Foster care and user engagement in research

Nikki Luke, our guest blogger for this week, is the Research Officer at the Rees Centre for Research in Fostering and Education at the University of Oxford. Nikki is an alumna of the University of Sussex, having recently completed her doctoral work in the Department of Psychology. The work of the Rees Centre, which has been set up in order to identify what works to improve the outcomes and life chances of children and young people in foster care, is of direct relevance to social work and we’re delighted to host Nikki’s post reflecting on her first few months with the Centre. Read more about the Rees Centre at

I recently completed my PhD in Psychology at the University of Sussex. For me, as for many Doctoral students, participants were the people I interviewed and tested, while I was the researcher who came up with the questions, ran the studies and interpreted the results. And then I saw a job advertisement.

What appealed to me from the beginning about the Rees Centre was its aim of engaging with the people who are the focus of its work. The Centre is headed by Professor Judy Sebba, who came to Oxford from the School of Education and Social Work at Sussex, where she has written about the need for user engagement in research. While I had made some effort towards this in the early stages of my PhD – by involving foster carers in a focus group session to see whether the research question I had formulated bore some resemblance to their day-to-day experiences – it wasn’t something I had carried throughout my work.

At the Rees Centre we’re doing it differently, by establishing systematic methods of consultation with foster carers, young people and practitioners at every stage of the research. What this means in practice is that firstly, we have experts we can turn to who can tell us whether we’re asking the right research questions. Working with those involved in foster care means we can identify the issues that they feel are most in need of answers.

Secondly, we are engaging service users at the point of data collection. Judy and I are currently recruiting a batch of foster carers who will work with the Centre as carer-interviewers. Not only can carers as participants often be more open with those who have shared similar experiences, as interviewers their own understanding of the situation means they can come up with questions that we as researchers would never have thought to ask. In future when we look at issues for young people we aim to have a similar arrangement with young care-leavers.

Finally, we are engaging carers, young people and practitioners in the interpretation of the results. ‘This is what we’ve found: how does that fit with your experience, and how can these findings be translated into something of practical use to you?’ – these are the questions we are asking. This is true not only for the original work we conduct, but also for our literature reviews. We know that social workers and foster carers have very busy lives – they don’t have the time to sit for days on end at a computer screen, trying to decipher whether something they’ve read is in line with the general consensus from the evidence and doing battle along the way with information access systems which would put Fort Knox to shame. So alongside our own research, we are keen to distill the key messages from existing work in a format that is accessible and useful for those they were intended to help.

The Rees Centre is still in the early stages of its journey into foster care research – but I’m confident we have some pretty good travelling companions to help us find the best routes.


November 19, 2012. Children & Young People, Social work research.

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