Bernard Davies welcomes cautiously Dartington’s Inquiry into young people and multiple disadvantage

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Bringing Everything I Am Into One Place: An Inquiry into how we can all better support young people facing severe and multiple disadvantage – Summary Report

Dartington Social Research Unit/Lankelly Chase, published June 2015

Given the Dartington Social Research Unit’s high profile on the website of the Centre for Youth Impact – that government-funded driver for ‘hard outcomes’ – I came to this report with a degree of scepticism. Not total, as I had been much impressed by the honesty and realism of Nic Axford’s April 2015 blog post ‘Youth work and evidence-based practice: world’s apart?’ But cautious nonetheless, given that the Unit seems to have so embraced the outcomes agendas – and that Nic himself carries the title of ‘Head of “What Works”’!

Some of my scepticism, I have to say, seems justified – particularly for me by the gaps in the report’s overall analysis of how the young people who contributed so actively to the research have ended up in the ‘multiply disadvantaged’ category. It starts challengingly enough by defining this as ‘not a condition… Rather … as something that is encountered’. Nonetheless, it sees that encounter as rooted only apparently in ‘family conflict, addiction, poverty, or lack of resources’ – highly influential features of these young people’s lives which seem to float free of any broader structural factors. Though one or two get glancing mention in the full report, the words ‘class’, ‘race’ and ‘gender’ do not show up at all in the ‘Find’ search box of the summary. Nor does ‘austerity’, or the short-hand term for the ideology which has shaped almost all UK social policies over the past three decades or so – ‘neo-liberalism’.

None of this is to downplay or devalue what the report does repeatedly highlight: young people’s ‘agency’ – the stress they themselves place on ‘their own decision-making’, that ‘they are not passive’. It is only to say that such autonomy inescapably operates within constraints which are often too tight to be prised fully open even by the most ‘resilient’ and ‘enterprising’ individual. Such blocks are likely to be experienced as particularly limiting by those who have to negotiate an ‘amount of risk (which) is more than is ordinarily encountered, even by those who live on the edges of the society’. Indeed, indirectly and implicitly the report illustrates just such limits when it talks of the young people’s feelings of ‘shame at having fallen so far and for having to ask for help’.

The report does seek to unpack what has happened more recently to the ‘public systems (which) have taken a greater role in people’s lives, and with considerable success’. Pointing to how such ‘systems systematise’, it concludes that these ‘have consistently failed those who face the most disadvantage’. It highlights for example ‘commissioners (who) place a higher premium on cost and volume than need in order to deal with restricted budgets’ with the result that ‘the majority of people with high-end needs do not get high-end services.’ While giving substantial emphasis to resultant ‘benefits of this way of thinking’, the report also spells out in some detail the downsides for multiply disadvantaged young people of a ‘reform process that have sharpened accountability, promoted the use of evidence and allowed social markets to flourish’.

What from a youth work perspective is most striking – and positive –is the report’s evidence of and emphasis on ‘(t)he power of relationships’. Though unable to resist the caveat that ‘the case can be overstated’, it nonetheless concludes:

that relationships with helpers who believe in the potential of people facing disadvantage can trigger a change for the better…strong relationships leave their mark thanks to their potential to create cognitive change, to spark a moment when the person facing disadvantage thinks, ‘It doesn’t need to be like this’… The relationship creates the idea. The young person must decide on whether to act upon it.

Moreover, emerging from this analysis are pointers to a ‘relational social policy’ which amongst other things would encourage workers’ agency, a shift in power relations between public systems and civil society organisations and ‘placing mutual benefit above narrow organisational interests.

One way of understanding open access youth work is to see engagement with young people’s ‘agency’ as one of its defining characteristics and its whole methodology as rooted in a carefully negotiated relationship-building. However, as this practice gets systematically – yes, systematically – written out of state provision, the question which this report never confronts and which it may even have failed to identified as relevant has to be asked: How can you get currently dominant policy-makers to take on the kinds of conclusions it reaches without struggling against the ‘common sense’ individualistic and competitive values which now drive their thinking – and which for example have increasingly turned ‘the multi-disadvantaged’ into ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’?

Bernard Davies

Bringing Everything I Am Into One Place – Executive Summary

Bringing Everything I Am Into One Place – Summary Report

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