The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “research”

Book Review – Qualitative Research

Qualitative Research Skills for Social Work by Malcolm Carey [2012], Ashgate Publishing, Surrey, ISBN 978-1-4094-4931-7

Written in an accessible style Carey’s comprehensive guide to undertaking qualitative research will be particularly appreciated by social work students undertaking their first piece of research as well as experienced practitioner-students undertaking subsequent research but wanting a quick reference guide or handbook available.

Presented in three sections, part 1 is the background you need before you start and in the early stages of your research, and includes research concepts, undertaking a literature review, the theoretical perspectives and ethical principles.  Part 2 moves on to practical tasks such as designing and carrying out interviews, running focus groups and using case studies while part 3 covers the final stage of analysis, writing up and disseminating your research findings.  Case studies help illustrate aspects of the different stages.

Although the book outlines qualitative research as likely to be the most appropriate research for social work, lending itself to small scale in-depth inquiries based on local needs and service provision, there are many comparisons to quantitative research and much of part 1 and at least some of part 3 are relevant to both disciplines.  The three page list of social work related websites that are also relevant for social research towards the end of part 2 is a valuable resource in itself.

Morals, Emotions & Politics

Reported on MNT, and originally reported in Political Psychology, researchers have shown that the emotional arousal of men after watching part Sylvester Stallone’s “Cliffhanger” led to stronger anti-immigration attitudes, compared to two control groups who watched tranquil or non-anxiety inducing videos.  The researchers were aiming to test the observation and belief that “induced anxiety could ‘carry over’ to impact political beliefs, potentially triggering prejudice toward groups such as immigrants. When anxiety levels are high voters are more likely to recall negative experiences with immigrants and interpret ambiguous information in a more negative and threatening manner.”

A lesson for us all, not just the politicians!!

Counter-productive reform in helping disadvantaged young people get good jobs

A “major reform” in education, one that will specifically “help hundreds of thousands of young people get good jobs” has been announced in a government press release on Monday 2 September.

The “major reform” is that all children who leave school without a grade C in Maths or English must continue to study these subjects “in post-16 education until they get these qualifications”.

“The reform was proposed in 2011 by Professor Alison Wolf in her ground-breaking review of vocational education and backed by Education Secretary Michael Gove.”

And there are some very sound reasons behind the reform, in particular the press release outlines that:

  • many employers are not satisfied with the literacy and numeracy levels of young people leaving education, despite considering these skills essential in the workplace, and
  • many young people do not continue to study once they have left full-time compulsory education or go on to improve their literacy and numeracy skills.

I didn’t need to go to the Guardian online to know that many teachers will be sitting, like me, with their heads in their hands groaning in woe at this latest madcap idea.  None of us disagree with the importance of literacy and numeracy skills, but collectively a number of concerns are being raised:

  • Funding is of course an issue.  As this is still only a press release little information is available as to how the reforms will be funded, although there is reference to colleges being able to offer “other qualifications – including functional skills and free-standing mathematics qualifications accredited by Ofqual – as a stepping stone to GCSE study” and this being “a condition of funding for colleges from 2014”.  And, “a new 16 to 19 funding formula ending the link between funding and qualification success rates”, as well as “reformed performance tables”.
  • Apart from the acknowledgement of ‘stepping stone’ qualifications little has been said about children with special educational needs or those for whom English is a second language.  As one teacher comments, for some children with additional needs, a grade D or E is a major achievement?
  • The third key concern coming from comments by teachers is around availability of additional teaching staff in the midst of a crisis in teacher training as well as the strains the additional workloads will produce and the climate of changing relationships between schools and local authorities.

But I have some other questions and concerns about this “major reform”.

