Dr. Adeela ahmed Shafi - Associate Professor in Education, University of Gloucestershire
Dr. Adeela Shafi has a background in psychology and education, teaching in higher education for over 16 years. Her research draws on psychological theories to explore how to re-engage young people in conflict with the law with formal education and learning in custodial settings. Her team at the University of Gloucestershire has recently lead two European Erasmus+ projects, Re-Engaging Young Offenders with Education & Learning (RENYO) and ActiveGames4Change (AG4C) working with partners in 8 European countries with the aim of contributing to the development of policy and practice in this area. In addition, her team is currently working on another Erasmus+ project, Skills4Life, which aims to provide skills to children in conflict with the law which are useful for everyday life and can support their integration into society.
Adeela’s other research includes how to develop academic resilience and buoyancy. She was recognised for her contributions in research and services to social justice with an MBE in the Queen’s 2020 New Year Honours List.
Your work at the University of Gloucestershire has recently been focused on researching effective ways to improve the quality and effectiveness of education for young people in conflict with the law. What led you to focus on this particular target group?
I decided to focus on this group of children and young people because they represent the most marginalised young people in our society. In many ways they are the product of everything that can go wrong in a young person’s life. Many of them have challenging home and socioeconomic background, may come from minoritized communities and many have (often undiagnosed) social, emotional difficulties as well as learning difficulties - then on top of that, poor educational experiences and support which means they often drop out of school. If you add all of those together it shows how a young person might find themselves in a difficult situation with the law.
I thought that it was important to explore the darker shadows of education in our society because if you can do things that can help these young people, not only do you help them, but you can find solutions to help others who are in not such a bad position.
One of the projects that your team has recently led, RENYO, was focused on testing a methodology to re-engage young people in conflict with the law with education and learning. Could you explain this methodology used by the project?
This was a methodology that I explored as part of my doctoral studies, entitled Authentic Inquiry. It basically flips the curriculum by making the learner the starting point. Using the process of authentic inquiry, you explore with the learner what they are interested in – it could be anything. You then use this authentic interest which may be connected to an experience they have had or an object or anything else of significance to the young person, and you use it to enable them to examine and explore that in depth. In doing so you can connect them to the more formal or public curriculum. So, for example a recent learner was very interested in earning money at any cost, and so they were enabled to explore the concept of money, its history and current uses. In doing so, they were connected to history, maths, economics and business as well as research skills. They also presented this to their peers, which means developing English and communication as well as Arts. It enabled the young person to see that their own authentic self is important in learning. And it is this that has been missing in their educational experiences.
Because it was so successful in my PhD studies, I decided to roll it out to other context to include Italy, Spain and Germany. The results showed similar findings, but highlighted the role of the facilitator.
Another one of the research projects you’ve been working on, ActiveGames4Change, focuses on the development of social and emotional competences for young people in conflict with the law through the use of sport and physical activity. How did you implement this project with young people to test the development of their social and emotional competences?
This was an exciting project with 10 partners across 7 European countries, including Italy, Spain, Hungary, Turkey, Romania, Portugal and the UK. The project designed a bespoke set of games and activities through the expertise of our University School of Sport and Exercise and School of Education including psychologists. All of them were designed in a way as to be suitable for use in a range of custodial settings with the knowledge of the challenges the learners might face. Further, we ensured that educators with a range of educational skills and experiences could still facilitate the games. This was a particularly unique element of this project.
Educators from the partnership were trained up in implementing the games and collecting data from the settings. Once we had collected over 900 pieces of data at a range of levels designed to improve both the materials and methodology, we were able to analyse the data to assess impact. We were excited to see that in all settings across the partnership there was a positive difference that could be seen in the specified social and emotional competencies in the young people who participated. This has given us good evidence to continue to disseminate and share the materials and methodology with secure settings in our respective countries.
One of your projects currently underway, Skills4Life, is researching the social, emotional and personal skills that young people who have been in detention need the most in order to achieve an effective and permanent reintegration into society. How is the Skills4Life project conducting this research?
This project is based around the design of a curriculum directly focused on the needs of young people who are incarcerated and need to prepare for release into the community. All too often, young people who come into conflict with the law have missed out on the regular opportunities to gain the skills and knowledge needed to lead adult lives. This includes things like self-regulation skills, social skills and practical life skills. Many of us may take such skills for granted which we tend to learn through our home lives or via school, but if our home life is challenging and we do not have the resources or we have dropped out of school, then the opportunities to learn such things do not always naturally present themselves.
The unique aspect of this curriculum is that it has been informed by qualitative data from 80 young people, both in secure settings and those recently released in all the partner countries in Greece, Italy, France and the UK. It means that we have been able to develop a curriculum that is directly what young people have said they need. Educators will be trained in the curriculum and then it will be tested in the settings with the aim of providing a full guide for implementing the curriculum.
In summary, all these projects are focusing in on the heart of the issue - of understanding the situation that many young people who are incarcerated might find themselves. And to aim for solutions to support them so they have a better chance in society than we first gave them.