Working with parent peer researchers on the evaluation of the Small Steps Big Changes Programme

Clare Lushey and Sue Law from the Nottingham Centre for Children, Young People and Families at Nottingham Trent University showcase how peer researchers have supported the local evaluation of Nottingham’s Small Steps Big Changes Programme, including looking at peer research as a participatory methodology, and exploring the benefits and how the peer research approach was implemented.

Clare Lushey

The Nottingham Centre for Children, Young people and Families (NCCYPF) at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) commenced their evaluation of the Small Steps Big Changes (SSBC) programme in 2019. From the beginning the evaluation team chose to partner with local parents by employing, training and supporting them as peer researchers.

Peer researchers are members of the researched group who adopt the role of the researcher. Key to being a peer researcher is having shared experiences with the researched group and being part of the same community. The peer researchers, working on the SSBC evaluation at NTU, are parents with experience of parenting in the areas where the SSBC programme is being delivered.

Sue Law

Peer research is a participatory research method whereby people with lived experiences of the topic being studied, are involved in steering and undertaking the research (Biziewska and Johnston, 2015; Lushey, 2017). It was adopted as an approach, by the evaluation

team, because it is empowering, participatory and supports the research process. Peer research has lots of benefits including:

  • empowering the researched group by giving them a voice and the opportunity to impact on future policy and practice;
  • reducing the power imbalance between researchers and participants;
  • improving understanding of the subject area due to the peer researchers bringing their lived experiences and insider knowledge to the study; and
  • the potential to improve study participation rates, the quality of the data collected, and the interpretation of data.

(Yang and Dibb, 2020, Lushey, 2017; Lushey and Munro, 2015).

Four parent peer researchers have been employed at NTU to work on the evaluation of the SSBC programme. They received in-house training prior to each evaluation they worked on, which focused on ethics, recruitment, data collection, analysis and dissemination of findings. They have also received supervision and support throughout. The training was developed and delivered by members of the evaluation team with academic and research backgrounds. Training included information giving alongside group work, one-to-one tutorials and debriefs, and the provision of guidance documents that the peer researchers could refer back to. Training involved group training days and one-to-one meetings that were delivered face-to-face at NTU and remotely online.

The peer researchers have worked on the evaluations of the Small Steps at Home programme, the Family Mentor Baby Massage sessions, and the Family Mentor Service. They have been involved throughout the research cycle including developing evaluation questions and data collection tools (i.e. interview and focus group schedules, and a questionnaire), carrying out face-to-face and online interviews and focus groups, analysing and interpreting findings from the interviews and focus groups, and contributing to the dissemination of findings through reports and presentations.

The peer researchers have interviewed 42 parents face-to-face and six members of staff (involved in the delivery of SSBC programmes and activities) via video using Microsoft Teams. They have also run two focus groups with staff via video.

In addition to this, they have worked with the wider evaluation team to analyse and write up the findings from the evaluations; identifying key messages and making recommendations for future practice.

The peer researchers have also taken on additional responsibilities. This includes working on an ethics application; and leading on the development of participant information sheets and consent forms and the analysis and write up of findings from interviews and focus groups (with input from the wider evaluation team only in terms of advice and support when required). They are named authors on the three subsequent NTU annual evaluation reports and have also presented findings at NTU events.

Sue talks about her experience of being a peer researcher below:

“I became a Parent Peer Researcher in 2019 and had worked on one evaluation prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Participation in carrying out interviews, analysing data and producing and presenting findings and recommendations, with the wider evaluation team, was key to ensuring I felt part of the team right from the beginning. Quality training, supportive supervision and feedback, creation of bespoke guidance documents and a gradual build up to the full role was essential and meant that I never felt overwhelmed by the tasks I was asked to take on.

“I was very pleased to find in the second year that the development in the role was ongoing, where I was trained to take on more key tasks including creation of questionnaires, an ethics submission, putting questionnaires online, and facilitating focus groups online and in-person. Tasks were divided between the peer researchers to ensure that no one peer researcher was overwhelmed. I continue to enjoy being a Parent Peer Researcher and being part of the evaluation team. I have learnt invaluable new skills which in addition to being transferrable, have increased my confidence in my abilities.”

References and useful research and resources:

Biziewska, D., and Johnston, G. (2015). Peer Research. Available at:

Fulfilling Lives. Link:

Lushey, C., Jameel, A., Law S. and Rathore, G. (2022). Peer Researchers Working Remotely Online: Experiences and Challenges. SAGE Research Methods: Doing Research Online, SAGE Publications, Ltd. Available at:

Lushey, C. (2017). Peer Research Methodology: Challenges and Solutions. SAGE Research Methods Cases Part 2, Publisher: SAGE Publications Ltd. Available at:

Lushey, C. J., & Munro, E. R. (2015). Participatory peer research methodology: An effective method for obtaining young people’s perspectives on transitions from care to adulthood? Qualitative Social Work, 14(4), 522–537. Available at:

National Peer Research Centre: National Peer Research Centre | Institute for Community Studies. Link:

Yang, C., & Dibb, Z. (2020). Peer research in the UK. Institute for Community Studies. Available at:

About A Better Start

A Better Start is a ten-year (2015-2025), £215 million programme set-up by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK.

Five A Better Start partnerships based in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham and Southend are supporting families to give their babies and very young children the best possible start in life. Working with local parents, the A Better Start partnerships are developing and testing ways to improve their children’s diet and nutrition, social and emotional development, and speech, language and communication.

The work of the programme is grounded in scientific evidence and research. A Better Start is place-based and enabling systems change. It aims to improve the way that organisations work together and with families to shift attitudes and spending towards preventing problems that can start in early life. It is one of five major programmes set up by The National Lottery Community Fund to test and learn from new approaches to designing services which aim to make people’s lives healthier and happier

The National Children’s Bureau is coordinating an ambitious programme of shared learning for A Better Start, disseminating the partnerships’ experiences in creating innovative services far and wide, so that others working in early childhood development or place-based systems change can benefit.

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