  • My greatest concern is the impact this reform will have on vocational education.  As one of the Guardian comments points out, literacy and numeracy skills are an essential part of much of vocational post-16 learning, which inevitably includes a number of students with additional learning needs.  If these colleges have then to focus on students passing one particular exam it will undoubtedly be at the expense of them studying a wider range of skill sets.  THIS WILL BE HIGHLY COUNTERPRODUCTIVE.  Especially for students with additional learning needs.
  • No reference is made to life-long learning.  Even without having taken part in formal post-16 learning most people continue to learn new things as they get older and come against new experiences.  Skills that remain unpractised fade away.  I remember little of some subjects I supposedly have an ‘O’ Level in while in others my knowledge has continued to grow over the years due to exposure to reading, television and sources internet as sources of information.  We know that if we learn a foreign language but don’t practice it we soon forget it – sure, it comes back again but not as quickly as in ‘riding a bike’.  The emphasis on passing an exam and not in encouraging a real appreciation of using the skills learned is not necessarily going to have the desired result of producing young people ‘fit for work’.

My other concerns are a little more pedantic.

  • When does it end?  The phrase in the press release which says young people leaving school without a Grade C in Maths or English will continue to study “until they get these qualifications” has been ill thought-out.  What if they never get the qualification?  Is there an upper age limit?  Will adults still have to go to college when they are in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, until they get the required Grade C in these subjects.  The press report’s references to funding only refer to the 16-19 age range.
  • No acknowledgement is being made of the fact that Grade C was always meant to be an ‘average’ grade.  For Grade C to be the benchmark for average there has to be As, Bs, Ds and Es.  Call me old-fashioned if you like.
  • But most of all I hate the lie that is in the title of the press release: “Major reform will help hundreds of thousands of young people get good jobs”.  It won’t.  Cramming for an exam, being pushed through the mill to write the correct (or correct enough) answers to questions on a piece of paper in an exam room, probably at the expense of learning other skills, is not the route to young people getting good jobs.  Literacy and numeracy are vitally important, but when these skills don’t come naturally there are other (better) ways of learning them, as pointed out by the vocational teachers in the Guardian comments.

Instead of wasting time with reforms to put right what’s missing as young people are leaving school, research time should be spent on how literacy and numeracy skills can be better learned in the eleven years between 5 and 16.  What are the pressures that encourage or deter developing these skills in those years?  What are the existing policies that make it either harder or easier for teachers in promoting these skills?  And then let the vocational teachers do what they do best – develop literacy and numeracy skills alongside vocational skills.

Why should I be interested in educational reforms as a social worker?  Well, education IS relevant to social work.  It’s relevant to the people, the families, we work with.  It affects families with children especially, but the long term consequences of good or bad education policy affect every age group.

Who should prepare young people for work?

In a recent interview with the Daily Mail (albeit not exactly Britain’s most reliable source of news), Nick Hurd, minister for Civil Society has been quoted as having expressed a number of concerns about the fitness for work of Britain’s school leaving generation:

“young people are failing to find work because they lack ‘grit'”;  “social skills and discipline are every bit as essential for success as qualifications – yet they are not being taught in schools”;  “the ‘crushingly low’ self-confidence of many youngsters [affects] their employment prospects”;  “[employers] are saying [they] are not seeing enough of [the so-called soft skills, character skills, the ability to get on with different people, to articulate yourself clearly, grit, self-control] in kids coming out of school”

A message that has unfortunately been timed to coincide with those same young people receiving their GCSE results, surely not the best way to build confidence and resilience and help their employment prospects!

The Daily Mail article goes on to quote economic analyst at the Left-wing think-tank, Spencer Thompson: “employers … value employability and those skills are lacking among young people.  They need people who turn up on time, look presentable and know how to present themselves in an interview”.  And the British Chambers of Commerce  who say bosses are disheartened, if not downright frustrated by school leavers.

None of this of course is entirely new: Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and Socrates (469-399 BCE) are both much quoted as having complained about the youth of their day!

Nick Hurd’s interview has obviously struck a chord in other quarters, with articles appearing in Huffington Post, The Times, and the London Evening Standard, and more, each bringing their own take on the subject of what the statistics show is an increasing number of young NEETS (not in education, employment or training).  Ignoring the irrelevant personal attacks on Nick Hurd in some of the articles and comments they have attracted, some very valid points are made about the availability of jobs.

