Knowing That My Work Makes a Real Difference: The Career of One Applied Quantitative Sociologist, UK

Applied Quantitative SociologistTony Alderton reflects on his career in civil service and his current role as a researcher for Early Years and Childcare with the Kent County Council in the UK.


Dr Tony Alderton

I am employed…

As the Researcher for Early Years and Childcare with Kent County Council in the UK. The Council delivers all local services for all residents. I generally work with parents/carers, children, providers of care and other policy makers and analysts.

Finding my way into this job

I have a first class honours degree in social policy and trade union studies gained at Middlesex University in 1993. In 1998, I completed a PhD entitled ‘Trade Unions and Japanisation’, which looks at the effects of so-called ‘new management practices’ on industrial relations and trade unionism. Particular emphasis was placed upon personnel issues within my studies, and some of the topics addressed were health and safety, recruitment and retention and work-life balance issues.

Before returning to academia, I worked for the Inland Revenue as an Executive Officer in the Enforcement Office in Worthing. My work in the Civil Service involved the production of briefings and reports to very strict deadlines and to the very demanding specifications of the High Court of Justice; it involved both a very high level of teamwork, and the opportunity to exercise individual initiative and judgement. Such work also demanded a high degree of discretion and adherence to strict levels of confidentiality. I have also been used to working autonomously within my PhD research, and within my teaching and research posts.

Prior to moving to Kent, I was employed as a research associate at the Seafarers International Research Centre at Cardiff University, and my work there was a political, social and economic audit of the working conditions of seafarers in various parts of the world. The research involved a mixture of methods including: the documentary analysis of the records of maritime administrations, trade unions and voluntary bodies concerned with seafarers’ welfare; the secondary analysis of existing data sets; and face-to-face interviews with leading players in the industry. Such interviews were conducted at all levels of the global maritime structure, from active seafarers at grass roots level up to, and including, Ministers of State. As part of my duties in this post I also compiled, in unison with colleagues in the centre, an International Labour Organization sponsored publication entitled ‘The Impact on Seafarers Living and Working Conditions from Changes in the Structure of the Shipping Industry’. I have also prepared a number of briefing reports for the International Transport Workers’ Federation relating to the economic, political and social aspects of various maritime flag states. Particular emphases in my work at Cardiff involved: the analysis of multi-national crewing patterns; the effects on shipboard health and safety of reduced port turnaround times; maritime labour market policy at the international level; and the global control and organisation of the maritime industry.

My previous post was as a part-time visiting lecturer at the University of the West of England, teaching on the undergraduate Business Systems and Employee Relations courses, and on post-graduate SPSS and Research Methods courses. I also completed a six month contract as a part-time Research Officer at Bath University, between October 1998 and March 1999. In the latter post, I was engaged in audits of childcare demand and provision both in the borough of Swindon and in the county of Wiltshire, as part of the national audit commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment. These audits involved, amongst other things: the analysis of demographic data utilising, in the main, the 1991 census figures, NOMIS data and data from the Labour Force Surveys; the canvassing of the opinions of parents and children as to their childcare preferences, using one-on-one interviews; and the canvassing of the opinions of employers as to the impact of childcare strategies using, in the main, telephone interviewing. I am, therefore, well skilled in all aspects of the research process, and I am particularly skilled in the collection of qualitative data utilising sensitive interviewing techniques. I also have some experience in the use of qualitative data analysis computer packages, such as NUDIST.

My job as an applied quantitative researcher

Prior to commencing this job, I had a substantial publications portfolio, and I had spoken at numerous high-level international conferences. I had also been responsible for the line management of staff in various of my posts both within the academic and public sectors. My previous work helped me to develop excellent interpersonal and leadership skills, and these qualities have been necessary for this post.

I require a PhD for my current job, and I definitely use the skills, knowledge and experience gained in my thesis within my everyday work. The job requires the full range of research skills, qualitative and quantitative. I use general sociological theory, but also more specific social policy and childcare theory too. I also have to commission research and manage research projects. I manage a substantial budget within Kent County Council (KCC) and I have line management responsibilities for a small team of staff. I work with a range of other organisations, both in the public sector and in the private and voluntary sector. I think my background gives me a certain ability to speak with some authority so that my views are respected and taken seriously.

I am lucky in that Kent is a very forward looking council and realises the need for academic rigour in the work I do. I am allowed an element of academic freedom also, and I work hard to convince other staff of the need for a ‘sociological imagination’ in the work we all do.

My favourite part of this job is the statistical analysis and the least favourite part of this job is dealing with people who don’t understand statistics and feel that they have no place in the sort of work I do.

My research

Photo: Steven Depolo, via Flickr
Photo: Steven Depolo, via Flickr

KCC has, over the last three years, doubled the number of maintained nursery units within the County. I have been responsible for deciding where these new units should be placed.

