Forming a research problem - disaffected students within Manchester, england | Education

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In order to produce an effective research proposal it is necessary to begin with an exploration of the issues that surround the topic that will provide the basis for the investigation. What does the word “disaffected” mean? In a general sense, it means dissatisfied or discontented. Clearly there is an underlying theme of negativity.  Young people can be dissatisfied with a few or many aspects of their lives. This can extend across a number of areas - growing up, relationships, school work, friendships, parents, home environment and so on.

There is an implicit timescale difference between someone beingdissatisfied and becoming disaffected. We can all be dissatisfied withsome aspect of our lives at some point. On most occasions we are likelyto either develop coping strategies or find solutions to deal with orcure the cause of our dissatisfaction. This implies that we are dealingwith a short time period. The actual specification of time depends uponeach individual and the nature of the problem that confronts them.

Until we have dealt with our area of negativity - our discontent willbe manifested in our emotional state. For example, we may be lethargic,difficult to deal with, have a tendency to over react to everydaysituations and so on. Failure to deal with the source of ourdissatisfaction is likely to have a more pronounced effect on ourbehaviour, outlook and emotional state.

Short term dissatisfaction can descend into long term disaffection.Disaffection implies alienation i.e. a radical displacement of ourperceived normal behaviour. Thus for someone who is disaffected withtheir employment we would expect a lax approach towards completingeveryday routine tasks, a rise in arriving late for work, increasedabsenteeism and periods of sickness.

In such circumstances it is likely that the person in question wouldultimately be disciplined and in extreme circumstances would bedismissed. If we can now switch attention to school pupils we can applythe same logic. Thus we would witness an increase in unacceptablebehaviour in the classroom, a higher rate of absenteeism, a rise in theuse of stiffer disciplinary sanctions (e.g. expulsions) and so on. Itis important to recognise that the actions of disaffected students willnot be limited to their behaviour within school.

Drug and alcohol abuse, anti-social behaviour, criminal activities etcalso play a part in the lives of the most disaffected school pupils.Failure to identify and address the underlying issues which causedissatisfaction and in the longer term, disaffection and alienation, inthe lives in young people is a recipe for disaster. As they will notbecome law abiding and morally responsible adults.

All of the factors outlined above have a direct impact on the proposedarea of research. Whilst the investigation will concentrate on thereasons why pupils become disaffected at school, it is important tofully understand the interrelationship between this area and otheraspects of their lives. Academic research must have a specific problemto explore and must aim to establish a base of greater understandingand knowledge. With the long-term view of providing educationalpractitioners with strategies that will reduce the numbers of youngpeople who become disaffected with school.

To be effective academic research must influence practice. That is, itmust initiate substantive change and in the longer term generatebenefits. For this to happen - it is important to recognise theinfluence and role of all the stakeholders in the research process. Ifwe are talking about disaffected school pupils - then obviously, asthey will the focus of our investigation, they are the most importantgroup of stakeholders. Other groupings are as follows: parents, legalguardians and teachers. Other groupings may also be involved. Forexample, social services, the police, local education authorities andthe probation services.

In an article that was published in the Guardian newspaper in September2003, it was highlighted that too much educational research was beingwasted. There was growing concern that the politicians and the policymakers were simply ignoring the conclusions and recommendations ofacademic research covering a wide range of educational issues. In thebusiness world, it would be a commercial disaster for a major companyto launch a new product or service, which had been inadequatelyresearched and tested.

However, the history of education is littered with policy failures,re-thinks and a never ending list of initiatives based on a lack ofanalysis and a knee-jerk reaction. How often for example, has the FordMotor Company re-called a recently launched new car? The answer ishardly ever. This is because the company may start with over 1,000 newproduct ideas and gradually filter the weaker ideas out, until theyhave one prototype design. Over the course of time this design will bemodified and re-worked.

Customer reaction to the new car will be collected through extensiveconsumer research and focus groups. At each stage of its development,feedback from consumer research will be analysed to ensure that everyaspect of the new design meets with the approval of customers from itstarget market. Thus it could take between three and five years for anew design to reach the car showrooms. Clearly this extensive filteringand evaluation of new design ideas, does not happen with a fairproportion of educational policies that have to be implemented in theclassroom.

