Comments Off on A process project: thoughts on youth work, needs, outcomes, values and evaluation

A process project: thoughts on youth work, needs, outcomes, values and evaluation

Posted July 28th, 2017 in Uncategorized by admin


Youth workers often say they aspire to ‘meet the needs of young people’. Likewise, it’s common to hear: ‘we want to ensure young people’s voices are heard’, ‘empower young people’, and ‘keep young people at the core of the work’. Few involved in youth work would disagree. And yet it’s common also to hear talk of having the responsibility for ‘developing and implementing a means to assess [usually ‘measure’] outcomes’, typically, through some kind of ‘Outcomes Framework’. And then there is the responsibility to ‘identify and share good practice’, although we are typically unsure if this is the same or different from ‘evidence-based practice’.

An exploration of the potential conflicts and tensions between these various positions

Simply put, there is the basic question of who should determine ‘the needs of young people’ in youth work. Taking into account the strongly held view that young people’s voices should be heard, and that youth work is young person-centred, and aims to empower those engaged in it, the question of how these needs should be determined seems, interestingly, to provide an answer to the aforementioned question of who should determine needs. Think ‘share holder’ or ‘stakeholder’. It seems reasonable to say there are several voices that should be heard when discussing young people’s needs, even if young people’s views should be centremost. Which further informs answers to our question of how these needs should be determined; only a dialogue between these different parties will do. And yet, many argue that youth work – fundamentally – exists at the level of individuals and the groups they are a part of (as well as the wider structural entities that are involved with it, such as local authorities, voluntary organisations and other funders). This implies extraordinary diversity at the local level and the impossibility of measuring ‘like for like in youth work’.

We are left then with, what might be called, the challenge of process. And a further question as to the veracity of ‘evidence-based’ conceptualisations of ‘good practice’: if the process matters so much (in the sense of what happens at this local level) can it ever be said a template exists for what good practice looks like beyond a description of the processes used? As such, the notion of ‘evidence-based practice’ starts to look at odds with youth work’s participative culture. Likewise, we might doubt the idea that we can know definitively the outcomes of our work, that is, before it begins. In sum, if youth work is to be substantively (if not entirely) informed by the views of young people (and we appreciate these views are likely to change throughout the process of it) it cannot be true that outcomes can be known in advance.

This casts doubt also on whether it’s reasonable for the evidence of what worked in the past with one individual, or one group, to determine what happens in the future when working with other young people. Nonetheless, it does seem reasonable that this evidence could, and should, inform our thinking and professional judgement as to how we might approach our work in the future. It should arouse suggestions (Dewey, 1930: 186), but surely not dictate them. It is in thinking critically about what experience shows that quality is enhanced. Accordingly, the commitment to hearing young people’s voices and placing them at the ‘core’ of decision-making demands the conceptualisation of outcomes as, simplistically, the things that ‘come out’. The wider commitment to youth work as a process of empowerment relies on this, and it becomes tenable only when outcomes are ‘captured’, as they occur, rather than formulated as pre-determined goals – think of documenting the process, and what, if anything, comes out.

Two mechanisms give rise to the seductive potential that outcomes can be reasonably pre-determined. The first comes from the contractual imperative: where agencies are commissioned to ‘deliver’ youth work. As in all contracts, the commissioning agency demands to know what they are getting for their money – and within particular timescales. Here, youth work and its relationships become temporally-bound and focussed on products rather than processes. Secondly, the belief that the outcomes of youth work can be determined in advance lends itself to solving the evaluation conundrum; it becomes a simple matter of judging whether the ‘provider’ delivers the outcomes asked of them. But, it’s not as easy as this. Not that aims don’t matter; they do. But aims need to be understood as different from targets to be achieved. Aims, by definition, are primarily informed by values, such as the commitment to autonomy and empowerment. Whilst they might sculpt methods, aims should not dictate the specificity of the work done; that is, the precise terms of the outcomes ‘to be arrived at’.

Finally, there are wider but no less important philosophical questions, not least about the nature of education itself – of which youth work must surely be a form. d’Agnese (2015:8), following Dewey (1929), reminds us that “if we could predict in advance the outcomes of education, we would not have education”. Which reminds us again that values and processes matter. Therein, in thinking about values, some clarity emerges. If youth work takes place, to all intents and purposes, in the context of voluntary association, then it matters greatly that it is of value to young people. Which suggests some scepticism is needed about the discourse of measurement, and an appreciation of its limitations. Young people do not measure youth work; they value it. Youth-centred documentary processes, based on critical reflective thinking, that chart (‘capture’, if you like) the process of youth work, and its outcomes, may be all that remains – but they are no less important (and valuable) because of this.

Comments Off on Narrowing the Gap: but will the elephant in the room escape?

Narrowing the Gap: but will the elephant in the room escape?

Posted December 30th, 2015 in Uncategorized by admin

I spent some time recently with a researcher from Teach First who told me this was a charity “dedicated to improving education for disadvantaged young people”. With an aim like this, I was only too happy to give up a couple of hours to answer his questions. Naturally, I did a bit of homework in advance. Teach First’s home page gets straight to the point: “How much you achieve in life should not be determined by how much your parents earn. Yet in the UK it usually is.” In two sentences, both an extraordinary moral and ethical declaration, and the harsh reality. But wait; there are more of these language dualisms: “This isn’t a tale to be proud of. In the UK, the link between low socio-economic background and poor educational attainment is greater than in almost any other developed country.” And yet no mention that this is the 5th richest country in the world, but also, according to research, the most unequal in the EU. But then Teach First’s mission is “to end inequality in education by building a community of exceptional leaders who create change within classrooms, schools and across society.” Not to end inequality per se.

I’d been asked to comment on young people’s experiences, which I took to mean ‘of life’. And on the challenges they face, and the opportunities they have or don’t have. So I was more than a little confused; might not discussion of educational inequalities demand at least some thought about wider circumstances? In my correspondence prior to the interview it had been acknowledged I had a background in youth and community work, rather than teaching, and that this would constitute ‘a different angle’. Which, for me at least, demands engagement with this context. Put another way, maybe I’m not the easiest person to interview. But then the issues we were discussing don’t seem to be easy ones to resolve either.

I’m not clueless about schools; I’ve been a governor in two for years now. And my academic works is as much about formal education as the informal and community dimensions I’m more typically associated with. This is because the educational inequality I too am interested in manifests itself everywhere. In both schools I am Pupil Premium Governor, with responsibility for oversight, so I like to think I know a bit about what happens both within and without school. And that I can contribute to the debate about the new educational agenda of ‘narrowing the gap’.

‘Narrowing the gap’ started life as ‘closing the achievement gap’. I’m not sure when or why it morphed beyond appreciating that the education policy meisters have a Foucauldian eye for the power of language. Witness the extraordinary frequency of subtle changes to the narrative, most recently exemplified by the Chief Inspector of Schools’ Christmas message to us governors. Read this carefully and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

It was in 2013 that David Laws, the Schools Minister of the then coalition government, delivered his ‘Closing the achievement gap’ speech to the Association of School and College Leaders. It laid the foundations for the ‘narrowing the gap’ agenda, most noticeably in the form of a Pupil Premium, extra money allocated to schools with the most disadvantaged pupils. In his speech Laws said: “It is unacceptable that in our country there is such an enormous gap between the life chances of children from poor backgrounds and other children.” This triggered a memory of studying The Newsom Report, which had a special resonance for me not just because of its subject matter but because it was published in the year of my birth (more than 50 years ago). It seemed entirely reasonable to mention this to my researcher friend, that we were engaged in debate about a long-standing and apparently intractable problem.

The report, entitled ‘Half our Future’, articulated similar sentiments to Laws, opprobrium at the injustice of it all. But it differed in perspective, no doubt being a product of its age: “Our terms of reference direct us to enquire into the education of pupils of ‘average’ and ‘less-than-average’ ability. If those words have any precise meaning at all, they must refer to at least half the children in the country – every other pupil in school, every other child at home.”

Which has to be an invitation to repeat that now famous anecdote from Michael Gove in which he expressed his desire that “all schools be as good as the best” or “better than average”; a point he was quizzed on by the chair of the Education Select Committee: “If ‘good’ requires pupil performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible?”

I digress. Newsom wrote: “The point is, could many people, with the right educational help, achieve still more? If they could, then in human justice and in economic self-interest we ought, as a country, to provide that help.” This question is uncannily and tragically similar to that posed today. So why have we struggled to find answers? One clue might be in what’s not said; what wasn’t said then, and what’s not said now. In the three hundred page of Newsom ‘poverty’ is mentioned only once: “There is no doubt at all about the need for a good deal of social work in connection with the pupils. Problems of poverty, health and delinquency are involved. Nearly twice as many fourth year pupils get free dinners as in modern schools as a whole.” I’ll leave you to guess how many times Laws used the word.

Nonetheless, we might consider it progress that resources have been identified, in the form of the Pupil Premium, to try to do something about this achievement gap. There is certainly some interesting work going on and lots of people working hard to make a difference. But it will be a while yet before we have any evidence, particularly as so much in education needs time to bear fruit, or not, as the case may be.

In the meantime it might be worth reflecting on programmes around the world that target the wider context, that are unafraid to engage with the poverty agenda. Of note is Bolsa Família, a radical initiative of the Brazilian government to counteract the now indisputable social ills generated by poverty and inequality. The Bolsa Família, or ‘Family Grant’, is radical in that it dispenses with a history of providing goods and services to the poor.  It does something pretty much unheard of: it simply hands out money.

Critics talked of creating dependency, facilitating idleness. But there have been a wide range of social benefits, including those educational. The number of children working rather than going to school has fallen by 14 percent. School attendance in the country’s poorest regions has improved by the same. Those receiving the grant are twice as likely to graduate from school compared with poor children outside the programme. The national literacy rate has risen.

In addition, there have been myriad unanticipated outcomes that have transformed the lives of many of the country’s poorest people. By giving the grant to women increased numbers report having exclusive authority over contraception; they have been empowered. They, and many others benefiting from the grant, have a new sense of agency. Rather than feeling stigmatized through dependency, three-quarters said they were proud to be enrolled in the programme because it helped them feed and clothe their children properly without having to beg. Bolsa Família has helped them “lead more autonomous and dignified lives.” They express increased faith in their country’s democracy.

But let me inject a note of caution, based on what happened in relation to another programme for which positive educational outcomes were attributed. In Kenya, separate trials examined the benefits of giving pupils more books, teachers new technologies, and children de-worming tablets. The World Health Organisation reported no impact from the first two but enthusiastically that: “Regular deworming contributes to good health and nutrition for children of school age, which in turn leads to increased enrolment and attendance, reduced class repetition, and increased educational attainment. The most disadvantaged children – such as girls and the poor – often suffer most from ill health and malnutrition, and gain the most benefit from deworming.” And yet, these claims have since been rejected; new analysis claims the conclusions drawn were based on errors.

Who to believe?

It seems the ‘solutions’ to educational and wider inequalities will forever be contested, particularly by vested interests. And that what constitutes ‘evidence’ is a political battleground. What Bolsa Família teaches us is that a moral and ethical argument must be made also. In this case for redistributive policies. Sure, the evidence is important (it helps that Bolsa Família has plenty of that). But this is never enough. What really seems to matter is making these policies more palatable to those inclined to demonise the poor. Bolsa Família does both; it works and it has garnered support.

Time will tell if the Citizen’s or Basic income being trialled most recently in Finland can also tick both boxes. But the genie appears out of the bottle in terms of the benefits of redistribution, both evidentially and morally. Perhaps now is the time for further bold experiments? Like handing over the Pupil Premium directly to families. Might this get us closer to achieving the eternal aim of narrowing the gap? It might be worth a try.

