University of Portsmouth researcher Dr Simon Edwards has been awarded an MBE in the 2018 Queen’s Birthday Honours for his services to youth work and education.
Dr Edwards has spent many years working with young people who have been involved in crime, who have been excluded from school or who struggle generally with their teenage years. His research at the university focuses on pupils who no longer attend mainstream education and explores methods to re-engage them in studies.
The Senior Lecturer in Youth Studies at the University was delighted by his nomination. He said: “I really have no idea who put me forward for this. In fact when the letter came, I wasn’t even sure if it was the real thing. I thought “have I really got this?”
Dr Edwards has been lecturing at the university for four and a half years and has a background in youth work and teaching that spans 32 years. Before his research career, he worked in Brighton with excluded students and taught school pupils with special educational needs.
Dr Edwards explained: “I am immensely proud of the students I worked with. We worked very hard to find ways to re-engage them with education in a family context. Some of them had no predicted GCSEs and came out with Bs and Cs in English and maths. Now they’re really keen to help others.”
His current research project at the university sees him training some of these former excluded students and their parents as researchers. They assist his investigations and act as mentors for other families who have struggled to stay in mainstream education.
The award comes as a huge surprise for the researcher who left school with few qualifications and never imagined achieving a doctorate, let alone an MBE.
Dr Edwards said: “I didn’t intend going into youth work, teaching or having an academic career. I had opportunities as a youngster but we didn’t have much and I didn’t do particularly well at school. Having said that, my friends and family used to call me the ‘professor’ so maybe they saw something I didn’t.”
Dr Edwards, who is based in Lancing, began his career as a baker and became involved in youth work after helping people on the council housing estate where he lived. He said: “I’d visit old guys who had become reclusive in their homes and help out young people getting into trouble, even when they were smashing windows and being a general nuisance. Instead of getting angry I thought it would be better to find ways to help them.”
The married dad-of-two was invited to work part-time as a paid youth worker and was encouraged by his manager to study for a degree in youth and community work and applied theology. He managed a youth centre for West Sussex Youth Service and studied a master’s degree in education at the University of Sussex, who later awarded him a scholarship placement to continue his studies for a PhD. He later joined the graduate teacher programme at the University of Brighton before embarking on his teaching career.
In his own time, Dr Edwards meets young adult males who have been in prison, who are vulnerable to suicide or experience difficult times to help them access resources to meet their needs. He also runs curry nights to encourage lads and dads to socialise. He said: “A lot of men become isolated and find it difficult to talk about their problems. The highest suicide rate is among males. I want to encourage men to talk more and open up to each other.”
At the University of Portsmouth, Dr Edwards also researches cyber bullying from a youth work perspective. Studies involve interviewing young people about their online behaviour. He said: “I’m very keen on presenting young people’s voices, which is largely overlooked in schools. When you talk to young people about what they do and how they understand the world, you get a very different story.”
He has written a book, Re-engaging Young People with Education: The Steps after Disengagement and Exclusion, published by Palgrave MacMillan.
Dr Edwards says his motivation for his work comes from injustice in society. “There’s an attitude at the moment in society that says if life hasn’t worked out for you, you haven’t done very well and you haven’t made the best use of resources available, it’s somehow your fault. But most of the time, families really want to make it work. I’ve yet to meet a struggling parent who doesn’t want to make life better for their child and a struggling child who doesn’t want to learn and do well.”