Closing the race attainment gap: a new report aims to help universities move forward

Image: Universities UK

On the face of it, the UK’s university sector is an international success story. UK universities attract global talent, valuable income and investment, produce world-leading research, generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and improve people’s everyday lives in countless ways. Britain’s universities are also more racially and culturally diverse than ever before.

But a recent report has shone a spotlight on fundamental barriers to racial equality at UK universities, indicating that a student’s race and ethnicity can significantly affect their degree outcomes. The Universities UK (UUK) / National Union of Students (NUS) report highlights significant gaps in attainment between white students and their black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) peers, finding that 81% of white students graduated with first and upper second class honours in 2017/18, compared to just 68% of BAME students. That’s an attainment gap of 13%.

The report echoes findings from the Office for Students (OfS), the independent regulator for higher education in England. Earlier this year, the OfS reported stark gaps in achievement for black students, and also found that higher numbers of BAME students were dropping out of university before completing their courses.

Why are BAME students not doing as well at university compared with their white counterparts?

The UUK/NUS research identified four factors that are contributing to the attainment gap:

  1. Varying degrees of satisfaction among different student groups with the higher education curricula, and with the user-friendliness of learning, teaching and assessment practices.
  2. Relationships between staff and students and among students: a sense of ‘belonging’ emerged as a key determinant of student outcomes.
  3. Recurring differences in how students experience higher education, how they network and how they draw on external support were noted. Students’ financial situations also affect their student experience and their engagement with learning.
  4. The extent to which students feel supported and encouraged in their daily interactions within their institutions and with staff members was found to be a key variable.

 How universities can improve outcomes

As part of its research, UUK and NUS engaged with students, the higher education sector and external organisations to identify the most significant steps needed for success in reducing attainment differentials:

  1. Strong leadership – university leaders and senior managers need to demonstrate a commitment to removing the BAME attainment gap and lead by example.
  2. Having conversations about race and changing the culture – universities and students need more opportunities to have open, meaningful and constructive conversations about race, racism and what is causing the attainment gap.
  3. Developing racially diverse and inclusive environments – A greater focus is needed from across the sector, working with their students, on ensuring that BAME students have a good sense of belonging at their university, and an understanding of how a poor sense of belonging might be contributing to low levels of engagement and progression to postgraduate study.
  4. Assess the existing mix of data and evidence used to understand the causes of the attainment gap – The sector needs to take a more scientific approach to tackling the attainment gap, gathering and scrutinising data in a far more comprehensive way than currently, in order to inform discussions among university leaders, academics, practitioners and students.

The report also provides a checklist to help university senior leaders to move forward with their own strategies. Among the actions on the checklist are:

  • consider whether coaching, development opportunities or programmes are needed to give leaders the confidence to talk about race and take a leading role in opening conversations.
  • consider mechanisms for recognising (and perhaps rewarding) staff and students who press for the removal of racial inequalities.
  • take responsibility for ensuring that appropriate resources are dedicated to removing the attainment gap, including for any appropriate tailored interventions, research and expertise in data analysis.

Learning from what works

Another important recommendation in the report is that universities should share and learn from evidence of what works and what does not. Case studies throughout the report demonstrate that higher education institutions across the country are trying to close the attainment gap:

The University of Manchester and the university’s students’ union have been working in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Birmingham to deliver a Diversity and Inclusion Student Ambassador Programme to tackle the causes of differential outcomes for BAME undergraduate students and those from low socio-economic groups. Key features include creation of safe spaces, where students and staff can engage in open dialogue on inclusive learning and teaching environments, academic support and well-being; and training student ambassadors to safely challenge racism, microaggressions and discrimination.

Intercultural awareness workshops have helped students at Glasgow Caledonian University to develop a better understanding of different cultural norms and values. The programme provides a baseline for first-year students to develop their understanding and recognise the unconscious bias that exists within global academic, social and working environments. It has already won a Student Engagement Award and been shortlisted for an NUS Scotland 2019 diversity award.

The University of Arts London has developed a data dashboard – the academic enhancement model (AEM) – which gives accessible information to course teams about all aspects of the student experience and differentials. The AEM is a cross-university approach to removing attainment differentials, based on agreed data thresholds for attainment and student satisfaction scores. Courses that fall below these thresholds work with AEM leads to create co-designed AEM support packages. The approach has contributed to UAL’s success in tackling attainment issues: in 2018, the university saw a 4.9% reduction in its BAME attainment gap.

Closing the gap, reaping the rewards

The report has united universities and students in highlighting the race attainment gap, understanding the reasons behind it and tackling the problem.

Baroness Amos, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), who co-led the report, said: “Our universities are racially and culturally diverse, compared to many other sectors, but we are failing a generation of students if we don’t act now to reduce the BAME attainment gap. Amatey Doku, NUS vice-president for higher education, added that for far too long universities had presided over significant gaps in attainment between BAME students and white students. “From decolonising the curriculum to more culturally competent support services, many students and students’ unions have been fighting and campaigning for action in this area for years.

Now that the issue has been raised, it’s up to universities to take action so that all students – whatever their background – are given every opportunity to reap the many rewards that higher education can bring.


If you’re interested in developments in higher education, take a look at our recent blog posts on the subject:

The unusual suspects: how to make sure Citizens’ Assemblies are representative

Citizens’ Assemblies have been in the news a lot recently. Among the ideas mooted have been a Citizens’ Assembly to sort Brexit, a Citizens’ Assembly to discuss the potential details of Scottish Independence and a Citizens’ Assembly to decide on steps to tackle climate change.

