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Profile picture of Michelle Nattrass.

PhD Research Student

I cannot praise Leeds Trinity enough and would recommend anyone thinking of undertaking a PhD to consider Leeds Trinity University.

Why I chose to study at Leeds Trinity 

I chose to study at Leeds Trinity University as due to the personal experience of becoming a special guardian to my grandson, I also have a son with a rare chromosome deletion. I have a lot of lived experience of accessing children's services. My occupational background is adult social care and I was looking for a course that would improve my knowledge of children's social care. When I saw the Family Support MA, it seemed a perfect fit. I was impressed that the MA had a module that gave a choice of an empirical dissertation, as I am interested in how research can help to inform and change policy. I was also impressed this was the first MA of its kind in the UK, given family support is a growing sector in the UK. 

Michelle Nattrass pro image.

My highlights and favourite aspects of my MA Family Support

The highlight for me was the opportunity to undertake empirical research in a subject area I am passionate about. The course is structured in a way that allows a community of learning. The students were diverse, with a range of personal and professional backgrounds, it felt like we learnt a lot from each other. The real highlight was receiving a distinction and winning the programme prize. 

The benefits of a flexible learning approach

I studied the course part-time due to my family commitments. This gave me the opportunity to take on two volunteer roles as a Family Support Worker with Family Action and a drop in advisor for Leeds Sendiass, advising families on the support they could receive for their children with special education needs in their school settings. 

Support throughout my journey

I have to say, Leeds Trinity is the most supportive university. My tutor Dr Sue Elmer was a great source of support. She always made time to answer any questions or pointed me in the right direction if I required support with something she couldn't help with. She was also fantastic at adapting to online learning during the Covid 19 pandemic. It was a tough time for many, but she managed to make the tutorials interesting and interactive. The University itself also has a lot to offer such as The Learning Hub, where you can get academic advice and training or have someone check your work and give you advice on how to structure your writing. There is also a great pastoral team at Leeds Trinity if you need support with finances, mental health, disabilities or anything else that may make life more difficult whilst studying. Everyone is so friendly and approachable. 

Michelle Nattrass outside campus.

My advice to prospective students thinking about enrolling on to the MA Family Support

I would say if you work in a setting with children where you communicate with parents this is a course that would benefit you. The course content is excellent and looks at the whole family in a holistic way. The knowledge gained from this course will help you in your practice. Consider your existing commitments when deciding whether to enrol full or part-time. Even if like me, you have no experience of working directly with children but are interested in a career change or further advancing your education this is a course for you. I am now doing a fully funded PhD studentship. This course has given me many opportunities and a promising future. 

Moving on to study a PhD 

 As part of my MA I conducted research into birth parent contact in special guardianship families. I found the research to be rewarding and the area I chose has been identified by other academics and leading charities as an area that requires further research. I submitted a research proposal to expand my first study and was accepted on the studentship programme, this has meant I can complete my PhD in three years and receive full funding as well as a stipend to help with living costs. 

My research aspirations

As a special guardian myself I understand the challenges special guardians have in their everyday lives. Special guardians are usually family members who look after children who may otherwise enter the care system. This legal order until the child is 18, allows the child to remain within the family and maintains a sense of identity in a loving environment. Special guardians undergo assessments like those of paid foster carers, which can be intrusive. Many give up work and drastically change their lives to care for the child.

Children often have had traumatic experiences and require much more support. Special guardians are required to arrange and often supervise contact with birth parents. There are very complex family dynamics involved and special guardians want to ensure they are managing contact in a way that is in the child's best interests. Research has identified that contact is one of the biggest challenges for special guardians, and a factor in placement breakdown. Support for special guardians varies wildly depending on the local authority. Further research to understand special guardian's experiences is needed. I hope this research will be useful in informing future policy and practice and improving the support special guardians receive with contact. 

Opportunities through my PhD

As a PhD student at Leeds Trinity, there are lots of opportunities. The training is fantastic, and I have attended many courses that have improved my knowledge in my subject area and improved my academic skills. I will also get the opportunity to teach other students and can choose to study for a PGCHE in my second year if I wish to do so. I am also supporting my supervisor to develop a Level 4 and Level 5 apprenticeship course, where my expertise in Adoption and Fostering will be used to develop the course materials.

All these opportunities have given me multiple career options for the future such as lecturer, researcher or working in leadership positions within the children, young people and families' sector. I cannot praise Leeds Trinity enough and would recommend anyone thinking of undertaking a PhD to consider Leeds Trinity University.