Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Tips for recruiting schools

I've spoken a little before about some of the challenges in school-based research. One of the first challenges you will face in carrying out research in schools is recruitment. I am often amazed to read papers that have studied hundreds of students and have no mention of how they recruited their participants. Having worked in a number of schools I thought I'd share my tips for recruiting schools, which can be a very disheartening process.

Look for systems already in place in your university
Lots of departments and lab groups keep databases of schools in the area. Before contacting any schools, it's worth asking around to see if any of these are available for you to use. These can be really helpful as they hopefully will have notes on which researchers have been into those schools, and how well received the contact from the university was. They may include helpful tips for specific people to contact, or email addresses that are not included on the school website.

Visit local council websites
Council websites will have lists of the schools in the area, often with a link to the school's website and a list of contact information. If there is no database as described above, I use Excel to create a spreadsheet of my local schools using the information from the council website. Council websites sometimes tell you the size of the school, which can be really helpful in deciding which schools to contact - you may decide to contact the schools with 500 students in rather than those with 50. If you're looking for lots of schools, then only note down the most important information into the spreadsheet. Don't bother with things like addresses because the chances are you'll not need these and it would be a waste of time.

Don't forget private schools
Private schools won't appear on council websites so you may need to do some searching for local private schools. A Google search can show you these schools.

Make first contact
As a first contact I usually send out a blanket email to all of the schools in the area. Remember that return rates are very low so you should definitely contact many more schools than you need. Keep the email short, and include all of the important points, including any participation payment you are offering. In your Excel spreadsheet, keep a column for noting the date and contact made with the school. If you're lucky, you will get a response from some schools!

Make second contact
Schools get a lot of junk emails so may have deleted yours. I usually phone the school within a week of sending the email, and ask if they received the email and if they could pass it on to the headteacher. Often they will  say that they haven't received the email, and will ask you to resend it. Confirm the email address with the receptionist as those on websites are sometimes not up to date. If I'm sending out a second email, I usually use the headteacher's name to make it more personal, and mention the name of the person I've been in phone contact with. Schools will not usually allow you to contact the headteacher directly, but it may be worth asking as occasionally they will give you the head's email address. However, I've noticed one trick that some schools do - they tell you the headteacher's email address but actually all emails go to the central admin account! Always be polite to the receptionists because they are often the ones who decide whether or not your email gets through to the head.

Keep making contact!
You may have to keep phoning schools and sending reminder emails through. Remember that teachers are incredibly busy. I have found that teachers appreciate polite reminder emails as they may have forgotten to reply. If you agree to speak with a teacher on the phone, confirm a suitable time and date to ensure you catch them while they're not teaching.

Keep notes of ALL contact made
I've already mentioned this above, but it's really important to write down what contact was made and when. The schools will probably blur together and you won't remember specific conversations, so instead of noting "called the school to ask if they were interested", write down more specific details like "called the school to ask if they were interested, Louise will call me back within 2 days to let me know". This will be really helpful if you don't hear anything back and want to contact them again.

Be flexible
When you are in contact with schools and trying to recruit them to your study, be flexible in your contact with them. Offer to speak on the phone and over email. Offer to go in to speak directly to the headteacher and any interested teachers to tell them more about the study. If you are recruiting for a study which involves a great deal of school participation, consider holding an information seminar for headteachers where you can give a talk about the project (possibly at your university), followed by a question and answer session.

Manage expectations
If your project involves a lot of time in the school or a lot of work for the teachers, be open and honest about this from the beginning. It may be tempting to play down the amount of school involvement to get teachers on board, but when they find out they have more to do they won't be impressed with the lack of transparency. If the amount of work does put schools off, at least you haven't recruited a school that wouldn't have been able to complete the work, or would have got annoyed by your presence.

Offer rewards
If possible, monetary awards for schools that take part can be a big incentive. If you are unable to offer money, then think about other things you can offer the school. Perhaps you could give them results from the study in a small seminar for teachers or interested parents. You could give an assembly to the school about your area of research, or take some students on a tour of your campus. Perhaps you could show the teachers how to use a specific tool that your research utilises. Or at the end of the study you could give the teachers access to the project materials if they are helpful.

Good luck!

I'd be interested to hear if there are any other tricks of the trade out there that I haven't covered! Please do comment below.