Every Child/Youth Matters: a programme for welfare reform
What difference has the Every Child Matters agenda made so far? Christine Hough shares her research findings.
This paper concerns the findings from research for a Pilot Study, conducted as part of my PhD studies in May 2006, across three local authorities in England, in both rural and inner city locations. The findings are the fruit of a series of loosely structured interviews with young people, case workers, middle and senior managers who worked in or were in the care of the different agencies of education, social care, health and youth justice within the local authorities.
This Study was designed to find data to inform my future research and direct a more sharply focused, final study. My research proposal also considers the government’s aims for the Every Child Matters /Youth Matters (ECM/YM) programmes, which address the gaps in achievement between children on different levels of the socio-economic continuum.
Much has already been written, and will continue to be written, about the rationale for the Every Child Matters programme, so I will not dwell on the familiar tragedies of Baby Peter and Victoria Climbié. I have a deep interest in the underlying principles that have led to the introduction of the ECM/YM programmes because of my professional background. I have been a teacher and manager in schools for over thirty years (and I still do supply teaching). I worked as an Ofsted inspector from 2001 – 2005 and I currently work in schools as an educational consultant for the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).
My research interest was sparked by my interest in how the sweeping changes proposed through ECM/YM were going to be implemented. My research also led me to an interest in the wider dimensions of social policy and how changes in this area are affecting working practice.
The main purpose of this article is to share the findings from my research and the questions they pose about the effectiveness of the ECM/YM programmes since they were introduced. One of my intentions was – and still is – to ground my writing and research firmly in the field of the workers, managers, children, parents and young people who are the direct recipients of the ECM/YM agendas. These findings are drawn from original data and are in no way shaped around or attributable to what the legislation and government documentation tells us should be happening.
The Pilot Study research data gave me three key findings, or hypotheses, which I have used to structure my final research study. These hypotheses relate to the original, overarching categories for research that I identified from my first literature review. These were: integrated services (one of the central issues of the government’s original Green Paper, ‘Chief Secretary to the Treasury’, 2003) and school improvement, which relates closely to the aims of the ECM agenda.
My three hypotheses encapsulate the key issues, concepts and categories that arose directly from my interview transcripts and so they are grounded in the “language of the research situation” (Glaser and Strauss 1967, p. 107). My Pilot Study findings have led me to a further literature review that contributes to the political and social context of the ECM/YM programmes for change, which are reflected in the changes to social policy that have taken place over the last twenty years.
The Labour Party’s “third way” agenda was instrumental in bringing about a shift in thinking that made a significant contribution towards driving the “transformational” (DfES, 2005, p.11) changes to social policy that are championed in the ECM/YM programmes. These programmes for change address the inequalities of “old way” social democracy, through a modernising agenda, where public services that are delivered locally, become more user-centred - or more “needs-driven” rather than “supply-driven.”
One significant element of the Labour party’s “third way” government is its declared commitment to acting in partnership with agencies to foster community renewal and development. Nowhere has this aim been more clearly declared than within the ECM/YM documentation, evident in the emphasis placed on multi-agency working, and the need to involve “other schools….culture, sports and play organisations and the voluntary and community sector” ((DfES 2004, p. 12).
So are Labour’s proposed welfare reforms, through the ECM/YM agendas introduced in 2003/4, delivering a more user-centred provision for children, young people and their families? It is questions like this that I am exploring in my research. Do the most vulnerable now have their needs considered and assessed more effectively?
There are now many experimental opportunities and programmes in place intended to serve as the mechanisms through which the aims and vision of the Every Child/Youth Matters programmes are being delivered, (such as Sure Start and Extended Schools). Are these working - in terms of narrowing the achievement gap and providing a more effective delivery of integrated services for children, young people and their families? My research findings highlight aspects of provision that cut across the agencies and give emphasis to issues that arise from front line experiences.
The three main hypotheses from my research findings are:
Hypothesis 1. The intelligent use of “hard” and “soft” data (by the different agencies) helps to:
i. pinpoint/identify need and vulnerability amongst children, young people and their families
ii. provide a meaningful evaluation of, or judgement about, children and young people’s achievement.
My research shows that the ECM/YM programmes have certainly raised awareness, within the welfare agencies, of the heightened need to support the most vulnerable children, young people and their families through effective, integrated services. However, the research data also shows that the actual process of identifying these hard-to-reach groups does not necessarily guarantee that the neediest are identified.
In one local authority from the Pilot Study, the agencies of youth justice and education worked together to identify isolated pockets of pressing need within the community that hitherto had not been recognised. This was achieved through the use of a new set of indicators that recognised many different forms of vulnerability. These went beyond those identified through the “hard” or measurable indicators prescribed by the government and included aspects such as bereavement or separation anxieties and engagement with the family. A whole new framework of indicators was pioneered that identified a number of families who clearly had need of support, but historically had not “scored” the requisite number of indicators to trigger support. If significant degrees of vulnerability are not being identified with these indicators, are they supporting the fundamental aims of the EMC/YM programmes?
