Young people facilitating focus groups: applied social research in action

Roma Thomas is a Research Fellow in the International Centre and organised an ‘Applied Social Research Workshop for Young Peopleas part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science 2015*. 

The ESRC Festival of Social Science is an annual UK-wide event that aims to increase public understanding of the value of social science to our world today. The International Centre aims to involve young people in our work wherever possible, so we decided to take the opportunity to reach out to some local schools and help pupils understand what social research involves.

Seventy young people aged 16-18 from four different schools took part in the event. Beforehand we worked more closely with a smaller group of 14 sixth formers from a local school, who we supported to act as co-facilitators in running ten focus groups on the day itself.

The work of our co-facilitators contributed hugely to the success of the day, and they gained some practice in running focus groups, as these observations from one of the young people demonstrates.

  • Initially – little eye contact from group
  • Nodded to information on consent and confidentiality
  • High level of conformity
  • Rolling eyes when talking about boys
  • Heavy debate on who to reach out to for help

(Notes from a Focus Group Observer – Young Person)

The theme for the focus groups was how young people can be involved in sexual violence prevention efforts. As one of our co-facilitators commented, ‘Deep stuff like this is not discussed everyday.  

In the run-up to the event, a colleague and I ran a training session designed to equip the sixth formers with the skills to co-facilitate a focus group. We gave each young person a choice of roles. This included facilitating the group discussion, being an observer or being a note–taker. A key part of the training session was giving our co-facilitators the experience of being in a focus group themselves. Their feedback afterwards included advice about what we needed to do to make sure our wider focus groups were a success.

‘Quick and easy questions that dont beat around the bush

‘Understand that sensitive topics can be uncomfortable to discuss

The challenge of discussing sensitive topics is always a key issue for our research. After the training session we asked for views on the process. Opinions from our co-facilitators varied, with some finding things a bit uncomfortable ‘as its not something that is usually discussed between peers. Another commented that they were ‘perhaps slightly apprehensive at first but once everyone is comfortable to talk its okay.

So how did things go at the event itself? Feedback from the 70 school students was positive, with young people saying they enjoyed the day. They also gave us helpful pointers for the future, including ‘longer focus groups, more equal gender within groups.

As researchers we really valued the experience of working alongside young people, and were reminded once again of the centrality of young people’s experiences and perspectives in work on sexual exploitation and violence.

On the topic of young people’s role in preventing sexual violence? The last word has to go to one of our focus group attendees: ‘The government need to know what we want as a generation.


*ESRC – Economic and Social Research Council