Using Photovoice to Elevate Children’s Participation in Home Education Research: Opportunities, Challenges and Unanswered Questions

Flack, Zoe and Fensham-Smith, Amber (2020). Using Photovoice to Elevate Children’s Participation in Home Education Research: Opportunities, Challenges and Unanswered Questions. In: Educational Research (Re)connecting Communities, ECER, 25-28 Aug 2020 - Cancelled, University of Glasgow.


In recent years, public curiosity in alternatives models of education has proliferated. Social, economic and political change has fuelled diversity in school choice policies, and for some, afforded the means to abandon formal schooling altogether (Kunzman and Gaither, 2013). This has surfaced a bourgeoning interest in place-based and community focused forms of education and pedagogy (Cheng and Donnelly, 2019). Home education (or home-schooling) is one education alternative that has received global attention (Bhopal and Myers, 2018). The International Centre for Home Education Research, The Peabody Journal of Education and the Wiley International Handbook of Home Education (Gaither, 2017) evidence a growing body of international scholarship in this field. While the legal status of home education across European countries and North America is disparate (Blok and Karstens, 2011; Sperling, 2015), discussions surrounding the rights of children, parents and the role of the state within the context of community development are pertinent across these unique contexts.

Within the UK, the number of families who electively home educate (EHE) is anecdotally on the rise (Bhopal and Myers, 2018). Experiences linked to a decline in children’s emotional wellbeing and special educational needs are commonly cited as reasons why some families are initially ‘pushed’ into EHE and away from state- maintained provision. From a policy perspective, safeguarding and more latterly, concerns about radicalisation have coloured a largely negative public discourse (De Carvalho and Skipper, 2019). At the same time, the number of neighbourhood groups and parent-initiated support networks dedicated to supporting the educational, emotional and social needs of EHE children and young people have also increased (Fensham-Smith, 2019). Exploring some of the ways in which children make sense of their lives within these learning communities is a significantly under-researched topic.

EHE studies published in the English Language have favoured the use of small-scale and qualitative research methodologies (Kunzman and Gaither, 2013). These methodologies are typically framed around the experiences, values and attitudes of parents. Additionally, EHE families are deemed as a ‘hard to reach’ and are an under-researched group. Issues of trust, access and building positive relationships between researchers and EHE communities are important for the progress of research on the topic (Kunzman and Gaither, 2013). Currently, little is known about the educational experiences of EHE children and young people, who are, after all, the key stakeholders in any prospective policy change (Jones, 2013). Participatory action research that explicitly seeks to elevate the voices of EHE children within their respective communities is scant.

To address this significant gap, we invited EHE children to co-produce research about their experience as learners using the Photovoice method (Wang and Burris, 1997). The central aim of this project was to explore the ways in which learners make sense of their everyday educational experiences. Subsidiary to this is to consider the ways in which the narratives of are connected to family participation in local EHE neighbourhood groups, and what this might mean for local policy development and practice. The following objectives guided our inquiry:
1. To enable EHE children to record and reflect their community strengths and concerns;
2. To facilitate the co-production of knowledge and critical dialogue about local community issues and their impact on families;
3. To critically consider the implications of this project for the development of local policy and practice

Methodology, Methods, Research Instruments or Sources Used

The researchers have previous experience of working with EHE families over several years. This project used the Photovoice method to represent the voices, needs and the experiences of EHE children (Wang and Burris, 1997). Researchers have evidenced the value of this approach for engaging children and young people (Cooper, Sorensen and Yarbrough, 2017; Heidelberger and Smith, 2016). Photovoice, as a community-based action research method, has gained popularity since its early inception in the 1990s (Caroline and Wang, 2006). The epistemological and ontological moorings of Photovoice align to social constructivist ways of thinking and knowing about the social world (Call-Cummings et al.,2019). The theory that underpins the process and intended application of this approach is a primary concern with the democratisation of knowledge development as a component of social justice (Wang and Burris, 1997). The Photovoice approach intends to achieve this by ensuring that community members are active co-producers of the research process and thus it produces data that is authentic to community experience in action (Call-Cummings et al., 2019). In response to the prevalence of top down policy making and service development, this method instead aims to ground knowledge making in community needs and expertise with a view to reconnecting disconnected discursive realities for the purpose of social transformation and societal change (Caroline and Wang, 2006).

The research design consisted of a pilot study in the South East of England which involved four consecutive workshops with 16 EHE children aged 6-15 years. The pilot project took place over a three-week period in September 2019. The themes and design of the workshops were iterative and informed by the needs and interest of children. Workshop themes included aspects of visual literary, treasure hunts and interactive activities designed to empower children to construct narratives around their chosen photographs. The children involved in the preliminary phase of the project were enrolled in a local community extra-curricular programme. The main project will take place between March-May 2019. It will involve 5 consecutive workshops with 8-12 EHE children followed by a larger community focused photography exhibition. The researchers have worked with an established community of EHE families in Hampshire (England) to develop the outline workshop programme. Given the participatory nature of the research, the precise themes, topics and activities facilitated in the workshops will be led by the needs and interests of the group of children who participate in this phase of the project.

Conclusions, Expected Outcomes or Findings

The expected findings of this paper will be of interest to academics, practitioners and/or children’s rights advocates who wish to develop innovative and participatory research methodologies in community education settings. Reflecting on their experiences of conducting both projects, the authors critically explore some of the philosophical assumptions and empirical realities to underpin the Photovoice methodology. This encompasses inclusion, equity, assent and reframing the notion of child-led research (Atkinson, 2019). It would contribute to wider debates surrounding power, voice and researcher positionality within the field of childhood studies (Giesinger, 2019; Lundy and McEvoy, 2012). Finally, it would provide a space within which to critically discuss the opportunities and challenges afforded through using innovative methods to promote community partnerships among ‘othered’ communities in education.

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