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Where next after Healthy Relationships Week: measuring impact

Published

23 Oct 2020

Max Stanford, reflecting on the learning from Healthy Relationships Week 2020, highlights a focus on evaluation as an important step for local areas looking to address conflict between parents to improve outcomes for children.

Despite the strong scientific evidence that parental conflict negatively impacts on children, evidence from the UK on ‘what works’ to effectively tackle this issue and improve outcomes for children, is still in its infancy. 

Evaluation of local approaches is fundamental to advancing this evidence. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is working with four areas to trial eight ‘face-to-face support’ interventions to test their effectiveness. Other areas are also developing and testing ways to reduce parental conflict and we at the EIF have been working with a number of them to help evaluate their approach. This is important, not only for understanding the implementation and impact of their work, but also to engage wider stakeholders and inform future strategic decisions.   

Using a theory of change to test and learn 

Many areas are at an early stage of their work, taking what could be called a ‘test’ and ‘learn’ approach. We have found that an emphasis on evaluation at this point, particularly to develop a theory of change, has been incredibly fruitful in (re)focusing areas on the impact they want from their interparental conflict programme. 

We’ve produced an introductory video to develop a good a theory of change with further guidance in our 10 steps for evaluation success. But in a nutshell, a theory of change provides a step-by-step method for understanding how activities and conditions are causally linked through evidence-based assumptions to positive change such as improved child outcomes.  

It is a useful tool for bringing stakeholders and services from across a local area together to agree the primary intended child outcomes of their work. In one area, for example, it has brought early help and social care teams together with parenting and early years teams to look at relationship conflict in couples with new-borns. In another, the process has helped build a consensus around a shared language with the local authority and voluntary and community sector, which have themselves been providing relationship support programmes.  

This partnership working was seen throughout Healthy Relationships Week. Participants gave examples of how they embedded relationship support in everyday services from the police to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. 

Focusing on the evidence 

Key to creating a robust theory of change is an emphasis on the risk factors and other outcomes which have been found in the evidence to impact on child outcomes. Our revised outcomes framework has helped areas identify and measure these factors.

Developing a theory of change also challenges untested assumptions, such as whether practitioners feel confident in identifying and working to address parental conflict in their day-to-day interactions with families. Evaluating practitioner training through surveys before and after training, for example, has been used to test this assumption by assessing the level of confidence and tailor future training accordingly. 

Testing assumptions on who the local offer is intended for is also a key part of constructing a good theory of change. Areas have used this to focus on understanding the needs of the families (along with needs assessments) to enhance the targeting of their offer. One area, using our guide to measuring parental conflict, is piloting a measure to understand the child’s voice in interparental conflict. Other areas, as mentioned throughout Healthy Relationships Week, have included tools within their early help assessments so that practitioners can identify and respond to parental relationship issues.  

Evaluating both implementation and impact 

Co-producing a theory of change with a host of stakeholders helps chart (along with intervention mapping) the services and practitioners that have a part to play in reducing parental conflict. This enables a focus on what is being delivered. From there we have been working with areas to measure whether their work is creating positive change for children and families. This is done by conducting evaluations which look at impact.  

We provided guidance on how to evaluate impact in our report on virtual and digital interventions in the context of Covid-19. We emphasised the use of measures which are valid (shown to measure what they claim to measure) and reliable (shown to be stable over time), with a large enough sample of participants both before and after the intervention, alongside a comparison group of participants who do not receive the intervention to understand whether participation in an intervention – as opposed to not participating – causes improvements in the measured outcomes. 

But as areas develop and deliver programmes to families experiencing parental conflict it is also critical to know whether these programmes are being implemented as intended. This includes whether they are delivered as conceived and planned (that is, with fidelity), are reaching the target families and are acceptable to families. This is done by conducting evaluations looking at the process or implementation of programmes and can use qualitative methods, such as interviews, focus groups and case studies, or quantitative methods such as satisfaction questionnaires to provide insights from both participants and practitioners. Adapting local offers in light of Covid-19 was a key theme from Healthy Relationships Week, and evaluating adaptations such as the change from face-to-face to virtual delivery is critical in advancing our understanding of ‘what works’. 

Building on the impact evaluation guidance highlighted in our latest report on adapting delivery to Covid-19, we will be producing a practical guide, which will help in the design and delivery of local process and impact evaluations. It will include material such as a guide to developing theories of change and logic models, advice on evaluating practitioner training and online interventions as well as selecting child outcome measures. 

Healthy Relationships Week was a fantastic opportunity to see that local areas are making significant progress on their work to address parental conflict, with a substantial amount of innovation in the face of the challenges brought about by the pandemic. Fundamental to sustaining this test and learn approach is an emphasis on evaluating implementation and evidencing impact. As Ben pointed out ahead of this week’s webinars, the agenda now feels like a movement owned by local areas. Key to this localised agenda will be the sharing of local impact to ensure that together we can progress the evidence based on ‘what works’ to reduce parental conflict.  

About the author

Max Stanford

Max is head of early childhood education & care at EIF.