Researching ethnicity and the early years workforce: The need for reflexivity
In July 2022, we published a BERA report on ethnicity and the early years (EY) workforce in maintained nursery schools in England (Sakr et al., 2022). We offered quantitative research based on a sample of 95 maintained nursery schools, which suggested that ethnic diversity in the workforce was not representative of the children and families served by nursery schools, and this was particularly the case when we looked at leaders in the sector.
This led to an interview study with 14 EY nursery school headteachers to discuss the findings from the quantitative research and explore the lived experiences of ethnicity among leaders in the sector. Based on prior participation in the quantitative research, participants were invited to participate in our qualitative study.
In this blog post, we explore how doing this research has challenged us as researchers and required that we bring a reflexive lens to the process. We consider our affective responses to the narratives shared by participants and how these have been shaped by our own individual identities and experiences. We suggest that the work of bell hooks (1994) on vulnerability may be helpful in advancing how we apply reflexivity in research such as this.
Hearing about leaders’ experiences within the early years sector has been deeply emotional. We have heard from racially minoritised leaders who feel constantly under surveillance, having to prove themselves over and over again and subject to prejudice:
‘… you cannot afford to slip in any way and if you make a mistake, you must be clear how it happened; yes, it’s like under a microscope. … they were waiting for me to make a mistake so that’s why I’m under constant surveillance. I will double and triple check everything.’
We have also heard from White British leaders who lack awareness about unconscious bias in recruitment processes, which work to limit diversity in the EY workforce:
‘It’s just at the end of the day, will they fit in? Isn’t it?’
We have been deeply affected by what we have heard, and through reflexivity we keep on returning to the way in which what we hear relates to our own experiences. We acknowledge that our own individual identities, experiences and particularly our ethnicities have influenced the way that we collected the data and subsequently, analysed the interviews.
We appear as White, but not as British, bringing instead distinct cultural and linguistic (sometimes mixed) heritages, which are signalled to others – including participants – through our names. We are aware and continue to remind ourselves that what our participants shared with us is dependent on their reading of our background, including our ethnic identity.
Participants’ reactions and our emotional response to doing the research is a dialogue with our positionality. We have had moments of elation, when a participant says something particularly resonant with our own understanding; likewise, we have experienced moments of frustration when we come against, directly or indirectly, the barriers of prejudice and discrimination.
This brought us closer to the experiences we were hearing about as we could identify with some encounters and circumstances, hold similar beliefs and, likewise, make comparable judgments. Other perspectives and narratives had the opposite effect – seeming to push us away. This was a line we needed to walk carefully as a research team, since our aim was a better understanding of the perspectives and experiences of everyone in our sample. Our team reflexivity has been nourished by embracing the full spectrum of emotions and our individual approach to data, by connecting with each other, and by offering mutual support and keeping reflective journals.
At times, it has been difficult to stop our affective response from getting in the way of this understanding. We have questioned whether our role in these moments is to take a step closer towards our participants – developing our empathy with them – or to ‘call out’ perceptions and prejudices that we deem to be unacceptable or upsetting.
Beside our emotions, we have encountered also the emotions of participants. We were exploring a highly emotive subject and in setting out to do the research, we had not fully appreciated the levels of vulnerability we were asking from participants. We had thought that the fairly removed tone of our questions – which all took the form of inviting reflections on our earlier quantitative findings – would limit the level of emotion and sensitivity in the interviews. We were wrong.
‘We had thought that the fairly removed tone of our questions – which all took the form of inviting reflections on our earlier quantitative findings – would limit the level of emotion and sensitivity in the interviews. We were wrong.’
We encountered surprising levels of honesty, openness and vulnerability in some interviews; while in other interviews, we found ourselves dealing with a defensiveness we had not anticipated. We know from the work of bell hooks (1994) that vulnerability is a powerful force when looking at issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. The willingness to be vulnerable and share our stories of fear and struggle can be both a pathway to empowerment for the individual – if suitably supported and held – as well as a catalyst for social change.
hooks. b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.
Sakr, M., Dujczynski, M., & Santos Pinto, C. (2022). Ethnicity & the early years workforce: A census of staff in maintained nursery schools in England. British Educational Research Association. https://www.bera.ac.uk/publication/ethnicity-the-early-years-workforce-a-census-of-staff-in-maintained-nursery-schools-in-england