The reality of research in schools: young people’s perspectives

Picture(L-R) ALPHA members Sophie (17), Luke (21), Paige (17) and Alice (15).

Members of ALPHA, DECIPHer’s advisory group of young people, recently spent a day with researchers as they collected data in schools. Here, ALPHA members tell us about their experiences.

After waking at ridiculous o’clock, we set off on our long journey to Blaenau Gwent to shadow researchers collecting data at a comprehensive school. The researchers were collecting data from Year 7 to 10 through the Health Behaviour in School aged Children (HBSC) survey. The HBSC survey has been running for 30 years and now collects data in 43 countries about young people’s health behaviours, to inform policy and practice.  ALPHA has been involved for a while – some members have previously worked with the Welsh Government on the HBSC and went to the international conference in St. Andrews.

We met up with researchers from Ipsos MORI and they explained how the data collection session would run. They also explained that data collection in this school and a small number of others was different to normal because the schools were taking part in a data linkage pilot study. For the first time, data gathered through the HBSC survey will be linked anonymously to other data from different research projects, on health and education. This will be done through SAIL, the Secure Anonymised Information Linkage databank, using Unique Pupil Numbers to link the correct data for each pupil. This pilot study is part of the School Health Research Network project being run by DECIPHer at Cardiff University.

The job as a face-to-face researcher in a school seems pretty straightforward but we weren’t sure we’d enjoy doing it as a job as it relies on the school being organised, which the researchers told us varies between schools. Two of us observed a session with Year 9 and the other two observed a session with Year 8.  The first pair was with a researcher who had a teacher present so the young people acted more like they were under exam conditions whereas the other pair was in a session with only the researcher and no teacher.   After comparing our sessions we noticed that the young people talked more during the session without a teacher and were more relaxed.  It was good to see that the researcher noticed one young person who looked confused so they approached that person to ask if they needed any help.  


PictureThe information given to the young people who take part in the HBSC data linkage study, and their parents.
When we spoke to the researchers they told us they have to answer many questions from the young people filling out the surveys. For example, there was a question on the survey about full fat milk and some pupils did not know what this meant, and asked “what is blue top milk – is that full fat?”. Some of the young people felt comfortable enough to ask for questions to be explained if they didn’t understand them. It would be great if the researchers could document all the questions they were asked and fed it back to the people who designed the survey to see if they can make changes. 

Researchers gave out leaflets to the pupils explaining why they were there and what they are doing. We thought that the leaflets had too much text to read and they were a little plain. However, they did explain the project well.  Sometimes young people do not want to read big chunks of text.  A way we thought to improve this was to bullet point the important information and break it down with diagrams and colour. This would be more interesting and engaging.

We also got a chance to look at the survey, which was 39 pages and 89 questions! Some of the questions were quite sensitive for young people to answer, such as “Where were your mother and father born?” if you did not know your parents.  We did not understand why the survey asked so many questions like if you have a bedroom of your own or your family owns a car but Hayley, who works with us, explained this was to try and work out something called socioeconomic status. We also thought it was good that the survey included drug street names, as these are the names we thought young people would use to talk about the substances.  Some of the drugs we only knew through the street or slang names and not through the name adults would call them. 

In the future we think the survey will probably be electronic instead of a paper questionnaire and we had different views as a group on whether this would be a good thing.  We thought computers would be better as they can be more engaging for young people and maybe you could have earphones and the questions read aloud to you as this will help if young people can’t read well.  However, we also thought that privacy of answers may be harder as people can look over your shoulder at a computer screen but you can shield a paper questionnaire to write on it.

The experience was worthwhile for us because we got to see the whole process, how you collect data and how sometimes things don’t go to plan and researchers have to be flexible.  Thank you to HBSC, SHRN, Ipsos MORI and the school for letting us shadow the data collection.


ALPHA (Advice Leading to Public Health Advancement) is a research advisory group of young people aged 14-19 who live in South Wales. To find out more, have a look at the ALPHA pages on the DECIPHer website, follow @ALPHA_DECIPHer on Twitter, or contact Hayley Reed.

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