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Lesley Emerson gives prestigious keynote talk at British Education Research Association


Lesley Emerson, a Fellow of the Centre for Evidence and Social Innovation and a Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work, stressed the critical importance of evidence in understanding the impact of controversial educational programmes during her keynote talk at the BERA annual conference.

Drawing on evidence from a cluster randomized controlled trial evaluation of the ‘From Prison to Peace: learning from the experience of political ex-prisoners’ educational initiative that she led, she suggested that positive outcomes in relation to young people’s understanding of their political world and capacity for ‘political generosity’ could be achieved through engaging them with multiple perspectives and disrupting the views they inherited from family, community and traditional ‘histories’.

She also drew delegates’ attention to the innovative participatory approach taken to this trial, based around the involvement of a young person’s research advisory group who worked with the adult researchers to select and develop measures, analyse and interpret the results and contribute to recommendations. Speaking of this approach Lesley said: ‘The Centre for Evidence and Social Innovation have in this project pioneered a participatory approach to RCTs by placing children and young people at the heart of the evaluation and engaging them at each stage of the research process.’

The Programme

‘From Prison to Peace: learning from the experience of political ex-prisoners’ (hereafter, ‘Prison to Peace’) is an educational programme developed as part of a wider initiative, the Prison to Peace Partnership. This initiative is administered by the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (CFNI) and part financed by the European Union’s (EU) European Regional Development Fund through the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation (Peace III), managed by the Special EU Programmes body. It combines the political ex-prisoner support groups from loyalist (UVF and UDA) and republican (IRA, INLA and Official IRA) constituencies. The Citizenship Working Group within this initiative was established to explore ways in which political ex-prisoners could use their narratives to engage with young people in order to de-mythologize the conflict and the prison experience and to encourage them to make a positive contribution to their communities. As a result, members of the Citizenship Working Group developed the school-based educational programme, targeted for use primarily as part of the Key Stage Four (age 14-16) curriculum for citizenship education.

The overall aims of the ‘Prison to Peace’ programme are to: prevent young people from becoming involved in and/or returning to violence through presenting the realities of the conflict and the prison experience from the point of view of those directly involved in the conflict; demonstrate to young people alternative ways of dealing with conflict which do not necessarily require individuals to give up their political aspirations or cultural identity; present young people with alternative ‘bottom-up’ perspectives on the conflict through a comprehensive and complex picture of the political ex-prisoner experience; and provide young people with an opportunity to engage directly with those who were involved in the conflict in panel discussions with ex-prisoners.

The Evaluation

The cluster randomised trial, funded by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) in Northern Ireland, involved 864 young people from 14 post-primary schools across Northern Ireland. The trial found evidence of positive effects of the programme in relation to a number of outcomes, including:

  • increased and more nuanced understanding of conflict and of the processes of transitional and conflict transformation;
  • increased tendency to support using non-violent means to deal with conflict;
  • increased likeliness to be engaged politically; and
  • reduction in sectarian prejudice.

Additionally, the programme has increased young people’s likeliness to be engaged politically, as measured by several indicators: talking to others more about politics; showing more interest in participating in school related activities; seeking more information related to politics (via newspapers, the internet etc.). No significant differences were found between the intervention and control groups across the measures for participation in politics and respect for political differences.

Further Information

The report is available on the OFMDFM website. For more information on the programme and its evaluation contact: