While refugees have received scholarly attention in the wider social sciences, relatively little interest has been given to their educational issues (Bellino, 2020), despite the fact that, for example, school-aged refugees are about five times less likely to access basic education that their non-refugee peers (McIntyre & Neuhaus, 2021). Furthermore, within the limited research that does exist, few studies have implemented a participatory approach to their research in the field of refugee education.

A Sustainable Place for Inclusive Refugee Education (ASPIRE) is a research initiative between the University of Nottingham (led by Professor Joanna McIntyre) and Refugee Education UK (REUK). This study focuses on refugee education and pioneers a participatory methodology led by learners with asylum-seeking and refugee backgrounds. ASPIRE is a place-based research study that aims to understand existing education provisions in two English cities – Oxford and Nottingham – from the perspective of young refugees and those who support them in local communities. ASPIRE works in collaboration with representatives of refugee stakeholder groups, to draw on the community as a resource. ASPIRE aims to develop a holistic educational network for refugees. Thus, despite its focus on Nottingham and Oxford as specific research locations, its objective is to showcase effective local initiatives and facilitate the transfer of their knowledge to other localities.

In this blog, researcher Sediqa Bakhtiari reflects on her observations on and experiences of the participatory aspect of the project ‘A Sustainable Place for Inclusive Refugee Education’ (ASPIRE).

Why a participatory approach matters for refugee education research

In contrast to traditional research designs, researchers with a participatory approach choose methods and tools that can be conducted through participatory and democratic practices. Participatory research can be used as an umbrella term for research designs, methods, and frameworks that use systematic inquiry in direct collaboration with those affected by the issue being studied for the purpose of action or change (Cargo & Mercer, 2008). This approach prioritises co-constructing research through partnerships between researchers and stakeholders, community members, or others with insider knowledge and lived expertise (Jagosh et al., 2012).

To inform the design of the ASPIRE research, we carried out a desk-based review of refugee education literature, practices and initiatives in Oxford and Nottingham. Through this review, we found a notable lack of focus on education in refugee research in both locations, which is overshadowed by research on safety, housing, resettlement, and integration. The review did, however, identify an array of initiatives and provisions seeking to support refugee education in both locations – and through ASPIRE, we hope to make this work visible.

Additionally, in the desk-based review, we found that existing research on refugees fails to adequately address the experiences of refugee students themselves and, as a result, their voices and views are often invisible in research conducted ‘about them’, rather than ‘with them’. By shifting the spotlight to the learners and engaging them as active co-researchers, ASPIRE is contributing to a more comprehensive understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the education system for asylum seekers and refugees in the UK.

ASPIRE: a participatory research project

To implement the participatory methodology within the ASPIRE project, various layers of participation have been designed. For example, as the Research Assistant in this project with the lived experience of being a refugee for most of my life, I’m hoping to bring in my experience of displacement to inform and shape this research. To implement this, I am responsible for designing research tools, gathering data from refugee and asylum-seeking communities, conducting data analysis, and co-authoring research findings in collaboration with other members of the research team.
Additionally, the ASPIRE research team is engaging a group of young people from refugee backgrounds in each city. They are ASPIRE’s Experts by Lived Experience (EbLE) steering group. These young people have shaped research questions and methodology. So far, the research team held two meetings in each city (Nottingham and Oxford) with the Experts by Lived Experience (EbLE) group. During the first meetings, young people collaboratively formulated the research questions related to access to education for asylum seekers and refugees in the UK. They engaged in discussions regarding the primary challenges and identified specific organisations and stakeholders that they wanted to be considered in the research.

After defining the research questions, the research team worked on a guide for conducting focus group discussions with learners of refugee backgrounds. This tool incorporated creative data collection methods that focused mostly on non-verbal and playful ways to data from young people. Subsequently, in the second meetings, this guide was put to the test with the EbLE group. They discussed the suitability of the tools and suggested adaptations for more effective participant engagement.

Looking forward

The next steps for ASPIRE will include the revision of research tools based on the feedback from the EbLE group meetings. We will soon begin data collection in Nottingham and Oxford based on the revised tools. Following data collection, the EbLE group will participate in the process of interpretation of research findings and will co-construct an understanding of the experiences of young people in these cities along with the research team.

Having seen and been a part of the participatory process to date, we are looking forward to continuing to meaningfully engage the EbLE in the future. As a researcher on the project, I have observed how research is made stronger when people with lived experience actively engage. I have seen how EbLE have brought valuable insights to the formation of this project which might be overlooked by those who are unfamiliar with refugee and asylum-seeking communities. During our previous meetings, EbLE actively shared their perspectives, ensuring that our research tools were appropriate, sensible and reliable. I believe that continued engagement will strengthen our research project going forward, and ensure that our research is helpful to refugee communities in both Oxford, Nottingham and beyond.

For any further questions about the ASPIRE research project, please contact Professor Joanna McIntyre via


Bellino, M. (2020). Education, merit and mobility: Opportunities and aspirations of refugee youth in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp, In British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 47, Issue 4, pp. 817-835.
Cargo, M., & Mercer, S. L. (2008). The value and challenges of participatory research: Strengthening its practice. Annual Review of Public Health, 29(1), 325–350.
Jagosh, J., Macaulay, A. C., Pluye, P., Salsberg, J., Bush, P. L., Henderson, J., Sirett, E., Wong, G., Cargo, M., Herbert, C. P., Seifer, S. D., Green, L. W., & Greenhalgh, T. (2012). Uncovering the benefits of participatory research: Implications of a realist review for health research and practice. Milbank Quarterly, 90(2), 311–346.
McIntyre, J., Neuhaus, S. (2021). Theorising policy and practice in refugee education: Conceptualising ‘safety’, ‘belonging’, ‘success’ and ‘participatory parity’ in England and Sweden, British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 47, Issue 4, pp. 796-816.