over 4,000 young people from 12 secondary schools across the London boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark, and the project aims to understand how young people develop mental health problems, and what prevents these problems developing.

To collect their data, REACH staff went into the schools periodically over five years to conduct a questionnaire on how the students were feeling and what life experiences they’d had. They also carried out in-depth one-to-one interviews with a percentage of the students. This was repeated each year to gain an insight into how their mental wellbeing changed over time.

The team wanted to ensure the people affected by the study – students and teachers – had a say in how it was run, so included both on a ‘steering’ committee, and also did additional work engaging the students, involving them on advisory panels called YPAGs, which stands for Young Person Advisory Groups, and creating community champion roles. More recently, they’ve also included questions on how Covid has impacted young people’s mental health.

During the podcast we’ll hear from some of the researchers, school staff and students who took part in the project. 

Introduce Thai-Sha

KL: I’m here with Thai-Sha, who’s our co-host for the podcast. She’s a student researcher, although you weren’t actually at a REACH school were you?

T-S: No, in fact I wasn’t. My mum worked at a REACH school and I was in Year 10 at the time and it was work experience time, and everyone gets very stressed about it like, ‘what am I going to do about work experience?’, and I was very stressed because I wanted to do a good work experience that could lead me onto the path I want to do after school, after sixth form. And my mum spoke to one of the people we’re going to speak to today, Gemma, and was like my daughter really needs work experience, she loves psychology, can she be put forward? She was like of course! So they filled it out and going into it I knew nothing about REACH – I just knew it was something to do with psychology and I’m going to love it.

KL: Well it worked out well by the sounds of it and then you’ve also been involved in the young person’s advisory group – the YPAG – and then gone on to be a young person community champion.

T-S: Yeah so a year after my work experience in March time during COVID I became a YPAG member and was helping them out with the new study about COVID and impact of COVID on young people and helped them out. Then they changed the role so people in the YPAG became champions, and yeah I love every minute of it and I’ve done a lot. It’s amazing to be honest.

Introduce first guest: Craig – came up with idea for REACH

KL: So we’re going to have more of a chat later on in the podcast but I think that leads us really nicely onto introducing our first guest. This is Craig, he was the one who actually came up with the idea for REACH after doing a similar work with adults to identify things that increase someone’s risk and resilience in mental health problems.

REACH started out as quite a traditional research project but in the clip we’re about to listen to he talks about what they actually ended up with and how they got there.

Interview 1 – CRAIG

When we’d initially started out on this we hadn’t really – and I say ‘we’ – I hadn’t really thought about engagement and working closely with the young people on this.

In fact that first really began to develop through conversations with McPin and then subsequently in the schools themselves it became clear that in order to be able to work with the schools they needed to feel like they were getting something back and so our engagement work developed from that and has mushroomed and grown into something really quite remarkable.

It has become something I think we’re probably most proud of about the project, the extent to which we have engaged with young people and young people have engaged with us and the work we’re doing and so on, and the impact because of that on young people – their understanding, their awareness of mental health and so on.

So it’s that engagement programme which has I think been unexpected and great but also has then enhanced the quality of the science because it’s through that engagement we’ve ensured we’ve got large numbers of people, that they are representative of the population we’re interested in researching but also provides a direct line through to impact as well so that what we find can be directly channelled and funnelled into schools and inform what they then do and what young people do to,  as I said, try to mitigate and withstand some of these challenges that young people face.

Did you find that that was different or played a different role than would in previous work with adults?

Yeah completely – I guess it partly reflects the way things have changed over the past two decades really in research and the realisation and appreciation that it is absolutely critical to involve people who are the ultimate end users of research in the process of setting the questions, generating the information, and then interpreting and disseminating. That’s not something that was typically done say 10-15 years ago, at least not in the work that we did.

Maybe just to add I think the bottom line is that high-quality science depends on engagement and co-production, and it’s absolutely integral and central to it and that’s been very much our experience and I think now funders appreciate this and in fact insist on it.

The most recent funding we got to do the Covid-related work, the one element that the panel who assessed that application commented on was the engagement part of it and that was the thing that they most liked and I think that’s because they appreciate that to produce findings that are meaningful and have potential relevance to – as we all want to do – change things to enable them to promote better mental health, it’s now seen as being integral.