There are some obvious conclusions. As with so many things, what’s needed is something more complex. Thinking schools have all the answers is one thing, and clearly misguided. But believing they have no role to play is just as bad. The question then turns to something even more profound; what kind of education will help shape a society where these wider inequalities will not be tolerated in the first place?

Comments Off on Kids Company, Pot Noodles, and the madness of Systems World economics

Kids Company, Pot Noodles, and the madness of Systems World economics

Posted August 19th, 2015 in Blog by admin

Ian Burrell’s article on Kids Company (Camila Batmanghelidjh is shooting the messengers who helped her raise millions, The Independent Media Column, 10th August 2015) offers a number of claims that adds to the many from other commentators that Kids Company is guilty of ‘financial laxity’ and ‘imprudence’. Frankly, I can’t comment on this, but, having visited Kids Company a few times, and experience of the wider children and young people’s sector, there are a few things I’d like to say.

Ten years ago, at the invitation of Camila Batmanghelidjh, I was asked to advise on and write their youth work plan. Also, I have vivid memories of their “No Bullsh*t: What matters to every child” conference in 2007 at which we discussed ‘Fresh approaches and winning solutions to working with vulnerable young people’. The title seems particularly apt now in light of recent developments, given the claims and counter-claims made about what has been going on.

During one visit I saw a room quite literally full of Pot Noodles. Camilla had received a phone call asking if she wanted them. As with the speakers she was able to assemble at that conference, I got the sense that she was, through a good deal of effort, very well connected. This might be one of the few things that is not disputed, this and the rationale that all organisations must invest in promotion if they are to survive in a world where the pressure to identify funding is on-going, and the environment in which they are trying to do this ‘resource poor’.

It’s this ‘world’ that particularly concerns me, and to which I want to address my wider comments. A number of commentators have rightly identified that Kids Company’s ethos centred on a relationship-based model of practice. They might easily have aligned this to the ‘Lifeworld’ ideas of the philosopher Jürgen Habermas. And, indeed, counterposed them with that other world that Habermas describes, the Systems World, in which everything exists in an economic paradigm, all actions mediated by bureaucratic and institutionalised processes. ‘Administration’ revolves around regulatory regimes, standards, targets, and the assumption that outcomes can (and need to be) known in advance and ‘delivered’ within prescribed timescales. Not that there aren’t critics of these ‘systems’. As the Observer editorial: Vulnerable children deserve better support’ (9th August 2015) stated: “most charities in receipt of government funding have to fill in reams of paperwork on financial and performance indicators: the problem is they are often asked to report on the wrong things”.

I’m not sure how much I knew of Habermas’s work at the time I produced my ‘Kids Company: A Vision for Youth Work’ document, but it seems I felt it necessary to write this:

Kids Company’s vision for youth work needs to be informed by the organisation’s central ethos. Children and young people are considered its primary clients; all other interventions, typically familial and with other agencies are considered secondary. Kids Company’s ethos has, therefore, an essential focus on supporting young people in understanding the factors that have a negative effect on their quality of life and working with them to remove and resolve these factors. Kids Company believes that its work can repair trauma inflicted by negative relationships thereby enhancing children’s and young people’s ability to form positive relationships in the future. By working in this way Kids Company believes children and young people become increasingly independent and autonomous persons. Kids Company views independence and autonomy as having both individual and community components – individuals prosper when they are in a dynamic relationship with a supportive community. Potential partners in Higher Education must, therefore, have a strong commitment to education for autonomy and be sympathetic to Kids Company’s ethos.

Consider then the definition of the “lifeworld” suggested by Habermas in his Theory of Communicative Action (vol. 2, 1984) as “consisting of individual skills, the intuitive knowledge of how one deals with a situation; and from socially acquired practices, the intuitive knowledge of what one can rely on in a situation, not less than, in a trivial sense, the underlying convictions.” His argument is that communication between human beings is only possible in the trusted surroundings of the lifeworld. And yet he observes this lifeworld is subject to increasing rationalization.

This might offer us a prism for understanding what has happened to Kids Company and what will surely happen to other organisations that also commit to lifeworld approaches at a time when this systems world dominates. In the case of Kids Company, a good example of this tension is the effect of new and presumed understandings of accountability. Applied to my Pot Noodle story, a systems approach to ‘accountability’ implies counting each and every one of them, logging to whom they were distributed and maybe even being expected to demonstrate the contribution their consumption made to the consumer’s ‘economic well-being’. Flippant perhaps but not without some truth.

But Kids Company didn’t work like that. In prioritising relationships and common sense it got on with meeting need in as simple a way as possible. It believed whole-heartedly that need could be determined through conversation, which has an obvious resonance with Habermas’s lifeworld. And if someone was hungry, give them a Pot Noodle, and bollocks to the bureaucracy. Like anyone with their head screwed on, they knew that bureaucracy and accountability are not one and the same.

Personally, I’m not anti-bureaucracy; what I’m anti is bad bureaucracy, and the notion that accountability can be reduced to bureaucracy. Those that believe in the latter seem to favour the view that accountability always comes down to money, especially public money. This is not without justification, but it’s a position adopted by people looking from a particular perspective, and I’m not talking about that of the thousands of young people who daily headed to Kids Company centres seeking, amongst other things, to sate the hunger they were experiencing.

A lifeworld approach deliberately locates itself in this context; focussing on the needs of service users rather than the needs of the system: being accountable, first and foremost, to those they aim to serve.

It can help to think more of accountability in terms of credibility, which can only ever be in the eyes of the people you are trying to help. And there can be no doubt that Kids Company scored highly here. The fact that many, many, of the young people supported had referred themselves to Kids Company rather than been referred by ‘the system’ is evidence of this.

Now, in the desperate attempts being made to ‘place’ these young people, we’ll see this credibility shattered. Lest we forget it is borne of empathy and trust, both lifeworld-oriented relational concepts. It’s likely the autonomy they exhibited through their self-referral will count for nothing; they’ll be assessed by the very systems-based approaches they resisted, avoided or were even turned away from. Their taste of having that autonomy valued will lead them to fear not being treated as individuals, with individual needs, rather than bodies categorised through ‘risk-based analysis’ as having varying levels of need (and none) and therefore worthy of varying levels of intervention (or none). Systems world thinking assumes positive engagement, rather than appreciating that it has to be worked for.

A further and ironic twist is that local social services had for a while being referring young people to Kids Company as cutbacks had diminished their capacity to meet need: funding for work with vulnerable children and young people has fallen by 20% in the last two years. And Osborne is now asking government departments to produce models of 25 and 40% further reductions in budgets. In this context, it is unthinkable that they will be able to offer as much support as Kids Company.

Leaving this aside for a moment, it’s important to recognise public money is involved, and a lot of it. But its worth noting that few charities were as effective at raising money from non-state sources (philanthropy and the like) as Kids Company. In fact, despite claims that it “relies heavily on public funding” Kids Company’s Camila Batmanghelidjh to step down (BBC News, 3rd July 2015) upwards of 80% of Kids Company’s funds came from charitable sources. If this is what it’s costing to meet the needs of the vulnerable, there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance that the efforts in train to cobble together an amalgam of statutory and voluntary services to replace Kids Company will produce anything substantive.

All this reminds me of the economic madness I uncovered whilst researching youth crime prevention in a Midlands City several years ago.  In interviewing more than a few Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) I asked about their interactions with local young people. “We refer them to the youth workers” was the response they all gave. I found out (and I kid you not) that in the area I was researching there were 77 PCSOs and 7 youth workers. You couldn’t make it up: 77 referring to 7. Doubtless, there are even fewer youth workers now given the slaughter of youth services up and down the land. At least PCSOs now seem to be getting it in the neck too; at least the maths might be ‘better’.

So there are issues about the amount of resources that exist in the first place and how they are spent. But addressing the question of ‘how’ is a nuanced affair and one to which the lifeworld – systems world analysis also offers some stimulus. Its one thing to consider on what money is spent (the reductive sense of ‘how’) and yet another to contemplate ‘how’ from a methodological standpoint. And especially then the question of ‘what works?’ There are extraordinary ironies here too. Although the government talks the language of evidence-based systems; typically insisting everything is demonstrable, it appears to be sanctioning a whole host of policies without any such evidence base. A recent example reported in the press include concerns expressed by civil servants about the efficacy of DWP sanctions, Review of benefit sanctions urged amid concern over regime’s effectiveness (The Guardian, 26th July 2015), a conclusion drawn by the department’s own inquiry. Then there’s the lack of evidence that performance-related pay (PRP) for teachers (now mandatory) improves educational outcomes. I corresponded with Ofsted about this and was forwarded links to the ‘evidence’. I doubt they expected me to read them, but I did. Not one provided evidence. I was also told ministers are not obliged to have evidence for the policies they implement. At least this is logically persuasive. It seems then that the demand for evidence is applied to everyone other than the policy makers themselves.

Interesting also that those who speak most lucidly about ‘what works’ are often those who have intimate knowledge and experience of the inner workings of an organisation. In the case of Kids Company testimony abounds from staff members and those closest to them. Listen to Henry Porter: I saw the great work Kids Company did myself. That’s why I mourn its passing (The Guardian, 9th August 2015): “Kids company has helped thousands upon thousands of young people survive the hardship and emotional damage that most of us have not the slightest clue about … still less do anything to mitigate.” This closeness is that of the lifeworld and often referred to as ‘proximity’ by those that appreciate it. It is at the heart of the wider ethos of ‘low threshold practice’, as employed by Kids Company.

These many testimonies, including from young people who used Kids Company’s services, illustrate how low threshold practice works: make services as accessible as possible and people will use them. Contrast this with the austerity driven systems world approach that often has to turn away those asking for help as support can only be offered to those deemed by the systems to be experiencing crisis.

These crisis intervention strategies are common today. Others, with ‘lesser needs’ (as validated by assessment processes) are left to fend for themselves or, perversely, told that it might be in their interests to get worse (lose more weight / put on more weight; become homeless etc.) in order to get assistance.

Conversely, ‘support’ is increasingly imposed on people ‘for their own good’. New narratives are created to sell coercion to on-lookers unaware, through a lack of proximity, of what this means in practice. Take, for example: ‘assertive outreach’, ‘non-negotiable support’, and ‘time-limited recovery’. And couple this with the wholesale emergence of mechanisms of economic incentivisation: removing benefits if you don’t “do the right thing or play by the rules”.

Low Threshold practice is very different. It implies not just being the last in line (to whom folk turn when all other services have rejected them) but also the first in line, helping them when they ask, and often before situations become dire. It is preventative. It saves money. I have anecdotes aplenty to illustrate this. The social worker, cognisant that a stressed single mother had resorted to violence to control her children, in effect, fiddling the petty cash to give that mother twenty quid every Friday with the injunction: “here’s a tenner for you to get down the pub tonight; and a tenner for the baby sitter”. Three hours off a week, and the violence ends. And the child protection system saves a fortune. Or another who pays for and plumbs in a second-hand washing machine having realised another mother was spending half her benefits down at the launderette in a desperate attempt to keep her (many) children’s clothes clean. Thereby putting better food on the table and reducing the stress all round. This seems to have been at least part of the economic philosophy of Kids Company. Choose for yourself: “money was spent without proper auditing” or, in Camilla’s words: “Kids Company kids should get a bit of pocket money also.” Again, the economic paradigm and reductive accountability of the systems world renders this not impossible but unimaginable.

