Measuring the social return on investment of playwork

Measuring the social return on investment of playwork

Measuring the social return on investment of playwork

Earlier this week we marked National Play Day with a blog by Mike Barclay from Wrexham County Borough Council and Play Wales’s Marianne Manello outlining the social benefits that have been attributed to playwork in Wrexham. In this blog the consultant who led the enquiry, Chris Ashman, outlines the methodologies he used, including the Treasury’s Green Book, which helped identify that for every £1 spent on playwork in Wrexham, £4.60 worth of public benefits are gained.

I was recently commissioned by the Communities First Support Service to undertake research into the social value of playwork provision in Wrexham. We wanted to do this to ascertain the return on investment by Communities First in three play settings. The findings are here, and you can read more about the research and playwork in Wrexham in Mike and Marianne’s blog.

In this short blog I’d like to outline the chosen methodology and to explain why this was adopted.

At a time when public finance is increasingly being stretched, the need to measure the impact of publicly-funded social intervention has never been greater. This kind of information is used to help drive important decisions on the funding of local services, so it is vital that both direct outcomes and wider indirect benefits are properly recognised during any evaluation.
Expressing these benefits in monetary terms has always been challenging, particularly as some interventions can go on for years before results are really evident; as Communities First knows all too well! As a result, funders and policy makers often question whether targeted, meaningful input directly results in a longer term outcome, particularly given the potential effects of other factors over a particular time.

Measuring the Social Return on Investment
The concept of measuring the Social Return on Investment (SROI) has been around for some time and is a method for calculating indirect benefits arising from a targeted intervention. Attaching economic value to an evidenced return has, however, been more challenging, due to a reticence to use locally identified data to populate models for calculating economic value. This has been, in the main, due to either a lack of confidence in the robustness of this data or concerns that relevant projected benefits can legitimately be linked to the intervention (e.g., the provision of community growing or fitness activities resulting in reduced obesity rates and increased self esteem). As a result, the tendency of project and programme deliverers, evaluators and funders has been to increasingly rely mainly on output data to judge relative success and/or failure.

Overcoming These Challenges
When undertaking the recent enquiry into playwork in Wrexham, the challenges mentioned above were at the forefront of our minds.
The research brief was as follows:

“To carry out an economic analysis of the social benefit of playwork provision in terms of return on investment. This should include exploring the immediate and deferred benefits to people from developing social capital and improving their current or future employment prospects (particularly the development or retention of attributes that employers find desirable) as a consequence of having access to regular and sustained playwork provision.”

In order to properly fulfil this brief, our aim was to develop a methodology that provided a robust picture of the benefits of Playwork in the area, not only to children immediately participating in supported play settings but also, given the longevity of the approach in Wrexham, the value of longer term benefits to former users of the services in terms of avoided costs, personal resilience and well being.

The final approach, developed after consultation with local stakeholders, contained two main features that may be of interest to others facing similar challenges of evidencing impact.

Innovative engagement techniques in capturing robust evidence of the benefits of playwork
Use of Treasury approved models for calculating the economic value of the benefits of playwork

Participative Research Methods
In order to collate the views of the children who use staffed playwork settings, it was necessary to build relationships that enabled them to share what they perceived to be the credible benefits of their attendance. This required a sustained, informal approach to interviewing which took place both at and away from the setting.
A particularly useful method with this target group and also with the parents and carers of these children was the use of “graphic capture” – the portrayal of thoughts, emotions and benefits in a cartoon form displayed immediately in front of  targeted focus groups. This method was very powerful in terms of capturing a wide range of views, something that would not have been possible through purely questionnaire-based approaches. It was also very popular with interviewees in terms of providing immediate feedback.

In addition to the graphic capture approach, further evidence of the benefits of contact with Playwork was obtained through a mix of observation and informal questioning. This occurred while children played at each setting, as well as during outreach play sessions and as part of classroom-based work in conjunction with local schools. We also conducted “school gate” interviews with parents and carers.venture-1

Key to this approach, we believe, was the repeated presence of the research team at the settings over a period of a few weeks. As a result of this, children became familiar with both the objectives of the study and the researcher, and as a result were able to feel more confident about sharing their views on perceived benefits. Interviewing “friendship groups” together was also a useful technique as a means of encouraging the less confident to share their experiences.
The quality of data obtained via these methods provided a highly robust picture of the link between time spent in contact with play workers at staffed play settings and the resulting economic value of physical, emotional, educational and economic achievements of current and former beneficiaries.

The Treasury Green Book
The Treasury Green book and further guidance for local partnerships produced in conjunction with the Public Service Transformation network and New Economy, set out a range of benefit calculation methods that enabled economic value to be estimated.
Values connected to the achievement of various Key Stage level qualifications, avoidance of chronic circulatory and mental health illness, chronic circulatory and reduced crime rates were some of the measures used in determining the value of Playwork in Wrexham.
After using a method of discounting values called “optimism bias” the enquiry identified a cost benefit ratio of £1 : £4.60, i.e., for every £1 of investment into playwork there is a return of £4.60 in public benefits. This sends a strong message to the new Public Service Board of the multiple impact of this intervention in contributing to local well being and anti-poverty objectives.
For further information on the enquiry An Evaluation of the impact of Play work in Wrexham contact Mike Barclay

Chris Ashman is an Associate Consultant at The Means and be contacted at or on 07508 523 199

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