Learning curves

Children painting at a tableHere at CERP, most of our school-based fieldwork is with 14 to 19 year olds. So when we were offered the chance to work on a primary school-based project, we thought it would be a great opportunity to expand our field of expertise.  And hey, fieldwork in primary schools can’t be that different to secondary schools, right…?


Primary schools are not just smaller versions of secondary schools – they are beasts of an entirely different nature.

Leaving aside the actual research, even basic admin can be a challenge. For example, while getting hold of people in a secondary school is by no means easy, it can usually be managed, as most teachers have their own school email address. In many primary schools, however, everything has to go through the receptionist.

Lesson 1: the receptionist is the gatekeeper and ultimate arbiter of your project’s success. And beware, compared to dinner money, absences and lost PE kit, your message about visiting next Wednesday is bottom of the priority list.

If you do manage to arrange to visit the school, be prepared to arrive and find that actually, today is sports day / the school play / their school trip, or some other event considered far more beneficial than your research.

It’s these things, too, which make asking teachers to collect data difficult. Asking teachers to administer a test sounds like a wonderful way of collecting data without distressing the children with strangers or disrupting their timetable. In reality, if they manage to fit your test in at all, it’s unlikely that the whole class will take it. One-to-one reading, small group maths work and other activities that don’t really take place in secondary schools mean that it is quite common for several children to be out of the classroom at any given time. Getting them all in one place to complete a test is tricky.

In fact, selecting the tests in the first place can be challenging. Six year olds vary wildly in their abilities, and a test that one child can get to grips with may be totally inappropriate, or even distressing, for another. Throw special educational needs or English as an additional language into the mix, and choosing a test appropriate for a large sample of children becomes a real challenge. Working with individual children is no easier; many primary schools are short of space, so finding somewhere to work one-to-one that’s not already being used is no mean feat. 

Despite these obstacles, we managed to collect our study data, and enjoyed a whole new experience along the way. Researching in primaries requires you to think about things that never arise in secondary school fieldwork. When you spend so much time thinking about GCSEs and A-levels, it can be easy to forget about the learning that goes before, but the time and dedication these schools put into the children’s education and emotional well-being is inspiring. And although there are particularly challenging aspects of field research in a primary school environment, they are often the result of teachers’ admirable determination that nothing should interfere with the education of their pupils. Which is as it should be.

Kate Kelly

Kate has been collaborating with researchers from the University of Bristol on a project investigating an early intervention for primary school children struggling to learn to read. More information on the project can be found here.

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