All this adds texture to our understanding of the wider economic context to what’s happened to Kids Company, has happened to other organisations in the past, and will happen to others in the future. These are matters that rarely get an airing. Then remember that Kids Company was generating upwards of 80% of its income itself. Which is a world away from the thousands of voluntary organisations that now rely on funding from state-sponsored sources. I have experience of some for which the figure was 90% plus. Compared to them, Kids Company was a money spinner, subsidising the state. This ‘shadow state’ is administered through the heady world of contracting and commissioning. It’s now the singular mechanism for identifying ‘service providers’, a paradigm that those in power seem unable to think beyond. Strange then that history offers a response to the constant demand for innovation: permanent staff on permanent contracts working for well-planned local authorities, informed by proximity-based evaluation.

The reality is that these ‘new providers’ (as they’re increasingly referred to, albeit long-standing) are expected to take on the functions of the state, as the state withdraws like never before. But these organisations are more than ever living on a hand to mouth basis, on a diminishing diet of short-term contracts without any offering the kind of security the Kids Company critique demands. We should be greatly concerned about the economic well-being of these organisations and their sustainability and ask what will happen as they slide into oblivion. But other things should worry us too, such as the likely other outcomes of this wider neoliberal economic paradigm. In being the ‘shadow state’, these organisations tend to reign back on criticising the hand that feeds them. In effect, this constitutes an erosion of the capacity of civil society to offer the checks and balances needed to maintain a functioning democracy. We could easily add this to Norman Baker’s list of the defining features of an emergent one-party state: Former minister says the UK is becoming a ‘one-party state (The Independent, 11th August 2015).

Perhaps this is ‘the problem’; governments tend not like those who speak truth to power. But Kids Company was given money wasn’t it? Indeed, but that can sometimes be part of the age-old strategy of incorporation; funding always comes with strings attached – like holding off the criticism. Not that Camila Batmanghelidjh was ever shy to, as the French say, ‘rendre l’invisible visible’: make the invisible visible. Where we’re not up close, we can thank her and others for these insights into social reality, of a government that presides over dire poverty, what Yasmin Alibhai-Brown calls “planned poverty”: This is no country for young boys and girls (The Independent, 10 August 2015).

Consider the figures buried deep down in these systems (a value at last). Alibhai-Brown quotes them in her commentary on Kids Company: “Since 2010, the number of needy kids has risen by half a million. Whilst the nation was obsessing and making noise about numbers, there was little interest in the priceless nurturing the charity provided.” Value, as ever, seems to be understood only in monetary terms.

She goes further: “Suffering children from low-income families are still seen as dispensable trash by abusers and state institutions. They have no rights, no autonomy, no credibility.” Like Baker, Alibhai-Brown also worries about the future of our civil society and sees the treatment of Kids Company as indicative of an increasingly authoritarian government: Charities and NGOs are needed now more than ever — but they are under threat from this government (The Independent, 5th July 2015).

It’s this kind of analysis that suggests evaluation systems should take account of moral and ethical dimensions. Unfortunately then, further perversities are revealed: the shadow state represents a crossing of the Rubicon, to a land in which paying the bills becomes an organisation’s primary task, rather than meeting the needs of the people identified by the authors of their often worthy mission statements. How many of these organisations fully appreciate that the wider culture of ‘competitive tendering’, located within that of perpetual austerity, implies subsidising the work out of the meagre resources they have purely to secure the cash flow to keep them going. So despite the narratives of ‘working together’, ‘multi-agency partnerships’, and moving beyond ‘silo’ mentalities, collaboration is continually hampered by competition, it becomes mere hypothesis rather than reality. Perhaps that’s how power likes it, as collaboration can engender something deeply unwanted: a unified voice capable of bearing witness to the scale of the problems endured by the nation’s young, and the inadequacy of the government’s response to it. The end game is the wholly unsustainable situation created by the driving down of the very ‘on-costs’ that might have contributed to their economic stability, the very stability demanded of Kids Company and other agencies in the name of ‘prudence’. As Kathy Evans of Children England says: “It’s really not adding up any more. Some organisations have remoulded themselves so are very fit to tender and even they are not seeing enough value in the contracts to make it worthwhile delivering them. This market model is running up to the buffers because there is no profit left”.

The backdrop to this is the Charity Commission’s general advice that organisations have at least three months’ running costs in the bank. Sounds reasonable, but, hands up, which organisations have this? Furthermore, when we see that Kids Company’s annual budget was around £24m, this implies having millions in the coffers. Without exception, voluntary sector agencies, never motivated to make profit, would see this as cause for embarrassment. Few would countenance sitting on that amount of money when they could be helping the many desperate people beating a path to their doors. And no doubt the media would then offer a different critique, that of sitting on some kind of state largesse. Not that this is an option for the majority of the around 60,000 children’s charities who, being small, are unable to show the financial muscle now asked for by funders. They’re ignored, in favour of larger organisations; there‘s no place for them … in the system.

In viewing this ‘surplus’ as capital we are into different economic rationale again. Traditionally, voluntary sector organisations have emphasised using their resources to meet need, rather than accruing capital. In the realms of the state, such as a local authority school, there’s even external pressure to spend any surplus that does exist. Conversely, there are plenty of others for whom accruing capital is the name of the game. This, of course, is the world of commerce and business. One wonders then if service provider contracts based on ‘payment by results’ (PBR) were designed with businesses, rather than voluntary sector organisations, in mind, given they have the finance to pay for the work in advance in anticipation of getting ‘weighed out’ later. Compare this with agencies with little or no financial buffer; they’re forced to risk a great deal in getting involved in PBR contracts. But most have little option: I remember well listening to a government minister extolling the virtues of this kind of ‘entrepreneurialism’: “why would we possibly want to fund anything through any other system?”

Which is why we have seen the emergence of the likes of Capita and SERCO as key players in this new world of children and young people’s service delivery. Beyond finance, these players have other resources; let’s call it ‘business acumen’. Or perhaps, the knowledge of how to ‘game the system’. First, why worry about service delivery; simply use your resources (finance, marketing, P.R etc.) to win the contract (such as those associated with the National Citizen Service) and then sub-contract: get someone else to do the work. Of course, skim off some tidy management costs in the process. It’s the kind of behaviour associated with hedge funds; they provide the capital and sub-contract the heavy lifting. This ‘nous’ recognises that PBR contracts often come with penalties associated with not meeting, for example, diversity targets. ‘Nous’ means factoring these in; the hit you’re going to take. Penalties for failure become part of business planning and account sheet entries. The rationale is clear: why would you want to do all that (expensive) outreach (low threshold) work to get hard-to-reach kids involved when their ‘added value’ is relatively modest? So it’s likely then that a system-based response to the demise of Kids Company will lead to the vultures hovering, looking for easy pickings in the misery of others while statutory services desperately try to help those in crisis.

Allow me a final thought, of where economics and wider ideologies meet. It’s one that might shine a light on a divide in the Tory party, at least as big as that imagined by the right wing press to be present in Labour’s current leadership battle. I’m referring to what I once heard perversely labelled as Tory ‘anarcho-syndicalism’ and those of ‘Stalinist’ persuasions. Whilst both dream of a small state, the difference is that the Stalinists don’t want to cede any kind of control; see Gove’s manipulation of Ofsted when Education Minister, for example. Others for whom ideas associated with anarcho-syndicalism appeals see the world from a completely different perspective. Their view is ‘who cares whose offering services (and what form they take) so long as it’s not us’.

This leaves us with (and it doesn’t take a leap of imagination to think this) the idea of the ‘Big Society’ having emerged from a focus group of bright young things charged with inventing a narrative to sell us a small state and austerity. Flavoured then with ‘localism’ and we see the fabled independence it is intended to purport reduced to making decisions about (read ‘carrying the can for’) cuts to public services; cuts that will make many simply unable to function in the first place.

Perhaps Coldplay will save the day: Coldplay in talks over possible bailout of Kids Company (The Guardian, 9th August 2015). Their offer to ‘fix’ Kids Company will be greeted with glee by Tory anarcho-syndicalists and Stalinists a like. Although the latter will by now be leafing through their systems handbooks to dream up lyrics about performance indicators and targets and outcomes to be met.

One way of moving on from all this is to review our understanding of economics in the first place. The Feminist economics advocated by the likes of Professor Jane Humphries would be a good place to start. Life world appreciative, it values engagement with culture: learning through conversations with those to whom policy is directed, in order to tell it as it is: like calling a Pot Noodle a Pot Noodle.

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Orienteering: a form of praxis?

Posted July 3rd, 2015 in Blog by admin

Zaahir (not his real name) is in his early 20s. He has had a succession of short-term jobs interspersed with bouts of depression that have made it impossible for him to work. More recently his doctors have said he is suffering from a form of identity-related delusion. Zaahir is not really sure what this means. But one thing he is sure of is that he feels powerless.

In conversation, I ask him to consider what it means to be powerful. He finds it difficult to imagine. We discuss how expressing a choice, making a decision can reasonably be seen as a form of power. I recounted the tale of the imprisoned Mandela, who remarked that despite feeling like a chicken in a cage he could decide which corner of the cage he’d sleep in. Or the tale of him, shackled hand and foot, being escorted by prisoner officers to a meeting with the head of Robben Island. Four guards preceded him, four followed, as they made their way along a corridor. Mandela periodically altered the speed of his shuffle, causing the first group to disappear off down the corridor and the others to fall over themselves. Mandela smiled; he was determined to exert what little power he had.

And so I took Zaahir orienteering, a sport he had no conception of. I sold it thus: “this is a sport for people who want to, and enjoy, making decisions; it’s for people who want to feel – and be – powerful”. I’m not sure he understood; like so much in life you have to get on and do things for them to make sense.

We stood at the corner of a football pitch, marked on the mapped area that was his local park. Like others who I had introduced to orienteering in this place, all of whom lived on the adjacent estate, I asked him how well he knew the park: zero for no idea, 10 for knowing it as well as one could imagine. His peers had all said “ten”, an orchestrated invitation for me to suggest I would show them otherwise – this being the type of challenge these lads seemed to respond to.

But Zaahir had said: “Five”, doubtless indicative of a weakened confidence. “Look here at the key and tell me what that is”, I demanded, pointing at the map. “A hedge, a hedge corner” he replied after a pause. “Where is it in relation to the football pitch?” “Just near the opposite corner”. “Off you go then; what way are you going to choose to go; what decisions are you going to make?”

Words in the context of knowledge gained from the experience of being with people can be powerful things.

I’d have gone straight for it, as it was diagonally opposite. But Zaahir decided to follow the perimeter of the pitch, to the opposite corner, and then, with a left turn, to the next. With another left turn, and perhaps a quarter of the way back again, he stood directly opposite the hedge corner, which was little more than a few metres away. Then his eyes lit up, for there he spied the small plastic kite I had put there earlier. He beamed, words unnecessary. “Well done”, I said; “now, how about a harder one?”

And so we went on, one leg at a time, each progressively more difficult – in the sense and reality of more and more complex decisions to make. After half a dozen, he asked for a break, some water. We discussed Ramadan and the concessions considered reasonable for those taking medication, for he was taking a lot. Again in the context of decision-making. We chatted about the things that neither of us had control over but focussed more on the small things that were tangible and possible to do (and, for me, might develop and repair a sense of autonomy).

Then I asked him if he fancied doing a short course, a start, three controls, and back again, using his new found skills. “Sure”, he said. He found the first fine, and the second too. But on the last control headed off in the direction of one tree in preference to another. “What now?” I asked. “Bad decision”, he said. “So make another one”, I urged. Setting his map as he’d learnt to do beautifully, he spotted his mistake, and sped off in pursuit of the final kite. There, pinned to the tree, it was.

“Back now, to the finish; which way do you want to go now?” “Let’s cut across this open area”, he said. So, leaving the paths that had given confidence so far, he embarked on a new adventure. Spotting a thicket, he knew he was close. A bit further and there was the monument we had started from. He beamed again. We retired to a bench nearby, and drank more water; it was hot now.

“Do you know what ‘confidence’ is?”, I asked with my philosopher’s concept analysis hat on. We went round the houses a bit but settled on ‘the belief that you could be successful when faced with a challenge you had never before encountered’. I described how I saw this as saying something about how we approach the future.

Disallowed (at least for now) from working because of his condition, we discussed his passions. Food was one, and cooking for his mum in particular. Volunteering, I argued, was work without pay, but no less valuable for that. Indeed, I was in this space, at this time, with this person, for this reason. Zaahir resolved to look for a community project where he could cook for others and volunteer at that. I said I’d help him.

I said goodbye to Zaahir and jogged off to collect my controls. I decided to walk instead; it was a nice park, and the light at this time was nice too. And it gave me the rhythm and pace and stimulus to reflect on this short time spent with another, and this thing folk call orienteering.

It’s a sport I love but when I explain why so often I see eyes roll. For me, it’s what it means for our autonomy that matters. The fact that you have to make your own decisions, take responsibility for your own mobilities. These are wonderful things. When considering the youth I have worked with throughout my life, and my years’ spent studying the philosophy of education, can there be any aims finer than these? Maybe orienteering is a philosophy of education in its own right; a way of linking theory with practice – a rare form of praxis. If not, it might at least be a way of seeing and being with the world that brings light and a feeling of empowerment into the lives of not just Zaahir but many more besides.

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Charlie Hebdo, Ofsted and British Values: time to pause for thought?

Posted January 9th, 2015 in Blog by admin

The attack on those working for the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is an undoubted outrage, the implications of which will reverberate well beyond France. Centre-stage have been, and will continue to be, questions of values. The front pages of national newspapers across Europe focus on the value of freedom, variously referring to “an attack on freedom”, “a war on freedom”, and, with a cursory translation, “la liberté assassinée” (‘freedom murdered’). A more nuanced interpretation might remind us that English speakers employ the word liberty also and, as Isiah Berlin’s argued in: ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, essentially these intimate both ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’.

‘Freedom’ has an individualist ring, as might be said of ‘liberty’. So independence and intellectual enrichment fit easily. But Berlin’s wider analysis helps us more precisely locate these and the other values articulated in recent days. Take openness and democratic debate (indeed, The Guardian’s leader was entitled ‘An assault on democracy’). Here Berlin’s provocation broadens the debate beyond individual values and reminds us of social dimensions. Thankfully, we have had something of this from those who have sought to extol the values of pluralism and diversity, no doubt fearing a backlash against Muslim communities. This individual – social dynamic needs unpacking.

The French trinity of fundamental values, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, are well-known. But the tensions between them are rarely explored. Liberty, narrowly defined as ‘freedom to’, sits in uneasy tension with equality. The lives of the inhabitants of ‘les banlieues’ (the impoverished suburbs so powerfully depicted in the film La Haine) bear testament to this, given the grievous inequalities, in education, employment, and so on, in evidence in these places.

And yet these inequalities are worse still in the UK, identified recently as the most unequal country in the Western world. Which suggests pause for thought about the values that dominate here. If Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité are French values, what of ‘British Values’, and the implications of this recent narrative in education? It’s instructive to compare the Ofsted version with that of the DfE. Ofsted identifies: ‘democracy’; ‘the rule of law’, ‘individual liberty’ and ‘mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs’ as fundamental British Values. The DfE offers more detail:

  • respect for democracy and support for participation in the democratic process
  • respect for the basis on which the law is made and applies in England
  • support for equality of opportunity for all
  • support and respect for the liberties of all within the law
  • respect for and tolerance of different faiths and religious and other beliefs

The keen-eyed might note that the DfE add an extra element, namely: “support for equality of opportunity for all”. Our pause might be usefully used to compare this with the narrative in France. At first glance there seems little difference between equality and equality of opportunity. But further examination shows us something more profound exists. Whilst a commitment to equality has been a cornerstone of our political history we can say at least there has been a drift in devotion to this aim and the egalitarianism it suggests. The rise of the narrative of ‘equality of opportunity’ seems based on a consensus that the inequalities inevitably generated by a market-based system are a price worth paying for the benefits accrued from that system. These negative effects are considered acceptable given we seek to mitigate them by creating opportunities for all to succeed – therein the emphasis on meritocracy. In essence, each shall have a good (and equal) start and, thereafter, it’s an individual’s lookout. Some will struggle (even fail), and others will succeed – and society will be the better for it.

It was dear-old Boris Johnson who elucidated this rationale in a manner only he can. Here’s my edited version, although his full speech can be read here: “I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.”

Johnson recognises the decline in social mobility however advocates more of the same. He articulates not only this perceived consensus: “the free market economy is the only show in town” but appreciates the effect of it: “No one can ignore the harshness of that competition, or the inequality that it inevitably accentuates.” And he seems clear on the root causes also; it’s not the system but the “human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability.” He sees society as a “cornflake packet” which, when shaken, means those with higher IQs will inevitably rise to the top and, with “assortative mating”, increase the advantage of their offspring.  Promoting equality of opportunity involves ‘shaking the packet’ through policies like the sale of council houses.

So, let me reject the guidance that expressly demands schools “challenge pupils, staff or parents who express opinions contrary to British Values”. I want to say, at the very least, I find this emphasis on equality of opportunity deeply problematic, even if it represents a contrary opinion. It’s shameful that we have become so unequal, and treat the consequences of this as mere ‘collateral damage’.

Allow me a thought experiment: if, on the basis of the prescription to promote British values, schools are to support equality of opportunity for all (and bearing in mind that Ofsted can fail a school if they do not) might it be implied, bearing in mind the government’s own admission that social mobility has stalled, that schools risk the wrath of inspectors where they do not teach criticism of the state? How mad is that?

Of course, France is as bad; there is the ever-present tension between liberté and égalité. But, at least they are prepared to use the word ‘equality’. Note also the French refer only to exclusion, and never to social inclusion, which is ubiquitous in policy language here. Social inclusion suggests having the power to include, whereas its absence implies all are included by right. Likewise, you’re unlikely to hear much of ‘social and community cohesion’ in France; these too have a sense of desperation about them, as if dreamed up to mitigate the divisive effects of inequality. Fraternité is the French way; it offers a sense of solidarity and unity (which we’ve also heard a lot of these last few days). And belonging, of feeling that one is participating in the same ideal. To my mind, these values are good, it’s just a shame that, as in the case of the banlieues, they’re often absent.

My confidence in this critique is bolstered also by a value that Charlie Hebdo epitomised: contrariness. I reject being told its unreasonable (and against ‘British Values’) to argue the contrary. This is undoubtedly a need of the satirist, but we can speculate this disposition follows in a long educational tradition, as exemplified by Socrates (noting full well what happened to him). Which hopefully take us to a place where some progress is possible. In a strange way, this might be stimulated by the guidance issued to schools to “promote respect for democracy and support for participation in the democratic process”. Amongst other pronouncements, it’s suggested we should:

  • Teach pupils how they can influence decision-making through the democratic process
  • Encourage them to become involved in these processes and ensure they are listened to in school
  • Teach the advantages and disadvantages of democracy
  • Help them express their views and learn how to argue and defend these points of view
  • Model how perceived injustice can be peacefully challenged.

The vehicles for achieving these aims are identified as “the development of critical personal thinking skills” and “modelling freedom of speech through pupil participation and promoting critical analysis of evidence.” Beyond wondering why these skills are seen as individual (when, typically, it is our enquiry with others – a social process – that provides the essential stimulus to engage with differing perspectives) we might ask if these mechanisms are bold enough. Certainly they don’t appear as bold as education populaire in France (and beyond), where it’s considered reasonable to actively encourage contestation and dissent in order to advance democracy. Nor in Community Philosophy.

It would seem reasonable then to doubt if these values can be taught as part of a curriculum (which has echoes of earlier failed attempts at teaching citizenship). Rather, as Malcolm Trobe, of the Association of School and College Leaders (ACSL), says: “The best way for schools to instil such values in pupils is to reflect them in the way the institution is run. Schools have to embody it [democracy] in the way they work and within the ethos and culture of the school – within a framework of rules, regulations which are there for the benefit of everyone. It’s not just a question of sitting and teaching children about it.”

His colleague, Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) echoes a note of cynicism: “Values are an important issue within the education system, but what are they? Liberty, freedom, democracy? – but I think these are universal values as much as they are British.” And points to the irony that: “They’re never thought through, never debated.” Nigel Giddens, speaking on behalf of the Church of England, agrees: “British values should emanate from a broad public conversation, not from the secretary of state”.

Jacqueline Baxter, lecturer in social policy at the OU, goes further, fearing the “introduction of a responsibility for schools to promote “British values” and the apparent conflation of religious conservativism with extremism by both government and the media is riddled with ideological and political complexities.” Baxter speaks of the “new values police”: “the apparent appropriation of values by the state is a worrying trend. More worrying still is how Ofsted is being used to police these values. It also risks transforming schools from being trusted institutions at the heart of their communities into organisations undermined by suspicion, doubt and a panopticon-like scrutiny. This is more likely to give rise to the very activities that both government and inspectorate are so eager to expunge. To avoid this we need a public debate about the human values that form the core of our society. Until this happens, the grey area around these “British values” is open to mis-interpretation, political manipulation and false assumptions. That may well cause repercussions which could fundamentally undermine our system of education.” Once again, this is an argument in favour of process rather than instruction.

Of course it’s a further irony that these values (and practices) are often associated with the progressivism of the 1960s and 1970s – an educational era so often ridiculed by politicians. This irony is compounded by the reality today of a system where ‘outcomes’ are increasingly pre-scribed. We might ask: how is it we know what will come out of a lesson unless we actively disregard the thoughts, opinions and actions of pupils within that lesson? This casts doubt on the so-often stated commitment to ‘pupil voice’ and ‘student participation’, which seems essential if these values are to take hold. Perhaps this is little more than empty rhetoric, a series of language games designed to paper over the cracks of an ideological framework that focusses on the economic activation of our children and pays scant regard for anything democratic.

Returning to Charlie Hebdo, we should note that one of the victims was Bernard Maris, an economist and journalist. Like many of his peers at the magazine, he was stridently anti-globalisation. He was a former scientific advisor to Attac, the international movement working for social, environmental and democratic alternatives to the globalisation process. This might give us further pause for thought. Indeed, engaging in the critical thinking exemplified by these people, and suggested by the enlightened interpreters of ‘British Values’, might just be the best of ways to honour and remember the many who have suffered in challenging those who abuse their power. Lest we forget, it is the role of the satirical cartoonist – and a progressive education – to explore and point out hypocrisy.

In the coming days we will continue to be treated to the voices of the powerful who seek to instruct us in values and yet whose behaviour, in presiding over growing inequality, reveals their own impoverished moral codes. They would do well to heed the words of  Nora Hamadi, whose own upbringing made her appreciate the reality and effect of poor access to public services, education or employment: “In the late 80s the most important problem [in the banlieues] was heroin, now its radicalism.” In protecting society, and building a good society, there is much to do.

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Working with, or doing to? Insights from Rotherham on childism, the prevention of child sexual exploitation, and work with young people more generally.

Posted September 17th, 2014 in Blog by admin

As the revelations about child sexual exploitation in Rotherham continue it’s the recriminations that take centre stage. True to form, the focus is not on the wider role of the institutions but on the accountability of specific individuals. It’s all part of a now typical process of soul-searching with the intent of ‘ensuring this can never happen again’ but one that tends to invest its energies in blame rather than analysis.

