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Social worker researching integration of child asylum seekers

Kirstie Baughan, Audit Manager at Bedfordshire Council

Kirstie Baughan is an experienced social worker who is utilising funding from NIHR to research the integration experiences of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children leaving care.

Published: 21 September 2022

First steps into research

Kirstie worked as a senior practitioner in the children with disabilities team at Central Bedfordshire Council before becoming the Audit Manager, overseeing quality improvement for children’s services.

Her interest in research grew during her Masters degree when she explored what impact voluntary work in refugee camps has on social workers’ practice with unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC).

Kirstie’s voluntary work as a regional lead for Care4Calais, a charity supporting refugees, also sparked an interest in research in this area.

Working in the camps was a life-changing experience for me. I saw the difficulties asylum seekers had with integration and becoming part of a community. I reflected on my own career and the vast differences in practice and in our responses to unaccompanied minors.

"I wanted to explore how we, and other agencies, could improve experiences of integration within services and the wider community.”

Research aiming to uncover best practices

These experiences led Kirstie to successfully apply for the NIHR Doctoral Local Authority Fellowship (DLAF), which supports individuals in local authority settings to develop as health and/or social care researchers, funding their full salary, PhD fees, research costs, and a tailored training and development programme.

She began the fellowship in March 2022 which will investigate how UASC and social care professionals discuss experiences of integration, and compare integration in diverse urban areas and less-diverse rural areas. The project aims to uncover best practice and areas for improvement, which will enable Kirstie to produce guidelines and a toolkit to support professionals and young people.

By supporting Kirstie’s development as a practitioner and a researcher in parallel, the fellowship has allowed her to adjust her role at the council.

My council role has changed so that I am now focusing purely on service delivery for UASC which means there is a big overlap between my studies and professional role. I am able to use the learning from my academic studies to support the development of organisation-based projects.

“Being able to focus on this particular area within a local authority is unique. We are engaging UASC in service development more than we ever have before, which is improving integration experiences."

As is standard for full-time fellows, Kirstie now works one day a week at the council and the other four days on her research.

NIHR support created ‘now or never’ opportunity

Kirstie has attended training events which have enabled her to network with different researchers and accessed the NIHR’s support resources, including webinars about public involvement.

“At this point in my career, it is unlikely that I would have been able to take the time away from work to complete further studies.

The NIHR has provided me with a ‘now or never’ opportunity to undertake research which I am passionate about.

“The training has developed my confidence in presenting my project and learning how to involve young people in the management of a research project. It is really exciting and those involved so far have brought many new ideas, questions and loads of enthusiasm to the project.”

Kirstie also received support from the Research Design Service when putting together her application. They provided her with mock interviews, personalised advice and a space for reflection.

“I underestimated the level of detail required in the application process. It’s vital that potential applicants contact their local NIHR advisory service early. I found their advice and guidance extremely useful.”

Advice for potential applicants

Kirstie’s advice for anyone interested in pursuing an NIHR Academy award is to:

  • consider your proposal in depth
  • allow space for reflection and time for your ideas to grow
  • speak to people with lived experiences and use their voice to shape your project
  • make sure you are undertaking your project with people, not for people

I would absolutely recommend applying for the Doctoral Local Authority Fellowship. It can be a fantastic opportunity for you, your organisation and those with lived experiences. It is a chance to make a national and international impact on a subject which you feel passionately about.

Future plans

Kirstie’s project is still in its early stages and she aims to complete her research by April 2025.

“I have exciting things planned including attending lots of research courses, a field trip to observe a project in Finland and I’m looking forward to the masterclasses at the NIHR Academy Members’ Conference.

“In the future, I hope for further opportunities to work across the local authority and in partnership with higher education institutes to bridge the gap between research and practice.

I can see the benefits of incorporating more research into social work practice and this is an exciting journey for my organisation and for social work professionals.

Kirstie has also been shortlisted as a finalist in the social worker of the year awards under the category of ‘Social Justice Advocate’.

NIHR Local Authority Academic opportunities

The NIHR Local Authority Academic Fellowship (LAAF) Programme supports individuals based within local authority settings to develop as health and/or social care researchers whilst retaining their existing employment and salary.

The programme currently comprises two schemes:

  • LAAF Programme Pre-Doctoral Local Authority Fellowship (PLAF) Scheme
  • LAAF Programme Doctoral Local Authority Fellowship (DLAF) Scheme

These complement the NIHR Local Authority Short Placement Award for Research Collaboration (LA SPARC) Scheme.

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