They have been heralded by some as a new democratic process which will put the public at the heart of policy development and decision making at a local and national level; one of a number of “deliberative democratic tools” to help engage people more in decision-making processes, allowing people to decide not only what outcome they want, but which issues should make up the agenda in the first place. However as experiences so far have shown, the theory and the execution do not always match up.

With some arguing that they are just another opportunity for those who already have a voice to make their voice even louder, advocates of Citizens’ Assemblies and similar projects have their work cut out to ensure they are both representative and effective.

What is a Citizens’ Assembly?

The basic principle of Citizens’ Assemblies is this: collect a representative group of people from a particular area, invite them to a discussion, and allow them to identify and discuss potential policy issues and options based on an initial question. They are then invited to come to an agreed consensus which is then reported to politicians/ government.

The members of a Citizens’ Assembly are typically selected at random from the general public – like a jury – and can, in theory, be any size, but the larger they are the more likely they will be to be representative of the electorate. The aim is to secure a group of people who are broadly representative of the electorate across different characteristics such as their gender, ethnicity, social class and the area where they live. Depending on the topic they will be discussing, information about party political affiliation or voting in referendums may also be taken into account.

Citizens’ Assemblies tend to rely on a few key values in order to function effectively, and participants should be made aware of these expectations and values (or any additional objectives) at the outset:

  • Debate should be informed and informative and should allow for discussion and deliberation based on sound argument and evidence;
  • Experts in a particular field and campaigners from all sides and all possible viewpoints should be invited to discuss their arguments with participants and be willing and able to be questioned;
  • Participants should be willing to talk and listen with civility and respect;
  • Participants should be representative of the general population as far as possible and should reflect a range of perspectives.

The sessions of the assemblies themselves vary but will usually include learning and evidence sessions introducing the assembly, the participants and the question to be discussed as well as background and contextual information and additional evidence from invited experts; sessions in which campaigners are able to present their arguments and be questioned; and sessions which focus on deliberation, discussion, consensus building and reporting. Facilitators will often be used to ensure a fair spread of opinions are heard – but facilitators cannot participate in the discussions themselves, and organisers will often pre-plan elements such as seating plans or evidence presented to assembly participants to ensure an even spread of opinions.

The fundamental idea is that if you randomly select a representative group and give them time, information and a safe space to discuss issues, you can create an illustration of what it would be like if everyone had the tools and time to discuss and debate the important issues. There is, however, no legal obligation for Government to take the recommendations forward.

What has happened elsewhere?

In the Republic of Ireland, they have held a number of “democratic experiments” and the Irish examples have been cited as examples of how Citizens’ Assemblies can effect change.

In 2012-13 the Irish Constitutional Convention led to the bringing forward of legislation and the eventual legalisation of gay marriage in the Republic of Ireland, and the 2016-17 Citizens’ Assembly paved the way for the 2018 referendum which legalised abortion. Ireland has been cited as a major inspiration for a Scottish Citizens’ Assembly to be established, something Nicola Sturgeon expressed support for in her speech at the 2019 SNP conference.

Ireland is, supporters of the concept argue, an example of how Citizens’ Assemblies can be effective at helping to reach consensus on contentious issues and allowing people to have a meaningful say in what legislation is put forward to parliament, not just having the choice of policies that are prescribed to them by politicians. Critics have argued however that the Irish experience has, to a degree, been oversold in Britain and shows how “the symbolic value of the ordinary citizen can be exploited for political purposes”.

And, for all the perceived successes of the Irish experience, the somewhat contrasting experience of Iceland also has some potentially useful lessons for anyone looking to implement Citizens’ Assemblies at a national level. The experience there shows that it doesn’t always go to plan. Citizens were invited to input into the new values of Iceland’s constitution following the 2008 economic crash. Consultations took place across the country and a series of recommendations were presented but these were not taken forward by parliament.

Other models of Citizens’ Assembly have been trialled in Belgium, the Netherlands and in Canada. The Canadian model invited public input into electoral reform proposals in British Columbia and Ontario, while the G1000s organised in Belgium saw 1000 participants randomly selected to deliberate for one day on major policy issues. Success in Belgium inspired the Netherlands to run a similar scheme.

How can we ensure everyone feels able to participate?

Deliberative models, like Citizens’ Assemblies, aim to encourage consensus building and finding common ground. They also aim to take opinions and make decisions based on a diverse spread of participants, however identifying and encouraging those on the fringes of democratic processes to participate can be a challenge. But it is a challenge that Citizens’ Assemblies and other local community engagement models need to address.

Research conducted around improving local community empowerment initiatives highlights a number of relevant questions and opportunities to improve engagement in deliberative democratic processes such as Citizens’ Assemblies.

  • Is it appropriate to pay participants to attend?
  • Should organisers actively invite participants from certain underrepresented groups or highlight to people that they are part of an underrepresented group to encourage participation (minimising self-selection bias)?
  • Will holding meetings at evenings or weekends enable or disable certain groups from attending and what impact might this have on the make-up of the assembly?
  • Have organisers considered holding meetings in facilities that are accessible via public transport?
  • Have organisers considered holding meetings in facilities which are accessible to disabled people and people with children (perhaps with creche facilities)?
  • Have organisers ensured that the information presented is robust but varied, so that everyone feels their views are represented in some way by the evidence?
  • Have organisers considered additional support for participants? (Organisers should provide effective and complete support throughout the process, making no assumptions on previous knowledge or understanding of how participation in activities like Citizens’ Assemblies work and understanding potential anxieties around participation, particularly of first-time participants).

