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Undertaking a career development short placement as a social care professional

Hannah Cann is a participation officer with looked-after children at Southampton City Council

Hannah Cann is a participation officer with looked-after children at Southampton City Council. She used the research training and career development opportunities available to her during an NIHR Local Authority Short Placement Award for Research Collaboration (LA SPARC) to support the next phase of her practitioner research career; an NIHR Pre-doctoral Local Authority Academic Fellowship (PLAF).

Published: 22 September 2022

First steps into research

Hannah is a trained teacher and play therapist. She developed an interest in research during her training and began looking for ways to better support families.

“When I was a teacher, I felt frustrated that education policy and practice did not always reflect up-to-date research. As my career has progressed, I have wanted to help bridge the gap between research, policy, and practice so we can support children and families in the most successful, efficient and effective ways possible.”

Applying for a career development award

Hannah found out about the LA SPARC scheme through an internal email bulletin at work.

The scheme supports people to undertake short placements in either a part of the NIHR or local authority settings. It provides personalised research training and career development opportunities for individuals to enhance their careers.

Individuals can design and apply for funds (up to £15,000) to undertake a bespoke placement, allowing them to:

  • develop their skills, knowledge and expertise
  • train in a specific technique
  • build relationships and collaborations with leading  researchers/specialists
  • co-create research that is more meaningful and better connected with practice

Hannah had little experience in conducting research, so got in touch with the Research Design Service. The service supports health and social care researchers to develop and write funding applications. They helped Hannah to complete her application and put her in touch with other applicants who had been successful.

Hannah’s research placement

Hannah was based in the NIHR Children and Families Policy Research Unit at University College London (UCL) and worked with the NIHR North East and North Cumbria Applied Research Collaboration.

She worked on the placement three days a week and remained in her professional role for the other two days.

During her placement Hannah  worked on a variety of different research projects and activities relevant to her role in Children's Services:

  • a mixed methods study analysing national administrative data
  • a qualitative case studies project identifying good practice across England to support local leaders in developing their Start for Life offers (services for families from conception to age 2 years)
  • research into health inequalities for vulnerable young people, including those with special educational needs, physical disabilities and care leavers
  • a study looking at educational attendance differences for children on child in need or child protection plans and children in care
  • a study reviewing child development tools

The placement has helped Hannah to develop her analytics skills and she has been trained to use data analysis software. Hannah has learned how to conduct systematic reviews, identify behaviour change techniques, and how to read and analyse data sets.

Hannah will be able to use the findings from one of her projects to help her in her role at the council, and inform the redesign of its Start for Life offer.

I have had so many incredible opportunities as a result of the LA SPARC. My academic supervisor and co-director of the NIHR Children and Families Policy Research Unit, Dr Jenny Woodman has been amazing. She has gone above and beyond and her passion and dedication are inspiring.

Advice for potential applicants

  • Speak to people already working in research or completing a fellowship
  • Read through the scheme’s ‘NIHR SPARC - Where Can I Go’ guide and try to find a team with a good fit for you and your future research subject
  • Contact your local Research Design Service for advice, they were instrumental in helping me
  • Go for it! The practicalities of re-training can be a barrier, but placements like this might be the next step you need

Future plans

Hannah is delighted to have recently been awarded an NIHR PLAF that will support her to prepare a PhD project. She aims to examine educational outcomes for children known to social care. It will be underpinned by an aim to inform policy to reduce inequalities in the health and wellbeing in children and young people.

This placement has been a wonderful experience and I am excited about my future career. It has helped me develop as a practitioner and continue to improve practice within Southampton City Council.

“I want to keep working in participation with children and young people, making sure their voices are central to research and practice.”

Find out more and apply for the NIHR LA SPARC.

Learn more about social care research and our different opportunities on our social care page.

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