SOCIAL INNOVATION AND THE EVIDENCE OF WHAT WORKS
Professor Paul Connolly, Lead of one of the new Pioneer Research Programmes at Queen’s, gives an enthusiastic explanation of its title – the Centre for Evidence and Social Innovation (CESI).
‘In a nutshell, social innovation is about nding novel solutions to entrenched social problems – but solutions that actually work. We’re in partnership with key agencies, government departments and the voluntary sector, looking at big problems like drug and alcohol misuse, educational underachievement, public health issues, and asking – how can we break the cycle?
‘The evidence part is what makes us unique and sets us apart from other centres. Too often social innovation happens in the dark, in a vacuum, so people just go on re-inventing the wheel. We’re using robust evidence, rather than conjecture or political opinion, to understand the nature of problems.’
CESI's Research Themes
The words – what works – are embedded in CESI’s three research themes – what works for families; what works for schools; and what works for communities. Among major initiatives, the Centre is working to establish long-term relationships with two communities in Belfast – the Greater Shankill Children and Young People Zone and the Colin Neighbourhood Partnership.
Paul, former Head of the School of Education and now Dean of Research for the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, describes these as ‘innovation zones, sites on our doorstep where we should have partnerships as a University, where we can try out new things which meet the needs of local communities but which also help us as a research organisation to pilot new ways of thinking. They are incubators of innovation.
‘We want to blur the boundaries between researchers and the community. We want to change mindsets so that people aren’t surprised to see people from Queen’s on their doorstep. We need to be recognisable and known locally so that people develop confidence and are happy to work with us.’
Other projects include a major collaboration with the Department of Education looking at children’s social and emotional learning.
‘One of their signature programmes is about Nurture Groups, designed for children at the start of primary school who are demonstrating clear behavioural problems and are already struggling in mainstream education. The idea is to refit a classroom to look like a home environment. The children spend part of a day there for two terms, helping them develop attachments that perhaps they’ve never had.
‘But does it work? The Department engaged us to do a robust evaluation and we’ve shown that it does. Within two terms, a significant proportion of children were able to come off the behavioural register and go back full time into the main stream. We also found that the programme pays for itself after two years, in terms of other services which are saved, and it has recouped its cost many times over by the end of primary school.’
Further evidence-based research has involved work with Fostering Network around the Letterbox Club, a scheme that gifts books to children in foster care, a group who have low educational outcomes and performance.
‘It has funding, it’s well liked, but we found ultimately that it didn’t work. Now we have developed a partnership with Oxford University’s Rees Centre for Fostering and Education and through our ongoing work with a range of organisations across the UK, we’ve identified a need to supplement the scheme.
‘What’s missing is the involvement of foster carers themselves. We’re proposing a large scale UK-wide study to develop a training manual and sessions for foster carers to see if that active ingredient helps to improve literacy. So here we have something that began with a small local pilot study and could change a national programme.’
Paul’s overall view of CESI is that ‘if we’re at all successful, we’ll have measurable change regionally but there’s a real sense that we can change ways of thinking nationally and internationally. We’re the largest centre in Europe doing this type of work and playing a leading role in demonstrating what works.’
Read more from our experts in the Centre for Evidence and Social Innovation