Accessing the evidence base for child and family services

Richard Cotmore, Head of Evidence, explains how our Knowledge and Information Service helps us develop and evaluate services more effectively

Girl playing in a sand pitOver the years our Knowledge and Information Service (KIS) has become more important to the NSPCC as a whole and particularly to the evidence team. In this blog I’m going to explain how the service has a key role in providing access to the wealth of child protection evidence that already exists, and helping us plan our service development and evaluation.


Since 2009 all our direct services to children and families have had an evaluation plan. This covers a range of programmes that include social work assessments, parenting programmes and therapeutic work.

We’ve learnt a lot about doing evaluations in the context of our services, for example about the value of starting with a focus on feasibility and implementation rather than trying to assess impact straight away. It’s really important to learn about whether a service is deliverable, whether or not it’s acceptable to families, referrers and practitioners, and what unanticipated changes might be needed. We can’t begin to address the question of impact until we understand these things.

We’ve also learnt about the planning and development of new services. We now start small by testing a new approach in a very small number of sites before considering moving to a larger roll out. And our development phase has been informed by frameworks such as the Early Intervention Foundation’s evidence standards and the Medical Research Council’s Framework for the development and evaluation of complex interventions.

Reviewing existing research evidence

Before we can develop a new service we need to carry out an evidence review. This will contribute to a theory of change, which sets out what needs the service is aiming to fulfil, how and why.

The evidence review helps us to understand what is already known about the particular needs we have identified and what other people have done to address them. It wouldn’t be a good use of a scarce resource if we unwittingly attempted to learn something that was already known.

This is where the Knowledge and Information Service (KIS) come in. Their experience of searching through research databases is really helpful - but also extremely reassuring for anyone who doesn’t have much prior experience of doing that sort of literature search, or who hasn’t done one for a while. Sometimes there are so many sources of evidence that it can feel overwhelming. But KIS are able to find the right level of information needed, about a range of child protection topics, and they present it in a very accessible way so it’s easy for our busy service development colleagues to use.

These evidence reviews are a really significant part of informing the theories of change that are developed for new services. Our service development team can feel more confident about the potential success of a service if they have a good grasp of the research evidence that underpins it.

Statistics and local information

Sometimes we need to find specific information about a local area, and although we know the data should be publicly available, it’s hard to know where to start. Again our Knowledge and Information Service is really helpful for identifying appropriate sources of evidence and helping us to use it.

A good example is the evaluation planning for our Parents Under PressureTM (PUP) programme. This is a parenting programme that supports families where a primary carer is on a drug or alcohol treatment programme. It’s targeted at families with very young children.

PUP was being delivered in 11 areas across England and Scotland and we needed to make a decision about which of these would be part of the randomised controlled trial (RCT) we were to carry out to evaluate the service. The RCT would run across 6 sites. To make an informed decision, we wanted as much information as possible on local needs and on the service networks in each area. This was to give the study the best chance of receiving the highest possible number of referrals.

The exact information we wanted didn’t exist. But our KIS colleagues were able to collate data from a range of sources, which we put together to create a picture of local needs and services. For each of our sites they were able to provide: numbers of adult women in drug treatment; proportions of adult women in drug treatment who were pregnant and who lived with their children; and percentage of the local adult population - males and females - who were considered high risk in their drinking. For the local service context, KIS provided us with a brief analysis of local children’s and young people’s plans and local drugs strategies. These were very helpful for giving us a sense of how the PUP programme fitted with local priorities.

We were able to add this data to some local knowledge on local service networks and referral pathways to make an informed judgment about which areas were best for the RCT. Having access to such a wealth of data on each of our local sites was extremely valuable for our evaluation.


In evaluation there is a mantra - everything happens in a context. It’s vital that we embed our service development and evaluation in evidence. Our Knowledge and Information Service has a key role in making sure we’re using the right resources, basing our work on the best possible information.

The evaluation report for PUP will be published on 5 March 2018 – sign up to CASPAR and keep an eye out for the report.

Knowledge and Information Service

Illustration book of resourcesThe Knowledge and Information Service holds the UK’s largest collection of child protection resources. It’s available to anyone who needs access to the latest child protection research, policy and practice – and it’s free.

If you need help accessing child protection resources, putting together reading lists, finding statistics or carrying out a complex literature searches, get in touch with our information specialists.

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  1. Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) (2017) EIF evidence standards [Accessed 24/01/2018].