Articles What Works in Northern Ireland

What Works in Northern Ireland

Last month Belfast hosted a second What Works Summit. Similar to the Summit in February, Campbell UK & Ireland invited What Works Centres (WWC), local researchers, practitioners and policy makers to share and discuss what works in improving mental health outcomes for children and young people in N.I. Something that struck me the most was the complexity of the issue; there isn’t a silver bullet. We know that evidence of what works is critical to tackling an increasingly prevalent issue, but alone it’s not enough. So what else needs to be considered? I explore some key messages which surfaced across the day and look at the case for a WWC in N.I.

Give young people a louder voice

N.I Commissioner for Children and Young People, Koulla Yiasouma, opened the day by reminding us that “children’s rights belong to them” and it is up to the people in the room to protect that. Children’s voices should be included when deciding what is best for them. To ensure this, Koulla noted that young people should be involved in research. Montserrat Fargas Malet, researcher from QUB, talked us through Care Pathways and Outcomes Study – a longitudinal study with care experienced young people which has gathered a wealth of rich, qualitative data on supporting young people to seek help from professionals and services. Her research highlights the importance young people place on the continuity of a single case worker and also a preference for drop-in centres to seek support on mental health. Considering the voices and experiences of children and young people when making decisions about service design, delivery and commissioning ensures that services are made for the specific needs of young people.

It takes a village

This message is one we frequently hear when responding to complex issues, yet in terms of mental health, personal resilience is often pitted as a mitigating factor. At the summit, however, there was strong agreement that building resilience in children is not enough to improve mental health outcomes. Speakers called for a whole systems approach to address youth mental health. Suzanne Mooney, researcher at QUB, talked us through her research into adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma-informed care. Children and young people and their mental health do not exist in isolation: ACEs, socioeconomic factors, family networks, and environment all impact a young person’s mental health. Trauma-informed care is an example of a whole systems approach to addressing the impacts of childhood adversity which often manifests in mental health issues. The work undertaken by Jamila Boughelaf from the What Works Centre for Wellbeing along with Gedminte Mikulenaite from Universities UK echoed this call for a whole systems approach to improve mental health outcomes for students. Wellbeing itself is a cross-cutting theme, with many factors in a person’s life contributing to wellbeing. The centre even has 24 partners across sectors and departments, showing that silo working is not the solution.

Ground decisions in evidence of what works for young people

Julie Healy and Mairead Ewart from Barnardo’s N.I shared their reflections on the roll out of a social and emotional learning evidence-based programme, PATHS®. The 10 year process started with a randomised control trial of 13 schools in Craigavon, N.I to the scaling up and roll out across 300 schools in the UK. Throughout, monitoring and evaluation processes were embedded. This provided space for feedback, discussion and adaptation during implementation, allowing the team to continuously improve the programme. This close eye on evidence, both on the data they were collecting and the strong evidence base of PATHS®, resulted in a successful pilot and rollout. More broadly, implementing an evidence-based programme has been a catalyst for change for the organisation. Julie reflected that they look at evidence and data differently – rather than data being associated with compliance, it has allowed practitioners to become more curious in their work, prompting a shift to a more evidence engaged team focused on delivering what works for young people.

What Works Centres as facilitators for change

Conducting high quality research and evidence synthesis is a trademark of WWCs, but they also act as a conduit between research and on the ground delivery. Anna Bachoo, experienced social worker from the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care talked us through how the Centre facilitates a dialogue between research and practice, by visiting authorities across England and hosting events such as #iuseevidence which mobilised practitioners around evidence use. Lesley Edgar, NICE Implementation Facilitator in N.I, shared with us how she works with practitioners and medical specialists in N.I to support them to implement NICE guidelines in real life contexts. Her message that NICE produces guidelines, rather than tramlines, demonstrates the nuances practitioners and policy makers often face when implementing research in practice. What comes through clearly from both these examples is that WWCs’ roles don’t stop at knowledge production and translation; they also aim to increase motivation to use evidence, and to integrate evidence in policy and practice.

We have the appetite, but where’s the What Works Centre in N.I?

This question was asked by many during both summits in Belfast. As an impartial voice between research, practice and politics, a N.I Centre has the potential to bring stakeholders together under the broader evidence banner and help find solutions to complex issues such as youth mental health. As a hub of evidence synthesis, Campbell UK & Ireland would play a key role in this movement, producing rigorous research on ‘what works’ from a body of evidence. I think we’re really missing a trick. We’ve already had conversations about the potential of a WWC in N.I and the summits have helped to reignite this interest. The upcoming impact report on the series of summits by Wales Centre for Public Policy along with the case put forward for an Evidence Quarter only add to the momentum gathering for What Works in N.I.

This blog post was originally posted by Charlotte Kincaid, Policy & Impact Officer, Campbell UK & Ireland and the Alliance for Useful Evidence on Meta Evidence Blog