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Blog post Part of special issue: Framing research: Theories, concepts and reflexivity in educational research

Framing research: Participatory research approaches in early years education

Jessica Breese, Student at University of Sheffield

On 14 February 2020, at the BERA ECR Network Symposium, my presentation focussed on participatory research in early childhood education. Having worked for a number of years in an early childhood setting in England, I was inspired to undertake my PhD research on ‘school readiness’ in the early years. In particular, I was interested in the transition from the early years foundation stage reception year into statutory primary national curriculum from the school year 1 onwards. I was specifically intrigued to investigate the views of parents, guardians and early years practitioners, which include teachers and playworkers.

I had an appreciation that school readiness is a complex, multidimensional concept. It plays a crucial role within a child’s development, and measurements of school readiness provide information that enables early years professionals to make ‘pedagogical interventions’ (Roberts-Holmes, Georgeson, & Campbell-Barr, 2019) and, therefore, create opportunities for all children. For this reason, I determined that my research would need to be exploratory and understand the extent to which there are opportunities for all children. On one hand, children have diverse needs and characteristics, while on the other hand they are expected to meet specific criteria to be school-ready. Echoing the words of Udas (1998, p. 600), a tension arises when an issue is oversimplified – it may be defined by a dominant group in ‘simplified or dualistic terms that are not consistent with those of the groups affected by the issue’. It is, therefore, necessary to work with those who are affected by the issue. By recruiting co-researchers in my study (parents/guardians/practitioners), I will be working with those who have first-hand experience of school readiness in practice.

‘[School readiness] plays a crucial role within a child’s development, and measurements of school readiness provide information that enables early years professionals to make “pedagogical interventions” and, therefore, create opportunities for all children.’

As the PhD researcher of this project, my aim is to be receptive to diversity – that is, differences in cultural values and lived experiences. Recognising the interdisciplinary nature of a research project is a key feature to addressing complex issues, such as those around school readiness. Interdisciplinary research, for my study, means working across and beyond disciplines, taking a holistic approach to research. As well as educational importance, school readiness crosses disciplinary boundaries with psychology, sociology, politics and economics.

During the discussion session following my presentation, it was invaluable to engage in conversations about the model of participatory research and how this can be achieved within the research design. It is fundamental that the co-researchers are involved with the whole research process (Seal, 2018, pp. 97–108). By employing Q methodology (Watts & Stenner, 2012) to investigate the viewpoints of co-researchers from the beginning of the study, it is anticipated that this will raise awareness of the issues surrounding school readiness. The research will have personal impact for co-researchers, as well as the potential to influence future policy decisions.

Join BERA’s ECR Network on 18 September 2020 for the online event, ‘Academic writing and publishing: Experiences from an ECR’. In it, Yang Hu – senior lecturer at Lancaster University – will share his experiences of publishing during and after his PhD, consider potential issues when publishing from one’s PhD research, offer ways to navigate (and survive/enjoy) the writing and peer-review process, and give some insights into solo-versus-collaborative research. Click here for more information and to book your place.


Roberts-Holmes, G., Georgeson, J., & Campbell-Barr, V. (2019, May 3). The competing discourses of school readiness [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Seal, M. (2018). Participatory pedagogic impact research: Co-production with community partners in action. Oxford: Routledge.

Udas, K. (1998). Participatory action research as critical pedagogy. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 11(6), 599–628.

Watts, S., & Stenner, P. (2012). Doing Q methodological research: Theory, method and interpretation. London: SAGE Publications.