Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bonds and bridges (glue and oil): "Aspiration and attainment amongst young people in deprived communities" - *or* 'They're at it again'.

The NSPCC series will have to wait another day, I'm afraid: I didn't realise it was such a huge issue. I took a thick wodge of printouts about it to bed with me last night and still haven't got through them all. If you were eagerly anticipating it, I'm sorry. Bear with me: it will begin tomorrow, I promise. Mañana.

But today I'm going to tell you about something else I've recently come across on my travels: Aspiration and attainment amongst young people in deprived communities: Analysis and discussion paper: December 2008 [opens pdf] from our old friends, the Social Exclusion Task Force. I don't know about you, but to me the words 'Social Exclusion Task Force' make me think of something military. Didn't we send a Task Force to the Falkland Islands, to deal with the Argentinians? I think the choice of title is no accident: we who are happy to 'get by' - who don't harbour a not-so-secret desire to 'get on' (their choice of words, not mine) are the new enemies of UK society.

So, guess what this is all about? (The clue is in the title.) Bonds and bridges, or glue and oil. If you're not a social scientist, or you haven't been reading my blog since 2005, you might still be wondering what it's all about. But before I explain, I just want to refer you to my 2006 post on poverty, in which I explain that some of us choose not to devote our lives to the frantic pursuit of more wealth, shock horror. Why would we want to make this choice? Because we know that enough really is *enough*, and that time spent with our families is more important than anything else and therefore must take priority. Anyone who has ever harvested their own food knows how infinitely more pleasureable it is to an online shop at Tesco's and that having the time to care for one's family, house and possessions is vital for social and mental good health. I've explained in various posts how well home education works on a low budget: in fact it has directly created the challenges that led to my sons developing the skills they needed to set up their new business. [There, it's had its daily plug. We will get it further up those search engines! Hmmm. Does that contradict the rest of the paragraph? No, they only want a few jobs a week to break even. They don't want it to take over their world.]

It's a nicer life, in my opinion. It works better than the other kind for those of us who choose it, or we'd be making different choices. But of course, we don't do much to help the great money-go-round, do we? So we must be eliminated, hence the Task Force. There are no pictures of sweet smiling children on this document: it means business. But here is the summary of key findings:

  • Young people’s aspirations and those of their parents influence their educational attainment and later life outcomes. 11-14is a key age range, when young people move from idealistic to more realistic ambitions.
  • Young people are more likely to achieve positive outcomes when they develop ambitious, achievable aspirations, combined with the self-esteem, self-efficacy, information and inspirationthey need to persevere towards their goals.
  • Aspirations vary by gender, ethnicity, social class and area. White boyshave the lowest aspirations. Their educational attainment is also failing to improve at the rates of most otherethnic groups.
  • Parents are the most important influence on children. However, young people and their parents are also influenced bythe people and places where they live.
  • Communities matter. Young people in certain types of neighbourhood are less likely to develop ambitious, achievable aspirations. These neighbourhoods tend to have high levels of deprivation.
  • However deprived communities are not all the same. Young people in some very deprived communities have high aspirations.
  • Certain community characteristics are associated with low aspirations – such as close knit social networks, a sense of isolation from broader opportunities and a history of economic decline. High levels of bonding social capital and low levels ofbridging social capital* can restrict young people’s horizons and access to opportunities.
  • These communities often have lower levels of educational attainment than might be expected given their level of deprivation.
  • Evidence suggests that a locally-tailored behavioural change approach could be effective in shifting attitudes, changing behaviours and improving outcomes. This would mobilise the community around the goal of doing the best for their young people. It would provide a new model for constructive local partnership working.

