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NIHR funding gives local charity a voice in research

Youth Options is a children and young people’s charity based in Hampshire that provides opportunities to children and young people to achieve a better future. One of the key services provided by Youth Options is using access to nature to provide alternative education provision through its outdoor learning centres.  

Following funding from the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Clinical Research Network (CRN) Wessex Small Grants Scheme, they took part in their first research project. 

The research, led by Dr Rachel Harrison, Senior Lecturer in Health and Social Care at the University of Winchester focused on Looked After Children and young people accessing alternative education settings and aimed to provide options for future directions for Youth Options as well as the wider alternative provision sector.

The research was driven by several issues including the erratic funding streams that put the future of specialist Outdoor Education settings, like Youth Options, at risk. This particularly affects alternative education provision for children and young people who benefit from a different education provision because of adverse childhood experiences including some children who are Looked After, who also have Special Educational Needs (SEN) or who are, or at risk of being, excluded from school.

It aimed to explore the purpose and value of alternative education provision delivered by Youth Options, the challenges of delivering education provision and what could help in delivering alternative education provision.

Rachel Harrison, commenting about the research said: “Working creatively to build trusting relationships is key to reaching, hearing and valuing seldom heard voices. We were delighted to work in co-production with Youth Options, to learn from them and to help them to continue to make such an important difference in the lives of these children and young people. We are delighted that this report will make such an impact for them and their futures”.

Interviews took place with Looked After Children and young people, other children and young people with Special Educational Needs who accessed Youth Options’ Outdoor Learning provision, Youth Options staff and Head Teachers. 

These interviews provided rich insights:

“I just feel like I'm a good boy when I come here”

“I’ve realised school’s a lot easier when you’ve got friends”

Commenting on their involvement, a staff member from Youth Options said: “It’s really important that this research is happening. Charities do not usually have the money to do this kind of research but it is important for charities to be able to plan for the future. I’m pleased to be involved.”

The research and subsequent Report and Good Practice Guide that was created identified key areas for consideration. In addition, it provided practical suggestions for planning, marketing and recruitment, location, activity type, staff and leadership, retention of children and young people and of staff, progression of children and young people and staff and the development of volunteering opportunities.

Madeleine Durie, CEO of Youth Options stated, “Youth Options was delighted to be able to participate in the research project.  As a charity, it is very challenging to find resources to look at the impact of our work beyond our own internal assessments and feedback. To have a University-led research project carrying out that research has been invaluable and will not only help our own improvements but also help other organisations working with Looked After Children to consider how they deliver their services.  Dr Craig Johnston and Rachel Harrison worked with me and the delivery team to ensure that the research approach was appropriate for the children and young people who were involved.  Their research and professional experience of the needs and challenges of these young people was essential to making this project successful. The collaboration between our charity and the University, thanks to this funding, will extend beyond this particular research project and help us to continue to improve our impact and ultimately better outcomes for children and young people”.

What next?

Everyone involved is keen to use and develop this research. University of Winchester is seeking funding to develop further Good Practice Guides for practitioners and schools, and to share these nationwide. They also intend to research additional ways in which Alternative Education Provision can be enhanced, as well as developing research that includes Looked After children and young people as co-producers. 

For Youth Options, they will use the research report to create their own evaluative tool to better evaluate their current and future service delivery. They also intend to use the report to enable them to apply for longer-term funding, therefore extending the scope and reach of what they offer. 

Zoë Sheppard, Research Delivery Manager at CRN Wessex responsible for the Small Grants Scheme, comments: “Our small grant scheme working with communities under-served by research meets a funding need for community organisations to build research capacity and importantly leaves a legacy.  This collaborative project with the University of Winchester demonstrated the real impact that the Youth Options organisation makes for looked after children, many of whom have special educational needs.”