Aelfthryth Gittings 1939-2012

22 years with SCPR

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AELFTHRYTH GITTINGS:  22 YEARS WITH SCPR/ THE NATIONAL CENTRE

Field Newsletter, Summer 2000 (National Centre for Social Research)

It was January 1978 when I replied to an advertisement for interviewers on The Dwelling and Housing Survey. I was interviewed by Margaret Weatherby, trained by Daphne Shaw, amongst others, and launched by June Hillidge. To all three I owe a great debt - without their help and encouragement my career with SCPR/the National Centre would never have got past the first hurdle. I know exactly how long ago. I was a raw recruit because I was pregnant with my youngest child at the time and he is now a strapping young man of 22. Dwelling and Housing was apparently rather a large a project for SCPR to handle in those days, so we were busily recruiting and training in large numbers. If I applied now I doubt if I would have got started. What Area Manager would have taken on a pregnant mother with three children?

I thought of it as a stopgap till the baby was older and I could apply for a 'proper job'. Instead I found that I liked the work. It would be wrong to say I enjoyed every minute of it. There are many frustrations out in the field as interviewers know well. It is never much fun on dark November evenings with the wind howling at one’s back, parking is a constant problem in the central London points I used to work, broken appointments are infuriating and above all the frustration of so few people being at home. The evenings when I left the comforts of home to trudge round in the wet and not get a single interview were the low points, when I would scan the advertisements for that 'proper job.' An evening spent in unproductive door knocking is not just an evening when you have not earned anything, but a tedious evening when you have not enjoyed those more intangible rewards of the job

And there were many rewards, outweighing the frustrations. The subject matter was always interesting and I liked the variety - in those days we did not have any continuous surveys. Just as I was thinking I should start screaming if I had to ask one more person what was wrong with the Health Service, I was at the end of my assignment on that particular project and on to a new subject.

I liked going into so many different kinds of homes and I liked meeting people from all walks of life, from the poorest people living in dreadful circumstances to famous people, household names that unfortunately the rules of confidentiality prevent me naming. One respondent sticks in my mind - a young man of 23 whom I was interviewing for the 1981 wave of the National Child Development Study. He asked me why we were so interested in interviewing his age group repeatedly, so I explained how a great deal of valuable information about health, education etc could be found out by following the same people all through their lives. "No" he said "that's not it. Do you know the real reason?" When I looked blank he explained, "they know that someone special for mankind was born in that week and they are trying to find him." While struggling to keep a straight face, I spent the interview wondering if he thought he was that "special" person waiting to be discovered.

Above all I liked the feeling that this was worthwhile work and that most surveys on which I worked would collect information that I hoped would be used to improve people's lives. Occasionally I applied for 'proper jobs' but when I went for interviews and discovered what the jobs entailed, they never seemed so interesting or worthwhile as working for SCPR. So I spent ten years in the field as an interviewer and then supervisor.

In 1990 I started working in the London Office and slowly took over responsibility for Interviewer Training. I soon found myself not just training new interviewers but also devising the training courses and writing the training documents. CAPI was a great challenge; when my children got their first computer in the early 80s and invited me to have a go at zapping aliens I declared that it was not for me, I was too old to learn how to use a computer. Instead 10 years later I found myself not just learning to use one, but teaching others. It did a lot for my standing in the eyes of those same children, by then young adults.

Though there have been many changes, as I see it they are all peripheral. The central, or core task of the interviewer has not changed. It is still, as it was defined to me at training 22 years ago "asking the right respondent the right question in the right way", and all those parts are equally important. What seems the most major change in the years I have worked in survey research, the switch to CAPI has only affected one of those three elements though it meant extending Basic Training to a second day. Asking the right question has got easier with the computer doing the routing. On the other hand the first part of the job - asking the right respondent - has become very much more difficult as it gets harder and harder to contact people and persuade them to take part. 22 years ago entry-phones were still a rarity, more women stayed at home, and there were fewer single person households. But most significantly people were less suspicious of strangers at the door and fewer people felt they had been over-surveyed.

As a result the emphasis in training has had to change. We still train people on the need to ask the right question in the right way, emphasising the self discipline required when they are mostly out on their own with no one looking over their shoulder to check. However for the last ten years we have spent an increasing amount of time preparing new interviewers for the problems of the doorstep. When I was trained this was a matter that was hardly mentioned; when someone asked a question about how to persuade people to co-operate we were just told "that is part of your skill as an interviewer." Now a considerable part of the training is spent on persuading reluctant respondents, and we have the training video "Who's that Knocking at my Door?" This can get over far more messages in half an hour than was possible just talking about the subject. The four highly skilled interviewers showing their approaches to doorstep problems have provided a very valuable training tool for both us and the other research organisations who are learning from our expertise.

It soon became apparent that even more time could be used to train interviewers in doorstep skills, but this would not be possible without extending the basic training into a further day. With the drop out of interviewers who get trained and then do not work for us, or only ever do one assignment it seemed better to give a third day's training later to those who are likely to stay. Since 1994 interviewers have been invited to a Basic Training Stage 2 at the point when they are going to be upgraded from A to B. At this training most of the morning is spent discussing introducing surveys, using scenarios on a tape as a focus. This technique promotes a lively discussion as by the time interviewers attend this training they all have enough experience to contribute about situations they have encountered and how they solved them and this we hope increases confidence all round.

In the last 10 years I have trained nearly 900 new interviewers. If only they had all stayed that would be our interviewing force. So we come full circle, back to the situation when I first joined, still trying to recruit and retain interviewers. But it has been very rewarding. Preparing people to do this important work and trying to ensure they will do it to the highest standard has always seemed to me very worthwhile and it has been a privilege to have this responsibility. I cannot think of a way I would rather have ended my time with the Centre. I have also trained nearly 90 supervisors and all our floorwalkers and it has been a particular pleasure for me, quite frequent in recent years, to have interviewers whom I initially trained back at a supervisor or floorwalker training.

At all my trainings I have had the assistance of a wonderful bunch of floorwalkers. Thank you all for your help over the years; without your assistance, your watchfulness, tact and friendliness the trainings would not have gone as well as they did and I am sure new interviewers would not have learnt the job so well or gained so much confidence. I also owe a debt of gratitude to all the interviewers, supervisors, and nurses whom I have consulted over the years when writing or revising the various manuals - Interviewers' Manual, Survey Nurses' Manual, Supervisors' Manual and Nurse Supervisors' Manual. Many of you have informed me about changes that needed to go into the manuals - thank you all for helping to make the latest editions even better. A similar thank you to the Area Managers, past and present, for help with the manuals and for ideas for improvement to the training courses.

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I would have liked to be around to drop in and see many of you from time to time, so I would not have to feel this is good bye. But my life is taking a different course. My husband's job is now based in Hong Kong, so I shall go out to join him, with the prospect of his job moving to Shanghai in the new year. These are exciting changes and challenges for me. To make the most of life in Shanghai I need to learn some Chinese - not an easy task ­and I fear I will never be very fluent, but at least a little vocabulary will help. I will be back from time to time to see the family and am sure I will pop into the London office and will ,hope to see some of you then.

In the meantime the very best wishes to all of you - I leave happy in the knowledge that Hazel has already proved a very able successor, who will take interviewer training forward to meet new challenges. And good bye for the moment, or rather "zai jian"