The BA Dissertation in Education: things seen and red.

Each year in the School of Education 150 BA honours students complete their first piece of self-directed research. The methods and findings are written up in the form of an eight thousand word research report, a dissertation. This dissertation is the culmination of four years of intensive study of education, and an opportunity for its writers to say something useful about an aspect of that experience.

Person writing on a notepad with a laptop in front of them

For the past thirty years, research in the field of education has been subject to debate about its usefulness, and whether it contributes to knowledge or practice. For the most part, it is argued, it isn’t, and it doesn’t, and it passes unseen, into the ether.

The dissertation in education is different. The focus of the research undertaken is on real world problems of practice and society. It is grounded in issues that confront students and children in schools, in their communities, and in their lives. The topics addressed are deep and diverse, explored critically from perspectives empirical and conceptual, and range from investigations of real life contexts in teaching, to the deconstruction of discourses in society and policy.

The summaries that follow from three distinguished studies submitted in 2021 are representative of a body of work that is necessary and vital, that lays claim to knowing something, and which traces the lineaments of education in all the insistent features of the social world.

Mental Health Matters: An Investigation into the Mental Health Support for UK Higher Education Students in Policy and Practice, by Hannah Gunn.

The increasing rates of mental illness and perceived stress throughout UK Higher Education (HE) suggest that the mental health of students is significantly poorer than that of the general population (Knott, 2013). In 2019, a study of 140 UK universities found more than two-fifths of students had experienced a serious MH problem for which they received professional help, and more than one-quarter had a formal MH diagnosis (The Insight Network, 2020). UK students are a high-risk group who are likely to be affected by mental health issues as most people who develop a mental health concern experience symptoms between the ages of 16-24, the age bracket a large number of UK students fall into (Bolton & Hubble, 2020). Mental illness throughout UK universities is therefore an issue of growing importance for educational professionals and academics who prioritise inclusive and mentally healthy environments for all students. This is a timely focus of inquiry as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been detrimental to student mental health. Recent research has shown student mental ill health has reached crisis point as lockdown measures have damaged mental well-being and increased perceived stress dramatically (Savage et al., 2020). This heightens the likelihood of mental health conditions such as anxiety occurring throughout the student population, as they are likely to be prominent and worsen in the event interpersonal communication is absent throughout learning (Cao et al., 2020).

The UK Government seeks to promote inclusivity throughout HE and understands mental health and well-being are areas which need policy reform. Universities are legally required to abide by the Equality Act (2010) to provide “reasonable adjustments” for students with disabilities which include mental illness, as well as protect them from discrimination (Bolton & Hubble, 2020, p.16). However, the outright contrast of the reality of 21st century student mental ill health gives rise to questions about the effectiveness of university mental health policy. Many students fall through the gaps as they do not feel comfortable disclosing a mental illness (Storrie et al., 2010) which suggests there is still a real issue of stigmatisation present throughout HE.

Through a thematic analysis of evidence, this literature-based study reveals that there is clear disparity between the policy message from HE institutions and the reality in practice. Although an inclusive and supportive mental health policy framework is promoted, with an emphasis on making mental health a strategic priority, universities are failing to respond adequately as they are becoming increasingly conceptually neoliberal in organisation. The associated expectation of self-sufficiency on the part of individuals creates further barriers to mental health support for many students. This study finds that developing an approach in line with the theoretical concept of the social model of disability could result in a more effective response from universities in tackling the student mental health crisis, providing that neoliberalism is disrupted for a more social response.

Promoting the Successful Integration of Refugee Pupils in Scottish Primary Schools, by Mark Preiss.

The education of refugee children is a global issue. In 2019, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that more than half of the world’s 7.1 million refugee children were outside of schooling. Also, and of equal concern, was that only 63% of refugee children were enrolled in primary education, demonstrating a noticeable contrast to the 91% of their non-refugee counterparts (UNHCR, 2019). As well as indicating that refugee children are more likely to experience educational inequality, these statistics illustrate that forcibly displaced children face barriers to their fundamental human rights. The right to education has been ratified by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN General Assembly, 1948) and similar can be said for the right to compulsory primary education which is endorsed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN General Assembly, 1989). Consequently, promoting educational opportunities for refugee children should be recognised as a priority.

On the surface, Scotland’s approach to welcoming refugee children would appear to be commendable. For instance, the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 has led to Glasgow becoming the largest asylum dispersal area in the United Kingdom (UK), meaning that more people seeking approval for refuge live in Glasgow than in any other region of the UK (Migration Observatory, 2020). Also, in 2015 all 32 of Scotland’s local authorities agreed to contribute to refugee resettlement in wake of the humanitarian crisis in Syria (COSLA, 2017). These encouraging intents can ultimately be underpinned by Scotland’s refugee integration policies. The New Scots Refugee Integration Strategies (Scottish Government 2014; 2018) signify the nation’s commitment to supporting all refugees to build safe, inclusive and respected lives. Specifically for children, positive education experiences are highlighted as a key theme for both policy enactment and refugee children attaining successful resettlement outcomes (Scottish Government, 2018). This resonates with the views of Bačáková (2011), who insists that integration into schooling is a critical step towards refugee children feeling at home in their host communities.