The reverberations will continue for a good while yet, particularly as this is most definitely not a localised problem. And as the furore dissipates, there will be analyses, albeit that many will receive scant media attention. We can only hope that there is something substantive within these that really helps prevent such events in the future. And yet thinking carefully about what is happening, and why these things happen, is not something we seem good at, probably due to the fear that exists of exposing further weakness in not just the way we work but why we work in the ways that we do.

It might help to think about the perverse irony of a policy context that obsessively seeks to ‘target’ those ‘at risk’. And to recognise that the effectiveness of our efforts to do this is often miserable compared to those of the perpetrators of the crimes against them. The tales of young women tying bed sheets together to escape the residential homes set up for their care and support are testament to this; they were certainly motivated to reach the cars (often taxis) waiting for them outside. What is it these men are doing that proves so attractive to them? The irony of course is that it is the young people’s ‘lack of motivation’ that is so often cited by workers as a reason they are so difficult to work with, a justification it seems to divert attention from their own failures. Likewise, the routine description that they are ‘hard-to-reach’ becomes ridiculous too.

And yet, as any determined and committed detached or outreach worker will tell you, the onus has to be on the worker, as the professional, to secure engagement. There can never be excuses. What’s effective is well known. The focus on the street teaches us much; it’s here that power works differently: where, whether you like it or not, young people have power. If it’s not happening for them they will simply walk away, which is power nonetheless.

Thinking from this perspective means only ‘low threshold practice’ will do. Being present, both in time and space, is one thing (working when and where young people are to be found) but it is the valuing of their values that is the philosophical and methodological beating heart of this way of working.

Now, ‘valuing young people’s values’ is easy to say. And strange too: how could we possibly value the apparent predilection for getting hammered on drink and drugs and other behaviours that would repulse many? And yet empathy (so often trumpeted as essential) – if it means anything – surely implies trying to see things from their perspective, trying to understand what value they get from living the ways they do. Each of which seems elemental to valuing them as persons, which, hand on heart, we all know, is not what’s happening here.

So there are uncomfortable truths to grapple with. It’s easy to say that the ‘love’ offered by those with malicious intent is sick or depraved. But this paying of interest in them has to be contrasted with that that drives them away: not being listened to, constantly being disciplined, forever subjected to control and sanction. It’s the relief from this that drives many to the street, and into the clutches of others. Which is precisely why street work exists, and appreciates that you have to work differently to be effective.

And yet the responses we are likely to see to Professor Alexis Jay’s damning report on CSE in Rotherham will likely spell more of this externalised control rather than less. A flavour of this emerged, perhaps coincidentally, just a few days prior to its release. With scant coverage, we learnt of the extraordinary numbers of vulnerable young people incarcerated in the prison system “for their own safety”. We’re told this is primarily due to the lack of places in appropriate secure institutions. But incarceration of the innocent wherever it is is both a scandal, and illegal at that: these are not criminals, they have committed no crime. It speaks more of the attitudes that dominate decision-making when it comes to the welfare, and education, of young people. That we would rather lock them up than try to find to a more humane response to the threats they face is testament to a culture that presumes power over them. Corralling and containing young people has become almost second nature, from these cases to the more subtle – which range from the dispersal powers of the police and support officers to school ‘lock-in’ policies that prevent pupils leaving school at lunch-times – all ‘for their own good’. Many of these practices have been exposed by geographers, for it’s this discipline that so ably demonstrates how these forms of power work.

Significantly, in reading the sordid testimony of institutional neglect in Rotherham, it becomes apparent that there’s more to say about how these forms of power and control work, or don’t work, as the case may be. The systems failures we have witnessed owe much to the bureaucratic cultures that underpin them. But it’s not bureaucracy per se that’s at fault; put simply we need good bureaucracy, not bad. The endless ‘paper-chasing’ is a case in point, a reality that can be so overwhelming that, extraordinarily, there can be little time left over for the work that might actually make a difference. I’ve said before, and will say again, social workers need to be liberated in order that they can prioritise social work.

In this sense we should be wary of those bureaucracies designed primarily to protect against litigation, ways of working that exhibit the hue of protecting the institution first and the people they are supposed to be helping thereafter. Which is all part of the general recourse to law, rules, systems and policy, rather than the human, and professional, process of judgement, in operation in today’s welfare state. Techne, it seems, is where it’s at; these are the system world approaches that Habermas so ruefully speculated on, in contrast to ways of thinking and acting that emanate from the lifeworld.

There are loud echoes of this in the testimony provided by Professor Jay and the several others who have tried to analyse and think critically about this issue. Albeit a number have often had their conclusions disregarded by power, they offer profound insights as to what really does work in relation to these vulnerable young people. They expose another irony, that the practices seen to be the most effective are the ones that fully appreciate power and control, but seek to be otherwise. Doubtless, these are insights that can support the prevention of child sexual exploitation but might also illuminate education more generally.

It was the commentary of an anonymous source (a decision taken most probably due to the same culture of fear of falling foul of bureaucratic stricture) that was so telling:

We repeatedly fail because we fail to make that critical relationship with those children. If we don’t have that relationship then all we are is a bunch of talking heads. We are good at gathering around in meetings, discussing cases ad infinitum. But what we are not good at is recognising that all this is futile unless you’ve got a relationship, that you’ve got a handle on that child’s circumstances and whereabouts.

This is the voice of someone whose aims and objectives are clear, someone determined to do what it takes to effectively target young people in residential care and foster homes. That the context of their work was to do something about poor attendance at school is a distraction; as part of a multi-agency team, they knew that prioritising ‘engagement’ and the development of positive relationships is the basis of all effective practice.

Here we see a regard for what’s implicit in anything ‘relational’: it’s what happens between people that matters. Needless to say, trust is a relational concept. External and unilateral forms of control only make securing this engagement more difficult, perhaps even impossible. The worker states many in the team “hadn’t got [these] relationships” and “weren’t able to engage”. Thence, the futility. We should note also that, regardless of the specific objectives (in this case to improve school attendance) it’s a proximity-based approach: focussing on getting close to, being present, building and maintaining relationships with young people. It’s this that makes the appreciation of other issues (such as CSE) possible. But it relies on trust in the worker to respond to these other realities; it is all too easy when controlled by systems to become so focussed on one issue that we fail to recognise the multiplicity of others that may exist also, never mind do anything about them.

I can attest to this from my own experience. I have vivid memories of going out on the streets with detached workers contracted by the [then] Primary Care Trust to ‘deliver’ sexual health services. On turning a corner we came across a group of perhaps 80 or so young people outside some shops, behaving almost hysterically. I asked a few of them what was going on (a young man had been stabbed on the estate only a day earlier) only to witness these workers trumpeting: “does anyone want any condoms?”

It’s easy to be critical of them but the causes lie in the controlling effects of a systemic approach to the work, and the prescription to follow the ‘rules’. It is this that inhibited their ability to engage in the first place. Not that they didn’t know this; they voiced concerns to me as a visitor about the instrumentalisation of their work but, as before, feared expressing these concerns more widely.

A key point is to appreciate that, in the cases outlined, the issues of attendance and sexual health are so often connected to others, including perhaps child sexual exploitation. The capacity then, to act in these flexible ways, is clearly constrained by the policy drivers that create these prescriptive systems in the first place. Where’s the efficiency in that?

Returning to our anonymous source, he refers to a young woman who “wanted to speak to me” (rather than the staff of the residential care home in which she lived). What was he doing that he was the one she sought out? Or to put it another way: why didn’t this young woman want to speak to staff at the home? Needless to say, any meaningful answer to these questions demands analysis of how power and control works for the stakeholders (of which – it pains me to have to state – the young person must be considered primary).

Further reflections take me back (several years) to research I conducted about the provision of sexual health education to young people in public care. My research methodology was to collaborate with detached youth workers, in the knowledge that the answers young people gave to questions about who they sought advice from (on this sensitive subject) is likely affected by the environment in which those questions are asked: the relative freedoms of responding to questions posed in the street are so often more revealing than the answers given in spaces and places where external control dominates. This is geography also. The range of responses staggered me; from those imagined, like family and friends, teachers, youth workers and social workers, to school nurses, and the staff of GP practices and specialist services, but also those working in juvenile justice, and even a police officer. It was glaringly obvious that it wasn’t what was on someone’s name badge that mattered but the quality of the relationships that existed.

Unfortunately, the presumption that these relationships are easily secured has led to a policy landscape, and a raft of interventions, that are increasingly specialised. That these are often interpreted by young people as just another form of control: ‘I have to talk about what they want to talk about”, only distances them further. Here we find further evidence of a system world at best problematic, and one that appears increasingly indifferent to, and incapable of engaging with, young people’s social reality – as they see it. It’s an indifference that unfortunately often translates into action that can fail to hit the spot, or even induce inaction. But then why should we be surprised; isn’t it part of the children and young people’s social reality that their views are routinely, and culturally, disregarded?

Some theory might help here (albeit, I acknowledge, what I propose sits outside the neoliberal paradigm that validates all ‘reasonable’ thought). Nonetheless, try this: ‘childism’. It’s an idea we need to go back quite a while for, but its perceptive enough to challenge the assumption that power – in the form of adulthood – always knows best.

Childism is the automatic presumption of superiority of any adult over any child; it results in adult’s needs, desires, hopes, and fears taking unquestioned precedence over those of the child. It goes beyond the biologic necessity that requires adults to sustain the species by means of authoritative, unilateral decisions.  (Pierce, 1975: 266)

This is not merely an historical anecdote. Consider, for example Jake Chapman who recently suggested taking children to art galleries is a “total waste of time” and that “children are not human yet.” Or, Shona Sibary, enraged by her children’s bad manners, a situation she puts down to having “lost control” due to her liberal dispositions. Her proposition, to regain control, is simple enough: instate an authoritarian approach: “From this day forth my children will do what they are told, because I have told them to. Whether they like it or not.” Doubtless both are attention-craving agent provocateurs, and yet, when we reflect on young people’s realities, we find these sentiments alive well, even in vogue, not least in the attitudes that prevailed in Rotherham: not listening to young people, saying they are making things up, not taking them seriously. In sum, a climate that devalues them; just as their aggressors did.

Childism means we see them as “physical creatures, as opposed to thinking beings”. Its omnipotence affects us all in that it teaches us to “focus on the exercise of raw power rather than on volitional humaneness”.  It doesn’t just inhibit the protection of the vulnerable (and, as noted, validate their incarceration, ‘for their own good’) but it ‘retards the development of potential’. The essential dynamics of a young person subject to childism implies then they are “hardly ever permitted to initiate action or control a situation.”

With an appreciation of these simple truths, we see our cultural presumption that we are living in a progressive age (a term so abused now it’s often referred to as the ‘p’-word) drift off into the ether. And following it any notion that ‘pupil voice’, or ‘student’ voice, or young people’s ‘voice’ more generally, means anything.

Unless that is, we take engagement, and relationships seriously. And this means appreciating that in our work it’s the pejorative acts that are just as telling: our posture, our gestures, our tone of voice, and the minutiae of our everyday interactions with young people. Being aware of this, might we then be able to catch ourselves and prevent the systems we work in turning us into an “inflexible bureaucrat who endows his minor post with all the terrors of a colonial master”?

Beyond us, where does this leave the policy prescriptions of ‘assertive outreach’, ‘non-negotiable support’ and helping young people ‘make the right [sic.] choices’? We see then that it’s policy, and the ideology that informs it, that can be childist also. And can so easily incorporate us into its working.

And yet, there’s a lot we can do. A good deal, as ever, draws its own power from life world thinking and life world acting. This is a different kind of power, a power that grows as we endeavour to assist young people in becoming powerful themselves – more autonomous, more self-determining. But don’t fall into the trap of narrowly conceiving of these concepts in an individualist paradigm. These aims have to be understood in a social sense, they’re born of mutuality, co-operation, conversation, dialogue and negotiation: that’s what relationship-based working means.

