GIVING vulnerable and disengaged students a leading role in research could not only improve their success in school, but help inform policymakers how best to respond to the needs of those children, a new study shows.
The Child-Led Research Program – a collaborative initiative of UnitingCare, the NSW Commission for Children and Young People and Southern Cross University – found that when school students took charge of their own research projects they were more willing to be involved, more interested in the outcome, and more likely to relate their experience to other areas of the classroom.
The team held workshops over 16 weeks with nine children aged between nine and 14 selected from a disadvantaged area in southern Sydney. The group of children set their own research agenda and conducted their studies in their own schools then worked together on their results.
Since research is a specifically adult domain, the question was not only one of whether children should be involved at all but whether they should lead the work, said Anne Graham, director of the Centre for Children and Young People at SCU and a member of the evaluation team for the project.
"It's not about saying that we're expecting that children and young people will be able to make decisions that are really the decisions that adults should make. It's really more about giving them the voice in those decisions," she said.
"'If we know what their questions are and if we know the way they view the issues that impact on their lives, there's a better chance that we will make policies and programs that respond to their needs."
Karen Bevan, director of social justice at UnitingCare, said she was impressed with the participation rate and work ethic of the children, who rarely missed a session and wanted the project to continue when it came to an end.
"One of the things that surprised us was the eagerness of the young people (some had history of struggling in school environments), how much they wanted to be involved and when the project ended, how much they wanted it to keep going."
Students participating reported feeling more confident and more skilled after the work they had done, and Ms Bevan said they learned about how to source and use the data in an ethical way.
Identities of the children remain confidential, but their feedback was recorded for the study. A year six girl looked at which students use Facebook and whether peers felt it was appropriate for their age group.
She wrote: "Before I came here I thought researching was just like reading a bunch of stuff and writing it down to get information but it's more than that – it's like you have to actually get it out of people; when you're asking them questions and stuff."
The findings of the Child-Led Program were published at a national conference of welfare agencies at the Convention Centre yesterday.