What Works and the Pandemic

17 September 2020

Michael Sanders (Chief Executive of What Works for Children’s Social Care) and Ella Whelan (Research Assistant at What Works for Children’s Social Care)

The emergence of a global pandemic in early 2020 has shaken up the established order of social policy to an extent we would have thought unimaginable twelve months ago. A year ago was before Brexit, before the landside general election, and before Covid-19. Governments around the world have had to react quickly to dramatically changing circumstances. Although some (many) have been criticised for their tardiness in responding, it is worth underlining that the size and speed of the response, even in the most laggard countries, have been astonishing. The ship of state ordinarily turns slowly, but has positively leapt into action in its support to employees and firms, spending hundreds of billions of pounds since March.

The speed of this response, and the necessity for it, pose a challenge for supporters of evidence-based policy, including the What Works Network, the group of 10 research centres that collate, commission and conduct impact research across a range of policy domains, including Children’s Social Care, where we work . Although as a movement the centres are pragmatic and aim to be as nimble as possible, the reality is that good-quality impact evaluations are not really possible in the timescales afforded by such a dramatic shock to the system.

We also can’t learn much about ‘what works’ in a more general sense from the pandemic itself. Good-quality research of the “What Works” type relies on either changing a single lever at a time, or cleverly finding a situation where only one lever was pulled by someone else, or using statistical tools to isolate the impact of one lever being pulled. As we have argued elsewhere, the pandemic has pulled all the levers at the same time, so our usual approach does not work here.

Having identified what we can’t do, what can we do? The entire evidence-based policy movement is surely not going to sit down and call it a day until a vaccine is developed. Of course not – there are still ways that we can be useful.

First, we can use data either from the past, or from the pandemic as it unfurls, to try and understand what’s going to happen next, and to make ‘conditional forecasts’ – i.e., to say “The pandemic has happened. What happens if we do X, or Y”. Describing what will happen to the attainment gap as a consequence of five months of missed school, and hence make the argument that reopening schools is important is a vitally important role for social scientists, and one that has been ably done by Professors Simon Burgess and Anna Vignoles during the last few months. So too is holding government to account (often ahead of time) on the decisions that they are taking on, for example, algorithmic prediction of A-level results, as Professor Lindsey Macmillan, and Drs Gill Wyness and Jake Anders have done at the newly-minted Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities at UCL.

What these researchers, and others, have found, is that the problems caused by the pandemic, particularly those for young people, are not new – they are simply supercharged versions of the problems that already existed. Inequalities – along racial lines, class or incomes lines, or based on disability and between those young people whose families are the subject of state intervention and their peers – are exacerbated by a lockdown that leaves people only with the resources in their household to enable their learning, and where having academically successful parents in quiet houses full of books is likely to be an even larger advantage than it is normally.

It is these supercharged problems that offer the most obvious role for evidence-based policy. We have spent the last years and decades working out how to tackle those problems, with some very promising results. As the problems grow larger, our efforts to deploy evidence-based initiatives to tackle them should only grow more energetic. This is happening – in the EEF’s National Tutoring Programme, which is spending a third of a billion pounds on providing tutoring, and the expansion of the Nuffield Early Language Intervention – both programmes with solid evidence bases. At What Works for Children’s Social Care, we’re scaling our Social Workers in Schools project to 21 local authorities (up from 3 last academic year), and our designated safeguarding lead project to 10 local authorities (up from 1 last year), to try and provide support from these encouraging projects to schools that risk being overwhelmed by safeguarding issues as children return to school after a long absence.

We also need to recognise that the circumstances we are in have changed. Just as medical authorities around the world have fast-tracked drug testing and the use of indicatively positive treatments – and public health officials have embraced masks in the absence of RCT evidence – we need to see that now is not the time for us to dawdle. This might take us out of our comfort zone, but it’s the right thing to do. At What Works for Children’s Social Care we’re supporting the roll-out of three projects to reduce the attainment gap for young people with a social worker. We’re going to build evidence as we go, but for now, these are the “best bets” that emerge from a piece of research we finished earlier this year.

The “best bets” might not even be research as we recognise it. We’ve partnered with the Principal Children and Families Social Worker Network to promote their practice guidance, and to support it wherever possible with our existing research. We’ve also done what we can to bring good practice to the fore, even when this isn’t supported by rigorous evidence, for example through our podcast series talking to leaders in children’s services across the country. At a time when many people are drowning, finding those who have kept their heads above water and asking them for swimming lessons seems like a good idea. After all, there has famously been no randomised trial on the efficacy of parachutes.

Finally, we must look to the future. As students return to school and have more contact with professionals, new challenges are likely to emerge as we deal with the social and educational consequences of lockdown. This gives us the chance, for example in a back to school project we’re supporting in Worcestershire, to try and build a better understanding of what’s working in the “recovery” phase – after all, it seems like we’ll be recovering for a while.

Visit the hub of the social science community’s response to COVID-19.

Michael Sanders is Chief Executive of What Works for Children’s Social Care and Ella Whelan is a Research Assistant at What Works for Children’s Social Care. What Works for Children’s Social Care seeks better outcomes for children, young people and families by bringing the best available evidence to practitioners and other decision makers across the children’s social care sector. Their research looks at the point of referral through to permanence, including adoption, care-leaver support and targeted early help. We focus on children’s social care practice in England and draw on and share learning at the international level.

The perspectives expressed in these commentary pieces represent the independent views of the authors, and as such they do not represent the views of the Academy or its Campaign for Social Science.

This article may be republished provided you place the following statement and link at the top of the article: This article was originally commissioned and published by the Campaign for Social Science as part of its COVID-19 programme.