With this being said, however, refugee children are often met with daunting challenges upon resettlement. In Scotland, and across the UK, negative media and political discourses have shaped public opinion, resulting in a growth of anti-immigration ideals (Sime, 2018). According to Madziva and Thondhlana (2017, p.951), such preconceptions about refugees have been known to “permeate the school gates” and create barriers to successful integration pursuits for both refugee pupils and their teachers. Furthermore, refugees are largely omitted from current Scottish education policies, contributing to many primary school teachers having a limited knowledge of approaches to support refugee pupils in school (Dabbous, 2018). Similarly, there is a substantial gap in academic research, where few studies have been conducted to investigate refugee pupils’ integration in Scottish schools (McBride, 2018).

In light of the themes discussed, this study explores the integration of refugee pupils in Scottish primary schools. To do this, the project undertook a comprehensive review of the existing literature to assess what is presently known about refugee children’s schooling as well as their integration into educational settings. This review also included a thorough examination of Scotland’s relevant education policies and refugee resettlement strategies to uncover what is meant by successful integration for refugee pupils in the Scottish context. The findings demonstrated that schools must commit to making alterations to regular routines to welcome and include refugee pupils. Additionally, dedication to practices that promote social justice across the whole school community should be developed. This is said to be done effectively by teaching all pupils key values across all curricular areas. The contributions of primary school teachers were also investigated to assess methods of best practice for supporting refugee pupils. In this sense, it was found that, as well as promoting English language competencies and building peer connections, teachers’ positive attitudes towards refugee pupils were indispensable. This included consistently providing a nurturing demeanour whilst maintaining high expectations of refugee pupils.

The Forgotten Victims: An investigation into the effectiveness of Scottish Education Additional Support Needs Legislation and Policy in acknowledging the needs of children affected by parental imprisonment, by Mhairi Urquhart.

‘Forgotten’, ‘Hidden’ and ‘Invisible’ are words commonly used to describe children affected by parental imprisonment (Morgan et al., 2014; Morgan et al., 2013; Marshall, 2008). They are hidden, stigmatised and disadvantaged within our society, with assumptions made about them based on the expectations of others (Morgan & Leeson, 2019). They are often misrepresented and misunderstood, with little known about the experiences and impact of parental imprisonment (Morgan et al., 2014). There are approximately 27,000 children with a parent in prison in Scotland every year (Roberts & Loucks, 2015), which is higher than the number of children who: experience divorce; are autistic; are on the child protection register; or are in care (Loureiro, 2010; Dallaire & Wilson, 2010; Action for Prisoners Families (APF), n.d.). Yet, children affected by parental imprisonment are seemingly forgotten in policy and in practice (Fee, 2015), despite improvements in recent years (Children of Prisoners Europe (COPE), 2014).

A complication that may have been avoided with the proposed ‘named person’ initiative (Families Outside, 2018) is that many children are not known to be affected by parental imprisonment, as there is no requirement to record the number of children affected or inform a school, which makes giving appropriate support to these children challenging (Backman et al., 2019). However, children affected by parental imprisonment can often experience a range of complex needs and are less likely to meet child well-being indicators (Morgan et al., 2014). Therefore, children affected by parental imprisonment are often labelled as a particularly vulnerable group in need of support (Morgan et al., 2013).

This study aimed to contribute to the current research by analysing current education legislation and policies in Scotland, by identifying the possible needs of children affected by parental imprisonment and analysing whether their needs are recognised in education additional support needs (ASN) related legislation and policies. This study has found that the needs of children affected by parental imprisonment are somewhat acknowledged in ASN related legislation and policies, but their more nuanced needs are not always recognised. This study used a phased methodological approach, where phase one was a traditional review of the existing literature of children affected by parental imprisonment to inform their possible needs; phase two involved the creation of a Needs Assessment Tool of the possible needs of children affected by parental imprisonment, and this provided a systematic way of analysing Scotland’s legislation and policies  (Office of Migrant Education, 2001); phase three took a systematic approach to the selecting, screening and analysing Scotland’s legislation and policies (Jesson et al., 2011); and phase 4 presented the implications of the findings. Despite synthesising and discussing the possible experiences and needs of children, it is vital to remember that children affected by parental imprisonment are unique individuals, who will all have differing experiences and needs from parental imprisonment (Morgan & Gill, 2014), but who are all capable of having positive outcomes with the appropriate support (Weidberg, 2017). “Crime is [not] an infection that can be passed on” (Roberts & Loucks, 2015, p. 133).

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