So I think it’s a mistake for anyone to develop a project which doesn’t have that and doesn’t have this as a core element of their funding application.

Introduce second guest: Gemma – Project Co-ordinator for REACH

T-S: Craig talked about the importance of engagement in research but what does that actually look like? Next up we’re going to hear about how to do this from Gemma, the Project Coordinator of REACH, who’s here to talk about why she approached the project the way she did.

Interview 2 – GEMMA

I guess a few reasons – I guess first and foremost it feels like the right thing to do. It seems that a lot of research I’ve been involved in as well, in the past and others, it’s often a really extractive relationship.

If we talk specifically say about school-based research it’s often the case that you have research teams trying to go into schools to collect data and often asking a lot of very busy people in schools and then kind of disappear and maybe the kids get a certificate for taking part and maybe the school gets to say they’ve worked with a world-class university, that kind of thing.

I don’t know if it’s quite so prominent now but certainly 5-10 years ago it seemed to be that many research teams would feel that was sufficient in terms of what we give back to a school for taking part in a project, what we give back to young people, which isn’t the case and of course when doing school-based research I think it’s critically important to give back as much as you can because you’re asking a lot of staff who are already overworked.

So there’s broadly what’s been going on through the first five years and then more recently what we’ve tried to do is I guess to shift to a bit more of a co-production style than engagement model, where we’ve now got young people working part time in paid roles in our team and there’s a group of 14 young people who work with us in various capacities formally in the team and they’re absolutely brilliant, it’s incredible what they bring to the team. It really is invaluable.

When you were first approaching them, was it quite hard to get their buy in?

We just organised meetings, went in and spoke to senior leadership teams and other staff who might be involved.

I guess the key thing is, from the outset, making clear we wanted to do this in partnership with schools and move away from that extractive model of working with schools and that started with offering before taking, is maybe the way to put it.

We do ask a lot of the schools and actually it’s not just a case of organising for us to do questionnaires with 500 kids a year – it’s timetabling rooms for us to interview the however many tens of kids taking part in the interviews and getting them out of class or lunchtime to do virtual reality activities with us and ultimately at times our team were almost embedded as staff in the school for long periods of time so it’s asking a hell of a lot.

So it was really important that we set a blank slate from the outset in terms of what can we do for you that would make it worthwhile for you taking part and staying involved and that’s how the engagement programme was shaped.

And it was a five-year project – for others wanting to get involved, will that level of time commitment be needed?

Yeah, it’s a tough one because I think the short answer is yes it was very useful to have five years to deliver this. It meant we had time to invest in the engagement side of things, and all of that side of it wasn’t funded in the original grant. We developed it because we saw that there was a dual benefit to doing it – it was the right thing to do but it also improved the quality of the research.

So at periods it becomes very time intensive and you wonder whether you’ve taken on too much to do it. Ultimately it pays back because you then have to do less of the groundwork to keep schools involved each year because you’ve already got those strong relationships, so I think it’s totally worth it.

For me the possibly main benefit of having five years to do this rather than say three or four, which you might expect from a typical grant, is we were then able to be completely flexible for the schools.

Introduce third guest: Caroline – Teacher at REACH school

KL: It was really great to hear about how the research team approached the project, but what about the other side of the fence?

Caroline is a teacher at one of the girls’ schools that was taking part in REACH. She’s been there an impressive 17 years, she’s the PSHE (Personal Social & Health Education) lead, and she was brought in as the main point of contact for the school after the deputy head found out about the project. Here she is talking about why they wanted to get involved.

Interview 3 – CAROLINE

What was particularly interesting and grabbed our attention was that it was all about identifying factors that could lead students, young people, to perhaps having either current or future mental health problems, and also what factors could help them be resilient towards that.

That was the really innovative side for me, it’s not just ‘OK here at a point in time we have x number of young people feeling either depressed or being bullied, or having significant adverse life experiences’ – it’s not just about the measurement it’s also trying to understand what can help them succeed in future life and not to develop any further or greater mental health or emotional wellbeing issues.

Sometimes there’s a perception research is just a separate, intangible thing, but if you could immediately see these practical benefits then…

Absolutely, and to be honest the collaboration with the REACH team was just amazing – and in particular what I found of great value, and I know the girls did as well, was the fact that some of them were able to volunteer for the in-depth interviews and I think they found that so beneficial.