All too often a project commissioned by the government, the Learningand Skills Council (LSC) or another agency, and paid for out of thepublic purse, ends up gathering dust. In 2003 a new initiative tocounteract this problem was launched. The Learning and Skills ResearchCentre (LRSC) - an offshoot of the further education thinktank - theLearning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA) - was charged with theresponsibility of resolving this issue.

The project identified 27 tactics pursued with varying degrees ofsuccess to beef up the impact that a research project can have on itstarget audience. The tactics range from simply issuing guidelines thathave emerged from the research, with or without a full report - toproviding financial incentives for adopting the recommendations. Inbetween lies, a range of other techniques - i.e. holding seminars andpresentations for target groups, lobbying the 10 most influentialpeople in the relevant field.

As already discussed in section 1, unless research improves practice,there is little point in undertaking the investigation in the firstplace. Therefore, a key feature of the proposed research project willbe to provide the key stakeholders (i.e. teachers) with strategies thatcan be utilised to combat the problems caused by disaffected youngpeople. 

Section 2.1 analyses the poor conversion rate of transformingresearch conclusions and recommendations into practical policies whichcan be applied by educational institutions and practitioners.  In 2003the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA) was charged with theresponsibility of generating a higher conversion rate. However, theroot cause of this problem lies potentially in the research model thatis selected to form the basis of any investigation.

It is possible to draw a parallel between disaffected teachers anddisaffected pupils. Teachers complain about having too much paperworkto complete. Not only there is too much of it but there is an argumentto suggest that most of it is irrelevant to the job that teachersactually do. Quality assurance measures in the public sector oftenmeans having even more new policies to comply with and more boxes totick. Ever increasingly amounts of forms to complete, makes teachersdissatisfied in the short term.

However, for a sizeable proportion long-term disaffection andalienation has become norm. The message they perceive from theeducational authorities that is ticking the right boxes is now moreimportant than what happens in the classroom. The introduction of SATSin the mid-1990s and the never ending demands to attain higher GCSEpass rates means that too much emphasis is placed on getting pupils toperform better when taking tests and exams.

Whilst this is important, it means that now too much focus is nowplaced on a very narrow definition of what being a successful teacheris all about. That is, getting pupils to pass exams. Whilst those inauthority would maintain that this is not the case, it is perception ofteachers. Perception becomes a reality and ultimately becomes amindset. Teachers are under pressure and are highly stressed.

When people are stressed they filter out information and concentrate ongetting through the day. Therefore, this could be the main reason whyvery little educational research findings are converted into every daypractice. That is, educational institutions and teachers strugglingwith information overload will block out and will pay lip servicewhenever possible, when confronted new research findings and policymeasures. Whilst this may be a gross oversimplification of theeducational world, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that thisview will find resonance within the teaching fraternity.

The pressure on teachers to achieve higher academic standards has animpact on what happens in the classroom. There are strong argumentsfrom some quarters that the National Curriculum has too much of anacademic focus. For those pupils who already suffer from a lack ofself-confidence regarding their ability to cope with academic work, thedemand to deliver a better performance will increase the pressure theyfeel. Pressure often induces a feeling of inadequacy. In the longerterm this causes disaffection with the whole learning process.Ultimately some pupils will become like their teachers i.e. alienatedand resentful.

Therefore, if a policy maker wishes to gain kudos - they mustcommission researchers that will actively involve the key stakeholdersin the investigation they wish to conduct. Classroom practitioners willrespond positively to a researcher who actively seeks their views andwho is prepared to learn and act upon their experiences of dealing withthe reality of everyday teaching. In a similar way, pupils will respondmuch more positively when they consider that the learning process isfocused upon addressing their needs and interests.

What steps can be taken to ensure that the most appropriate model isselected to successfully undertake a research project? At the EuropeanConference on Educational Research, held in Lille in September 2001,Katrin Niglas presented a paper which attempted to summarise therelationships between different paradigms and methodologicaltraditions. Thus creating a coherent framework within which academicscould make a more informed choice about which model would be the mostappropriate to facilitate the successful completion of their researchproject.