But what is the view of the educators?  Should schools be teaching the ‘soft-skills’: such as self-confidence, grit (defined here by Wikipedia) and self-control?  Actually, I can imagine teachers around the country reading this interview and shaking their heads in dismay.  These skills are promoted in schools if only to achieve the purpose of actually providing children with an academic education.

Can school truly prepare children for work?  I don’t think so, only work experience can really do that.  I remember well my first week of work after eleven years of education.  It was a shock!  But I got over it.  And in the year that followed I changed, I grew up a lot.  But that was a long time ago.

I would suggest that some things have changed in the intervening years:

* there are fewer jobs open to young people with little or no previous work experience; this is because
* the modern work environment of short-term contracts, pressure on productivity, the demise of the manufacturing industry in favour of trades that depend on the “soft-skils”, etc, is less conducive to giving young people the opportunities to gain experience; and
* modern apprenticeships have not filled the gap of the demise of the old-style apprenticeships; also
* young people are encouraged to expect more – more money, more responsibility, more rights – before they have learned how to earn or handle these things.

One thing hasn’t changed:

* as any parent will recognise, young people in their mid-teens are still a complicated mixture of adult and child, mature in some respects, immature in others.

The good news is that research in recent years is beginning to help us understand adolescent development.  International reports from National Geographic, Harvard Magazine, National Institute of Mental Health and other less academic websites tell the same story.  The adolescent brain is still developing – it is neither child nor adult, some of which goes a long way to explaining what is seen as typical teenage behaviour and accounts for the dichotomy of how the teenager can seem sensible one minute and act completely immature or out of character the next.  While frustrating parents (and employers) this apparent delay in brain development seems to play an essential role in providing teenagers with an adaptability as they find their own path into what is for them still an unknown adulthood.  In fact the research suggests that the brain is still ‘adolescent’ to varying degrees until the mid or even late 20’s.  See also articles here and here.

None of this is an argument for increasing the school leaving age, a concept popular with politicians, rather the opposite.  Teenagers don’t need another year or two of the same cloistered environment they have been in for the last 11+ years.

To help the teenage brain develop and strengthen the neural pathways, the frontal cortex, etc, to increase their skills of assessment of risk and what might be summed up in what we call common sense, they need new experiences; experiences akin to work in the real world; they need an employment system (not just employers) who can provide young employees with appropriate boundaries (such as time-keeping) and space to develop and grow in skills and experience; they need the opportunity to experience working with others of different generations and experience (unlike school where children are generally kept with others close in age to themselves), observing and learning from adulthood ‘on the job’.

But for now, the problem is that employers, and Nick Hurd, are asking of teenagers something their brains are just not wired to provide.  Teaching in schools will not overcome biological development.  Just as we can see that it’s silly to expect a week old baby to be walking and running like a six year old, as a society we need to understand that an invisible development is still going on for the teenager.

That’s not an excuse for bad behaviour.  It’s not a reason to allow teenagers and even young adults to cause mayhem.  It’s recognising that as a society, as employers, as government, we all have a role to play in enabling and supporting young people, teenagers and young adults to complete their natural development.

Young people don’t need to be told they are lacking essential skills, self confidence, the ability to get on with different people, etc.  They need to be told that they are moving through the next phase of their development and learning of life skills.  They need the opportunity to move out of the cloistered environment of school and into work (or further education).  Perhaps further research show the effects on brain development of young people who don’t get the opportunity these opportunities: will their brains continue to mature or will they remain ‘forever adolescent’?

Although the National Citizen Service volunteering programme (mentioned in the same article in the Daily Mail), providing young people with “two weeks of team-building skills while living away from home … then return to run a charity venture of their choice in a local area” seems good, what is really needed is for the government and employers to work together to create real jobs, earning real money, in real work environments, and not pass the buck to schools and teenagers to deal with something that is actually outside their scope to change.

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