Final thoughts

Citizens’ Assemblies and other similar mechanisms like Citizens Juries have the potential to revolutionise the democratic process in the UK. Although not intended to be a replacement of the traditional mechanisms of government, if done well, engaging citizens more meaningfully in not only the decision making process but in setting the options under discussion in the first place could transform how policy is made and how politicians interact with their public.

The emphasis on weighing available evidence and consensus building is also valuable, particularly in instances where politicians are unable to come together over contentious issues. However, to be truly transformational, the assemblies must have a level of self-awareness which recognises the difficulties some groups may have in participating in the process.

Finding ways of tackling this, and engaging the “unusual suspects”, giving them a voice and showing them that their opinion can have a direct impact on the choices taken by politicians could potentially repair some of the damage which appears to have been done to the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed, but it is clear we have a long way to go yet.


If you enjoyed this blog you may also be interested in reading:

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This April get free access to the Social Policy and Practice database!

Social Policy and Practice is a database supporting the smarter use of evidence and research within the UK. The key strengths of the database lie in the area of health and social care – it’s not a medical database, but instead examines social issues such as health inequalities, care of the elderly, children and family social work, and community health.

Social Policy and Practice is exclusively available via Ovid – the internationally-recognised leader in information services – and this April they are offering librarians, academics and researchers the chance to trial it for free!

UK-focused evidence and research

Social Policy and Practice is produced by a consortium of key organisations within the UK:

  • Centre for Policy on Ageing – Originally established in 1947 by the Nuffield Foundation, the Centre has a long and distinguished record as an independent charity promoting the interests of older people through research, policy analysis and information sharing.
  • Idox Information Service – Set up 45 years ago to support the use of research within local government, it now works with government and the private sector to increase understanding of public policy issues.
  • National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children – The UK’s leading children’s charity, campaigning and working in child protection in the United Kingdom and the Channel Islands.
  • Social Care Institute for Excellence – A leading improvement support agency and independent charity working with organisations that support adults, families and children across the UK, by supporting the use of the best available knowledge and evidence about what works in practice.

A valued resource

Social Policy and Practice has been identified by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a key resource for those involved in research into health and social care. And importantly, it supports a holistic approach to improving outcomes, by covering social issues such as poor housing, regeneration, active ageing, resilience and capacity building.

Social Policy and Practice was also identified by the Alliance for Useful Evidence in a major mapping exercise in 2015, as a key resource supporting evidence use in government and the public sector.

Unrivalled scope

Social Policy and Practice covers all aspects of public health and social care. It is a must-have resource for anyone interested in the following topic areas:

  • Social work and social care services
  • Children and young people
  • Adults and older people
  • Families and parenting
  • Safeguarding
  • Health promotion
  • Health inequalities
  • Community development
  • Physical and mental health
  • Education and special educational needs

It also offers a holistic view of wider policy areas that impact on health, such as homelessness and deprivation.

The database brings together research and evidence that is relevant to researchers and practitioners in the UK. A large proportion of material relates to delivery and policy within the UK and the devolved nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the database also covers material that is transferable from Europe and across the world.

Social Policy and Practice boasts over 400,000 references to papers, books and reports and about 30% of the total content is hard-to-find grey literature.

The importance of geographical focus

Research studies have shown that people searching for social science evidence tend to neglect the question of geographical and coverage bias within research sources. And that the geographical focus of databases is a potential source of bias on the findings of a research review.

In the last ten years many UK-produced databases have ceased – funding has stopped, publishers have closed or databases have been taken over by international publishers (which reduces the balance of UK content and the use of UK-relevant keywords).

So as a UK-produced database, Social Policy and Practice is uniquely placed to provide relevant results for UK-based researchers.


To see for yourself why so many UK universities and NHS bodies rely on Social Policy and Practice as a resource, visit Ovid Resource of the Month for instant access.

To find out more about the history of the database and the consortium of publishers behind it, read this article from 2016 which we have been given permission to share.

Banning fast food outlets near schools: have takeaways had their chips?

A number of organisations – including the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, Public Health England and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health – have called for the creation of ‘fast food exclusion zones’ – banning fast food outlets from opening within 400m of schools and other places where children congregate.

In this blog post, we consider the arguments in favour of restricting the growth of such fast food outlets near to schools, and whether the evidence supports this.

More children becoming obese, earlier and for longer

The UK is now ranked among the worst in Western Europe for childhood obesity. Not only are more young people overweight or obese, they are also becoming obese at earlier ages and staying obese for longer.

Indeed, recent statistics show that nearly a quarter of children in England are obese or overweight by the time they start primary school aged five, rising to one third by the time they leave aged 11.

Increased risk of social, psychological and long-term health problems

In addition to the social and psychological problems associated with obesity, obese children are at a greater risk of developing serious diseases, including coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.  They are also 20% more likely to develop cancer as adults than those of a healthy weight.

There is also a financial incentive for addressing obesity in both adults and children – recent estimates suggest that obesity-related conditions cost the NHS around £6.1 billion per year.  The total estimated cost to society is even greater – at least £27 billion per year.

Indeed, the annual spend on the treatment of obesity and diabetes is greater than the amount spent on the police, the fire service and the judicial system combined.