  • *Bonding social capital – characterised by strong bonds (or “social glue”) among group members such as close friends and family; Bridging social capital – characterised by weaker, less dense but more cross-cutting ties (“social oil”) (Putnam, 1995)

You can see in the asterixed point at the end there, what is meant by bonds and bridges (glue and oil). Bonds, or glue - that is: "close knit social networks" or "close friends and family" are bad, whereas bridges, or oil - that is: "weaker, less dense but more cross-cutting ties", are good. Bonds are natural, intrinsic, organic and free. Bridges are artificial, extrinsic, inpersonal and usually very expensive. You usually need to be packing a portfolio in some kind of Social Studies in order to be allowed to form a social bridge with someone. Forming a bond is easy: you only have to give birth to them, or to their parents, or to live next door to them or down the street, or just be their good friend or family member: one of their tribe, if you like. So you know the person and you're part of the general background that makes them feel safe and secure and gives them a sense of belonging. But this is bad, because safe, secure people with senses of belonging don't usually feel the need to prove themselves academically. So bonds must be broken, so that bridges can be laid. (I wrote about it in more detail here, and was chatting to an Italian lady yesterday who was wondering why we're so anti-family here in the UK. Our little children are in paid care, our old people are in paid care. What went wrong? You might well ask, I told her.)

Notice also in that list, the careful insertion of the words 'outcomes', 'deprivation' and 'aspirations'. We might read 'positive outcomes' and think of young people achieving their own goals in life. This is the way we're supposed to read it, but of course its true meaning refers to the Every Child Matters five outcomes instead. 'Deprivation' makes you think of starving, deep impoverishment - not of the cheerfully contented and thrifty kind of lifestyles at which it's actually aimed. And 'aspirations' are the state-approved variety only. If you have aspirations to earn money without qualifications, those aspirations do not count. In fact, they're part of the problem.

But we need some kind of illustration to liven things up a bit. Here's one:

Cultural capital framework

That's the 'cultural capital framework'. And:

A behaviour change approach may be effective in shifting the aspirations and broader attitudes that can prevent young people from fulfilling their potential.

That 'fulfilling their potential' term refers to a person's financial worth, not any other kind.

Do we want to persevere with this, or shall I get back to the NSPCC stuff? I know, it's that that you really want.. Well, I just want to read the section on 'What works'. Oh, first: 'Communities matter'. Yes, they do to the people who live in them, thanks. But it doesn't mean that. It means 'communities make a difference regarding the number of qualifications a young person wants to get.' And:

Classified neighbourhoods

What kind of neighbourhood is yours? I'm not sure where mine fits in. Our street contains some social housing, some private rented, some owner-occupied, some detached houses, some semis, some terraces. A completely eclectic mix of buildings and residents. But people tend to happily stay here for decades, so I guess we'd be an 'Isolate area'. *Sucks teeth in manner of plumber called out to estimate a 'simple' job..*

Northern towns even have their own special section:

Area characteristics

Traditional northern town:
This case study area is a suburb of a northern ex industrial town with a 97% white British population. The area was previously one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country, but has improved in recent years. However, it still has a high rate of worklessness. There is one local secondary school for 11-16 year olds, which offers full extended services. The vast majority of young people in the local area attend this school. The proportion of pupils achieving 5 A*-C GCSEs (including Maths and English) is 10% lower than the national average. People in this area have a shared memory of a time of strong social ties and sense of community linked to the old mining and steel industries. Parents seemed to know their neighbours well, although they sometimes struggled to identify with other groups including ethnic minority groups, teenagers and the elderly living in the area. The local community was viewed by professionals and residents as close knit and cohesive. Many of the parents had been to the local secondary school and kept the same friends they had known at school. Young people presented a very localised view of their social connections, with mental maps focused on home, extended family, school, the local shops, park and friends. A high proportion of households in this area have no car. All of the parents had positive aspirations for their children’s futures. However, some felt that they lacked the material resources to give their children wider experiences or take up extra curricular activities. Some felt that they lacked the connections and advantages that make it easier for affluent children to become successful. Professionals had their own common narrative about the local community, describing a ‘programmed sense of acceptance’ that was ingrained by narrow experiences. Some professionals felt that these assumptions about the community were themselves reinforcing negative attitudes. Housing and local jobs were also raised as important influences on the local community’s attitudes.
Most young people associated occupational success with moving away from the area. Vulnerable young people depicted the local area as a barrier to their success with negative peer pressures and a lack of opportunities influencing their self esteem and ambitions. The impact of negative labelling was seen as a huge barrier to engendering a proud and aspiring common identity. However, the external and internal association of the area with the negative economic consequences of losing major industrial employers is being gradually challenged by a positive, aspirational and challenging vision at the local authority strategic level.

