We all have them. Some weeks are full of challenges and problems in which nothing goes quite right and the unexpected shocks outnumber the unanticipated surprises. It means that by Friday lunchtime we are looking at the clock and waiting to get through to the relative safety of Friday night and the weekend.
I had one of these weeks. And, like anyone else, by the Friday lunchtime I was feeling pretty tired. There was a diary entry for Friday afternoon which involved an off-campus visit to the north of Sheffield where the University is doing some work.
Each year, a small number of Vice-Chancellor scholarships are awarded – these are centrally funded PhD studentships. This visit, which involved one of these scholarships, transformed my week.
I went to an unprepossessing-looking building, a small row of shops just beyond the Northern General Hospital. Through a brightly-painted pink door, I went upstairs to Key Changes, a small social enterprise in north Sheffield that works with female ex-offenders, taking referrals involving women in their last six months before release from prison, mentoring them during the last stage of their sentence and then working with them after release. Our Department of Law and Criminology has been working with Key Changes for some time, and the PhD studentship will allow them to embed the relationship and to undertake systematic research on the interplay between the work of Key Changes and the post-release trajectory of its client group. Supervision will be shared between Law and Criminology and Psychology – there are obvious criminological and psychological perspectives on the work of Key Changes.
Michelle Nicholson, the extraordinarily impressive chief officer at Key Changes, showed me round and talked to me about the complex web of challenges that the client group face: women with low skill and qualification levels on release; often deeply troubled before their engagement with the criminal justice system; often traumatised by prison and then by leaving it, as prison may have provided them with a secure and familiar routine; and then dealing with the predictable problems of maintaining a secure life after release – housing, money, employment and so on. Key Changes offers vocational training and intensive counselling and mentoring, and works at any one time with one hundred women across Sheffield.
I spent part of the afternoon talking to Michelle and her staff, and to an academic team from Hallam led by Professor David Best from Law and Criminology. That morning, the academic and partner team had interviewed candidates for the PhD scholarship, and we talked about the expectations each side had of the research, the approach to working together and the obvious ethical and practical challenges facing them as well as about the longer-term expectations for working together.
But I left Key Changes feeling much better about my week. I’d seen a practical demonstration of the University’s engagement not just with the community but with some of the most challenged and disadvantaged members of the community. I’d seen a rich example of engagement between academics and a partner organisation, with a pragmatic understanding on both sides of the challenges as well as excitement about the possibilities. I’d spent some time with an inspiring leader, which always makes the world feel a bit brighter.
The University’s refreshed strategy is clear about its focus on undertaking research which makes a difference to people’s lives. Of course, the line between research and impact is always more complicated than that. One of the things we discussed at Key Changes was the need to be realistic about the difference this research could make – although in this case everyone in the room understood this. But this seemed to me to be an example of an unambiguous good – risky, perhaps, as research in challenging settings always is, but taking the things the University can offer and putting it at the heart of addressing tough, real world challenge. A great way to end the week.
This is my last blog post until after Easter, when I’ll be shifting to writing fortnightly. Thanks for your continued engagement with my blog and have a restful break, when it arrives: I will have spent a week walking in the Dales.