So for three years in a row – and some of them continued after that – they were able to have a one-to-one discussion with somebody about how they were and I think that was not always possible at home, so it was just amazing for them actually.

Did you meet any concerns or resistance when you were bringing the programme in – from the pupils, or parents, or other teachers?

Well there was a lot of work done in terms of letting people know what was going to happen but also providing feedback on a yearly basis, which is what REACH did for us, and they also came into school to explain the results to the rest of the teaching body. I think everybody found that really interesting.

How can other teachers at other schools fit research into their strategy and get most out of it without having to put in too much time and energy?

Well obviously you need your senior leadership team to be buying into it and that goes without saying but, to be perfectly honest, I found that a lot of the organisation was done by REACH.

We had to send out information letters, then there were opt-out forms, every time we were doing the online questionnaires they arrived with masses of iPads – and it’ll depend very much on how each school organises things, certain schools might have a period of academic tutoring for certain year groups and that could be an ideal place to put it, or it could happen in a PSHE lesson, depending on how that’s scheduled in their timetable.

But it can be quite flexible to suit the school’s needs.

Absolutely – completely.

Introduce fourth guest: Michael – Pastoral support at REACH school

T-S: As Caroline said, there isn’t always that in-depth support in schools. Michael’s a former social worker who’s responsible for pastoral support at another REACH school and he talks about how taking part in REACH has strengthened and supported what he does. 

Interview 4 – MICHAEL

If I’m honest you hear ‘research project’ and you think crikey. However, I tried to go with an open mind and when I’d seen the simplicity of their work and how they made it look simple and how they made the screening process look simple, I was taken in with that, and how child-centred it was as well.

I thought that was great because at times you see research projects and they don’t put the children at the forefront of how it’s conducted, where REACH did.

I suppose with your pastoral role and your social work background, having that children or student focus is obviously key, as it should be in a research project.

Massively, and also when children are put at the forefront, and their needs are, you’ll get better research from that. 

Has being part of the study and the results that have come out of the study shaped your role as this pastoral support at all?

Well more so the school’s direction. Previously there was just me within the role in terms of pastoral support with my background in social work and my role was trying to get interventions in, but thankfully from the three annual reports that we’ve had from REACH we’ve kind of identified actually no, we need to do more.

So our school, fortunately for us, they enrolled all the pastoral staff into a counselling programme, so we’ve got a Level 2 counselling skills certificate now, and I think that was partly due to REACH’s work and highlighting how much need there is out there. And also if that need isn’t met then what a negative impact that can have on the future generations. 

What would your advice be to schools or similar support roles to yourself who are maybe thinking about getting involved in research, or have decided they want to, and want to really get the most out of programmes like this?

I would say please don’t be dismissive because we hear the word ‘research’ and we hear ‘oh that’s going to be quite a lot of work’, but actually the benefits far outweigh any effort that you have to put into it. And really run with it as well because I think the information you’re provided can structure the support you’re going to put in place for years to come. 

Introduce fifth guest: Young person 1 – At REACH school & YPAG/Community champions (interviewed by REACH member)

KL: Well, REACH has clearly made a difference to the school staff, but what’s it been like taking part in research for students?

We asked a researcher on the REACH team to speak to a couple of the students who took part in the study and then went on to become members of the YPAG – the Young People’s Advisory Group, which was recruited before the research staff to help guide the work. They also then went on to become Young Person Community Champions who are former YPAG members who help engage current cohorts to carry on the research.

 Here is the researcher, Alice, with the first young person. 

Interview 5 – YOUNG PERSON 1

I don’t think I really grasped what REACH was quite about in the beginning – I thought it was just people coming in and we did iPad stuff and then we answered questions.

Honestly they made us reflect on what we were doing and about our mental health and stuff but I don’t think we really quite understood what it was about. But I got involved and interested because I think when I was doing the questions I reflected on what it said and what it was asking of me and I was like ‘wow, these things are really important to me but I never asked myself these questions’, and just the fact that it was quite unique.

And what longer-term impacts do you see for students who’ve been involved in the REACH project?