Deprived areas have greater levels of both obesity and fast food outlets

There are also strong reasons to address obesity from an equalities angle.

Recent data compiled by Public Health England shows that there is a strong association between area level deprivation and the density of fast food outlets.  Some areas, such as Blackpool, and parts of Manchester and Liverpool, have up to five times more fast food outlets than more affluent areas.

The evidence is generally clear that deprivation is associated with higher levels of overweight and obesity, and lower levels of vegetable consumption.

The evidence suggests that the food environment does influence food choice

During the past 10 years in the UK, there has been a significant increase in the number of fast food outlets, and the consumption of food away from the home has increased by 29%.

Researchers and policymakers have sought to understand whether unhealthy food environments – such as those with a high density of fast food takeaways – may encourage unhealthy food choices, and thus contribute to obesity.

Last year, the Scottish Government published a research paper on the link between the food environment and the planning system.

In relation to the link between the food environment and obesity in general, the report concludes that while the evidence is mixed, “overall the evidence would suggest that increased exposure to outlets selling unhealthy food increases a person’s likelihood of gaining weight”.

In relation to the effect of the food environment around schools on children and young people specifically, the evidence is less clear cut – with some research showing a link to obesity while other research does not.

Interestingly, there was evidence that access to outlets selling healthy food decreased the odds of being overweight or obese.

Research by Brent Council, involving seven secondary schools – four of which were within 400m of a fast food outlet – found that 27% of students said they would not bother going out at lunch if they had to walk more than 8 minutes.

It does seem like common sense – make fast food less readily obtainable and children will be less likely to consume it.

Prof Russell Viner, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, has said “This food is tasty and cheap – it’s easy to blame the individual, but humans, particularly children, will find it hard to resist tempting food.”

England already making progress, Scotland likely to follow

In England, the National Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) outlines the role that planning can have in reducing obesity by limiting over-concentration of fast food takeaways, particularly around schools.  It also encourages planning authorities to limit takeaways in areas with high levels of obesity, deprivation and general poor health, and in areas with over-concentration and clustering of outlets within a specified area.

Similarly, the Child Obesity Strategy commits to developing resources to support local authorities who want to use their planning powers to restrict fast food takeaways, and providing up to date guidance and training for planning inspectors on the creation of healthy food environments.

A number of councils have already implemented 400m exclusion zones.  Some notable examples include St Helen’s Council, Sandwell Council, Dudley Council, and Milton Keynes.

Sadiq Khan has included proposals for a 400m exclusion zone around schools in the new Draft London Plan, and plans to limit the number of fast food takeaways near schools in Luton were approved in 2018.

At present, there are no powers to restrict fast food outlets on health grounds in Scotland – however, it is likely that this will change in the near future.

As well as the aforementioned research project, last year, the Scottish Government published the consultation, ‘A Healthier Future’, which commits to exploring the opportunity for the planning system to contribute to an improved food environment:

We will research precedent, evidence and good practice on the relationship between the planning system and food environment, including exploring how food outlets in the vicinity of schools can be better controlled, with a view to informing the review of Scottish Planning Policy”.

In the December 2018 issue of Scottish Planning and Environmental Law (SPEL), Neil Collar of Brodies LLP concludes that:

Taking account of Action 2.12 in ‘A Healthier Future’ and the research project, it seems likely that the draft National Planning Framework, expected to be published by the Scottish Government in 2019, will contain policies to control hot food takeaways and the food environment around schools. An evidence base to justify controls in local areas will be important”.

Creating a robust evidence base is crucial

Children have a right to grow up in an environment that supports them to attain the highest possible standard of health – and the planning system has a key role to play in facilitating this.

Of course, the planning system cannot address obesity on its own, and the causes of obesity are far wider and more complex than just the food environment.

Other approaches are also being put in place – including supporting food outlets to provide smaller portions and healthier options – some of which have been very successful already.

The creation of a robust evidence base upon which to make informed decisions regarding the location of fast food takeaways and the creation of healthy environments is essential.

There are already a number of useful datasets available for local authorities to use, including the Food environment assessment tool (Feat) and guidance on the creation of healthy food environments.

As more local authorities make use of their powers to restrict fast food outlets, it will be interesting to see whether more evidence emerges of the link between fast food and childhood obesity. We at the Information Service will, of course, be watching this with interest.


 Follow us on Twitter to discover which topics are interesting our research team.

Free access to Social Policy and Practice … only available this November!

Social Policy and Practice is the only UK-produced social science database focused on public health, social care, social services and public policy. It is exclusively available via Ovid – the internationally-recognised leader in medical information services – and this November they are offering librarians and researchers the chance to test drive it for free!

UK-focused evidence and research

Social Policy and Practice is produced by a consortium of key organisations within the UK. Currently these are:

  • Centre for Policy on Ageing
  • Idox Information Service
  • National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
  • Social Care Institute for Excellence

A valued resource

Social Policy and Practice has been identified by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a key resource for those involved in research into health and social care. And importantly, it supports the ability to take a holistic approach to improving outcomes, by covering social issues such as poor housing, regeneration, active ageing, resilience and capacity building.

Social Policy and Practice was also identified by the Alliance for Useful Evidence in a major mapping exercise in 2015, as a key resource supporting evidence use in government and the public sector.

