This is the first of two posts based on my recent presentation at the BERA Post-graduate Symposium held at the University of Glasgow October 11th 2013 – my presentation was called: Bridging the gap: Looking at ethnicity and culture in a secondary school
This post explores one of the most important tasks relating to the undertaking of ﬁeldwork for a qualitative research study: “gaining access”. This involves both securing entry into a particular organisation and ensuring that individuals associated with it, such as employees or users, will serve as informants, or in the particular case of this research, schools and affiliated agencies, teachers, youth workers and young people.
Gaining access to research settings is crucial but there is a scarcity of literature on this in social science research. Academics are more concerned about the data gathering and analysis stages and tend to overlook the preliminary issues associated with entry, although this is a common problem amongst researchers as noted elsewhere (Schatzman & Straus, 1973; Johnson, 1975; Shaffir, Stebbins, & Turowetz, 1980).
Researchers often spend considerable amount of time on this task, especially when the research requires an in-depth study of their respective research field (Okumus et al., 2007; Patton, 2002; Shenton and Hayter, 2004). This is reiterated by Friedman and Orru (1991) who discuss how fieldworkers have long acknowledged the problems of gaining access to research settings but often failed to analyse them in a systematic manner. Feldman et al (2003) go on to say that the importance of gaining access has been acknowledged by research academics but little has been written on the issues of gaining entry into the research field. This article revolves around a small scale research study which focuses on the black and minority ethnic and new arrival young people in secondary schools in Glasgow. The young people have been identified by their schools and outside agencies as having the propensity to fall into the pre-NEET category and are undertaking specialist intervention programmes designed by the school or affiliated youth agencies. The aim of these programmes is to enable young people to progress onto positive destinations.
The Journey so far
Currently in my third and final year of study of the PhD, I have had a series of issues around access into schools even though I had been granted ethical approval from both my university and the City Council. From a reflexive aspect, I felt it would be interesting to discuss how this lack of access into secondary schools has affected my study.
In this post I have adopted a subjective perspective to analyse access issues, where I highlight some of the issues I have encountered so far into my academic journey for research purposes. I will discuss using illustrative examples of how gaining access into the research field has been difficult but not impossible.
Cohen et al (2009, p55) discuss that researchers cannot expect access to schools as a matter of right and that they need to demonstrate their ability as researchers and people in order to gain access to carry out their research. I did as was suggested by submitting my ethics form early in order to gain official permission to undertake the research in my target community.
Once ethical approval was granted by both the university and Education Services in the council, I contacted the head teachers of the schools and various youth work organisations, through email, with a couple of paragraphs of my research, along with a draft proposal of my research study in October 2012. I emailed the schools every six weeks, hoping to catch their interest and a loophole that they might reply to me. After the 3rd failed attempt, I spoke to a fellow student and asked for feedback on how I could better engage with the gatekeepers of the schools.
With her help, I condensed my report down to exactly what I was looking for from the agencies into a short 2-page synopsis of the research requirements and emailed the schools and youth work agencies. This was to limit information overload if that was indeed the reason for the lack of replies to my initial line of enquiry for access due to email recipients not wanting to trawl through 30 odd pages of a document, as discussed by Flick (1998) who warns that too much information may confuse rather than enlighten the reader.
This resulted in limited replies from 3 of the many schools I had contacted, (lack of access due to exams, head teachers being off sick, lack of resources etc. I then decided to phone all the schools I had contacted but was not given access to speak to the head teachers or allowed to make an appointment. When I queried this I was told only the headteacher had access to his or her diary and the school secretary did not have authority to make an appointment on their behalf. I was invited to leave my details and that I would receive a phone call once the head teacher became available. No head teacher phoned me back.
I concentrated on working towards my transfer event, to show the ability to move from a MPhil to PhD level, which I demonstrated successfully in February 2013. This caused me great consternation due to not being able to navigate the first step of my research project, where those around me who started at the same time were demonstrating outputs by publishing in journals, presenting papers, and undertaking research.
I went back to my supervisors to ask how to engage better with the schools, so they suggested that I bring printouts of my synopsis, business card and ethical approval letter from the council along with me to personally go in and hand into schools, which I did. Again there was no response.
At this point the lack of cooperation threw into doubt the whole ﬁeldwork element of the project, especially if the organisations involved have been targeted for the study on the basis of their unique characteristics. As Burgess notes, “access is a prerequisite; a precondition for the research to be conducted”.
One of my supervisors advised that I go straight to the top of the system, which in this case was the Council, which is in line with what Festinger and Katz (1966) thought about obtaining assent and cooperation – that there is a better chance for a positive outcome if the leaders of the organisation are consulted from the beginning. Patton (2002) also believes this strategy is the most successful method of securing entry into the field. I contacted the Education Services who said they could not help me gain access as it was up to the schools and they could not get involved.
I then emailed the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong learning, discussing the barriers I had faced over the 14 month period trying to gain access into schools in July 2013. I was told that contact would be made with the relevant department in the council to discuss if there was a need for my research and if it was a viable piece of work, they would allow the research to go ahead. In this instance, I did go right to the top of the ‘organisation’ as Patton (2002) suggested and set off a chain of negotiations between various agencies to allow access. This also supports Stake’s (1995) argument that support at this executive level may be critical to the researcher’s success in gaining access to the secondary organisations since “individuals often immediately acquiesce if a superior has granted permission”.
The Education services of the council then endorsed me to carry out the research. A gatekeeper was assigned to me, who personally contacted the schools and agencies on my behalf, introducing my research and its potential to help with policy reform from the ‘bottom-up’. I have now been contacted by all the schools and am arranging appointments to visit senior members of the school management team to negotiate my access to the research participants.,,