These performance indicators also contribute to the criteria used by the regulatory authorities to make judgements about the provision of the different agencies. If the indicators are not probing children and young people’s needs sufficiently, judgements made about provision (across the agencies) may not be providing a true assessment of what is being achieved.
It might be that successful outcomes of provision are being missed (and, similarly, inadequate outcomes misinterpreted), because the quantifiable outcome is what is measured, not the underlying factors that might be qualitative – but no less significant. Multi-agency workers in one authority told me that there was no “box” they could tick that corresponded to demonstrable success such as providing a continuous, stable education for those looked after children whose adoptive parents had moved away from the catchment area of their school. Against all the odds, the service professionals had managed to maintain a child’s education and therefore ensure stability, but were unable to record this.
Hypothesis 2. Support that is accurately targeted at the most vulnerable children and young people enables the effective integration of services to support them and helps to monitor the circumstances that might make them vulnerable.
Where support for children, young people and their families is targeted to match their levels of vulnerability, there is evidence of an effective integration of services and early intervention. This is evidence of a multi-disciplinary approach to providing welfare services that are driven by need, not supply. Targeted support also monitors the most vulnerable people and helps them avoid other causes of vulnerability such as mental health issues, alcohol and drugs.
If this type of targeted support is triggered by indicators such as those prescribed by the government (see Hypothesis 1, above) it poses a further question. Are those children and young people who are not at the extremes of need receiving less effective support from the universal services, which are not targeted in the same way? Could this mean that the quality of welfare support provided to children and young people through the ECM/YM programmes is actually favouring those identified as most vulnerable - and failing to support “the rest”?
Hypothesis 3. The way agency teams are structured and how and why they meet directly affects how information on children, young people and their families is used to structure support for them. Teams that meet regularly and have a full representation across the agencies exchange and use information effectively, to trigger support and early intervention.
Where multi-agency teams meet to identify the most vulnerable children and young people, early intervention can be implemented, to prevent those children from getting into trouble. The way teams are structured can be a real strength – if they facilitate effective sharing of information about children and young people. In one of the authorities, a senior manager in the YOT (youth offending team) explained that, while the different services had taken the ECM/YM agendas on board in principle, the lines of communication between the agencies were poor. One of the difficulties this created for the YOT team was in creating a joint approach – with the other agencies - to manage support for the young people on YOT programmes. Many of the children and young people were not in school and getting into trouble in their foster placements or residential care homes.
In another authority, the youth offending team invites people from the police, housing workers, teachers, welfare officers and social workers to sit on a multi-agency team, convened to monitor a group of the most vulnerable young people within its boroughs. These young people are not in the youth offending system, but the team’s purpose is to prevent them from becoming offenders - through targeted support and early intervention.
Conclusions and questions for further research
1. Measuring performance through national indicators ensures a compliance with at least minimal standards. Is this good enough? The way children, young people and their families are assessed for vulnerability can mean many are missed because they do not press the right ‘buttons’ that trigger support. The indicators on which judgements (of providers) are based are mostly quantitative, referring to prescribed, centralised targets (HM Government, 2007). Is this also the case when authorities carry out an assessment of need for children and young people? (At no time during the Pilot Study did I come across the use of the CAF - Common Assessment Framework - as a common means of assessing children’s needs.)
2. There might be children and young people in receipt of universal welfare services that are less effectively integrated than those supporting the most vulnerable and needy. What exactly is it about targeted support that makes these integrated services more effective – and why should there be a difference between targeted and universal services?
3. The findings of Hypothesis three represent an interesting insight into the issue of sharing information across the agencies. They could represent a conflict with the government’s exhortation of local authorities to implement a national database of children’s details that would: “Help practitioners quickly identify a child they have contact with, and to check whether that child is getting the universal services… that he or she is entitled to” (Children Act, 2004). Merely exhorting agencies to work together will not bring about the changes required for truly effective joined up thinking and working. There are many cultural and professional complexities that surround working and sharing information across the boundaries of the education, health, social services and youth justice teams. Perhaps we should be asking what the key factors are that contribute to the effective sharing of and – more importantly using - information about children and young people. What information is needed to implement effective support for them?
My research data identifies effective multi-agency groups that are constructed specifically for the purposes of identifying vulnerability and for sharing information about a group of vulnerable young people. This is all grounded in localised groups of professionals who have a comprehensive knowledge about the children, young people and families they are discussing. Such a concept would seem to be in direct opposition to the government’s proposals for a national database/Contact Point, which seems to still be in the stages of inception.
Christine Hough was a teacher and Ofsted inspector before she completed her PhD at the University of Cumbria. She thanks Professor Hilary Cooper, her PhD supervisor, for her support.
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