Unrivalled scope

Social Policy and Practice covers all aspects of public health and social care. It is a must-have resource for anyone interested in the following topic areas:

  • Social work and social care services
  • Children and young people
  • Adults and older people
  • Families and parenting
  • Safeguarding
  • Health promotion
  • Health inequalities
  • Community development
  • Physical and mental health
  • Education and special educational needs

It also offers a holistic view of wider policy areas that impact on health, such as homelessness and deprivation.

The database brings together research and evidence that is relevant to researchers and practitioners in the UK. A large proportion of material relates to delivery and policy within the UK and the devolved nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the database also covers material that is transferable from Europe and across the world.

Social Policy and Practice boasts over 400,000 references to papers, books and reports and about 30% of the total content is hard-to-find grey literature.

The importance of geographical focus

Research studies have shown that people searching for social science evidence tend to neglect the question of geographical and coverage bias within research sources. And that the geographical focus of databases is a potential source of bias on the findings of a research review.

In the last ten years many UK-produced databases have ceased – funding has stopped, publishers have closed or databases have been taken over by international publishers (which reduces the balance of UK content).

So as a UK-produced database, Social Policy and Practice is uniquely placed to provide relevant results for UK-based researchers.


To see for yourself why so many UK universities and NHS bodies rely on Social Policy and Practice as a resource, visit Ovid Resource of the Month for instant access.

To find out more about the history of the database and the consortium of publishers behind it, read this article from 2016 which we have been given permission to share.

Tackling health inequalities: what does the data tell us and how can it help?

Health inequalities in Scotland are significant. Every year we hear about how Scotland has some of the biggest gaps in the health and wellbeing of the poorest and richest in society. In some cases, Scotland has the largest gaps in equality in the whole of Europe. And in many instances, they are rising. Scotland also has the lowest life expectancy of all UK countries.

A number of studies and research projects have been commissioned to try to identify the key indicators and factors that are creating and reinforcing these inequalities, and what sorts of interventions would work best to try and reduce or eradicate them altogether. It is hoped that by conducting research, and compiling data, policymakers can use this to identify groups and geographic areas where health inequalities are significant, and to intervene to reduce them, with data to help back up and evaluate the effectiveness of these interventions. In Scotland, work is being done by a number of organisations including the Scottish Government, Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) and Public Health Innovation Network Scotland (PHINS).

What indicators and factors are being measured?

Income inequality has a related impact on health inequalities, and the scale of low pay is significant. The relationship between health inequalities, poverty and household income is one which has been explored at length and is often highlighted as one of the main factors which influences health inequalities. Studies which look at income, and also at relative levels of deprivation can provide useful comparison points, with comparable datasets on employment status and income readily available at a national and local level. Data also considers trends over time, comparing pre- and post-economic crash data, as well as relative earnings and expenditure relative to inflation and the rising cost of living. Other factors include age (those under 25 and earning a lower minimum wage for example) and by gender, with more women in lower paid, lower skilled and part time or insecure work.

How usable is the research being created?

The research which examines health inequalities explores a whole range of interrelated factors, and highlights just how complex the landscape of inequalities is. Creating a clear and holistic picture of all of the factors which contribute to health inequalities is not easy. Many studies, while detailed and effective, are niche, and focus on a very limited number of factors across a limited demographic source. As a result, questions have been raised about the utility of this research and its applicability and scalability at a national level. In an attempt to tackle this, combined data sets are being produced which provide opportunities for comparison across data from a range of studies.

The “Triple I” tool from NHS Health Scotland is designed to help policy designers to create effective interventions to reduce health inequalities. A second edition of the tool is due to be released in 2018/19. Triple I aims to provide national and local decision makers with practical tools and interpreted research findings about investing in interventions to reduce health inequalities in Scotland. It does this by modelling the potential impact of different interventions and policies on overall population health and health inequalities.

 

What can be done to act on the data?

While the research being produced is high quality, and thorough in relation to findings, the real question is what can actually be done with the research, and what steps can policymakers and practitioners take to use the findings to inform their own practice.

There are, researchers suggest, significant opportunities presented by the recent research which has been done on income inequality. In particular, they cite the public sector and public sector pay as a key way to reduce the income, and therefore the inequality gap, particularly among higher earners and those who would be considered “working poor” or “just about managing”. In Scotland, significantly more people are employed in the public sector than in any other part of the UK, and there is, researchers suggest, an opportunity to better align and increase low wages to help to reduce the gap.

The adoption of new initiatives, such as the “housing first model”, which is due to be rolled out in Glasgow to help homeless people break the cycle of homelessness, are also opportunities not only to address inequalities, but to ensure that long term help and support is in place to prevent any relapse into chaotic or risky behaviour. In relation to housing first, the savings on front line services such as emergency admissions to hospital, or contact with the police after committing a crime are significant, and while more in depth research is needed to create a full cost benefit analysis model of the scheme and its effectiveness, early studies show that the impact on health and wellbeing on those who had previously been homeless is huge in terms of reducing inequalities and improving wellbeing. However further data on homelessness in Scotland shows how far we have to go, and that housing first is only one mechanism which can be used to begin this process of reducing inequalities among the most and least deprived communities in Scotland.

Alternatively, some have suggested a more radical overhaul of how we distribute welfare and wealth within the country. Research has been coming thick and fast on the subject of a “citizens basic income”, particularly following the trial which was rolled out in Finland (the findings of which have not yet been published). Research on how this could impact on inequalities is not widespread yet, as pilots have been small scale, However, it is suggested that a total overhaul of welfare, replacing it instead with a citizen’s basic income would be a more effective way to reduce inequalities across the board, including in health.