Her paper drew heavily upon the work completed by Renata Tesch,which classifies qualitative methodological traditions into four maingroups. These are as follows:

• The characteristics of language
• The discovery of regularities
• The comprehension of the meaning of text or action
• Reflection

Listed below is the most appropriate form of research models for each methodology.

• The characteristics of language:

 Content analysis
 Discourse analysis
 Ethnography of communication
 Ethnoscience
 Structural ethnography
 Symbolic interactionism
 Ethnomethodology

• The discovery of regularities:

 Transcendental realism
 Ethnographic content analysis
 Event structure analysis
 Ecological psychology
 Grounded theory
 Phenomenography
 Qualitative evaluation
 Action research
 Emancipatory / critical research
 Holistic ethnography
 Educational ethnography
 Naturalistic inquiry

• The comprehension of the meaning of text or action:

 Phenomenological research
 Existential-phenom. psychology

• Reflection

 Educational connoisseurship
 Reflective phenomenology
 Heuristic research

What do these groupings mean? Starting from the top (i.e. Thecharacteristics of language) - we have very structured research models,which are very close to natural science research. At the bottom of thelist we have Reflection - which encompasses unstructured researchmodels, which are most commonly used in the arts. Educational researchfalls somewhere in between these two approaches.

What is the most appropriate method to use? Well it depends upon whatyou wish to achieve. So far we have identified that we wish to ensurethat research findings have a greater impact on classroom practice, weneed to involve the key stakeholders in the investigation. It ispossible to use more than one model to investigate a given area ofresearch focus.

In order to remain abreast of educational change and innovation,teaching professionals need to be engaged in continuous professionaldevelopment. This can be achieved in a variety of different ways e.g.attending training courses, seminars, completing an MA in Educationetc. It can also be achieved by the successful completion of actionresearch. This is a term which refers to a practical way of looking atyour own work to check that it is done as you would it to be. Becauseaction research is done, by you, the practitioner, it is often referredto as practitioner based research.

It can also be called self-reflective practice. When you produce yourresearch report, it shows how you have carried out a systematicinvestigation into your own behaviour, and the reasons for thatbehaviour. The report shows the process you have gone through in orderto achieve a better understanding of yourself, so that you can continuedeveloping yourself and your work. Action research is today prominentnot only in teacher professional education, but also in managementeducation and organisation studies, social and health care work, andother professional contexts.

Action research could be applied to help a teacher improve herclassroom performance in terms of creating and developing a rapportwith the pupils, and encouraging them to become fully engaged with thelearning process. This could be useful for new teaching professionals.How? The vast majority of people when starting a new job lackself-confidence in some aspect of their ability to perform. As a newteacher gains classroom experience, they begin to master the learningcurve and gain confidence and belief in their own ability.

However, if a new teacher is faced with the problem of dealing witha class, which contains a number of disaffected pupils, his / herability to cope with such a situation would be severely tested. Itcould simply become a case of “crowd control” with the teacherstruggling to retain order and discipline, every time the class takesplace. Under such circumstances the newly qualified teacher could feeloverwhelmed and could suffer from a severe loss of confidence in theirability to cope and make progress with the class.

Action research could provide the teacher with a solution to his /her problem. The basic steps of a research process constitute an actionplan:

• We review our current practice
• Identify an aspect that we want to investigate
• Imagine a way forward
• Try it out and take stock of what happens
• Wemodify what we are doing in the light of what we have found, andcontinue working in the new way (try another option if the new way ofworking is not right)
• Monitor what we do
• Review and evaluate the modified action
• And so on….

Two processes are at work: your systematic actions as you work your waythrough these steps, and your learning. Your actions embody yourlearning, and your learning is informed by your reflections on youractions. Therefore, when you come to write your report or make yourresearch public in other ways, you should aim to show not only theactions of your research, but also the learning involved.

