- Helen Roberts, professor (firstname.lastname@example.org)1,
- Kristin Liabo, research fellow1,
- Patricia Lucas, research officer1,
- David DuBois, associate professor2,
- Trevor A Sheldon, professor3
- 1Child Health Research and Policy Unit, Institute of Health Sciences, City University, London EC1A 7QN
- 2Community Health Sciences, School of Public Health (MC 923), University of Illinois at Chicago, 1603 W Taylor St, Chicago, IL 60612-4324, USA
- 3Department of Health Sciences, University of York, York YO10 5DD
- Correspondence to: H Roberts
The effects of social interventions need to be examined in real life situations as well as studies
Politicians and policy makers are increasingly interested in evidence based decision making. They are under pressure to look to research for solutions to policy problems and justify programmes by reference to the knowledge base. It is tempting for policy makers to grasp any research on seemingly intractable social problems, however slim, in the hope of finding simple solutions. Rolling out national programmes based on inadequate evidence can, however, do more harm than good. We use the example of mentoring for young people with, or at risk of, antisocial behaviour problems to show the potential dangers of running ahead of the evidence.
Social interventions aimed at children
Public health interventions to improve outcomes for children are an example of policy and research evolving in tandem.1–3 Interventions such as Highscope, Headstart, parenting education, home visiting, and mentoring have been well designed and robustly evaluated, some of them by randomised controlled trials.4–10 Nevertheless, parent education, home visiting, and mentoring, as their proponents and evaluators would be the first to agree, largely remain black boxes with a great many unanswered questions about what specific forms of intervention are effective and under which conditions.
Meanwhile, a climate has been created in which it is widely held that these interventions are effective and national programmes are being established. Questions about who delivers the service, the kind of young people who might benefit, and the content of services likely to be effective can be lost in the drive to get the programmes running.11 These programmes can gain momentum because they have strong face validity: they look like the sort of things that should work, our instincts …