16 October 2014
Paul Davies reflects on his evaluation of the Future for Heroes programme.

‘Figuring it out’ – learning how to study military to civilian transition

I said, “So let’s be clear, what you want is a programme evaluation.” “Great”, replied the trainer, “that’s precisely it, the only problem will be gathering the data.  Participants come from all over the country and they probably won’t be keen to fill out questionnaires.  Oh, and another thing, some of them are in temporary accommodation, so you won’t know exactly where they are.”

“Great”, I replied, “how do you suggest I do the evaluation?” Long, uncomfortable pause.  Then the trainer suggested with a nice blend of caution and optimism. “You could just come along to the next course, I’m sure you’ll figure something out.”

That conversation took place in 2011 and is a brief account of a meeting arranged to discuss the evaluation of the Future for Heroes (then called Remount) programme. Future for Heroes is a charity established to develop the ability of both serving and retired members of the three armed services, as well as their spouses/partners, to manage the dramatic change when resuming civilian life.  The programme supports them in identifying their post-military needs so they can participate fully in society.  Whilst the programme is open to all, it is primarily focused on those most at risk of falling into unemployment, offending and destructive behaviour.  Its main activity is a four day residential programme held at the Brathay Trust, Ambleside, where groups of up to 12 participants undertake a series of both outdoor and indoor activities.

Since the evaluation design could be briefly described as ‘turn up and sort it out then’, I did not give too much thought to exactly how I would do it. As questionnaires seemed to be off the agenda, I bought a large red A4 notebook as I anticipated that field notes would be the major source of data.  And since it was November, I took a jacket too, for although I would probably gather most of my data in the ‘classroom’, there would no doubt be times when I would have to pop outside to observe the participants undertaking their physical activities.  I was ready, but then everything changed!

Although it was a dull and damp November afternoon, the initial ‘ice breaking’ activity was held outside and not in the ‘classroom’. It involved throwing a ball to one another with the person currently holding the ball volunteering some personal information such as name and place of birth.  I stood outside the throwing circle ready to make notes, and then the ball was thrown to me, so I put the notebook under my arm and said “I’m Paul from Swansea” and threw the ball to the next person.  Following this we moved to an activity involving what looked like an obstacle course.  I was invited to make up one of the teams and had to put the red notebook on the ground since one of my hands was now holding onto a rope and the other gasping the outstretched arm of one of my team members.   The red note book was not used again.

‘Figuring it out’: pockets with zips; plastic bags and stores of pencils

What I thought was going to be observation changed rapidly into participant observation. Apart from some discussions in the ’classroom’, most of the course consisted of learning through outdoor physical challenges and then applying this learning to civilian scenarios.  Being part of the team allowed me to gain access to an incredible amount of useful data (participants had been briefed about the evaluation and had consented to having their comments included).  The main problem was how to record the data, and this become even more of an issue when the outdoor activities instructor advised me not to keep sharp objects such as a pencil in my trouser pocket during the high ropes sessions.

So eventually I figured out that I would need to record data on the move, using just single sheets of paper which I then stuffed into zipped up pockets in my jacket and trousers. Like a squirrel, I stored pencils at key points around the Brathay estate, and after a particularly wet Ghyll Scramble (see photo), I started to take plastic bags to keep my notes dry.

As well as the question of how to collect data, I also started to figure out when to collect it (and also when not to). After completing particular challenges such as the ‘High V’, where pairs of participants support each other along two high wires, the camaraderie and trust within the group was particularly strong, and this was a good time to ask about other tricky ‘journeys’ they might have to take, such as from military to civilian life.   But I also learned when to keep my distance as I observed one participant, currently living in “the tough end” of a large city, enjoy 20 minutes tranquillity and solitude sitting on the jetty by the boathouse watching two swans on the lake.

The evaluation showed how useful the Future for Heroes course was in helping with the adjustment to civilian life, and I am now working with the charity on another study exploring how using digital technology might provide post-course support when coupled with a mentoring programme. I have recently spent a wonderful day with a participant who used his mobile phone to take photos of key events occurring during the four day course.  He aims to produce a digital diary which will remind him of the learning he can use in civilian life. The key question is how digital technology can be used to support the learning obtained during the course.  It’s another thing to figure out, and I would be interested in hearing what you think.  This new study is being funded by the Research Support Office at Lancaster University through their Radical Futures in Social Science programme.  A literature review arising from the evaluation has been published and a forthcoming book chapter (and other planned publications) will consider aspects of this work.

Further information about Future for Heroes is available from: www.f4h.org.uk