‘Reaching in the right direction’: How a person-focussed approach to research can lead to meaningful engagement

By Chrissie Browne, King’s College London Widening Participation Department, Widening Participation Officer

Some people interact with programmes and research more readily than others, this has contributed to the phrase ‘hard to reach’. In this blog I reflect on my experience of working with Gypsies, Roma and Travellers and explain why hard to reach is a term I do not like to use.

As a widening participation officer, I work with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller young people to increase representation in higher education, under the umbrella of “Rombelong”. I have heard many words to describe Travellers over the years, ranging from extremely negative to simply misguided. One that interests me is ‘hard to reach’. Within and outside of my work, I have not found that this is the case. If anything, there is so little out there for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller students that the demand outstrips the supply.

Some people might think that I have an ‘in’ being a Traveller myself, but I can almost guarantee that is not the main reason people interact with us. Although, on reflection, my lived experience has influenced my approach, and how I have suggested we work as a team with these students.

The challenges and opportunities with research

Even with a research-intensive degree, I have always been somewhat uncomfortable with research. I understand the need for it, but reading so many studies over the years that have not led to improvements for those studied, I sometimes wonder who does it benefit?

Having a research focus for a programme could negatively impact relationship building and trust. It can be so easy to put the research process and output before the human experience. However, in doing this, we run the risk of turning participants into resources through forms and surveys and we might alienate them.

There is also the question of what happens after the research. A lament I often hear from Travellers, young and old, is ‘another report to gather dust’. If people do not see change, this could colour their experience and their likelihood of getting involved in the future.

We can try to avoid these pitfalls by keeping a participant focussed mindset from the inception of the theory of change, through to after the research is completed. By keeping this focus, we might also be able to increase participation in projects.

Our approach – keeping a ‘person-centric’ focus

Relating to a human being, not words on a screen

Surveys and questionnaires do not consider complexities of meaning and experiences[ii], or consider what a participant understands or finds appropriate. In a conversation, topics can be explained, and those that the participant does not feel comfortable with can be addressed, which can then inform future research development. In a survey the question could be ignored, answered untruthfully, or stop people continuing.

Rather than starting with a survey, or an application form, we build the relationship first. Having a ten-minute chat can give more insight than ten questions on a one-size-fits-all form. I’ve found that the person feels listened to and understood. They can relate to another human being, instead of words written down or on a screen. Gypsies, Roma and Travellers have been misrepresented in the media and research for longer than myself, my parents and my grandparents have been alive. This is especially why an approach that is about listening to allow authentic voices to be heard is essential, and is our approach at KCLWP.

Valuing people’s time, thoughts, and energy

Secondly, we do not ask people to spend their valuable time and experience doing something that will not benefit them directly.  Compensation for the time they spend on any feedback, forms or focus groups should be delivered timely, and be done with good grace. In widening participation, we have made a commitment to help people reach their potential. This does not come with a caveat that we do that only if they participate in research.

One could argue that feedback will be beneficial to them by services being run differently, or long-term societal change. These abstract ideas not only distance the participant from us, but also still asks them to bear the burden of a societal problem they did not cause in the first place.

Measuring impact without adding more burdens and barriers

From the inception of all Rombelong projects, we have been careful to build in success measures that are not a burden to participants. For instance, one of our programmes involves weekly tutoring[iii]. If students attend every week, it implies they see value in it. A family is unlikely to put aside an hour a week of their time for thirty weeks of the year if they do not value the tutoring sessions. Parents engaging with us outside of lessons, e.g. if they send messages or thank us for resources shows trust, and measures of impact in a relational way.

To measure long term impact, we use the HEAT tracker. This is where having trusting relationships makes a difference. In the early days of the work, many teachers anticipated we were unlikely to get consent from Traveller parents. However, on our tutoring programme, only one parent out of seventy has refused data monitoring which is so positive.

Hard to reach or hardly reached – practitioners need to reach in the right direction

The most important thing for me is that participants know that they are the centre of what we do. I believe it is down to us to evaluate our programmes without burdening the participants. The evidence base for working with ‘hard to reach groups’ is growing, and from the foundations upwards we can make the research ethical, and person focused. I believe that Gypsy, Roma and Travellers and other groups are not hard to reach, it is us as practitioners that are not reaching in the right direction.

This blog is the second of a three-part series about research with ‘hard to reach’ students.


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[i] Wilkins CH. Effective Engagement Requires Trust and Being Trustworthy. Med Care. 2018;56 Suppl 10 Suppl 1(10 Suppl 1):S6-S8. doi:10.1097/MLR.0000000000000953

[ii] Liamputtong, P. (2007) Researching the Vulnerable: A Guide to Sensitive Research Methods. Sage Publishing.

[iii] https://www.kcl.ac.uk/news/providing-bespoke-support-for-gypsy-roma-and-traveller-students-during-covid-19

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