As the man said: “you’ve got to get a handle on that child’s circumstances”. And the best way to do that is to talk to them, and listen, properly. Of course, as he says also, these conversations can take us into uncharted waters, where we might be inclined both to doubt (“did that really happen?”) or grasp quickly for the tiller of control.

But these are not the instincts of all, nor are they ones we cannot supersede; this guy is among many who know that its engagement and relationships that matter, and that they are worth going out on a limb for. And can only be secured by actively adopting an anti-childist position. This way of working rejects instrumentalism, and by implication, ‘best practice’ (as if a technical response can be rolled out here, there and everywhere – as if context doesn’t matter). Which makes it anathema to the policy meisters who believe everything can be reduced to the numbers.

And yet, the structural violence of these systems is fought daily by many, knowing as they do that it exacerbates violence rather than mitigates it. That many of these folk are youth workers is perhaps the greatest irony, for it’s their ways of working that the evidence here shows is most effective: a commitment to engagement, a commitment to relationships, and a commitment to working with the uncertainties that all this implies. Youth work is, like teaching, lest we forget, fundamentally a relational practice through which protection is enhanced, not weakened. The fact that youth work, again like teaching, has become more and more a technical operation, with democratic practices cast aside, because power now ‘knows what’s good for young people’ only goes to show how childism is still rife, in politics, in policy, and unfortunately now, in practice. Despite all the challenges, including dealing with the charges that will be levelled against you – of being ‘liberal’, ‘progressive’, and ‘romantic’ – youth workers and those who share these humane, democratic philosophies must keep faith with their beliefs. Good, and effective, practice demands it. But beware, you will be told daily that you are wrong, that what you believe is ludicrous, that your opinions don’t matter; you will become subject to childism also.

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Two Wheels Good?

Posted May 3rd, 2014 in Blog by admin

Am I a cyclist? Well yes – in that I cycle, sometimes, anyway. I cycle to get from A to B and for leisure and for fitness. Well, sometimes, anyway. Not that I think too much about it, in the sense of the distance I cover. I just do it, as and when I see it as appropriate, or as the fancy takes me; more so if the opportunity exists. In some ways I guess I’m more of a walker (a ‘pedestrian’ to some) and train user (a ‘customer’ to others), particularly if I was to think about all the miles I do. Doubtless, this is a function of actively having chosen to live next to a railway station in order that I (and my family, and folk visiting) might find it easier to get around, without a car – which probably says more about how I see the world.

Not that I don’t have a car, only that it sits there for often long periods until such times as these other ways of travelling are judged more than difficult. But I certainly don’t walk in a room and introduce myself as a cyclist; it’s not my primary identity. Which, I have to say, may well be the case for many who attended the Cycle City Leeds Expo this week. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love it when I come into contact with anyone who’s passionate; we need more folk like that rather than less. I’ve been called the same, albeit for different reasons. And yet, if the (singular) name of the game at Cycle City Expo was, quite simply, to get more people on bikes, my overwhelming observation is that we might need to think a little more about those millions who don’t identify as ‘cyclists’.

Which takes me to thinking; which is something I am passionate about. Granted, it might be an odd thing to say; for some at least. But it’s true. Let me explain. It’s philosophy. I’ve done a bit of that. In fact, I’ve tried to use it in my work for many years now. I think it helps. So I’m going to try to write down some of my thoughts on my experience of attending the Cycle City Leeds Expo.

First, I was struck by how much effort has been invested in thinking about thinking. But then this does seem to me to be a particular kind of thinking, namely psychology. It was everywhere, inescapable. In fact, the conference could well have been billed: ‘Behaviour Change’, like the others I go to on education, crime and a range of other social ‘problems’ – such was the number of times that ‘behaviour change’ was referred to. Hands up, I’m not enamoured with psychology. Or behavioural psychology, or behavioural economics. Nudge, Nudge. In fact I’ve blogged on this before, so if you’re interested you can read my thoughts on the ‘psychologisation’ of society here.

What seems to happen is that some folk spend a lot of time considering the thinking of others, and not so much thinking about their own. Unless we look a little closer: wherein the focus is not so much on how to get these others thinking differently but rather how we can get them behaving differently. Which is why, whether in cycling or any other ‘positive’ behaviour, you are invariably treated to a series of sales pitches for products (usually ‘apps’) that incentivise these behaviours through ‘reward’ schemes. Extrinsic motivation is where it’s at; or behaviour management as we call it in education. Not that the sales folk mention their other ‘benefits’; that being GPS-enabled they could just as well be used to track employee behaviour, potentially then becoming a criteria by which promotions are handed out. Personally, I quite like the idea that cycling gets me away from all that and especially the surveillance culture that makes me feel so poorly – and angry. And which I know has often unintended consequences, as people learn to play the game (think giving your smart phone to an obsessive cycling colleague so you can bank his miles against your score). Note gaming can be applied to everything these days, as companies learn the art of ‘gamification’, in order to sell us stuff  that “makes doing something we do everyday rewarding.”

Likewise language games – a further element of the diet of any philosopher. It always amazes me when I’m told that cycling surveys reveal the British pedal (or are minded to pedal – which actually means they don’t) for health, fitness and well-being benefits. Why are they saying this? It could be true, but I doubt it. I figure it’s a symptom of that surveillance culture, in which we learn to say what we think those in power want to hear. Back to the sociology of the primary school. Given then the oppressive and inescapable mantra from government, about health, fitness, and well-being; we just spew it back or commit to the bare minimum to evidence our ‘learning’. In philosophy it’s called performativity; you get the idea: performing to the piper’s tune played for us.

Then there’s my beef that psychology has an extraordinary capacity to individualise us all. The consequence being that the ‘problem’ becomes located within the individual. It’s pathologising. Whatever happened to consideration of the cultural and structural influences on our lives? ‘Progressive’, 60s, nonsense, I guess. Such atomisation has another function; it can create an ‘us, and them’ culture. Which reminds me of the deserved opprobrium heaped on Grant Schapps with his now infamous and patronising tweet: “#budget2014 cuts bingo & beer tax helping hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy. RT to spread the word.” Of course, the operative word, was “they”. Enough said. Apart from the linguistic magic at work in the phrase “hardworking people”; which so obviously is designed to create another dualism: between, of course, those that do, and those that don’t. A fiver says it was Lynton Crosby (the master purveyor of ‘Wedge’ and ‘Dog Whistle’ politics) that dreamed this one up. Political basics really; divide and rule; create an enemy within, deflect attention from the real criminal activities. Better stop there.

So, the question is: is the cycling lobby guilty of the same? Consider the extraordinary confidence in the statement that “cycling is just the right thing to do”. It may be, but this takes me back to the point about what happens when the powers that be simply assume they’re right. Some reasons would be good rather than the arrogance of assumption. Synchronicity then with the often heard refrain about putting in cycling infrastructure: “let’s just get on with it”, they say. Again, few would disagree, but then we might need to remember that this is precisely the narrative we hear from those others who have an unshakeable belief that what they’re doing is “right”. Take the ‘reform’ of our welfare state as an example. As I was at pains to point out in my workshop interventions, ‘just getting on with it’ might fly in the face of the (I accept often minimal) gains made by those who have striven long and hard to secure some semblance of a participative democracy. In the same vein, think of the legacy of Le Corbusier, from whence master planning arose: the view from above, rather than that from the street, and its occupants.

Democracy is not a word I heard these last two days, but it offers thinking provocations also: why is it that when we ‘consult’ on cycling we so often individualise this process (back to that theme again)? Given we almost always ask individuals or particular lobby groups what they think, it’s hardly surprising then that this gives status to any partisan position. But then this might be based on a further and increasingly prevalent cultural influence: that all conflict should be mediated, ‘resolved’, avoided. Consider instead that conflict, or at least contestation, might be at the very heart of a good democracy. Don’t we think differently when we think with others, especially when these others hold different views to ourselves? Don’t we think differently when we’re in an environment where reasons are demanded of us? Don’t we think differently when we are encouraged to air our values and test them against the scrutiny of others?

But then if we did, and, in so-doing, thought about values more, we might realise it’s a little odd to invite colleagues from other countries to show us how things should be done. Naturally, the images from Copenhagen and the like are extraordinarily persuasive. But the problem is we are not processing the context behind these images. Their successes are not so much a product of just building things, they are a product of culture, mentality, attitudes, of values. Further enquiry reveals it’s no coincidence that these are countries that are among the most equal in the world, where a commitment to egalitarianism dominates. And where humility and modesty is writ large. Take the Swedish Law of Jante. And compare that with the attitudes that prevail here. Not that we don’t know the penalty we all pay for living in the 5th most unequal country in the world, as laid bare in The Spirit Level: status anxiety (only temporarily relieved though obsessive consumerism – of which cars are perhaps the ultimate symbol); then negative attitudes to risk and making mistakes; a lack of trust in strangers; low confidence; selfishness; a general tendency to feel unsafe despite the realities. Read the Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett, go on, and on. It’s painful but nonetheless the back drop to the challenges we face, in getting folk cycling and walking, amongst so many other things we wish for.

Contrast all this with the commentary of the average Dane. “Why cycle? It’s easy, convenient, practical, simple, efficient, obvious … why do you even ask?” Rarely a peep about finance. And contrast again with that drum banging in the background at Cycle City Expo: “the economic benefits of cycling, the economic benefits of cycling, the economic benefits of cycling …” What a cage we live in. And best exemplified by the tyranny of ‘value for money’. It’s bloody everywhere; here that is, not there. Where’s the philosophy? Value for money means there is only one value in town: money. Note, money is a commodity you can count. So only that which we can count is valuable. Granted, a bit of poor logic, but you get the idea, I’m sure. Desperate voices shout: “I like cycling” and “cycling is fun”. Thanks to the guy who responded to my challenge of how to measure that. “You need a unit to measure” said I. “What’s the unit for fun?” “The grin” he replied. “How wide it is.”

Of course we can all wax lyrical about the economic benefits of putting in that cycling infrastructure. But what of a park, a place of worship, a museum, a school, a hospital, some public art? Can all be monetised, reduced to ‘vfm’? Why cycling then? The inexorable shift from values to value. Not that the App man would agree: “We pick value – business value – over values any day.” Which, I contend, only distances us further from the great non-cycling public. And heralds the spectre of two kinds of cyclists: those welcome in our cities because their pockets contain the equivalent of the ‘pedestrian pound’, and those not: the poor, the young, and others without the price of a Cappuccino and whose presence might detract from the ‘economic benefits of cycling’. Wither inclusion and  the simple value of mobility in accessing, for example, the library.

My plea then is to have some faith in ‘them’; we’re all philosophers after all. We understand and use the language of good and bad on a daily basis; we understand and feel what this means, without having to quantify the judgements we make. We don’t feel it necessary to articulate everything in terms of value for money. Let’s trust to this in asking some more philosophical questions in pursuit of our aim: what’s good, and bad, about where we live; and how could things be improved? What does it mean to live a good life, and how are we going to get on with building a good society? Monbiot got an airing and his words on framing problems offer a cautionary tale: ‘beware framing with only one set of values, you might lose the ability to frame with others’.

Try this for homework: ask yourself “Two Wheels Good? Why might cycling be bad?” A starter for 10; you’re just like those ‘Other’ dudes: you want to start your journey from home and end it where you – the individual – want to go. You’re selfish. You’re anti-social; walking (and car-driving?) with others trumps cycling with others any day if you value having a chat. You’re just another ideologically-driven individual. Unless, of course, you’ve other reasons you want to make known; reasons that might help us unpack a wider context – a context of values – without which nudging the old Boneshaker on a bit might be harder than it need be.



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God Bless Philosophy – but where is it?

