CREC Awarded British Academy Grant Funding for New Research Project


Prof Chris Pascal, CREC Director has been awarded grant funding by the British Academy to support some exciting new research.

The project aims to consider how disadvantaged young children and families have experienced the impact of austerity in their local community spaces/places, where informal and family learning takes place and will explore innovative, community-led practices which have kept such leisure and recreational spaces alive and thriving.

A concurrent project will run in Portugal and it is hoped that this international approach will allow CREC to compare and contrast how two different countries have changed since the economic crash of 2007.

The UK focussed research will begin by mapping the cultural and community changes experienced by two inner-city Birmingham wards in the decade between 2007 and 2018.

This will include documenting changing levels of availability/access to what were, historically, public, free, cultural/leisure services on which poor families depend for stimulation and extension of family learning, including libraries, parks, playgrounds, youth clubs and museums.

The project aims to enhance family and informal learning for disadvantaged children before entry to school, generating learning with international relevance.

A number of family and neighbourhood case studies will then be produced to learn more about how changes identified have impacted on what has existed, what exists now and what the consequences of changes might be for their family learning experiences and consequently children’s futures.

Within this phase we will also work with existing community workers and cultural/arts-based services in each ward to explore and document, through focused interviews, their experiences of austerity on their services highlighting, in particular, examples of positive, enriching and creative responses to the impact of austerity on publicly funded community learning spaces and other environmentally based opportunities linked to informal family learning. We will interpret the data by looking for key themes and ideas of both loss and hope for the future in urban contexts

Professor Pascal said:

“We know that poor families with young children have been harder hit than any other group by austerity policies.

"Informal family learning in community spaces contributes to the development of young citizens, for character building, positive learning dispositions and executive learning functions, influencing successful school outcomes.  

"This connection between school outcomes and informal learning in urban environments is vital, under-researched and relevant to many urban communities experiencing austerity”

CREC would like to thank the British Academy for their grant funding support which will contribute to research, travel costs, and administrative support.

Find out more about the project at

Research Rationale

Poor families with young children have been harder hit than any other group by austerity (Lupton et al, 2015; Bradshaw et al, 2015; McDowell, 2016). The value of this study is that it addresses a vacuum in our current knowledge base, offering an innovative strategy to raise the attainment of disadvantaged young children in the UK by enhancing ‘school readiness’.

Firstly, it identifies what changes have taken place in publicly-funded, local community spaces available/accessed by disadvantaged families since the introduction of austerity policies from 2008.

Research shows decline/degradation in availability of informal learning opportunities for families impacts on children’s learning/development outcomes on starting school (Myhr et al, 2017).

Uniquely, we refer to early years provision outside formal early education/childcare settings, including playgrounds, museums, parks and libraries. The impact of the immediate environment on the eco-social development of under-5s is well documented (Diamond, 2012; Pascal and Bertram, 2012; NRDCAL, 2012; Cara and Brooks, 2012; Heckmann and Mosso, 2014).

Decline in these environments puts at-risk children’s cognitive, communicative, social and behavioural development. However, research looking at the influence of early informal and family learning within free, public spaces is lacking, so convincing budget holders to invest and sustain this provision is challenging.

The focus in policy is on formal settings rather than informal learning spaces, in local neighbourhoods. We wish to shift the focus encouraging policymakers to think more expansively about informal family learning affordances which have a strong influence on children’s school readiness.

Secondly, research focusing on disadvantaged families’ views on the impact of cuts on community spaces/places and the effect on children’s learning opportunities is lacking. Seeking their views on the impact of austerity on family life and learning, and exploring what might be beneficial and sustainable locally, offers a unique insight into family learning.

Thirdly, we want to enhance what local community action can contribute to developing public opportunities to support informal family learning. This will be realised by an exploration of how creative interventions in surviving community venues can make the most of limited public funding to enhance informal family learning in local places.Through capturing the processes and outcomes in neighbourhood-focused interventions, we can model and evaluate possibilities for other communities.

The evaluated outcomes of this intervention will be transferable, making a broader contribution to the policy/practice of working with disadvantaged families in public, free community places and providing strategies to address aspirations for greater social justice, wider community engagement and increased social cohesion.

Specific Research Questions

1. How has austerity impacted on the availability of, and access to, of public, free, informal learning spaces and resources in two English and two Portuguese communities?

2. How have character building, positive learning dispositions and the executive learning functions* of children been affected by the reduction in free, public community spaces and resources, especially for disadvantaged, low-income families?

3. In the face of austerity, how have communities and services maintained and sustained free, public community spaces and resources, particularly with regard to building neighbourhood community building, solidarity and creativity?

4. What additional action can be taken to enhance informal family learning in free, public community spaces?

* Executive learning functions are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one's resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation. It includes three basic functions:
1. Working memory
2. Cognitive flexibility
3. Self-regulation


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