Summing up

Health inequalities are significant in Scotland. Much of the research focuses on the impact of deprivation, poverty and low income on health inequalities and how, in order to tackle health inequalities in Scotland we must also tackle some of the other significant social problems within our communities, including low income and insecure work, and the impact of homelessness or chaotic lifestyles on health.

Data can be used in a number of ways to help inform policy decisions, some more radical than others. But creating a complete understanding of inequality in Scotland is challenging. It is up to researchers and policymakers to work together to create a better understanding of the conditions and factors which contribute to inequality, and what can be done to help tackle systemic and entrenched inequalities in our communities through policy levers and evidence based policy making.

If you liked this article you may also be interested in:

Universal basic income: too good to be true?

A world of evidence … but can we trust that it is any good?

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Science in the city: applying neuroscience to urban design

Cities have long been considered primarily in terms of their buildings and infrastructure.  However, in recent years, a more ‘human-centric’ view has been adopted – focusing on the people who inhabit the city, and how they perceive and respond to the city that surrounds them.

Research from a variety of disciplines agree that buildings and cities have a significant impact upon the people – from their physical and mental health, cognitive development, and wellbeing to their levels of productivity.

Neuroscience offers a new way to further explore this impact – and by doing so, help urban design professionals to create places that promote human health and wellbeing, whilst mitigating the negative impacts of the city environment as far as possible.

 

What is neuroscience?

But what exactly is neuroscience?  And how does it relate to urban design?

A recent report by FutureCatapult looks at how neuroscience can be used to improve the design of urban places, and thus increase human wellbeing and productivity.

It defines neuroscience as “a multidisciplinary branch of biology and is the scientific study of the brain and nervous system, including its interaction with the other parts of the body”.

There are various ‘scales’ or ‘levels’ of neuroscience – from cognitive psychology, right down to the study of individual cells in the brain.  Each level of neuroscience studies different aspects of how the brain functions, and thus offers different ways to explore and understand how humans perceive, respond to and are affected by their surrounding environments.  It has many applications in real life – and one such application is informing city strategy, design and policy.

 

Applying neuroscience research to urban design

Take mental health, for example.  It is a prime example of an area in which neuroscience can be used by city planners and policymakers to help improve human wellbeing.

As FutureCatapult point out in their report, cities have a greater prevalence of mental health problems than rural areas.

They note that several factors associated with cities have been found to contribute to mental health problems. These include certain toxins (produced by traffic, industrial parks), environmental stressors (noise and light pollution), climate conditions (urban heat islands) and social conditions (isolation).  Neuroscience offers a greater understanding how these factors impact on human health and wellbeing, thus creating an evidence base for the design of healthy places.

There are many other ways in which neuroscience research can inform city design.  For example, it has been found that:

  • poor air quality has serious detrimental effects on the natural developments of children’s brains
  • social isolation can accelerate cognitive decline in older people
  • an increase in noise decreases worker productivity
  • light influences brain function during specific cognitive tasks, especially those requiring sustained attention

Such findings can help inform the decisions made by city planners and policymakers, and help create cities that maximise human health, wellbeing and productivity.

Research into the brain’s ‘wayfinding’ processes – that is, how the brain processes visual information and makes sense of unfamiliar environments – is also of interest.  For example, how do people choose which paths to follow?  Are they influenced by street size, shape, colours, noise, or the number of cars? Such information could be used to inform the design of streets and places that are easier to navigate. This is of growing importance given the drive towards the design of inclusive and dementia-friendly places.

Relatedly, neuroscience offers a way to gain a deeper understanding of how non-neurotypical brains process and respond to different environments – for example, people with dementia or autism.  Understanding these different perspectives and responses is key to the creation of spaces that are truly inclusive.

 

Neuroscience in action

But how exactly does one go about examining how brain cells respond to an urban environment?

There are a variety of neuroscience tools that may be used to gather information about human’s experience of the city.

A key tool is mobile electroencephalography (EEG).  Previously, EEG involved equipment that could only be used in a laboratory.  However, technological advances have seen the development of mobile EEG ‘headsets’ that can be worn as research participants navigate different streets and environments of the city.

Mobile EEG enables researchers to measure brain function and activity, as well as the responses of the autonomic nervous system (heart rate, skin conductivity, endocrinological levels).  This can be used to understand how individuals experience urban environments.

For example, mobile EEG has been used to help understand the urban experiences of people with visual impairments.  Other mobile EEG studies have looked at whether using quiet, low traffic streets has a different effect on pedestrians than using streets busy with shops, traffic and other pedestrians.

Eye tracking machines are another tool providing research findings of interest to urban designers.  They study gaze behaviours and cognition, which are in turn related to attention, memory, language, problem solving, and decision making.  Eye tracking can help researchers to understand which features catch and hold attention, visual preferences and experiences. For example, one eye-tracking study found (perhaps unsurprisingly) that humans prefer lush greenery in urban environments.

As these neurological research and related technologies advance, their application will undoubtedly become more sophisticated and widespread.

 

Building upon evidence

The urban population around the world is expanding rapidly and finding solutions to the mental and physical health challenges that cities present is crucial.

By understanding the insights that neuroscience can provide, city planners, policy makers and others involved in urban design can access a growing evidence base upon which to build future cities that are healthy, attractive and inclusive places to live.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. 

