Measuring long-term outcomes: new plan!

Like those of many social programmes, the goals of taking young people on Sail Training voyages are long-term: In this case, to improve life chances, involvement in employment and training, and sound mental health. However, many organisations which provide Sail Training cannot conduct or commission high-quality longitudinal studies that demonstrate an impact on these long-term outcomes, because of complexity and cost. So Giving Evidence is delighted to be working to identify short-term outcomes that, if ‘produced’ by an intervention, have a beneficial effect on key longer-term outcomes. If future research can show a link between the intervention(s) and certain short-term outcomes, and there is a known link between those short-term outcomes and particular longer-term outcomes, then one can make a coherent and evidence-informed claim about the long-term outcomes produced by the intervention.diagramDiagram 2First we will research which short-term outcomes for young people produce which longer-term outcomes and with what probability and in what circumstances. We will look beyond outcomes produced by (and research about) Sail Training. Second will come some empirical, experimental research to explore whether (and when and how) Sail Training produces the short-term outcomes which are good interim indicators.

Sail Training organisations will be able to use this in at least two ways. First, for designing future research: specifically in choosing reliable measures of important short-term outcomes. And second, in providing evidence that their work produces particular long-term outcomes. 

Interestingly, this work is being funded by two umbrella/ memberships bodies in the Sail Training sector, as a ‘communal resource’ for the sector: the Association of Sail Training Organisations which has UK-based members, and Sail Training International, its international counterpart. Since so many charitable sectors have this pattern – of pressure to demonstrate long-term outcomes but inadequate resources to do so experimentally – this kind of communal resource might be a useful tool for other infrastructure bodies to provide.

Giving Evidence is partnering for this work with the EPPI Centre (Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre) at University College London. Not only is the EPPI Centre expert in this area, but we are already partnering on the systematic review of the effects of outdoor learning more broadly, to which this project is clearly adjacent.

Process and outputs

We have some early decisions about the types of young people on whom to focus etc., and will make them in consultation with an advisory group from the Sail Training sector.

Then we will produce and publish a protocol for our research [update: available here] : this is a pre-specified plan which enables anybody to check our findings or to repeat the study later to see whether the situation has changed.

The secondary research (i.e., the first stage: of exploring the relationship between short- and long-term outcomes) will be a systematic review of the literature. This is a structured investigation to find, critically appraise and synthesise all the relevant primary research. They are less prone to bias, as science writer Dr Ben Goldacre explains:

“Instead of just mooching through the research literature consciously or unconsciously picking out papers that support [our] pre-existing beliefs, [we] take a scientific, systematic approach to the very process of looking for evidence, ensuring that [our] evidence is as complete and representative as possible of all the research that has ever been done.”

The systematic review will be published, probably in early 2016. We will then look to design some primary, experimental research. 

 

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