Posted April 17th, 2014 in Blog by admin

Tales of philosophical activities at the independent Taunton School (The Independent, 17th April 2014) might chime with the cultural demand for a more holistic education, but is this what it seems? The Head, or should I say Headmaster, says: “I’m not just bringing up kids to make more money” – but why does he need the rider “more”, or even the focus on money? Where’s the philosophical enquiry into these values? He continues: “we try to show our students a broader way of looking at life.” Nice again, but the example given relates to the current crisis in Ukraine: “[it’s] not about money [unlike for his students] – it’s about culture, ideals and beliefs”. He’s pretty sure, for a philosopher. Might it have been better as a question? At least there’s some doubt that all this will “maybe” lead to his pupils having “a better impact on the world than they would otherwise have had.” Likewise, no sense of what constitutes ‘better’, perhaps just the extraordinary confidence of the independent sector again? Interesting also that philosophical and religious beliefs are identified as distinct, and implicitly different, without reasons offered. No mention of theology.

How joyous that Saturday is a working day and this is promoted as a template for academies and free schools. Appreciative of the 10 hour school day Rosie Millard would surely love it here. Some sociological analysis of the family might be a better bet than philosophy in this regard.

Moving on, whoever thought ‘Rag’ week was anything, anything at all, about ‘raising and giving’? Is there anything that this lad doesn’t know? He certainly knows the value of a target or two, raising money for charity needs one surely; incentivisation trumps intrinsic motivation any day. Or might that be reasonably problematized too? And glorious also that Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) is about making sure kids get “the message”. Is this the kind of philosophy that can be taught by multiple choice. Not a word about dialogue. And yet this sensitisation to a life to be lived on the basis of gaming theory and performativity is sold to us as a perverse counter-cultural activity, when in reality (he’s got me at it too) it equips us only to choose which corner of the cage to sleep in: “I take the kids aside (one wonders where) and tell them that PSHE is an invention made up by the government who have told us it’s something we must teach … but that we can make up our own name for it.” How awfully radical. Calling them lessons says it all. Or maybe not, because the poor bastards know they’re going to be graded – I guess, by criteria determined by his Holiness. Please enlighten us how you grade ‘well-being’ and ‘self-confidence’?

He’s certainly got the parents on side, but they ain’t daft; they know the game too: why else choose this school if it wasn’t to ensure their darlings get ahead? And yes, how many times have I heard that: the plebs have to join the school’s community: no sense that it might be part of that.

And yet, regardless of all this, wisdom clearly resides in the youth. They learn despite what’s happening here, not because of it. They’re off, to far flung lands where the education is cheap, regardless of whether it’s any good or not. So much for philosophy. The analogy of bull’s urine is apt, it smells more like someone taking the piss than anything else.

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The right to trouble and the necessity to be troubled; the thorny case of performance, and its measurement.

Posted February 6th, 2014 in Blog by admin

What a day I’ve had. Like a lot of days, I did a lot of work but didn’t earn a red cent. C’est la vie. Maybe I’m part of the Big Society. Certainly it’s been interesting, and I learnt a lot (by the way, I also learnt recently that to use ‘learned’ in preference to ‘learnt’ follows American parlance) and hopefully this learning will help me in several endeavours, from being, variously, a parent, a school governor, Vice-Chair of the Federation for Detached Youth Work and a part-time PhD student. But, I have to say, a good deal of what I heard today troubled me greatly. So let me try to recount a few of my anxiety-inducing experiences.

First off a meeting at my eldest son’s secondary school for his ‘Review’ session in the presence of his Learning Coach. A Learning Coach I’d been told previously is someone who “tries to persuade rather than tell.” Confused somewhat about the distinction between persuasion and telling I was enlightened in a subsequent discussion with youth workers about the National Citizen Service (something I’ll come back to later). The youth workers weren’t happy, and when I probed why this was they told me it was because they felt they had to “persuade” young people to get involved. Hearing this word again, only a few hours after having heard it in the school context, I couldn’t help but ask what their definition was. “Persuasion is manipulation” was the simplistic but forceful reply. Now we could argue a lot more about the need for a more robust definition, but my point is to illustrate the varying conceptualisations of this term in the education sector. And to illustrate also that this is one of an increasing number of ‘floating concepts’ in our work today. And that words, and their understandings matter enormously, particularly in the context of multi-agency work where folk can often be using the same language but conceiving of very different things.

Back to the review day; my boy’s task was to, as you might imagine, review his progress in school. I’m big on these things, self-reflection, self-evaluation (and their social equivalents) and indeed the wider context in which these activities are located: ‘SLD’, or student-led discussions. I know that might not be fashionable in some circles: take this of late from Dennis Hayes in his criticism of P4C. There are some valid and reasonable points here but I worry greatly about anything that smacks of a return to traditional forms of education (sic.) in which the pupil is little more than a receptacle to be filled by an all-knowing teacher. Rather, as Oakeshott (1962, 1972) states: “Education is both an engagement between teacher and learner and an initiation into the conversation between the generations of mankind.” I digress, albeit, I think, for important reasons, but I figure now it’s the frameworks (rather than the processes themselves) for understanding ‘performance’ that do my head in. The lad has his ‘current grades’ and ‘projected grades’ (which I’m told are synonymous with ‘predicted’ grades: “just semantics”). Strange then that each and every one of his projected grades is where he is now plus two levels. Is this coincidence, arbitrary or based on something more rigorous (as Gove would have it)? This matters, as in my academic endeavours to understand the impact of data systems in education I find a range of realities from deterministic predictions to extraordinary presumptions, apparently based on little or no evidence at all. What then of his teachers’ assessments of his ‘effort & behaviour’ and ‘independent learning’: how reasonable (and based on what criteria) are his A’s, B’s and C’s? And does this matter? I guess so, in which case we have to get beyond ‘how’ (although that would help) to why?

Notwithstanding, it is this (externalised) data that my son employs to review his learning and chart the progress he wants to make; little, it seems, is a product of self-initiated reflection. He talked of “levelling his progress” but when I asked him what this meant he said he didn’t know. In his stead, the Learning Coach suggested this was about “showing where you are; giving it a grade”, which might have been a more accessible way to explain the expectations of the school in the first place, rather than sensitising him to what are clearly alien languages – languages that (in their use) might just have other motives.

Thereafter his SMART targets; you know the stuff: things that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable/Attainable, Realistic/Relevant and Time-related. Again, like so many of the things I’m talking about, I get the gist but I have questions about, and am troubled by, the detail. I thank Gus John in this regard, as he once told me if you can’t work out what’s happening with the whole then consider the details: they’ll give you a good idea of what’s going on, of impact. And some insight into the values that influence such mechanisms. So, to be more precise in my questioning: how can (amongst other things) ‘effort and behaviour’ targets be made specific and, of perhaps greater concern, how can changes be measured? On this, I’ve long-since considered it a reasonable riposte to argue that measurement per se demands a unit; so what units are we talking about here? I note also the spawning of an industry that claims to be able to teach us that everything can be measured, typically using ideas of ‘distance travelled’. But to me they’re unconvincing in their claims of objectivity, as if trying to seduce us with the language of science (what Ray Tallis calls scienticism). Invariably it’s also reductive, and often deterministic, as if that adds validity also. Take this contribution to the World Wide Web:

Specific: If the target is too vague or too big to be achieved in a reasonable length of time, the student will have difficulty understanding what they have to do.

Measurable: “How will we know if the target has been achieved?” If the answer is, “We don’t know!”, then the target isn’t measurable!

Attainable: The pupil must be able to reach the target; it must be at the right level. If the target is unreachable it will lead to demotivation.

Realistic/Relevant: The target must be achievable in terms of resources available. It must be relevant to the task in hand.

Timed: A time for achieving the target should be set, and a review held when that time is up. All those involved should be aware of the time set and the review date.”

A teenage philosopher could murder that. Rather than nuanced, the value of a good deal of the complexity of the world in which we live ebbs away, bounded (in value) by specificities, measurability, assumptions on capability, and constrained temporalities.

We might consider the so-called ‘scientific method’ here. A process that involves asking a question, developing a hypothesis, undertaking some kind of experiment and observing and recording what happens, and then thinking about (or ‘analysing’) what happened. Oh, and sharing the results (one presumes for the benefit of others). Maybe this provokes self-correction as to what measurement might mean. And maybe then, ironically, it takes us back to broader subjectivities: the kind of things that are intrinsic to the process of evaluation – the definition of which, I try to remember, implies, by virtue of the clue in the word, recourse to values. It’s a process of valuing. Which might assist us in many domains, were we to do justice to a concept wider than measurement, and ask, simply: what’s good, what’s bad, and what needs to change? And if you really need data, record that. And use it as a stimulus for the next enquiry. And so on.

An aside then to my studies: anything more than a cursory glance at the history of data systems in education would surely lead to the conclusion that the primary function of data collection is to enable governability – control by another name. Enough said, for now.

To conclude my thoughts on SLD and pupil reviews; great but let’s have something more nuanced. Why not extend the student-led franchise, such that they can think within the wider range of possibilities that evaluation, rather than measurement, offers?

On to the National Citizen Service Roadshow, an opportunity for potential ‘delivery partners’ to learn about the extraordinary regime that constitutes its procurement, contracting and commissioning arrangements. Back to the framework issue me thinks. For all the talk of flexibility (perhaps the greatest of modern-day floating concepts) a contract, by definition, has to be stipulated, written down. Add into the mix myriad criteria for Payment by Results (PBR) and it’s easy to see that this thing is anti-democratic by design. You have to say what you are going to do before you start and this within a prescribed set of constraints. These, of course, are the ‘outcomes’ to be achieved, the outcomes without which you ain’t gonna get paid. The youth then is a unit to be activated; you’ve got to get them to do what’s wanted in order that the Queen’s shilling is secured (I use this term specifically in the hope it might illustrate something of the process of incorporation that is at work here). Maybe I am naïve here also: following Zizek maybe the reality is there’s no escape? Oh, and perish the thought that an outcome might reasonably be considered that that ‘came out’.

Even this system I get to some degree, but I pointed out that one of the reasons why there appears limited throughput from youth service involvement to NCS participation is precisely because when youth work is good young people come to expect and demand opportunities for participation. Note here a further floating concept; in the first instance participation is simplified to taking part; in the latter its something much more substantive: being involved from the outset, in discussion, negotiation, planning and design. And evaluation. In sum, a process (and a principle) in which decisions that affect people are substantively informed by those people. It’s about young people’s power, or lack of it, as the case may be. Where the youth worker is concerned that they have to ‘persuade’ young people to take part, here’s the rub: they too are predisposed, committed to participatory practice. They’re struggling ethically. And it ain’t happening for them or the well youth-worked youth when the process has had to be itemised in advance (and often in great detail) of any conversations with [those] young people simply because contracting and commissioning demands it. So again, I’m not dissing the aims; after all I spent years working in outdoor and adventure education, and years more encouraging young people to engage with and learn from others (although I am concerned that the promotion of ‘social mixing’ within the NCS model will probably not include interrogation of the forces that have driven social polarisation in the first place – not least the levels of inequality that now make us one of the most unequal countries in the world). Nonetheless, add to that social action and your talking my language. But here also constraining temporalities inhibit anything substantive; you can act socially in a moment but something more profound might just take a little longer. There are references to ‘graduate activities’ and ‘sustainability’ but, once again, the performative behaviours associated with the contract-based culture means few are going to give much regard to what happens after the 3 -4 week programme for which they get paid.

