Ivana La Valle is Director of the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) Research Centre in London.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to join the circus – perhaps the urge for an itinerant life that later brought me fromItaly, where I was born, toLondon!
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
My first degree atCityUniversitywas in Politics. But it was the Research Methods module that really excited me, since – in comparison, say, with political philosophy – it held out the promise of practical application. So I then did a Masters in Research Methods at the Open University while working in adult education in Hackney.
What was your first professional research job?
This was at theUniversityofEast Londonworking as the Research Assistant on a project on the career paths of social workers. It gave me immense admiration for their work. After that I went to theInstituteofEmployment StudiesatSussexUniversity. Then next I joined the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) where I stayed for 11 years. There I built up – with support and encouragement from Norman Glass, the Director – the Family and Children Group which, uniquely for NatCen at that time, had a specific policy focus which it addressed through mixed methods.
What has been your best professional moment?
Undoubtedly my move to NCB two years ago. What I value is the contact with professionals and policy thinkers in the organisation. For example, NCB was instrumental in developing the Sure Start centre concept. I strongly believe that effective changes in policy or practice come from the close association of researchers with practitioners.
Not a personal moment, but I do regret the steady devaluation of professional research skills that seems underway. The term ‘research’ is applied too casually to poor quality work that just generates some numbers that hit the headlines. It is not sufficient to just use some online survey tool that requires no reflection on, for example, sample or question design.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
Roger Jowell. Not just as joint founder and long term Director of NatCen, but also for his passion for quality in research work and his skills as a communicator.
What would be your advice to young social researchers?
Two things. First, early in your career work for an organisation with high standards that will subject your work to friendly critical review so that you learn from experience. And secondly never lose sight of the application of your research and how it can inform and help practitioners do their work. We do not do social research just for its own sake.
Interview by William Solesbury August 2011