Top tips for negotiating access to schools for fieldwork

Written by Heather. Posted in News

The blog has been fairly quiet over the last couple of weeks because we’ve been focused on finding six schools in which to carry out interviews with young people. With schools busier than ever and having more and more demands on them, fewer and fewer feel able to support research activity. So, in the hope of making this process a bit less painful for others (and for ourselves in the future), we’ve  compiled ourtop ten tips for negotiating access to schools below.

1. Keep it simple at the bid stage: When you write an ESRC proposal you never expect to get the funding (the latest figures from the ESRC show a depressingly low 3% success rate for education). So it’s easy not to think about the practicalities of actually doing the research when you develop your fabulous research design. But every condition of your methodology and sampling criteria (for example, we had: location, age range of school, proportion of FSM, gender of intake and ethnic diversity) will restrict your choice of schools and may exclude some schools who would be otherwise enthusiastic to work with you.

2. Start looking for schools early: We started two weeks before the project officially began. Retrospectively this was foolish, though understandable because there was a lot going on and school summer holidays: we had two new appointments to get through university bureaucracy and to create the website and get it up and running. Anyone working in a university right now is probably juggling a ridiculous number of tasks but I hadn’t anticipated how difficult negotiating access would be and it needed to be our focus much earlier.

3. If you’re cold calling on schools then approach at least twice as many as you need: It’s incredibly unlikely that you’ll get too many schools this way and if you do end up getting more than you need. Don’t panic: there are usually other ways to involve schools such as using one for piloting your research instruments or involving staff in user events.

4. If you have any alternative don’t cold call: Rather than approaching schools with which you have no links, it’s much better to exploit personal and/or institutional relationships. If you’re in an education department which runs initial teacher training then you can use your own and your colleagues’ links with partner schools as a point of entry. This not only means your invitations to participate are more likely to be read, and read positively, but that the school gets more from the research since it helps them to strengthen their relationship with a partner university.

5. Foreground what the school will get from the research: In your initial email to any school make it very clear what they will get out of working with you and make sure you flag this up before you describe what you need from them. Research can be a burden on schools but it shouldn’t be a one-way relationship. Think about what you can offer schools in return for their time. This could be holding a seminar for students on research methods or areas of sociology or hosting a workshop for teachers. Hopefully seeing some return on their investment will make them read your ‘demands’ with more sympathy.

6. Be clear about the scale of what you need from them: Most research studies make very small demands on schools in terms of teacher and student time, but this isn’t always immediately obvious from an initial reading of an outline of a study. So, state exactly how many students you want to talk to and for how long and how many days you need to be in the school.

7. Follow up emails or letters promptly and persistently: Around a week after you’ve sent an initial email follow this up with a phone call. It’s incredibly difficult to get hold of teachers on the phone – try calling before or after the school day starts. Make a note of the names of key members of staff such as personal assistants – these are the people who know teachers’ availability and can help you find the best way to get in touch. It’s better to speak with contacts directly rather than leave messages on voicemail, but if you keep striking out then you probably need to do this and to widen your net of schools.

8. There’s a fine line between persistence and stalking…

9. Try approaching schools that are less well-researched: Schools in some parts of the country are incredibly over-researched. In London, Hackney, Islington and Camden schools seem to be overwhelmed with research requests, whereas those in the more outer suburban parts of the capital get far fewer requests. This will obviously impact on the data you get so needs some consideration but we think that it’s helpful not only because less asked schools are more likely to say yes but also because it means that our collective data on young people comes from a wider range of settings.

10. Keep a clear log of the schools you are approaching and share this between all members of the research team: Doing this means that you won’t duplicate efforts and won’t annoy schools (and look unprofessional) with someone else trying to get in touch with them who doesn’t know that they’ve already said ‘no’ (or ‘yes’). Brunel (and presumbaly other universities) can provide shared online project management spaces to facilitate this – there are also many free online file sharing services like Dropbox and Googledocs.


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