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Ghosts at the feast? The role of research centres in supporting innovative practice in local authorities

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Elaine Hall, Professor Jill ClarkORCiD, Caroline McCaughey



A great deal of the innovative practice dedicated to improving the life chances of children and their families which is developed in Local Authorities is done so under the umbrella of project funding: Single Regeneration Budget programmes, New Deal for Communities, Sure Start. Researchers interested in issues of access and inclusion, the cultures of home and schools and the interactions between communities and services need to work closely with local authorities in what could hopefully be a mutually beneficial research-practice dialogue. The structure of project funding for local authorities demands that a certain proportion of the budget is always allocated to evaluation, which is to be conducted by independent researchers, usually affiliated to a HEI local to the area. This would appear to be the ideal opportunity for researchers and practitioners to work collaboratively but, in the experience of the authors, there are key structural problems which mean that this relationship is fraught with tensions. In this paper we offer examples drawn from over ten years experience of evaluating projects, programmes and initiatives across several local authorities, funded through variety of sources, such as LEAs, council, SRB (rounds 1-4) and Sure Start to explore why it is that researchers fail to give the formative feedback to local authorities and why they can feel that they are unwanted guests – ‘ghosts at the feast’. Successful locally driven projects, for example the Nuffield-funded speech and language development research (Mroz et al, 2002, Mroz and Hall 2003, Hall and Letts, 2003, Hall, 2005) manage to ground the research agenda in local needs, producing valuable outcomes for all parties, so what are the tensions particular to evaluation work? Firstly, there is a tension between the researchers’ desire to objectively evaluate what has gone on during the project, offset against the needs of the local authority (and the project) to have evidence for positive publicity and PR. This is exacerbated by high profiles and generous funding: for some projects it is not just a case of ‘cannot be seen to fail’ but of being a political ‘flagship’ and as such not even to damned with faint praise. Secondly, linked strongly to very short timescales and limited research funding, there is the tension between the desire of the researchers to give formative feedback and the danger of such evaluation becoming more summative – which is far from ideal for both the funders and the researchers. Our experience suggests that a key factor is the breadth of focus of the initiative: only when the goals of the intervention are clear and achievable can some of these tensions be ameliorated. The final tension, and perhaps most the most important one, is the desire of the researchers and practitioners to ‘shape’ funding agendas rather than just react to them. Currently, all parties involved are not able to set or shape this agenda, as many areas and projects react to particular funding sources. Consequently, all parties are working from a similar default position, and through a continuing default mechanism, which rarely creates a situation which genuinely promotes better and smarter ways of working with families and children.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Hall, E, Clark, J, McCaughey, C

Publication type: Conference Proceedings (inc. Abstract)

Publication status: Unpublished

Conference Name: BERA Annual conference

Year of Conference: 2006

Date deposited: 10/03/2009

Publisher: BEI