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Island of Ireland emerging as the leader in applications of prevention science to policy and practice

Resource type: News

Prevention Action |

Original Source The island of Ireland is emerging as a point of focus for breakthroughs in applications of prevention science to policy and practice. Over 25 innovative projects from across the island were showcased at a conference convened by the Office for the Minister of Children in the Republic of Ireland and The Atlantic Philanthropies. Government in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has partnered with the Atlantic Philanthropies to bring international expertise and proven programs to children’s services in both jurisdictions. Investments have introduced disadvantaged communities and leading children’s services agencies to methods for designing, implementing and rigorously evaluating cutting edge prevention programs. This work has seen the introduction of Incredible Years, Big Brothers Big Sisters, PATHS and other proven models. Funds have also supported innovation, such as Business in the Community’s Time to Read program across Northern Ireland. The potential for prevention in Ireland is much enhanced by the preparedness to use experimental methods to evaluate impact on child outcomes, high levels of community engagement during the design and implementation stages and by the attention to all stages of children’s development. Opening the conference, the Minister for Children in the Republic, Barry Andrews captured the collaborative theme by welcoming his counterpart Gerry Kelly from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and Marcia Smith, Vice President at The Atlantic Philanthropies. Andrews continued to say ‘my office is focused on driving and promoting the implementation of policies which improve children’s life chances. These projects represent the leading edge in the effort to find out what works and why and assist us in promoting what is learned, so that it influences policy and practice’. As well as reflecting on what has been achieved in the last three years, the conference gave a good airing to future challenges. Sylda Langford, Director General of the Office of the Minister for Children in the Republic of Ireland and a leading light in establishing the reforms reminded conference participants that the road they were traveling was long. She welcomed the new era of strategic thinking and collaboration that had emerged. She was excited by the use of models shown to be effective in other countries and by the focus on child outcomes. But sustaining progress across 20 or more sites and getting learning embedded more widely would be a struggle. ‘We have made a good start but we have to support communities and children’s services agencies to move the agenda forward’ was Langford’s conclusion. International contributions echoed these themes. Sharon Ramey, Founding Director of the Georgetown University Center for Health and Education in Washington DC and one of the architects of the Ireland program gave several examples of how durable prevention and early intervention had the greatest impact. Danny Perkins, Professor of Family and Youth Resiliency and Policy and Penn State University in the US looked at the potent combination of evidence based interventions and technical support for fidelity of implementation. Perkins also brought attention to the value of maintaining enthusiasm and drive in the teams leading the reform process across Ireland, North and South. ‘Too many sprouts of prevention innovation die for the sake of poorly supported practitioners and the absence of simple technical advice’, reported Perkins. The Atlantic Philanthropies is partnering with government agencies to address the issue. Marcia Smith from Atlantic noted ‘this initiative seeks to make lasting improvements in the lives of disadvantaged children. On-going support and intervention at key points during childhood and adolescence help build on early success and prevent the onset of problem behaviors’. This commitment will soon be manifest in the establishment of the Centre for Effective Services, a new not-for-profit organization that has the brief to support innovation sites across the island and share their work to other communities and agencies. The importance of experimental evaluation was rammed home by Paul Connolly, Professor of Education at Queen’s University Belfast. He has been at the vanguard of a movement to shift the attention of evaluators away from process and ideology towards impact on child outcomes. His team in Belfast are leading three of the randomized controlled trials supported by the new investments; one looking at the impact of mentors on the reading abilities of children in primary school; one looking at the effects of peer education on the development of children from birth to entrance to primary school; and a third estimating the contribution of media programs on improvements in mutual respect and understanding in post-conflict Northern Ireland. In many ways the Forum represented a coming out party for a program of reform that has been well hidden during its early stages of development. Unusually for Europe, the work has involved much planning, good exposure to international evidence and a determination to use high quality epidemiology coupled with a preparedness to find out what works. Now individual projects are prepared to share what has been achieved, and begin to make the next steps towards long-term sustainability. Minister Andrews captured the mood of the meeting well when he said ‘this is a unique opportunity to make linkages between leaders in innovation and to help crystallize emerging ideas about how to make services more effective for children and families’. Prevention Action will continue to closely monitor progress over the coming years.