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Top research resources for social care and social services

The news in June that the Government’s Green Paper on social care will now be delayed until the autumn (having already been deferred since 2017) brought sighs of weariness rather than real surprise from the sector.

The recent focus on NHS funding, and the NHS’s 70th birthday, has also highlighted ongoing concerns that the funding crisis in other areas, including social care, mental health services and public health is being pushed to the sidelines.

What is clear, is that the need for evidence-based interventions, and proven value for money, is only getting stronger as budgets continue to be stretched.

The value of research

So, what’s the role of research knowledge within social work and social care? The Social Care Institute for Excellence has suggested that research can help practitioners and decision-makers to understand:

  • the social world in which those who use services live
  • why positive and negative events occur in the lives of some and not others
  • the relative success of interventions and their impact on these events
  • the role of the social care practitioner in relationships and interventions with service users
  • how social policies impact on the lives of people using services.

Studies such as cost-benefit analyses or randomised controlled trials are also part of the evidence base although they are less common in social care/social services than in health contexts.

Research takes place in different ways, with different aims. And the outcomes of research can be communicated in different ways. Blogs such as our own at the Knowledge Exchange aim to signpost readers to recent research on particular topics. Other good sources of accessible discussion of research findings include The Conversation blog and Community Care.

Meanwhile, database services such as the Idox Information Service or Social Policy and Practice will provide more comprehensive coverage of issues, bringing together research studies from other parts of the world which are transferable.

Social Policy and Practice

Many NHS Trusts and councils subscribe to the Social Policy and Practice database as part of their package of support for learning and development.

Recent feedback from users has highlighted its strong coverage of many current priority issues in public health, such as:

  • dementia care
  • delayed discharge
  • funding of long term care
  • safeguarding of both children and adults
  • supporting resilience and well-being
  • tackling obesity
  • asset-based approaches

As a UK-produced database, Social Policy and Practice also includes information on topical policy issues such as minimum alcohol pricing, sugar taxes, and the possible impact on the health and social care workforce of Brexit.

The database is produced by a consortium of four organisations: Social Care Institute for Excellence, Centre for Policy on Ageing, Idox Information Service and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Idox Information Service

With a wider range of topics covered, the Idox Information Service has been identified as a key database by the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Cross-cutting issues which impact on health and social services, such as poverty, housing, and social exclusion are covered in depth. It also covers management and performance topics.

The Idox Information Service also offers a range of current awareness services and access to a team of expert researchers, in addition to the database. The aim is to support the continuing professional development of hard-pressed frontline staff while also supporting the sharing of research and evidence across the sector.

Meeting the needs of the social care sector

Both Social Policy and Practice, and the Idox Information Service aim to increase the social care sector’s capacity for evidence-informed practice.

As battle lines are drawn over government funding, it’s clear that these will continue to be financially challenging times for public services and that demand for services will carry on growing. Investing in learning and development is one way to ensure that staff are equipped with the skills and tools to be the best that they can be. This in turn will ultimately improve performance and outcomes for the most vulnerable in our society.


To find out more about the history of the Social Policy and Practice database and the consortium of publishers behind it, read this article from 2016 which we have been given permission to share. Trials of the database can be requested here.

Read more about the unique support offered by the Idox Information Service. More information on subscriptions can be requested via the online contact form.

A world of evidence … but can we trust that it is any good?

What is good evidence? And how can policymakers and decisionmakers decide what is working and what isn’t, when it comes to deciding where public money is spent and how?

These are the kinds of questions that models and tools such as randomised controlled trials and cost-benefit analysis attempt to answer. The government has also supported the development over the last five years of the What Works Network, which now consists of 10 independent What Works Centres. When talking about impact there’s also been a move to capturing and recognising the value of qualitative data.

As one of our key aims is to support and facilitate the sharing and use of evidence in the public sector, we were interested to read a new publication ‘Mapping the standards of evidence used in UK social policy’.

Standards of evidence

Produced by the Alliance for Useful Evidence, the research has found 18 different Standards of Evidence currently in use across UK social policy.

The report notes that over the last decade there has been increasing interest in grading effectiveness or impact against a level or scale. Typically, the higher up the scale, the more evidence is available. Theoretically this means that decision-makers can have higher confidence in deciding whether a policy or intervention is working.

While all the evidence frameworks generally aim to improve the use of evidence, the different goals of the organisations responsible can shape the frameworks in different ways. They can be used to inform funding decisions, to make recommendations to the wider sector about what works and what doesn’t, or as a resource to help providers to evaluate. And unfortunately this means that the same intervention can be assessed differently depending on which framework is used.

The Alliance for Useful Evidence concludes that while a focus on evidence use is positive, the diversity of evidence standards risks creating confusion. Suggested options for improving the situation include introducing an independent accreditation system, or having a one-stop shop which would make it easier to compare ratings of interventions.

Dissemination and wider engagement

The question of standardising evidence frameworks is just one part of a wider effort to increase transparency. As well as collecting evidence, it’s important that when public money has been invested in carrying out evaluations and impact assessments, that this evidence remain accessible over the longer term and that lessons are learned. It can often seem that government departments have very short organisational memories – especially if they’ve suffered a high churn of staff.

Two projects which we support in Scotland are focused on increasing the dissemination and awareness of evaluation and research evidence. Research Online is Scotland’s labour market information hub. Produced by ourselves and Skills Development Scotland, the portal brings together a range of statistics and research and acts as the centre of a community of practice for labour market researchers, practitioners and policy-makers.

