Context matters

In an article titled Context Matters in Programme Implementation, Clarke, Sullivan and Barry (2010) argue that socio-economic and cultural differences can determine, to an extent, the success of school based implementation programmes.

In spite of strong previous evidence that improving children’s social and emotional competencies will enhance their academic performance, the vast majority of these studies are randomised control trials – or RCTs. This has led some to highlight a gap in knowledge between what we know works in a research context, to what happens in real life application with variations that are uncontrolled for or unexpected. In RCTs, it is assumed that the intervention itself will be the only differing factor rather than the wide range of contextual differences.

As we know, schools are fantastically complex social systems, with many interrelated elements working together as one whole. Introducing an intervention programme to this system results in an interplay between the intervention system itself, those implementing it and the context it is being introduced to.

The school as a system will provide support or barriers to the successful delivery of the programme. Commonly identified factors for the success of the school based programme are:

  • Strong administration in school context
  • Shared decision making with parents, teachers, leaders and local community
  • Open and clear communication patterns
  • Support for the programme
  • Strong leadership
  • Stability in terms of resources and personnel
  • Time to deliver the programme free from competing pressures
  • Belief that the intervention is necessary and will be likely to work
  • Staff feel skilled to deliver programme and involved in creating or tailoring it  

This specific study highlights the significant role that whole school (including the geographical location, economic and political landscape and so on) context plays especially in disadvantaged school settings.

The specific intervention this study refers to is: Zippy’s Friends, an international emotional wellbeing programme for primary school children in DEIS schools (designated disadvantaged schools by the Department of Education and Science) in Ireland.

Zippy is a stick insect and his friends are a group of young children, and the stories show them confronting issues that are familiar to young children – friendship, communication, feeling lonely, bullying, dealing with change and loss, and making a new start. Each story is illustrated by brightly coloured pictures.

The programme is delivered by trained classroom teachers over the course of 24 weeks. The programme aims to teach children how to identify and talk about their feelings and cope with difficulties such as bullying, conflict, loss and change. Delivered as part of the compulsory personal, social and health education programme, the intervention took place in two schools:

School A: Large, urban Catholic state school with a high proportion of children from travelling and international families. The vast majority of families were in low socio-economic brackets.  

School B: A much smaller school (about a quarter of the size), a state Protestant school.

The interviews held with participating teachers, parents and students highlighted some key findings. Firstly, the fact that many of the teachers in School B lived in or near the local community and that students tended to travel much less distance to attend the school meant that the school was more supported by the local community. The teachers reportedly had a good understanding of difficulties students could face and the community was described as ‘close knit’.

School B also had stronger relationships with other schools and local community events, whereas school A’s involvement in local community was generally restricted to services provided by statutory and voluntary organisations.In school A, parental involvement was very low in comparison to school B – where parents attended sports events, helped with resources and so on. This was especially important because the programme was expected to be implemented at home, backing up what was learnt in school. Counselling, talking things through and communication were seen as priorities in School A whereas they were rarities in School B. Attendance was a big issue in school A but not school B, contributing to the amount of time students actually completed the programme activities.

The perceived lack of social cohesion in School A’s community, in addition with a lack of parental involvement and low attendance were seen to be barriers to the success of school based intervention.

Even though the schools were both in disadvantaged areas and not that far apart geographically, the intervention was being introduced in two very different whole school contexts in terms of ethos and implementation. In terms of the implications of this study, it suggests that school programmes will need to ensure schools are ‘fertile’ ready for intervention including the support of staff and local community. Also, interventions may need to be bespoke tailored to the specific context they will be applied in, even if we know the basic programme mechanisms work (in this case social learning improves academic outcomes). In what way they work and for whom is different in each case of application.

For policy makers, this is also important since at present, context does not factor in to curriculum and education policy making greatly. Decisions are made about what children are capable of at each age and stage without adaptation for personal circumstance, needs, location or other context. To what extent can we plan for and within specific contexts? Whose job is it to differentiate our approach? Policy makers, heads, teachers? If interventions rely so greatly on context, then we know that other standardised approaches such as exams will also.

Please let us know if you have a story to share of context determining success/failure outcome in either an intervention or regular school activity/curriculum. Would be interesting to share and try to identify patterns of what works, for whom, and in what circumstances.