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10 things we learned from NatCen Social Research in 2011 (and one more for Christmas)

Posted on 21 December 2011 .
Tags: British Gambling Prevalence Survey, British Social Attitudes, Evaluation of Every Child a Reader, family interventions, Growing up in Scotland, Health Survey for England, London Riots, Reality of Generation Rent, Scottish Social Attitudes, Survey of smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England, Troubled Families Unit, Understanding Society

Like most organisations at this time of year, people are winding down and looking forward to a well earned rest (and hopefully plenty of festive cheer). All around us we’re being regaled with the highs and lows of 2011. It’s certainly been one hell of a year: from the highs of seeing Kate and Wills riding that chariot down The Mall, to the lows of people walking off with other people’s TVs in Clapham Junction. And my personal favourite, seeing Harry Judd lift the Strictly trophy last weekend… but that’s another story!

It’s been an eventful 12 months for social research too. The year kicked off in the grip of the biggest crunches in public expenditure for a generation, which had a corresponding chill on the ability of public sector organisations to commission research, and ultimately on the size of research budgets.

But I’m pleased to say that things seem to be a lot better at this end of 2011, and I’m not one for rose tinted spectacles. Talking to colleagues in other research organisations at the recent Social Research Association annual conference, there the big commissioning freeze definitely appears to have thawed. Sure, there’s a lot less work around and clients expect more for less. But also a belief that social research provides a critical means of ensuring that the public have a powerful and influential role in shaping decisions and services that can make a difference to everyone.
At NatCen Social Research we’ve been involved in far too many studies to mention in one blog.

But I wanted to share 10 important things we learned from our research in 2011:

1. For the first time we have a measure of the impact of Family Interventions , which demonstrates that anti-social behaviour family interventions reduce the anti-social and criminal behaviour of the families they work with. Evidence which underpins David Cameron’s announcement of plans for a network of "trouble shooters" to give more focused support to England's most troubled families and the set up of Louise Casey’s new Troubled Families Unit at CLG.

2. Staying with early intervention, our evidence showed that intensive reading support can have a positive impact on children who start school labelled a ‘low achiever’. Our report for DfE, Evaluation of Every Child a Reader, showed that both boys and girls can benefit from Reading Recovery, a programme of daily one-to-one support from a specially trained teacher. Even the children who struggle most to read in the early years of school can see their reading ability, motivation and enthusiasm substantially raised by intensive one-to-one support from a trained reading specialist following the Reading Recovery programme. The costs of the programme are high, but the potential benefits are great.

3. One of our important longitudinal studies – Growing up in Scotlandalso shed light on Scottish children’s early years experiences. It found that during the first five years of their lives, around one in ten experience their parents separating, with the incidence being highest in the first two years after the child’s birth. Moreover, separation increases the likelihood of mothers experiencing poor mental health and low income, both of which are known drivers of child outcomes.

4. At the other end of the age spectrum, we gained some insights into what older people think matters most during retirement. While financial factors, such as the ability to pay bills and have secure accommodation, were important, other non-financial factors also contributed to a ‘comfortable’ lifestyle’. Key here was good health and mobility, a strong support network of friends and family and being able to tailor expectations and expenditure to meet income.

5. As ever we learned a lot about public attitudes. Our Scottish Social Attitudes survey made the front pages with findings that suggested the debate about independence may all come down to economics. Two thirds of people said they would be in favour of independence if, on average, Scots become £500 a year better off, but two thirds would be against it if people in Scotland become worse off by the same amount.

6. Unsurprisingly, the pressure on household finance came through elsewhere too. Findings from the 28th British Social Attitudes report showed that people are increasingly reluctant to make personal financial sacrifices to protect the environment. Since 2000 the number of people prepared to pay higher prices to safeguard the environment has fallen, from 43 to 26 per cent. So too has the proportion willing to pay much higher taxes to protect the environment, from 31 to 22 per cent.

7. The difficult and uncertain financial climate has also taken its toll on house buying. In our research for the Halifax, we highlighted a generation of renters who are giving up on the reality of owning their own home. The research showed that 77 per cent of all non-home owners still aspire to ownn their own home, but that despite this nearly half of 20-45 year olds predict that Britain will become a nation of renters within the next generation.

8. Though clearly money is tight for people, it doesn’t appear to be having an impact on their willingness to gamble. Our research for the Gambling Commission showed that nearly three quarters of adults (73 per cent) gambled in the previous year, up from 68 per cent in 2007. This is hardly surprising since work we conducted with Geofutures for the responsible Gambling Fund demonstrated that there are plenty of opportunities to have a flutter or two. We found that areas with a larger number of gambling machines tended to be those of greater socio-economic deprivation. But the pattern was not universal; some relatively affluent areas including new towns or satellite towns to major cities had higher densities of gambling machines.

9. And that wasn’t all we learned about risky behaviours in 2011. In our report of the 2010 Health Survey for England we learned that more than a quarter of young women say they first had sex before they were 16. This picture of a permissive youth is certainly not reflected in attitudes to other kinds of risk taking behaviours. Our study of smoking, drinking and drug use amongst young people in England found that school children are becoming less tolerant of drinking among their peers, while fewer are drinking, smoking or taking drugs.

10. And I couldn’t put together a list like this without mentioning our unique study on the August riots for the Cabinet Office. Conceived just days after the event, and conducted in the two months afterwards, our research brought to life what really happened during those 6 days in August. Time and again, young people described the events as madness: witnessing people behaving in unlikely ways; and unlikely people getting involved in the first place. They had simply seen nothing like it ever before, and what’s more, no-one was stepping into stop it. For the young people involved, some were motivated by the sheer thrill and excitement of such extra-ordinary events; some by a one-off opportunity to acquire ‘free stuff’ with apparent impunity; and for others, it was a chance to vent their anger at the police, borne of long resentment.

For me these 10 highlights capture the vital importance of our work and leaves me in no doubt of social research’s enduring contribution. But I couldn’t sign off this blog without mentioning the biggest longitudinal study in the world which NatCen Social Research is proud to deliver. So consider one more. Thanks to the release of Wave 1 Understanding Society data in December 2011, we learnt that people are working longer and are sleeping less, that sibling relationships could be key to improving children's happiness and that the UK is significantly more racially mixed than previously thought. Paul Boyle, Chief Executive of the ESRC described this as "an exciting time for anyone interested in mapping the UK's social landscape" with the new set of data making an "important contribution to the UK's internationally renowned portfolio of longitudinal studies." I’m looking forward to another cracking year at NatCen Social Research in 2012 with a bunch of great people who are dedicated to delivering social research that works for society.

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