Realising Ambition: one year in

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The Social Research Unit at Dartington has just written the first report of the Realising Ambition programme, a £25m investment by the Big Lottery Fund in the replication of evidence-based and promising interventions for children and young people.

One of the most striking things is the dearth of home-grown evidence-based interventions designed prevent or reduce youth crime for funders and commissioners to choose from in the first place. Less than four per cent of all applicants to the Realising Ambition project met the Social Research Unit’s ‘What Works’ Standards of Evidence, and most of these were developed overseas. The real figure of evidence-based interventions for children in the ‘real world’ is therefore probably well under one per cent.

This is a problem. While there is no shortage of innovation, why is it that such a tiny proportion of interventions for children are well-evidenced and replicable? Here are some musings.

First, most funders are more interested in the ‘innovation’ end of the ‘innovation to proven impact pipeline’: innovation carries more kudos – it is exciting and cutting edge. But those working on Realising Ambition think replication is also exciting and cutting edge and has the potential to make a far greater impact than higher-risk innovation alone. Without replication and scale, smart innovation will never achieve its potential.

Second, innovations are rarely designed with replication and scale in mind: see Proof Positive and Achieving Impact at Scale. As part of Realising Ambition the Social Research Unit is helping delivery organisations to refine promising interventions with replication and scale in mind. Take a look at this series of freely available webinars, covering subjects such as development and refinement of logic models, serving the right people and monitoring implementation fidelity.

Third, the replication of evidence-based interventions is sometimes perceived as squashing innovation and professional autonomy. Check out Nick Axford’s blog on this issue. Yet with fewer than one per cent of available interventions concerned with preventing youth crime likely to be evidence-based, this seems unlikely. Many of the evidence-based Realising Ambition interventions actively empower staff and provide a solid framework within which to be creative and flexible.

Fourth, The Young Foundation advocates the importance of resources being invested in building core organisational health, effective leadership and governance structures, marketing, making sure the right beneficiaries are being reached and the ability to demonstrate social impact and sustain what they do. Check out Tricia Hackett’s blog on this. Many organisations seeking to replicate existing or new interventions require help to do this. Support from the Young Foundation in these areas is therefore a core component of the offer provided to projects as part of Realising Ambition.

Finally, there is too little investment in experimental impact evaluation to build the evidence-base, particularly in the UK. In part this is a demand issue: until recently there as been very little incentive for organisations to provide robust evidence of their impact on outcomes. It is also, in part, a supply issue, because it can be both relatively expensive and time-consuming to undertake a robust trial. Realising Ambition is bucking this trend: the Big Lottery Fund has commissioned the Social Research Unit to undertake four low-cost randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of promising interventions. This will significantly boost the evidence-base in the UK. As part of Realising Ambition, Substance is also making available to all projects ‘Views’, a platform allowing projects to record and share evidence of what they do and the impact it has on child outcomes.

I’m not saying that Realising Ambition has all the answers. Far from it. We are facing many challenges, and will continue to do so over the next four years. But we will share our learning as we go with the aspiration of supporting the greater replication of ‘what works’ to improve child outcomes.

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Tim Hobbs is a researcher at the Social Research Unit. This blog was originally posted on the SRU website. He can be found on Twitter at @timhobbit.

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