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Stage 2 is ready to roll!

Every Friday I collapse in an exhausted heap and think ‘that was surely the busiest week of SCALES yet.’ And then the following week seems even more insanely hectic. Which is part of the reason there has been such a hiatus in the blog – we’ve had an eventful few weeks!

The screening phase of SCALES (Stage 1) closed on 23rd July. The school term started today (I know this because today was my daughter’s first day of school). In the intervening six weeks, we have done some preliminary analyses of the screening data to establish the cut points for the screen (I will be telling you a bit more about this over the coming weeks), had a prize draw for our hard working teachers, randomly selected the main cohort of 500+ children, printed 1000 parent information sheets and consent forms, decided the test battery, ordered equipment, record forms and thousands of stickers, trained the testing team, set up a database and scheduled a year’s worth of school visits. I think we’re just about ready…

I have to admit that I seriously underestimated the logistical challenge that is SCALES. And probably a good thing too – it is mindboggling! Fortunately we have an amazing team. The co-investigators on SCALES are fabulous. Gillian Baird, Tony Charman, Andrew Pickles and Emily Simonoff are fantastically clever and have huge experience of running projects of this size (and never warned me off!). They have really helped us come to important decisions (more about those soon) through pretty intense discussion. Every time I see them I feel like I’m in my DPhil viva again– but the way they make me think is quite exhilarating. I’ve learned so much and have much more confidence in the decisions that we’ve made because we’ve debated them so thoroughly.

For the day to day running of the project I could not be without Debbie – not only does she make very sharp intellectual contributions to the project, but practically she makes everything run incredibly smoothly. I wake up at 3am worrying that we still have X to do, only to find out in the morning that Debbie has already done it! And with style too – all of the children we assess will receive beautiful certificates AND personalised stationery thanks to the wonderful Debbie.

We’ve also managed to land a great testing team (and as you can see from the photo, all beautiful as well as brainy). Finding the right people to go into schools is a real source of anxiety – you want people who are bright, professional, can follow the procedures carefully and record/score/enter data accurately but most importantly, they have to be able to engage with young children. And sensitively manage children who may not always be so easy to work with. Debbie and I put them through their paces during the training week and they were all complete stars. It has been a really steep learning curve – there are 27 activities in the final test battery – so learning each task and being able to move fluidly between them is a big challenge in itself. But to get through the battery and still be smiling is pretty heroic.

The only way to make SCALES more challenging is to try and run the project from an Olympic Village, which is what we did this summer. My University played host to all of the rowers and canoeists in both the Olympics and Paralympics and while this may sound super cool, it was a bit of a headache! Basically, since the beginning of July the campus has been in security lock-down. The entrance to the village was right outside of the psychology building and heavily guarded by people with machine guns (seriously! Even in England). There was only one way in the building and we had to park on the opposite side of campus (about a 15 minute walk – much longer if you are carrying large amounts of testing kit with you). We were not allowed to take any deliveries – even the milk delivery was cancelled! And if you saw the enormous list of gear we needed to order, you would understand the frustration. I had a couple of conversations along the following lines:

Me:  We need to order 8 copies of (insert standardised test of language or cognition here) for the SCALES project.

Admin: We can’t get that delivered to the Dept because of security.

Me: Fine, just send it to my home address then.

Publisher: I’m sorry but we are unable to deliver psychometric assessments to a home address. They can only be delivered to a bona fide educational establishment.

Me: seriously?

It also meant that we were unable to hold our training week on campus – instead we rented some space in a very kind school. The week started like a comedy of errors though. Massive accident on the M25 meant I was 20 minutes late (not a shining example to rest of the team). A communication breakdown meant the catered lunch I thought we were having did not materialise, cue mad dash to the shops and providing meals as well as in-depth instruction to the team. The last straw was probably the day before training started when Debbie and I realised we had to get 8 testing kits from the Department to our distant cars, in order to get them to the training venue. Having vowed to leave the Department no later than 6pm, we found ourselves in reception at 6.30 surrounded by testing materials, instruction booklets, laptops and audiometers. We begged the men with guns to let us drive to the front door, or anywhere that didn’t require several trips up the big hill. No chance. In the end, another young man took pity on us (perhaps because I looked like I might cry at any moment) and helped carry our load to the temporary car park.

Well, the Olympic village is now being dismantled and with a bit of wheeling and dealing we’ve managed to acquire all the necessary bits and pieces we need for testing. Letters to schools and families will go out on Tuesday. Schools have been randomly allocated to 6 testing blocks (one for each half term) and 100 children will be invited for each block. We have a large map of Surrey on the wall and each tester has been allocated a geographical region. The first visit will be at some point during the week of 17 September and they will come thick and fast after that. Wish us luck!