Since 2003 it has been possible for students to attend the Master’s programme on Evidence-based Social Intervention at Oxford University. According to Professor Frances Gardner, Director of the graduate programme for its first four years, it´s the only existing course of its kind: An opportunity to learn about impact evaluation in both primary and secondary research in social science – an area where many policies and interventions unfortunately are not informed by rigorous evidence about their effects.
“The students are amazed about the possibilities, when they meet all the systematic ways and methods we are working with in this area. There are many myths about not being able to study the effectiveness of social interventions and ethical discussions as well. But in our course the students get an academic grip of the whole point: The need to ask how an intervention is working, is there any evidence about what good it does, or can it do harm as well?”, says Frances Gardner.
The open mind of the youth
She stresses out the importance of getting introduced to evidence-thinking as a young student.
“You can learn new skills, but It´s hard to change the way you think about things after 20 years of working with it. It´s clearly an advantage to learn about impact evaluations when you are still training for your profession, so you can become critical from the start about how interventions work and what constitutes good evidence.”
They first of all learn how to use evidence.
“The basic course is a one year Master’s course, and it´s much more about the research – very intense research training. It’s not a ‘how to do interventions’-course as such, because that would need much more time. The students do a thesis, and they often do a systematic review of an intervention question and ask questions that haven´t been asked before “, Frances Gardner explains.
The international touch
The course is popular, and there is a class of 30 students every year. And as a result, it has also been possibly to attract doctoral students via the Master’s class, so this year also has 20 of these.
At the courses students from all over the world meet, and they come with experiences from different fields. During the year the course lasts they learn general methodologies for prevention and intervention research, and also specialise in the kind of problem areas they want to work in in the future. The course covers interventions in fields as Child and family problems & child mental health, Youth justice, Community-based intervention and HIV prevention. All the teaching is closely linked to the professors’ research programmes in the Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention, where they conduct intervention trials and longitudinal studies on child, family and youth psychosocial problems, in many countries.
“It´s amazing because we get students to think about designing and evaluating interventions from day one. They are bringing their own personal and professional experiences, and are concerned about particular problems and how to make impact evaluations of these – and we teach them how to select rigourous methods that are suitable for answering the research questions they want to ask”.
And the international atmosphere also brings in other perspectives on everyday attitudes and lots of dialogue. Like the debate recently on hitting children or not:
“A student mentioned that their country had recently banned the smacking of children. And some other students, experienced professionals from another part of the world, were completely amazed. They could not believe that a country could even dream of banning hitting children. That started a really interesting conversation.”
Spread the skills
Frances Gardner is well aware of the pioneer status the course at Oxford University has in the world of social science and evidence. And she and her colleagues are constantly stimulated by the students’ ideas and experiences, as well as by their intervention research that goes hand-in-hand with their teaching. “The most exciting thing we have done is to develop the course and the whole area of methodology. And we do see people becoming much more interested in it all over the world. Which is very good because in that way the skills are spread”.
She points out that one of the challenges in the future is to get academics in other areas of social science, for example, those who teach practitioners in social work and criminal justice on board as well.
“They are not always very enthusiastic, but I hope degrees like ours will change that picture over the years. And we hope that other countries will develop similar courses”.