Re-engaging young offenders with education and learning

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Staff blogs

Dr Adeela ahmed Shafi

Youth justice has been the subject of intense political debate and current policy is beginning to focus on education as a key aspect of that debate.

My research contributes to that debate by exploring the nature of disengagement in young offenders in a secure custodial setting and how they may thus be re-engaged.  A research briefing can be found here.  However, whilst the findings of my research are argued by myself to be vitally important, I am not going to talk about them just here as there are several platforms for that.  What I would like to do here, is talk about the challenges, methodological, ethical and personal that have needed navigating in order to get to the findings.

There is plenty of literature on how to be ethical, how to reflect and acknowledge the researcher presence in research in terms of research design, data collection, analysis and indeed the claims made.  But, there is not much out there on how the research process impacts on the researcher.  For me, there were many personal and methodological challenges in working with incarcerated young offenders.

For example, I had prepared all manner of interview aid to help me elicit data from my participants – all derived from the literature in terms of the best way to interview children and vulnerable participants.  However, what I ultimately found that these were all quite superfluous and in themselves made many assumptions about my participants.  In the end, I found I had to ditch these and just use myself as the main resource.  This involved having to reveal some of my own vulnerabilities and weaknesses and in doing so redress the power imbalance between myself as researcher and my locked up participants with very little power or autonomy.  I hadn’t actually planned that in my data collection prep work!

Having got myself in a position where I had my participants willing to trust and open up to me, I felt myself in amidst an array of ethical challenges and dilemmas.  Not least that was now in a privileged but weighted position of responsibility with a duty to tell the story of a ‘doubly vulnerable’ group who had little voice in a society that had already passed judgement on them.  Thus, I felt that the handling of the data had to avoid fracturing the essence of what had been shared.  I found my memory, emotions and the field notes of each interview were essential in this because I could recall the additional aspects of the interview not recorded in transcriptions to enter the analysis.  Particularly, body language and the atmosphere in the room during the interviews.

Even now as I write I find myself transported back and how I felt riveted when listening to them.  It also reiterated the criticality of the researcher in generating data.  I saw this as appropriate in ensuring the data was re-presented in a way that captured the richness of it.  This was not data ‘waiting to be gathered’ because my participants indicated they had never had the space to articulate or give thought to their educational experiences in the way that engagement with the research had enabled them. In working with these young people meant I was able to get a glimpse of the potential of these young people.

But I feel guilty.

In participating in the research, I was showing these vulnerable participants what ‘could be’- but what was ‘not to be’.   Being unable to facilitate the potential I witnessed beyond the scope of my research stung. I realised then that research can change you…


Adeela is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Gloucestershire and an external examiner at the University of Hertfordshire for BA Education Studies

Adeela is also Vice-Chair of the Avon & Somerset Police Powers Scrutiny Panel set up by the Police and Crime Commissioner Sue Mountstevens