The changing landscape: diverse friendships and the effects of contextual diversity on youth outcomes


  • Grant Code: ES/P007724/1
  • Duration: 10/2017 - 12/2019
  • Amount Awarded: £158,999



Within many Western countries and especially in the UK, the social landscape is becoming increasingly ethnically and racially diverse. In 2015, approximately 19% of the resident population in the United Kingdom (UK) identified as racial/ethnic minorities, an increase from 9% in 2001 and 6% in 1991 (ONS, 2015) and school statistics demonstrate that 27% of pupils in state funded secondary schools are of minority ethnic origin (DfE, 2015). However the effects of this growing diversity on important life outcomes for youths are hotly contested; on the one hand some argue that diversity promotes higher educational outcomes and better physical and psychological health, but on the other hand increasing diversity has been found to be negatively related to academic achievement and to poorer physical and mental health. Given the increasing tensions resulting from this growing diversity (e.g., conflict arising from increasing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers as well as perceived levels of immigration, growing number of hate crimes in the aftermath of Brexit), it is both timely and critical to gain a better understanding of how young people negotiate their increasingly diverse environments, and the impact this diversity has on important life outcomes, such as educational aspirations and mental and physical health.

To date, the majority of research examining diversity effects has focused primarily on the racial/ethnic composition of educational settings or the neighbourhood but this does not necessarily correspond to meaningful interactions with diverse peers. Therefore, working with the National Children's Bureau, to gain a more nuanced understanding of how diversity might impact young people, we extend the current literature to examine the diversity of youth's friendship networks, in addition to contextual diversity at the school- and neighbourhood-level. We are interested in addressing two key questions: (1) What predicts youth's diverse friendships, parental attitudes and/or exposure to diversity in the school and neighbourhood? (2) What impact does diversity at the interpersonal, school, and neighbourhood level have on educational attitudes and aspirations and health-related outcomes? We also consider the potentially dynamic nature of diversity by examining changes in friendship, school, and neighbourhood composition over time. 

To address our key research questions, we will use data from a large-scale national longitudinal survey linked to two administrative data sources that in combination provide information on parent attitudes toward diversity, youth diverse friendships, youth educational attitudes and aspirations, youth mental and physical health outcomes, racial/ethnic composition of schools, and racial/ethnic compositions of neighbourhoods. Critically, these surveys include data pertaining to both majority (UK White) and minority (non-UK White, non-White) individuals. This will allow us to examine whether diverse friendships are formed at the same rate, and whether the effects of diversity are equally beneficial (or not) for different racial and ethnic groups. 

This research will be carried out by academics from the University of Bristol in partnership with the National Children's Bureau, a leading charity that aims to improve the lives of young people and give them a voice to influence policy and practice. Our research findings will be made widely available to an interdisciplinary academic audience via conference presentations and publications in high-impact academic journals, and also to practitioners and policy-makers through user friendly summaries, a policy roundtable and project website. Given the timely nature of our research which seeks to harness the positive power of growing societal diversity for young peoples' lives, we anticipate that this proposed project will appeal widely to academics and lay-persons, encouraging a wide uptake of our research findings lasting beyond the duration of the award.

Planned Impact

1.Who will benefit from the research? 
Group 1: Practitioners: The project will help to better understand the effects of diversity on educational and health outcomes which will be of interest to education and health practitioners. This will include teachers and lecturers nationally and internationally who are facing increasingly diverse classrooms. It will also be of interest to community health practitioners and community workers who are interested in how to best promote relations in diverse settings. 

Group 2: School children, families, and local communities: As the project aims to examine factors which affect youth outcomes, it is expected that the research will impact youth both nationally and internationally through raising awareness of diversity and how to promote better health and educational outcomes for all youth. It will also raise awareness amongst families and communities regarding the needs and experiences of youth and potentially inform interventions. 

Group 3: Government and policy makers at local, regional and central governmental levels (e.g. Public Health England, Equality and Diversity Council, the Equality and Human Rights Commission) in the four UK countries and internationally will also benefit from this research. Specifically, they will be made aware of the nature and extent of diversity in schools and neighbourhoods and how this impacts on youth outcomes. 

Group 4: The third sector: The research will also be of interest to stakeholders such as third sector organisations (e.g. Oxfam Education, Think Global, Better Health, Mental Health Foundation) and those campaigning locally for the rights of minority students (e.g BME health forum, university widening participation networks) and educational success for all learners (e.g. UNESCO promoting education for all). This will include the Anti-Bullying Alliance and Sex Education Forum. 

2. How will they benefit from the research?
There is a lack of policy-relevant quantitative research which comprehensively examines ethnic and racial diversity amongst youth. This research will therefore provide new knowledge surrounding the key predictors of young people's diverse friendships, and the effects of diversity (interpersonal, school, neighbourhood) on youth educational attitudes, aspirations and health outcomes, derived from high-quality data sources. Through consulting with NCB and by actively engaging academics, policy-makers, charities and the public and private sectors, we will work towards fully understanding and recognising the predictors and effects of diversity. This understanding will inform interventions aimed at improving youth's educational and health outcomes, as well as benefit youth through possible changes to policy and practice brought about or informed by this research.

Together the project team have substantial experience in working with non-academic beneficiaries and there are 3 key ways in which societal impact will be achieved: (1) advisory groups, (2) dissemination of findings to user groups and (3) policy engagement (see Pathways to Impact attachment for full details). These impact activities are designed to engage with stakeholders and youth from the outset of the project to facilitate a wider dialogue to impact practitioners, government and policy makers and third sector organisations. The project team and NCB consultants and Young Research Advisors will work together to produce policy and press materials and outputs for the project website and social media to raise awareness of the research to user groups nationally and internationally. Policy stakeholders in London will be invited to a policy roundtable and key findings will be shared with relevant Ministers and senior officials, including the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children (a cross-party group of MPs and Peers who debate and work to improve children's policy), to which NCB provides the secretariat.
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