An apple on a pile of books

School’s out! But charities can keep on learning

By George Hoare 18 December 2015

We are nearing the end of the first term of the school year, which means a well-deserved break for all those who work in schools (as well as students of course). But the winter break also gives those education charities running interventions in schools a chance to evaluate their autumn term programmes.

For some organisations, the past three months will be the very first time they have run their intervention in a school. For these ‘start-ups’, the break over Christmas also represents the opportunity to reflect on wider questions. Has the programme so far been a success? What have we learnt? And—most importantly—are we having a positive impact on the pupils we’re working with?

Perhaps the most powerful tool to answer these questions is a theory of change, which gets you to think first about the final goal you want to achieve and then ‘think backwards’ about how you get there.

For education charities, a useful first step in developing a theory of change is to ask a relatively simple question: what do you want your participants to learn? As a broad framework, we can divide possible learning into three categories:

  • Many education charities want their participants to take away some new and valuable knowledge. This might be subject knowledge, as represented by Action Tutoring’s focus on the content of the GCSE Maths and English courses. Alternatively it might be knowledge of a set of procedures, such as a training programme that teaches participants to use a complex rulebook (but does not expect them to memorise it). You might call the first sort of knowledge ‘know that’, while the second might be ‘know how’.
  • It is also common for education charities to want their participants to develop skills. Here it can be useful to ask whether you want your participants to develop capabilities that are related to a specific domain—such as financial planning, electrical engineering skills, IT skills, or the ability to facilitate a successful meeting. Or, you may wish to teach capacities that are general—a more diffuse set of personal traits that a mentoring programme such as Franklin Scholars might be interested in: leadership, listening skills, time management, and relationship-building skills.
  • On the other hand, you might want your programme to change the attitudes of young people. Ask yourself: are these attitudes related to the self (such as confidence, resilience, or reflectiveness), related to others (such as openness and willingness to collaborate and share best practice), or related to ambitions? An example of a programme that looks to change attitudes is The Brilliant Club’s Scholars Programme, which aims to foster the ambition of non-selective state school pupils to apply to highly selective universities.

There are very real and tangible benefits to articulating, even in quite simple terms, what you want your participants to get out of your programme in terms of knowledge, skills, or attitudinal change. For starters, it ensures an organisation’s staff are all on the same page in terms of what the organisation is trying to achieve, so no one is working at cross-purposes.

Once you are clear on what you want participants to get out of your programme, you will have an easier time identifying the steps you need to take to get there, and then measuring whether you’ve succeeded. Measurement can involve, for example, applying basic before and after methodologies—if you want to, say, improve Mathematics knowledge, you can give students a test before your intervention and compare it to a test they take after they have accessed your services.

Theory of change  is an important step in measuring and improving your services, to accessing impact-based funding, and to developing confidence that your activities have a positive impact on your beneficiaries. If you haven’t got one, consider adding it to your new year’s resolutions.