Researching Vocational Education and Training (VET) in a time of Covid-19

Edge Emerging Researchers Network (ERN) are a UK wide network of VET researchers supported by The Edge Foundation. In this blog piece Karen Tatham, PhD Researcher at the University of Leeds shares Edge ECRs thoughts for researching VET during Covid-19.

In the coming weeks, researchers will be planning their next steps as Vocational Education and Training (VET) reopens face to face. Pre-Covid-19, vocational and technical education was under-researched as academics appeared to favour the 50% of young people on graduate routes. Building a comprehensive VET research base is important to represent the voices of educators, trainers and young people in VET. This is a challenging time for VET from the impact of the shut-down of face to face provision on young people, and the need for on-site delivery of many skills. Researchers need to be sensitive to the increased complexity of VET research during Covid-19. This blog piece draws together Edge ERN thoughts on interviewing in VET during Covid-19.

Timing: Does your fieldwork need to be completed now?

Although the voice of VET is important, ethical considerations of ‘do no harm’ and ‘participant care and safety’ means as researchers we need to understand the Covid-19 context for our participants and be confident this is the right time to research. So researchers need to ask: Why research now?

Key is the role of the gatekeeper, to ensure researchers understand the context they are conducting interviews in. Vocational education and training professionals are dealing with the restarting of face to face education, local lockdowns, multiple government youth training initiatives to meet the job losses predicted in the next six months, and VET reform. For young people, multiple studies are reporting increased mental health concerns in young people, concerns for the future and of lost ambitions. BBC News reported one school had 40 young people affected by Covid-19 bereavements. The Resolution Foundation reports that disadvantaged young people have been disproportionately affected by job losses, digital exclusion. and lack of access to education and training. Where organisations are ready to engage with research, professionals have been willing to spend time with researchers and have found interviews cathartic.

Are the insights you want already available? As the UK went into lockdown, many organisations maintained the links they had with young people, and some research continued. ONS developed fast response data which tracks young peoples perceptions of education and wellbeing during Covid-19. The UCL cohort studies have sampled additional Covid-19 specific responses. Comparison studies with previous recessions, and extensive youth labour market data has been produced by the IFS. The House of Lords has called for evidence of the experiences of the under 30s in Covid-19. The pandemic has shown the research agility of non-academic organisations.

Plan time to talk through consent: Think about the realities of ensuring remote consent, especially from young people. Consider how intimidating research information and consent forms could appear in an email to a young person. Work with gatekeepers to build rapport with young people before your study, talk them through what your research is about in day to day language, explain the consent process, and why their voice is important to you.

The limitations of Zoom: For young people, Zoom or other video platforms can mean building rapport is difficult with a new adult, and it reduces the ability of the interviewer to ‘read’ body language. Young people are not all digital natives, do not necessarily want to use video with someone they don’t know, or to speak on screen or by phone for extended periods. There is extensive evidence of young people in poverty experiencing digital exclusion.

Co-produce research with young people: Young people in the ‘Class of 2020’ have experienced a world which they could not control. Co-produced research allows young people to help shape a study and be active participants as co-producers with a voice, as well as providing excellent skills development in communication and teamwork.   

Work in cross-disciplinary, collaborative teams: Covid-19 has shown the complexity of the challenges young people face across education, employment, and health. The Edge ECR network is a unique example of VET researchers from multiple universities, disciplines and wider policy and youth organisations. This blog piece finishes with a plea for more collaborative VET research drawing on multiple disciplines, rather than researchers retreating to their pre-pandemic silos: ‘Together’ in VET research, we are stronger.

By Karen Tatham, PhD Researcher, School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds

Sources:

Jowett, A. 2020. Carrying out qualitative research under lockdown-practical and ethical considerations. Available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2020/04/20/carrying-out-qualitative-research-under-lockdown-practical-and-ethical-considerations/

HM Gov.2020. What providers will need to do from the start of the 2020 autumn term. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-maintaining-further-education-provision/what-fe-colleges-and-providers-will-need-to-do-from-the-start-of-the-2020-autumn-term

Lupton, D.2020. Doing fieldwork in a pandemic. Available at: https://aassrec.org/new-resource-doing-fieldwork-in-a-pandemic/

NIHR.2018.Guidance on co-producing a research project. Available at: https://www.invo.org.uk/posttypepublication/guidance-on-co-producing-a-research-project/

ODI. 2020. Primary data collection in Covid-19 era. Available at: https://www.odi.org/publications/16977-primary-data-collection-covid-19-era

Ravitch, S.2020. The best-laid plans…qualitative research design during Covid 19. Available at: https://www.methodspace.com/the-best-laid-plans-qualitative-research-design-during-covid-19/

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