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Accessible evaluation: drawing people in, not scaring them off

Dr Lucy Maynard, Head of Research at Brathay Trust, one of our pilot phase early adopters, has co-written a book that aims to provide practitioners with the theory needed to support and improve their practice. In this blog she shares her motivations for writing ‘Evaluation Practice for Projects with Young People:  A Guide to Creative Research’.

In the wake of the recent Spending Review, I am reminded of five years ago when the 2010 Spending Review announced the financial cuts that impacted on the House of Commons Education Committee, services for young people reports. Many of us experienced this as a huge catalyst for change. The particular extract that had the most significant impact was where the report stated “…with a tight spending settlement and an increase in commissioning of youth services at a local level we also believe it is essential that publicly funded services are able to demonstrate what difference they make to young people” (paragraph 40, House of Commons Education Committee. Services for young people. 3rd Report of Session 2010-12. HC744-12).

And we thought: “Of course we want to demonstrate what difference we make to young people! We’ve been trying to do this for years!”

At the Brathay Trust, our mission is to improve the life chances of children, young people and families by inspiring them to engage positively in their communities. The role of the Brathay Research Hub is to better understand, develop, evidence and influence practice and policy from a grassroots level.

Both fortunately and unfortunately, the reports heightened the awareness and intensity of people’s engagement with the evidence agenda. Unfortunately, this was under austere conditions. Many working with young people felt (and still feel) pushed into having to evidence their impact. But fortunately, this negative experience has pushed some people into contact with us. At this point we can offer them an alternative: a more positive ‘pull’ towards the evidence agenda. We hope that in this they might realise: “of course we should all want to better understand, develop and evidence our work and the impact it has.”

It was an increase in these conversations that accelerated us within the Research Hub to share our experiences with others. We were in the privileged position that Brathay have valued the role of research and dedicated resource to this for some time and so we had experiences to share. We founded a Youth Work Evidence Group (which now has over 80 members from across the UK), we were one of the pilot organisations for the Young Foundation’s Catalyst Outcomes Framework and we wrote a book entitled ‘Evaluation Practice for Projects with Young People:  A Guide to Creative Research’.  The book optimises our quest within the sector, and as an Early Adopter within the Centre for Youth Impact, to make the evidence agenda accessible, positive and fit for purpose within our practice. It is the experience of writing this book on which I would like to focus the rest of my discussion.

The former Head of Research at Brathay, Kaz Stuart, our colleague from the University of Cumbria, Caroline Rouncefield, and I embarked on writing a book for practice and practitioners based on our experiences within practice. Our book is unashamedly stripped back so it can be accessible to practitioners. This is not to say it is dumbed down. It captures those every day conversations and practice-based experiences that we have, but provides the appropriate underpinning theory for practitioners to tap into in order to support their practice. In this sense, it represents us as a Research Hub, where theory and practice meet.

We pitched it this way because this is where we believe our sector is. It is relatively young. It does not have (and may not wish to have) an evidence-based practice model. In fact, this completely terrifies a lot of us with its often medical model based language. We don't want a terrified sector! We want an inquisitive and critical sector that engages in developing a fit for purpose evidence model. We want a sector that is drawn towards the evidence agenda because it wants to capture strong evidence to support practice development. This is seen in direct opposition to a sector that feels pushed in multiple ways by multiple funders and commissioners to compete and prove why they deserve the reducing pot of money!

We want to bring the focus back to practice and young people. We want to demonstrate how evaluation can be integrated into practice and compliment the creative ways we work with young people. Our quest is to engage people, not scare them off. But we want this to have a level of robustness – an accessible pot of theory that practitioners want to draw from to creatively integrate evaluation into their practice. For it is these practitioners that form a critical piece in our sector’s evidence puzzle. They directly access young people so are in a critical position to evaluate what will work for the sector in evidencing its impact.

It is here that the Brathay Research Hub now particularly focuses its work. Through our work with the Centre for Youth Impact and through the publication of ‘Evaluation Practice for Projects with Youth People: A Guide to Creative Research’, we aim to facilitate the sector’s development with the tools to evaluate and evolve its work with young people.

Dr Lucy Maynard, Brathay Research Hub

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