Finally then to my evening’s fun, training for school governors in the implementation of performance-related pay (PRP) for teachers. It might just be me (in fact it was on the night and, frankly, often is elsewhere) but I’m minded to ask if PRP is a good thing, and what the evidence-base is for it, rather than just go headlong into learning about policy implementation. I had requested in advance some references to the evidence base and was told they didn’t exist, “although there is research from business”. But on looking that up you typically get this: “Academic evidence has increasingly mounted indicating that performance-related pay leads to the opposite of the desired outcomes when it is applied to any work involving cognitive rather than physical skill.” On this basis its extraordinary to have to sit there and listen to this stuff as if it’s a done deal, a process in which any doubts you might have are (it is assumed) dispelled by a document entitled: “True or False Exercise” where each of a series of propositions, such as “It’s not possible to pay teachers doing the same job differently without it being an equal pay issue”; or “By allowing schools to reward teachers as they see fit there will be huge inconsistencies in who and what are rewarded” are ascribed definitive answers. Both, if you hadn’t guessed, are identified as false. And yet so much hangs on so many variables and interpretations of [these] floating concepts that it cannot be reasonable to accord these statements (and most of the others) as, simplistically, truths or falsehoods. The fact that they are is testament to the politicisation of these training events and Ofsted in policing the implementation of this policy. I recognised this document actually; at least as an adaption of one produced by the Department of Education entitled “Common Myths”. Whereas this is bad enough, given the points I have made, for the training provider to have added the riders of ‘True’ and ‘False’ is an extraordinary display of incorporation and politicisation also. Ironically, and perhaps the sole redeeming feature of their version pertains to the section “There’s no evidence that performance related pay works as an incentive for teachers / improves outcomes” – it comes with the note “the DfE has not provided us with evidence that absolutely refutes this challenge”. Here we are invited to ‘Discuss’ which seems preferable to ‘True’ or ‘False’, or even its classification as ‘myth’ in the DfE’s own version. Not that discussion is invited anyway. And if my concerns about politicisation are still regarded as wanting, read this: “Schools that fail to use the staff budget to differentiate appropriately between high and low performers could receive adverse judgements from Ofsted”. Something else to add to the slippery activities of  the Gove stable?

One would think all this constitutes a pretty poor foundation for a training course but, hey, it’s the law isn’t it, so let’s not bother questioning it and just get on with our duty to implement it. Not that enthusiasm for PRP was lacking. I’d hesitate to wear my geographer’s hat here but this was North Yorkshire (Harrogate to be precise) after all.

We were asked what we hoped we’d get from the session. For me I would like to have been convinced PRP was a good thing and that we could identify reasonable criteria for what good looks like. Which is another way of saying that discussion on PRP might just get us back to the question that there never seems time to ask, never mind time to try and answer: what constitutes a good education? Which has to be the most fundamental question in education ever. Surely, you can’t have criteria if you don’t have the values, aims and objectives that proceed them? Not a chance of any discussion on that either. Makes no wonder I’m going [increasingly] grey. What we are treated to is, yes, you’ve guessed it: more SMART targets; and the assumption again that the world of education is infinitely measurable.

Citing the evidence that performance-based systems lead to perverse performative behaviours (typically the ‘picking of low-hanging fruit’, teaching to the test, and a focus on those pupils that will get you over the line, often to the detriment of those assumed well above it or assumed to have no chance of achieving it) I am countered by those who re-articulate my stance as a slight on teachers’ integrity. No sense that these behaviours might have structural causes and be reasonably ascribed as structural violence. At least the integrity gibe is consistent with the paradigm that this whole story sits within: individualisation. Which makes me appreciate more my learning at the #edufoucault conference (see Twitter feed); there are mirrors everywhere in neoliberalism. One might reflect back the question of integrity to those whose defence is “I’m just doing my job, governor (sic.)”.

Perhaps now we get closer to understanding the ideological influences at work here and the real aims behind all this – that this is little to do with school improvement and more so to do with the desires of ideologues to destroy workplace solidarity (a point Zygmunt Bauman makes forcefully in several of his books). This social, collective, collaborative, cooperative dimension is, in my judgement (and that of many others), precisely the thing that makes for a good school. Ethos is a social concept. Solidarity, and the power of the masses, as Barbara Ehrenreich’s anthropological study of the demise of carnival shows, is considered a threat to the power of elites and must be mitigated at all cost. Forgive again what might be considered a further digression but I’d say it’s the myopia in our own scientific method that seems to inhibit awareness. The lack of appreciation of these social dimensions will make things worse not better. In practice, consider the challenge of attributing effect to an individual’s action. What of the aim to counteract bullying; whilst reasonably evidenced within the institution, you’d be hard pressed to make the necessary linkages to a particular teacher’s targets such that their performance-related pay is triggered.

In conclusion, I’d venture that the prize for the proponents of these regimes is not a better education for our children but, pure and simple, more control. Which only goes to show that the semantics of the age: flexibility, freedom, responsibility, participation etc. are anything but authentic. I’m left, as a half-baked philosopher, with questions of ethics. What of the welfare of the primary client (not a word about them in the NCS or governor debates); what of the question about whether we (as governors) should implement all law – is there anything we might reasonably object to and resist, even if it was the law); what of the ethical dimensions of democracies (where does the power lie)?

Final thoughts: I think there is a wonderful irony that, of my examples, and despite my framework criticisms, it was the prison of the school where a space had been created for a student to have at least some semblance of an opportunity to lead the way. I have said this before, but I’ll say it again: it’s as if (as youth work morphs into youth social work) it and school are like ships passing in the night. The progressive, democratic practices associated with the history of youth work consigned to history, whereas at least a few spaces emerge in at least some schools for something that might well pass for pretty good informal education (albeit that they tend to occur despite, rather than because of, policy).

I’m left also with the realities of discomfiture that I might upset a few folk here, but find also some solace in the words of George Bernard Shaw: “In this world if you do not say a thing in an irritating way you may just as well not say it at all, because people will not trouble themselves about anything that does not trouble them, (as quoted in footnote* by Boff Whalley). Which reminds me of something else that I did that day and that he and I have in common: we’re both fell runners. Boff waxes lyrical about fell running not just as a past-time (as if, only, to pass the time) but also as a recreation; a process by which we can re-create ourselves. Which reminds me also of something I once heard Bauman say: “the time you enjoy wasting is not time wasted”. Perhaps these two perspectives have something in common; autonomy and self-determination. Just as fell running is as free as one can get from oppressive rules and regulatory frameworks (particularly in its non-competitive form) so too we might imagine education as an unbounded space wherein learners have the opportunity to create and experience things rather than merely consume that that has been preordained by others and performance managed into existence whether we like it or not.

Comments Off on Lies, damn lies, sugar, and statistics.

Lies, damn lies, sugar, and statistics.

Posted August 9th, 2013 in Blog by admin

Of course I’m interested in sugar, and particularly how much my boys consume. I’m long since convinced that it’s likely to do me, and them, more harm than fat. But there I go in what for me is a greater interest: it’s the ‘likely’ bit – the extent to which any of this is reasonably certain, or not, as the case may be. Alex Renton does a good job of articulating the issues about sugar in “The Demon Drink”,  but for someone whose been doing a lot of work on ‘data’ recently (in preparation for a presentation at the Federation for Detached Youth Work’s annual conference in November entitled “Detached Youth Work in an era of Big Data”) I’m not sure it helped me much. A bit nerdy I know but I ended up counting his use of related terms. There were six uses of the word ‘may’, one ‘perhaps’, one ‘expected’, one ‘believes’ (in preference perhaps to ‘know’), one ‘probably’, one ‘can’ (in preference perhaps to ‘will’) and one equally ambiguous ‘the charge is’. In sum (isn’t that the point about the floating concept of data – it’s become something measurable and quantifiable?) what reads as something certain is anything but.

I repeat again, I’m convinced about sugar, but I’m fascinated more by uncertainty and the extent to which political and economic cultures are increasingly informed by the, so-called, predictive sciences. Doubtless, there’s something of the spectre of litigation that see journalists self-censoring when it comes to a whole range of sensitive and controversial issues. And whilst this is probably a good thing [see I’m infected by these language games also] there’s certainly a down-side; science is denigrated through the language of scienticism. Renton refers to ‘Cod Science’ (is this a derivative of ‘cods wallop’, implying bullshit, or something more to do with things being simply popular?). He quotes David Colquhon’s Improbable Science blog as its scourge, where Colquhon says: “Bugger all is known with certainty about the effects of diet on health. That’s why so much is written about it. The whole problem is that it’s all correlational stuff – there’s no causality proven.” But how does this help those wishing to make informed decisions as they make their way in the world? What do we know, and what don’t we know?

I can hear Donald Rumsfeld somewhere in the background. I prided myself in thinking that what he said was reasonable but continue to remind myself that he, like other proponents of this ‘language’ regard it primarily as a tool for politics. Lynton Crosby has to get a mention here in his smooth talking, which masquerades for what others call ‘wedge’ and ‘dog-whistle’ politics. My preference is for Ray Tallis. He fleshes out scienticism in Aping Mankind: the use of language that purports to be science in order to convince people of an argument’s veracity. Tallis’s tome cannot be seen in the same light as a surfeit of recent books on this theme. From The Norm Chronicles to Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction, despite arguments to the contrary therein, the psychological moves made seem to validate the idea that pretty much all can be predicted.

Closer to home for me, especially in the youth social work I’m interested in, I continue to be haunted by the statement that got me interested in all this. Page 1 of the 2008 Youth Crime Action Plan contained the bold as brash statement: “Increasingly we know how to identify these young people early on – in particular how they tend to come from a small number of vulnerable families …”. I can remember feeling the blood drain out of me on the basis that we were now entering a new era of politics that really did believe it could predict the future. In this case, confidently asserting who would go on to live a life of crime.

Forays into the literature on risk, and even epidemiology, consolidated my sense that we should all just hang-on a little bit and think this through. Certainly I concluded we were living in extraordinary times. I went on to conceptualise ‘at riskism’ as the new prejudice, an idea that met with a resigned nod amongst the many youth workers and social workers I have presented it to. I challenged them to think on as to how many social policies are affected in this way. Consider the ‘criteria’ for being a ‘Troubled Family’? And the validation of increased ‘early intervention’ based on ‘at risk factors’. Whilst Nudge theories were in their ascendancy during this period the same Action Plan, and the numerous policy documents it seemed to spawn, went further, impelling workers to engage in ‘assertive outreach’ and ‘offer non-negotiable support’ – as if such a thing could ever, reasonably, be regarded as an offer.

This confidence in knowing the future is big business. Consider Obama’s $100m Brain Science Project and investment in predictive policing (has there ever been a better self-fulfilling prophecy?). But maybe politicians are even getting tired with this, and having to defend their arguments at all, whether with science, scienticism, or spurious evidence. IDS, when challenged on Radio 4 recently to provide an evidence base or some such other rationale for his welfare reform policies, felt a logical fallacy was sufficient. The sooner Gove puts philosophy on the curriculum the better, me thinks. Shifting the burden of proof won’t wash in this game; it can never be reasonable to argue, as IDS did, “you can’t disprove what I say.” As if something is reasonably believed until such time as evidence refutes it. ‘tis the onward march of ‘evidence-free policy’, as Polly Toynbee has coined it.

The Norm Chronicles’ authors, Blastland and Spiegelhalter, do at least give us some examples of where we can lose all reasonableness when it comes to considering risk and chance, therein reminding us of the uncertainties. Personally, I’d want to take a qualitative, rather than quantitative, view of uncertainty. Perhaps we might value these uncertainties more highly. They might do us more good than harm, in that they impel us to distinguish between science and philosophy (or ideology) and engage democratically with one another in the social practices of ethical debate and critical enquiry. So much, it seems to me at least, is better dealt with by thinking through what we should do rather than kowtowing to what politically-motivated scienticism claims as the blindingly obvious.