Meanwhile Evaluations Online is a publicly accessible collection of evaluation and research reports from Scottish Enterprise. The reports cover all aspects of Scottish Enterprise’s economic development activities – some of the latest added to the site cover megatrends affecting Scottish tourism, innovation systems and the gender gap, and the commercial flower-growing sector in Scotland.

When working within the policy world it can be easy to suffer from fatigue as ideas appear to be continually recycled, rejected and then revisited as policy fashions change and political parties or factions go in and out of power. The spotlight, often driven by the media, will shine on one hot policy issue – for example, moped crime, cannabis legislation or health spending – and then move on.

Online libraries of evaluations and research reports are one tool which can help support a longer-term culture of learning and improvement within the public sector.

Evidence Week 2018

Inspired by similar objectives, Evidence Week runs from 25th to 28th June 2018 and aims to explore the work of parliamentarians in seeking and scrutinising evidence. It will bring together MPs, peers, parliamentary services and the public to talk about why evidence matters, and how to use and improve research evidence.

This may be the start of wider knowledge sharing about standards of evidence, to help those using them to improve their practice.


The Knowledge Exchange is a member of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Our databases are used by government and the public sector, as well as private-sector consultancies, to keep abreast of policy news and research in social and public policy.

The Idox Information Service database: factual, accessible and essential

At a time when finding up-to-date and accurate information has never been more important, organisations and individuals in the public, private and third sectors need to know where the best resources are.

All members of the Idox Information Service have access to the Idox database, which contains thousands of reports and journal articles on public and social policy.

The subjects range from planning and infrastructure to housing, health, education and culture. Each entry provides full bibliographic details, as well as an abstract summarising the key information contained in the original item.

Keywords and subject headings are allocated to each record, making it more likely to appear when searching for relevant items. Often, the abstract is enough to provide a searcher with the information they need. But if the full document is required, this is available, either online or by download.

The database is a highly respected library of high quality information, and brings together a wealth of articles and reports that are not available in a single source elsewhere.

To provide a flavour of what the database contains, here’s just a selection of the hundreds of items that have been added since the beginning of 2018.

End rough sleeping: what works
Published by Crisis

This report explores effective ways of tackling rough sleeping, drawing on a review of international evidence. The authors discuss key findings, impacts and barriers in relation to nine key interventions: hostels and shelters; Housing First; Common Ground; social impact bonds; residential communities; ‘no second night out’; reconnection; personalised budgets; and street outreach services. The report also highlights opportunities to improve the evidence base.

Fostering (House of Commons Education Committee report)
Published by The Stationery Office

In 2017, the Commons Education Committee conducted an enquiry into the foster care of children in England. The resulting report focuses on valuing young people and foster carers. As well as looking at the support for young people, including placements, engagement and transition to adulthood, the report considers the working conditions of foster carers, including financial support, employment status and training. The report concludes that foster care provides an invaluable service to society, but notes that England’s foster care system is under pressure. The Committee makes several recommendations for government, including the establishment of a national college for foster carers.

Still planning for the wrong future?
Published in Town and Country Planning, Vol 86 No 12 Dec 2017

Inactivity is one of the main factors impacting on health, and this article considers how planning may be a cause of, and a solution to, inactivity. The article discusses the health consequences of mass motoring in urban areas and the need to develop healthy communities through planning. The author calls for planning to develop more walkable, cyclable and public transport-based places, and recommends that places should be designed to make active and public transport more convenient than driving in order to increase physical activity and improve health.

Preparing for Brexit
Published by the Greater London Authority (GLA)

Brexit is, of course, a significant issue, and is likely to affect many different areas of public policy, from trade and the economy to public spending and devolution. The Idox database is collecting a growing library of reports and articles covering this important topic. This GLA report, for example, considers different scenarios to model five possible outcomes for the UK and London of the UK leaving the European Union (EU) Customs Union and Single Market. The report draws on data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the macro-sectoral model, E3ME, and suggests that the more severe the type of Brexit, the greater the negative impact will be on London and the UK. It predicts that Brexit will not only reduce the size of the UK economy, but also put it on a slower long-term growth trajectory.

Work harder (or else)
Published in People Management, Mar 2018

Poor productivity is one of the most acute problems affecting the UK economy. This article suggests that the key to improving productivity lies with developing a happy, engaged and well-motivated workforce. And to reinforce the argument, the author provides evidence from a crystal glass products company in Cumbria. The article explains that since the company introduced a collective bonus for all employees based on turnover and margin improvement, turnover has almost doubled and gross margins have more than tripled.  The article attributes this success to the company’s staff working together to make small, continuous improvements.

Plastic not so fantastic
Published in Envirotec Mar/Apr 2018
Increasing concerns about the scale of plastic waste, particularly in the world’s oceans, has pushed this issue to the top of the political agenda. This article reviews government and industry responses to the problem, including the benefits and drawbacks of deposit return schemes.

These are just a few examples, but there are many more reports and articles in the Idox database. For most of these items, full text access is also available, either via website links or through our document supply service.

Access to the Idox database is just one of the services provided to members of the Idox Information Service. Other benefits of membership include our enquiries service, a weekly current awareness bulletin and fortnightly topic updates.

If you would like to know more about the benefits of Idox Information Service membership,  please get in touch with our customer development team today.


You can read more about the Idox Information Service in these recent blog posts:

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