In this post I have the sole responsibility for the analysis of all information required for the effective provision of childcare and early education. This involves, amongst other things: the analysis of demographic data to predict future demand; an awareness of the importance of deprivation data to reduce the inequalities between areas within the County; and liaison with parents, children and employers so as to gauge their needs and demands. In particular, there has been a strong emphasis upon work-life balance issues, to address the needs of both working parents and employers. I have used a mixture of research methods in my present post. I have analysed large-scale secondary data sets such as the Census and Neighbourhood Statistics; I have completed large scale questionnaire surveys of providers; I have utilised a telephone survey approach to engage with employers; and I have used a focus group strategy to collect the views of parents, children and some ‘hard-to-reach’ groups such as teenage parents, traveller families and refugee and asylum seekers. I make extensive use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to map provision, demand, population and deprivation etc. I also routinely commission research from external suppliers, and am currently working with two such agencies to collect qualitative research data using the case study and life history approaches.

I also maintain an integrated database that contains details of all providers, and their staff, including details of staff qualifications and training. This information enables me to conduct an annual training needs analysis. I work closely with certain partners to ensure an appropriate package of training is delivered to staff. I am also responsible for the technical direction of staff who maintain the Childrens Information System database, which contains details of over 3000 providers.

My current major additional areas of research within the education sector are food and nutrition in the early years, the importance of outdoor play, and international differences between play activities. I have also recently set up a major new research project entitled ‘The Economy of Childcare’, which, in conjunction with Canterbury Christchurch University College, will attempt to explain what factors are important to an understanding of the demand and supply of quality childcare provision, including employment and work-life balance issues. The project is employing the services of a Research Assistant who has registered for a higher degree. I am acting as one of the academic supervisors for this Research Assistant, and am responsible for their day-to-day line management.

The main benefit of my job is knowing that my work makes a real difference to the lives of children and families

Maintaining working partnerships

My job in Kent involves a high level in partnership working both with internal KCC departments and with external agencies. For example, I am actively involved in partnership working to deliver an effective Information, Retrieval and Tracking (IRT) strategy in the light of the Green Paper ‘Every Child Matters’, that arose out of the findings of the report into the Victoria Climbie child abuse case. To give another example, I am involved in the development of Children’s Centres which entails a high level of partnership working between the KCC Education and Libraries and Social Services directorates as well as local Health Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) and voluntary agencies within the sector. I have also set up a new Children’s Centres monitoring group that will be responsible for the overall strategic steer of the data collection and analysis function for Children’s Centres within Kent.

All of the work I do within Kent is bound by very rigorous time frames, set either by KCC itself or the Government. In particular, the Children’s Centres project required that I work to very tight Government deadlines. I have been responsible for deciding where the Children’s Centres should be placed and the catchment areas they should cover within Kent having regard to population, deprivation, the geographical logistics of proposed sites, and the interplay between the centres and existing services. Round One of the development saw the placement of 20 such centres covering approximately 16,000 children aged 0 to 4. Round Two has seen the placement of another 52 centres covering 42,000 children and the final Phase Three will see another 32 centres covering the remaining 0 to 4 population of 32,000 children. All of the rounds of development have very strict Government deadlines, as well as needing to satisfy the local government requirements for effective consultation periods with the affected communities. All of the rounds to date have been completed on time, and many of the centres are now open and delivering the core offer of early education to all 3 and 4 year olds, full day care for all 0 to 4 year olds, and family health and support services for all families and children.

The rewards of my job

The main benefit, which sometimes is absent in the academic field, is knowing that my work makes a real difference to the lives of children and families.

The challenges

Having less freedom to express unpopular views in a political context. Academic freedom is sometimes more limited because of politics.

My advice to a student considering my line of work

It can be a very rewarding job, but requires high levels of training and experience, and a huge amount of dedication and hard work. KCC offers placements every year to recent graduates in all areas of the work that the council undertakes.

If I wasn’t doing this I would be…

A researcher/lecturer in a university.

For an example of Tony Alderton’s work, you can access the Kent County Council Childcare Sufficiency Assessment Report for April 2010.

SAW logoArticle copyright: © Tony Alderton 2010. Published by Sociology At Work. All rights reserved.

Article citation: Alderton, T. (2010) ‘Knowing That My Work Makes a Real Difference: The Career of One Applied Quantitative Sociologist, UK,’ Working Notes, Issue 1, June, online resource:

Photo credits: 1) via Flickr. Last accessed 5 June 2010. 2) Steven Depolo via Flickr. Last accessed 2 December 2016.

3 Comments on “Knowing That My Work Makes a Real Difference: The Career of One Applied Quantitative Sociologist, UK

  1. Pingback: Applied Sociology and Economic Consulting | Sociology at Work

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