The main thing I think is stigma – overcoming the stigma that surrounds mental health. I think when initially you guys started working with us and other schools around South London, we didn’t know much about what mental health was, there was barely any awareness, no one could really say what mental health means.

Because we’re all growing to being the people that create laws and policies and for us to get rid of the stigma that currently surrounds mental health means they will no longer feel as though they’re abnormal or wrong for feeling or having a mental health disorder or anything along those lines and I think that’s the long term impact I’ve tried to see for the students that are involved in the programme as of right now. 

Introduce sixth guest: Young person 2

T-S: Now we’ll hear from the second young person on how she got her role as a community champion and what it involves. 

Interview 6 – YOUNG PERSON 2

Well I remember I attended a work experience and I really am interested in Psychology so when I got the opportunity I was already very happy, and then I remember on the work experience it said how they had a YPAG role.

I sent in that I was interested, I did the interview for that, and I remember Esther said that she liked me and that she thinks I should do the interview for the other – for the Young Person Champion role – and she was like ‘no pressure’, and I was like yeah I would love to! At that time I was also looking for a job so it was perfect timing. 

And maybe you could tell a little bit now about what your role at the moment with us, what does it involve? What do you do?

Well I get to make so much content- content on the research that we’re doing, and spread mental health issues. We also got to make a blog on misconceptions of anxiety, we have a podcast coming out in the future, and I’ve also helped out with engagement – thinking of ideas to keep people engaged and make them keep coming back to doing the questionnaires – so I’ve done quite a lot. 

You’re involved in helping facilitate some of the YPAG meetings. How did you find that?

It was really good – you kind of felt like a little leader, like you’re actually helping something, and just starting to stimulate conversation and it’s also very interesting hearing about what people have to say that you never even thought about when you was planning.

I absolutely love the role. If I’m being completely honest it’s been one of the biggest things I’ve done in my teenage – in my life to be honest. I love being a part of something and feeling like I have a contribution. I’ve really enjoyed it.

Thai-Sha follow-up/summary questions

KL: Thai-Sha, I’d be really interested to know how the students that we’ve just heard from, how their experience compared to yours?

T-S: A hundred per cent the same for me – I’ve got so much out of it. Not just to take on to my future and CV and everything, but personally – being able to talk on podcasts, talk to people about my experiences, my actual thoughts. Being someone who is just a normal 17 year old getting their thoughts across to millions of people, head teachers and people that have power, being able to tell my thoughts to them has been amazing. The opportunities have been incredible and I can’t thank REACH enough.

KL: With that in mind, what would be your advice to other young people who haven’t considered getting involved in research or don’t think it would be that interesting for them, what would you say?

T-S: I would say you don’t know until you try. I went in not knowing anything about what I was doing, I didn’t know what I was going into but I knew I loved psychology and that I wanted to make a change in this world, I don’t want to be another 17 year old just sitting there and listening to things I don’t agree with and not making it change.

So just go with it, you’re going to love it, legit – the things you get out of it for yourself, for your CV, everything about it you’re going to love it, just go for it, you’re not going to regret it.

Top tips summary

KL: So now we have some tips for people that are wanting to do research.

T-S: Tip 1 – Going the extra mile with engagement is key – and pays off in the long run. Researchers should make sure to highlight this in funding applications.

KL: It also helps if both sides should embrace the opportunity and find ways to make it work for you. It can’t be an extractive relationship, as Gemma said, but think about what you want to get out of it & how you can fit it into your schedule.

T-S: Tip 3 – Researchers, give yourself enough time. Five years is ideal – it may not always be possible, but it allows you to be flexible to the school’s needs

KL: Teachers, try and get your senior leadership on board from the start

T-S: Last but not least, keep communication lines open on both sides. Researchers, let schools and young people know what to expect, and both sides should share results with the wider school staff to highlight why schools and researchers working together is important.

Outro

KL: Thank you so much to everyone who’s been involved in the podcast and in the REACH study, and thanks so much to Thai-Sha, it’s been great having you on the podcast with me.

T-S: Thank you for having me.

KL: You’re very welcome! If you want to read the study’s accompanying report or find out more about how to meaningfully involve schools in research, you can go to the McPin website www.mcpin.org, or the REACH website www.thereachstudy.com. You can also find us both on social media: @mcpinfoundation and @theREACHstudy.