Supporting teachers to run focus groups during the COVID-19 crisis

Youth Sport Trust’s Ross Levy reflects on what has been learnt through the charity’s Research and Insight team supporting school teachers to conduct focus groups during the COVID-19 crisis. From generating pride and trust in the research process to issues of sampling bias, this article considers the strengths and drawbacks of this approach.

Physical activity levels amongst children and young people in England continue to be alarmingly low. The closure of playgrounds and suspension of grassroots sports are just two ways in which COVID-19 has contributed to such low activity. Simultaneously, young people’s wellbeing has plummeted, with concerns around anxiety, loneliness and trauma prevalent. We at Youth Sport Trust are eager to promote the benefits and unique role of play and sport to children and young people. Additionally, we are always keen to deliver sporting opportunities where young people themselves are empowered to be leaders.

The views of children and young people themselves are integral to understanding what Post-COVID-19 youth sports leadership opportunities should consist of. We are aware that attempting to go through gate-keepers and then introducing ourselves as researchers in virtual environments during the COVID-19 crisis potentially creates an alienating research process. Therefore, Youth Sport Trust researchers have supported school teachers and school sport practitioners such as School Games Organisers to conduct focus groups with children and young people on our behalf either in-person or virtually. Doing so has been crucial to understand what young people want and need from youth sport leadership opportunities which can combat the physical and mental wellbeing challenges posed by COVID-19.

Engaging and Accessible Research Tools:

Youth Sport Trust engaged with its large network of schools and volunteers to conduct these focus groups. It was important that many of the recruited schools were part of the charity’s Lead Inclusion Schools Network in order to ensure the views of children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities were incorporated into this research. In total, 45 individuals aged 12-25 were involved in the research.

Creating engaging and accessible research tools as part of a Research Pack was paramount to boosting the confidence and competence of those we were supporting to conduct our research. In addition to consent forms and participant information sheets, the Pack also featured a document with practical top tips for ensuring that the focus groups could be inclusive, for instance for those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. For example, using emoji cards to help young people to share their thoughts and feelings. 

The practicalities of facilitating a focus group were also addressed, for example encouraging teachers to use quiet spaces so as not to host focus groups in sensorily overwhelming environments.  A discussion guide detailed a series of key questions to ask. A corresponding notes section provided a space for facilitators to write down what participants said. 


Focus groups facilitated by individuals who were already known and trusted by children and young people helped participants to express their views with confidence. 

The findings from the focus groups were analysed by Youth Sport Trust researchers and supported the development of the Bubble Leadership resource which was freely available to all schools. Because The facilitator of the focus group would also be delivering the resulting youth leadership activities, This meant the facilitators could use the resource and be proud of how they and the focus group participants directly helped to shape the resource. 

This demonstrated to participants the value of social research, helped reinforce trust, and supported young people in feeling that their voices are valued. This itself has benefits for the schools participating, who have the opportunity to promote their active engagement in the research process for creating youth-friendly leadership activities.

Setting up focus groups in challenging COVID-19 times meant the individuals selected for the focus groups were often those who regularly participated in school sports: a sampling bias was thus evident. It would have been beneficial to have heard from those who do not usually engage in sport and physical activity to determine how this sports leadership opportunity could be used as a vehicle to better support these pupils post-COVID.

Furthermore, whilst our Research Pack provided extensive guidelines and support, the notes submitted by the facilitators on participants’ responses were occasionally sporadic and hard to follow. Clearly, there is no substitute for being there at the focus group and being able to appreciate all the nuances of the research encounter, such as the body language of participants. Further support on making good notes would have been useful.


Next Steps

We hope to go one step further and support teachers/school sport practitioners to train young people themselves to ask questions of their peers in focus groups and interviews. This will help pupils to develop vital communication skills alongside developing their critical-thinking and empathetic qualities. This will help Youth Sport Trust’s programmes to be more holistic in their approach by supporting the development of broader skillsets. Peer-to-peer research may also help generate richer, more authentic insight.

We have seen that a benefit of our approach is that it fostered greater trust and pride in the research process. The creation of a resource directly responding to youth voices broke down the barrier between “expert” and “participants”, with young people not just being viewed as recipients of programmes and resources, but also integral to their creation. Continuing to erode the power dynamic of “expert” and “participant” will further allow Youth Sport Trust to centralise youth voices in its research, delivery and evaluation of its programmes.

AUTHOR BIO: Ross Levy is currently a Research and Evaluation Officer at the Youth Sport Trust. Ross studied Sociology at the University of Nottingham. He has experience working in schools, local government and in the charity sector; using sport and the arts as vehicles for community engagement and cohesion.