A number of models are available in the literature. Most of them regardpractice as non-linear, appreciating that people are unpredictable, andtheir actions often do not follow a straightforward trajectory. Theaction plan above shows action reflection as a cycle of:

• Identify an area of practice to be investigated
• Imagine a solution
• Implement the solution
• Change practice in light of the evaluation

This action research cycle can now turn into new action researchcycles, as new areas of investigation emerge. It is possible to imaginea series of cycles to show the processes of developing practices. Theprocesses can be shown as a spiral of cycles, where one issue forms thebasis of another and, as one question is addressed, the answer to itgenerates new questions. Remember that things do not often proceed in aneat linear fashion. Most people experience research as a zig-zagprocess of continual review and re-adjustment. Research reports shouldcommunicate the apparent incoherence in a coherent way.

The problem of “youth disaffection” is increasingly occupying theminds of policy makers. All the signs are that there is a genuine andworrying problem. There is plenty of evidence pointing to the existenceof significant numbers of young people living at the margin of society,unable or unwilling to participate in the mainstream of education,training or employment. Each year 1 in 16 pupils leave with noqualifications. Over 20 years ago nearly half of all school leaverswent directly into employment. Now there are jobs for fewer than 10% ofschool leavers. This section provides a succinct examination of whatlies behind such statistics.

• This is a multi-faceted term, referring to a cluster of behaviours,attitudes and experiences. The following are elements of disaffection:
• Lacking a sense of identity; having a sense of failure
• “Disturbed”, “depressed”, “difficult” young people, with social and emotional problems
• Behaviour - crime, misbehaviour, drugs, lack of social skills, harming (or potentially harming) self and / or others.
• Not exercising civil / democratic rights (uninterested, uninvolvedand unregistered) or social / economic rights (poor knowledge of, andaccess to, services)
• Experience discrimination through age alone or combined with otherfactors (race, disability, single parenthood, homelessness, youngcarers)
• Being failed by the system (especially education and employment / training)
• “Status Zer0” - not in education, employment or training

The variety of ways which disaffection can be expressed suggests whathas been borne out by research into the issue; namely that disaffectionis the outcome of a multiplicity of causes, often interrelated, butdiffering from case to case. Despite being given a common label, it isimportant to remember therefore that disaffected young people are notat all a homogeneous group. The age of the young person, to take justone aspect of difference, has important implications for the ways inwhich disaffection will be experienced and expressed. Gender, ethnicityand disability are the other important factors differentiatingdisaffected young people.

The UK lags behind most other Western nations in terms of theproportion of its young people staying on in post-compulsory education.Among the 29 OCED countries, the UK is one of only four in which 20% ormore of young people drop out of education within a year at the end ofcompulsory education. Behind the figure for educationalunderachievement lie considerable costs to individuals and society as awhole. According to the figure from the Social Exclusion Unit,non-participation in education, employment or training between the agesof 16 - 18 is a major predictor of subsequent unemployment and teenageparenthood.

Several inter-linked trends have had an important impact upon thesocial exclusion of young people over the last 20 years. It has beenargued that the decline of many manufacturing industries, together withchanges in gender roles and the associated transformations in patternsof family life, have combined to make the transition from childhood toadult independence ever more protracted, uncertain and difficult. Thepossibility of a single linear transition from childhood dependence tofull dependence as an adult has become more elusive than at any time inthe recent past, with the result that inconsistent role expectationscan place a considerable strain on young people.

Whereas twenty years ago nearly half of all school leavers wentstraight into employment, today that figure stands at less than one inten. Developments within the education system, in particular its“marketisation” through reforms introduced by the Conservativegovernment in the late 1980s, have also had a negative impact upon theprospects of the most disadvantaged young people. These new marketconditions have led to the displacement of children / young people withthe most compelling educational and social needs as they areunattractive “business propositions” for schools concerned with theirleague table position.

The present government's response to the problems of educationalunderachievement, disaffection and non-participation has been led bythe DfEE and the Social Exclusion Unit. In 1998 the Unit published anational strategy for neighbourhood renewal (Bringing BritainTogether), which had as its goals bridging the gap between the mostdeprived neighbourhoods and the rest of England and reducing long-termunemployment, health problems and educational underachievement in thepoorest areas. To end this, 18 cross-cutting Policy Action Teams (PATs)were established to develop policies on different aspects ofneighbourhood renewal.

