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November 2016

Independent evaluation of Think Ahead begins

As part of our aim to build evaluation into how the Think Ahead programme works, earlier this year we invited proposals from external partners to carry out an independent assessment of our impact.

We received lots of exciting offers, and we’re delighted to now be working with a team from the Universities of Durham and Bristol led by Professor Roger Smith from Durham’s School of Applied Social Sciences. They will be working with us over the next two years, observing and analysing how our first cohort of participants learn about social work and carry out their roles.

I see this evaluation project as an opportunity to improve social work training everywhere.

Professor Roger Smith

When we asked Professor Smith why he thinks the project is important, he said: “I see this evaluation project as an opportunity to improve social work training everywhere. We’ve been given full access to what Think Ahead’s doing – so we can get maximum insight into what’s working and what can be improved, and share those lessons at the end of the project.”

His team are specifically investigating the quality of the teaching our participants experience and, once they’ve become qualified social workers in their second year on the programme, the participants’ practice skills. To do that, they are using a range of research methods including direct observations of teaching and practice, and surveys, interviews, and focus groups with Think Ahead participants and others involved in the programme (including people who use mental health services).

The researchers will also gather data from a comparison group of social work trainees who are following other routes into the profession and are not involved with Think Ahead.

This is a long-term project, following our first cohort through the entire programme, and the final, independent report will be published in 2019. But Professor Smith and his team have agreed to give us informal feedback as they go, so that we can use their insights as part of our approach to continuously learn and improve.

The evaluation team made regular visits to our first Summer Institute, and they’ve told us about their impressions. We’re delighted that they had lots of good things to say. They view our participants as talented and committed. They thought the teaching was of an impressive quality, the content was well-structured to guide newcomers through the material, and the assessments were appropriately robust and challenging. And they commended the involvement of service users and carers in many aspects of the Institute.

When the team were giving us their feedback, they said: “We felt that the Summer Institute clearly achieved its key aims, and Think Ahead’s participants were effectively enthused and prepared for the next phase of their professional journey.”

He gave us some pointers for improvement too, and as a result we’ll be making some changes for next year’s Summer Institute. We are going to provide more guidance to our participants on the practicalities of navigating a very intensive six-week learning experience, including how to manage assignments alongside their other work. We are keen to further diversify the range of teaching styles: there is a lot of material to get through in a short period, but we will aim for more small-group teaching and group work. And we will make sure we set up the venue to provide the best possible learning environment – including keeping things cool on hot summer days. (We haven’t yet announced the venue for next year’s Institute.)

It’s wonderful to get such a positive assessment of our first ever Summer Institute.

Kate O’Regan, Programme Director

Think Ahead’s Programme Director, Kate O’Regan, was pleased with the feedback. She said: “It’s wonderful to get such a positive assessment of our first ever Summer Institute. We’re already making our plans for next year, and we’ll certainly be taking the evaluation team’s useful feedback onboard.”

Think Ahead’s Academic Lead, Professor Martin Webber, said: “It’s great to receive constructive feedback from a team of experts on our teaching. Their work is really helping us to improve the learning experience for current and future Think Ahead participants”.

Professor Smith’s team are now evaluating our participants’ first stage of on-the-job learning, and we look forward to hearing their feedback when they’re ready to share it.