Now's the time for a scientific approach to social policy

Bracketed by Brexit, my time at Impetus has felt enriching and prolific. Working in public affairs during that tumultuous period of British history, less so. I joined Impetus as Director of Public Affairs in June 2016, the week the UK voted to leave the EU. Four and a half years on, the UK is preparing to actually leave. And my time is up too.

It’s been a time of domestic stasis. The last significant education legislation was in 2017, although we’ve had commissions and reviews churning out ideas yet to be acted on. This didn’t stop Impetus publishing research, making policy recommendations, investing in great charities. But it didn’t always feel like the external impetus for change was there.

Just when the era of fragile majorities and endless Brexit votes seemed to be coming to an end with the last General Election, the pandemic hit and we have rapidly switched to crisis response.

Never in my lifetime have JFK’s words rung truer:

Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.

Just like the Brexit vote in my first week at Impetus signalled what lay ahead, I hope news of the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine in my last week heralds a new era of positive human endeavour. If we can face down a deadly virus, let’s test the limits of what else we can achieve when we come together and focus on making things better. Closing the attainment gap? Solving youth unemployment? Surely these issues seem less intractable now.

What have both the failures and successes of the pandemic taught us about tackling such pressing social and environmental issues? For me, it is the value of science, focus and collaboration.

Science and social policy are not so far apart. We can’t afford to waste time and money on interventions which don’t have impact when we’re talking about children’s lives. Testing promising interventions, looking data fearlessly in the face, rapidly adapting or stopping when the data tells us that beloved programmes simply aren’t having the impact we intended, are all critical lessons from science. And where the evidence is strong, investing heavily to ensure all the children who need our help, get it.

A relentless concerted focus on a problem, without qualification or distraction, has smashed conventional timelines. Imagine what we could achieve if we put the same energy into giving children, no matter what their background, every opportunity to succeed? We’ve known for a decade that targeted tutoring can close the attainment gap but it took a pandemic to get us to focus on learning inequalities – and the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) was born.

Finally, the pandemic taught us to see and value one another in new ways. We thanked our supermarket cashiers when we went to pay, having seldom met their eyes before. We clapped our carers and took the opportunity to check in on neighbours we’d walked past silently before. Our front pages were adorned with the banners of Black Lives Matter protestors and of women in the white coats of science labs. We saw and valued each other anew.

It will take all of us, seeing each other, and working together, to make progress. Together, we can achieve incredible things. Impetus has already demonstrated what the power of evidence, collaboration and focus can achieve, through NTP and the Youth Employment Group. I end my time at this incredible charity with optimism and pride; to continue fighting for #EveryChildhood with renewed hope in our ability to do and be better.

Maria Neophytou was Director of Public Affairs and Acting CEO at Impetus, before joining the NSPCC as Director of Strategy and Knowledge in November 2020.

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