The PAT on Young People has focussed directly on the problem ofyouth disaffection. Its review of the different services for youngpeople found:

• A lack of coordination between these
• Gaps in the provision of particular services
• A failure to target resources effectively
• An emphasis on crisis intervention than prevention
• Insufficient involvement of young people themselves in the design and delivery of services for them

Key recommendations include:

• That the government should set youth inclusion objectives for newpolicies, and ensure that these are incorporated into departmentalpolicies
• That two or more Ministers should be made responsible forcoordinating policies for young people across government, supported bya new Youth Unit
• More effective coordination of policies for young people at the local level
• Better targeting of resources
• Giving young people a greater say in the development of policy and the way services are delivered

Section 3.1 provided an overall view of the underlying reasons whyyoung people become disaffected with school and life in general. Movingfrom this broad perspective we need to narrow our perspective onconcentrate on the Manchester experience. This is because the intendedresearch project will investigate the extent of the problem within the14 - 16 age group entering further education within the boundaries ofthe Manchester LEA. Examining the nature of the problem will developour knowledge and understanding of the complexities involved and willhelp to define the aims and objectives of the proposed researchproject.

In October 1999 the school underwent an Ofsted inspection. The Ofstedreport that was produced provides a microcosm of the many problemsfaced by similar type school that exist in areas of high social andeconomic exclusion. In the main findings of the report it states,“….The management and staff….face a major and daily challenge inmeeting the needs of the pupils, who come from neighbourhoods whichsuffer from considerable disadvantage…” - (Page 2, Ducie High School,Ofsted Report, October 1999).

The report proceeds to highlight a number of key findings, which areof direct relevance to this study. At the school relationships amongpupils and between adults and pupils are good. The teachers are awareof tensions between pupils outside of the school, which can lead tovolatile behaviour, and provide strong pastoral support. The level ofexclusion, especially fixed-term exclusion is very high. With the vastmajority of exclusions are for acts of violence, mostly by boys. Pupilsof African-Caribbean heritage are disproportionately represented amongthose excluded for fixed terms.

The school's most substantial achievement is the creation of anintegrated community, in which pupils from diverse backgrounds and awide range of experiences can feel safe and secure. In spite of itssuccess, there remains an undercurrent of unrest which is mainly theresult of outside factors and which can occasionally erupt intoanti-social behaviour and violent incidents. The school generallydefuses these situations, calms pupils and provides and antidote to theexternal pressures.

The information drawn from the Ofsted report provides a revealingpicture about daily life at Ducie School. Clearly the staff are acohort of hard working and dedicated professionals. However, much ofthe tensions that occur within the school are generated from outsidethe school gates. This reinforces the notion that disaffection amongschool pupils is a complex and multi-faceted issue.

Clearly there will be situations in which the cause of the disaffectionis generated within the school environment due to the poor quality ofteaching, the perceived irrelevance of the curriculum to the pupils andso on. As with all educational issues, it is not possible to adopt aprescriptive approach and apply a simple solution. Each type ofdisaffection must be examined. This is necessary in order to strengthenour knowledge and understanding of the underlying factors, which ignitediscontent and generate inappropriate behaviour amongst young people.

In April - May 2002, Ofsted and the Adult Learning Inspectorate,completed an Area Wide Inspection Report for Manchester. Of relevanceto our study is the section of the report concerned with retention, asmany young people drop out of education altogether after they completeschool at 16. Again this raises the issue of disaffection amongst youngpeople. Here are some of the challenges that the report highlighted:

• Develop innovative measures to deal with irregular attendees andyoung people who are excluded; from\these identify and implement bestpractice
• Address social exclusion by meeting the needs of groups such as youngoffenders who are vulnerable and less likely to participate in post 16learning
• Approaches must be tailored to the interests and inclinations of theyoung person and could include citizenship training and employerfocused learning
• The impact of helping these groups extends beyond the young person and benefits families and communities

