Data, data everywhere! Using it wisely to give us the evidence we need.

Mary Hartshorne, I CAN’s Head of Evidence, explains why using evidence is so important, and how it has shaped I CAN in becoming an ‘outcomes focused organisation’.

Temperatures have been rising over the past few centuries, whilst at the same time the numbers of pirates have been decreasing.

Thus pirates cool the world and global warming is a hoax.

In an era of #FakeNews, it can be easy to use data to make spurious claims! But at a time when resources are scarce, it has never been more important that we have the evidence we need to make best use of them.

I’m just back from my summer holidays travelling around Europe and, like many people, I used the ratings on Trip Advisor to guide some of my choices. Our last few days found us driving through France, skirting east of Paris on our way north. Looking for a stop en route, I found that the top attraction for the area to be the Walt Disney Studios Park, with 85% of visitors rating it very good or excellent. Strong evidence that it’s going to satisfy. However, probably not surprisingly, I was more tempted by the 93% of people who felt similarly strongly about the nearby chateau of Champs sur Marne – rated fourth best attraction.

As Head of Evidence at I CAN, I need no convincing of the importance of evidence – but looking at the whole picture is important. Data alone doesn’t tell the whole story, understanding of local needs are also key. This was one of the key messages that Tom McBride, Director of Evidence for the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF), pointed out the EIF conference in May of this year. In this instance, my local needs definitely didn’t include a visit to a theme park despite evidence to its popularity!

In his presentation ‘Does Evidence Matter?’ Tom also stressed the importance of different types of evidence. Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) for example, can tell you something has worked somewhere, but not why.  This resonates strongly with I CAN’s evaluation approach.

Over the last eight years or so, I CAN has become an ‘outcomes focused organisation’. With a strong record in developing practical programmes that work for schools and settings, we have increasingly ensured that we have the evidence to show improved outcomes for children and young people. This mirrors a more general focus on evidence-based practice across health and education, and in particular in relation to children with special educational needs (SEN).

The 2010 Ofsted special educational needs and disability review found that too often people focused on whether or not support was put in place, rather than whether it was effective. More specifically for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN), in 2012 the Better Communication Research Programme found there to be a number of well-used interventions that had little evidence to support their implementation in practice. Both of these reports have been the catalyst to an increased focus on impact, welcomed by many.

The strong recommendation arising out of these reports has been around making sure we have evidence for interventions that work in practice. In turn we’ve seen an increase in databases such as the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit, the EIF Guidebook , and specifically for children’s SLCN the What Works database of interventions.  I CAN’s own approach to evaluation approach is centred on a theory of change which helps us show how our programmes contribute to outcomes for children and young people – drawing on a range of both quantitative and qualitative data. Demonstrating outcomes for children is even more vital as evidence shows us that the number of children and young people reported with SLCN increased over the last year, but thankfully in our field, we know this is nothing to do with the decrease in pirates!