Straight Talking, a school-based course for Year 9 or Year 10 students, aims to reduce the high rates of teenage pregnancy in the UK.
The course is delivered by ‘peer educators’ young people who themselves became parents when they were teenagers, raises students awareness of the reality of teenage parenthood. The process raises their self-esteem and gives them confidence to (re-)enter education or employment. An evaluation in 2005 had concentrated predominantly on their role.
In 2008, the Teenage Pregnancy Unit (Department for Children, Schools and Families) and Barking and Dagenham PCT provided funding for a further evaluation. This was to explore students’ perceptions of the course and the extent to which the information they had been given continued to influence their attitudes and decision-making and had the potential to contribute to lasting attitude and behavioural change. Satisfied with the previous evaluation, the Chief Executive asked us to undertake the new piece of work. There were advantages in this, not least in terms of familiarity with the project’s aims and delivery and the fact that the professional relationship with the Chief Executive went back many years. However, it did not overcome the problems of a limited budget and great deal of data to be collected from several hundred students in eight schools.
This was where the traditional Tavistock Institute approach to research came in- working with the client in an atmosphere of mutual trust but not sacrificing any of our rigour and objectivity. We agreed with the client the priorities for the evaluation and, knowing that at various stages we would be dependent on Straight Talking staff for help, we also agreed a budget which would cover some of their staff time.
The peer educators who delivered the course oversaw the completion of our student questionnaires immediately before the course began and immediately after it ended. In the next stage (six months later) the local Straight Talking co-ordinator was instrumental in arranging our contact with the teachers whose lessons we took over to give the same students another questionnaire and to discuss with them in more detail what they remembered about the course, what they had liked, and what they felt had not worked well. But at no point did Straight Talking staff have any input into the data which was collected and they were unfailingly gracious whenever we explained that our tight budget meant that we could not do anything beyond what we had initially agreed, however interesting.
The resulting report highlighted the effectiveness of Straight Talking in getting its messages across. This was helpful to the organisation in providing evidence for potential funders that the intervention did work, and especially with some of the young people considered most at risk of early pregnancy who appreciated the practical, non-academic approach. But the report was not a whitewash: it also pointed to where improvements could be made, equally helpful at a time of impending expansion.
We were all pleased with the result and the Chief Executive wrote to us:
The evaluation was honestly conducted and gave us the tools we needed to show the real value of our charity’s work. I just wanted to say a big thanks again to you and Matthew. You did a great job on it.The subsequent presentation of the report, which coincided with the organisation’s birthday party at London Zoo, did appropriately dwell on the positives and led the Chief Executive to comment: Everyone loved your presentation. You are an excellent communicator and did a great job of promoting us. Even the chimpanzees seemed to like it.