• Section 1 provided an overview of the proposed research topic. Anumber of issues were raised and examined. Disaffection is amulti-faceted concept and the causes of it can be sourced both in theschool environment and outside in the family home and the localneighbourhood.
• Section 2 raised the issue of how a great deal of educationalresearch fails to be actioned. That is, many of the recommendationsproduced by a wide range of projects fail to have any impact onimproving the performance of teachers and pupils in the classroom.
• Section 2 also provided a review of methodologies and concluded thatresearch will have a much better chance of gaining improvements in theclassroom and combating the problems caused by disaffection, if the keystakeholders are involved in the investigation process.
• Section 3 provided a literature review. The causes of and problemscaused by disaffection are well documented. Government agencies andpolicy makers have initiated a wide range of measures to combat thewasteful effects of disaffection among a wide cross section of youngpeople in the UK.

It is recommended that the research should concentrate on investigatingthe causes of disaffection among 14 to 16 year olds in a school in theTameside area of Manchester.

The objectives of the project would be as follows:

1. To identify and understand the reasons why pupils (aged 14 to 16) are disaffected.
2. Review the school's policies and procedures to combat disaffectionand critically evaluate their success to-date with regard to resolvingthis issue.
3. Formulate an action plan which will equip the teaching staff torecognise and deal more effectively with the problems caused bydisaffection.
4. Provide those pupils who are recognised as being disaffected withnew opportunities to become more actively involved and owners of theirlearning process.

In order for the intended research project to be successful, theabove objectives must meet the requirements of the SMART criteria.

S = Specific - This defines the scope of the project. Simply to saythat the project will investigate the causes of disaffection amongstschool pupils is far too broad. The project will be limited to oneschool and is concerned with those pupils aged 14 to 16.

M = Measurable - As we have already discussed, disaffection can meana variety of things in different circumstances. In order to evaluatethe success of the project, we need a definition of disaffection, whichcan be quantified. This could be achieved by analysing the disciplinaryrecord of each pupil in the 14 to 16 age range. The pupils with theworst disciplinary (i.e. measured in terms of exclusions, detentions,verbal and written warnings etc.) records could be classified as beingdisaffected.

Admittedly this is a rough and ready measure - but it is a goodstarting point. Each pupil would be invited to take part in theproject. Those who were willing to participate would be interviewed toidentify the reasons why they were disaffected. Working with theirteachers, each pupil would become actively involved in designing theirown personal learning action plan. The purpose of the action plan wouldbe to devise new ways of learning in order to encourage the pupils towork harder and achieve better results.

A = Achievable - It is pointless setting objectives, which areunrealistic. As stated, research only delivers the desired outcomes,when all of the relevant stakeholders are involved in the design anddelivery of the project. Thus key members of the school's teachingstaff would also need to be interviewed in order to find out abouttheir views on disaffected pupils and to gain their participation inhelping the pupils devise their personal learning action plans.

The project could possibly also cover encouraging the teachers to carryout their own action research with regard to monitoring theeffectiveness of their teaching strategies and learning resources. Theresults could be recorded in a diary and could form part of theircontinuous professional development.

R = Resourced - The school would have to be prepared to commit additional money to cover the cost of resourcing the project.

T = Time Bound - The project would have to run for at least oneacademic year in order to provide sufficient time to measure theimprovements (e.g. an improved disciplinary record, homework completedon time etc) delivered by the project.

The following sources would provide useful secondary data for the project:

Learning Skills Council - Greater Manchester

Adult Learning Inspectorate

Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

All of these bodies provide information about disaffected schoolpupils, the causes of their dissatisfaction and the policy measuresthat have been produced to combat the problem.

Best Laid Plans - The Guardian, Tuesday 30/09/03

Paradigms and Methodology in Educational Research - Katrin Niglas,European Conference on Educational Research, Lille, September 2001

Action Research for Professional Development - Jean McNiff

A Background To Youth Disaffection - A Review Of Literature FromEvaluation Findings From With Young People - Richard Steer 2000,Community Development Foundation, ISBN 1-901974-26-X

Ducie High School, Manchester - Ofsted Inspection Report, October 1999

16 - 19 Area Wide Inspection, Manchester, April - May 2002 - Ofsted and the Adult Learning Inspectorate