No car! Imagine. When you read the 'professionals opinions' in there, you can almost see the crow bar, can't you?

Strong local networks are often a source of empowerment, strength and support. However they can also constrain individuals to familiar choices and locations. Bonding networks may predispose individuals to eschew experiences that might build other forms of social capital and precipitate change (Raphael-Reed et al, 2007).

Is it only my jaw on the floor there?

And here's an 'overview of national initiatives':

Overview of national initiatives

'Nuff said. Back to the NSPCC.

(And just in case you're wondering how I manage to home educate whilst doing all of this, we've got Zara (past compulsory education age) facilitating Lyddie's IT today, and Ali is currently outside watering the flowers with the baby. It's that social glue, you see. It has its uses.)


Blogger cosmic seed said...

Wow! So now Blairs idea that people should move house regularly - ie every few years makes sense.Regarding the transport network *oop north* I find it's far superior to the useless, almost non-existant one we had *dahn sarf*. Give me the north any day - we actually quite like that glue stuff.

11:50 am, March 12, 2009  
Blogger Gill said...

Yes, it was Tony Blair's September 2006 lecture on social exclusion [cached] to JRF, who had produced a lot of the 'evidence' for this agenda, that made me realise how important it was going to be.

I came across it again last month in the EU policy docs from about ten years ago, in which it played a starring role.

I prefer glue to oil too, any day :-)

12:29 pm, March 12, 2009  
Blogger thenewstead6 said...

"11-14is a key age range, when young people move from idealistic to more realistic ambitions. "

Well, you see, that's where I'll have to beg to differ with the illustrious (ahem) writers of the report. I don't WANT my kids to EVER move from idealistic to "realistic" ambitions. Because I suspect that "realistic" means drudgery, boredom, a job just for the sake of the money to pay a mortgage and have those kids that you are only having (kids) because everyone else does...

I am trying to raise my boys to understand that they can be, do, have, reach whatever they want to. It's their choice. It's their future. They can write whatever storyline they want. Why is "ideal" the opposite of "real"? Why do we persist in this country to raise generations believing that it is not "real" to have an "ideal" life. Ideal just means whatever YOU chose. Your idea. Your definition of success.
Grrrr.. don't get me started!

1:04 pm, March 12, 2009  
Blogger Dani said...

Thanks for this, Gill.

(Actually, I find this more interesting than the NSPCC.)

I think it's a weird definition of social exclusion if it covers people with strong community cohesion.

Seems to me that some people are at the bottom of the heap because other people have stepped on them to get to the top, and then declared that being at the top shows initiative and pluck. All this guff about people lacking aspiration is so much self-righteous baloney spouted by people whose privileged position depends on having someone to feel superior to.

3:11 pm, March 12, 2009  
Anonymous Renegade Parent said...

I watched some woman on the TV yesterday extolling the virutes of extended curriculum-led childcare for increasingly young children (2 years olds I think), using much of the terminology you highlight here. The scary thing is she genuinely believed this was the right thing for all children and parents to "get ahead in life".

Aspirations and attainments belong to the person in question, whether they relate to economic success, societal wellbeing, whatever. These things are not mutually exclusive although some people will be more driven in one direction. I would however argue that prioritising economic success without taking into account societal wellbeing would not and does not make most people truly happy in life.

The most important thing is that individuals remain in control of their aspirations and attainments at all times. If they do not adhere to this principle, then the government's wider agenda of economic growth is scuppered anyway - and everyone's miserable to boot.

Good luck to your sons. I don't believe that a strong work ethic or the pursuit of economic success have to be at odds with pursuing and supporting the more intangible fruits of family and community life - Lisa

4:59 pm, March 12, 2009  
Blogger Allie said...


It's really interesting to me that you say:
"If you have aspirations to earn money without qualifications, those aspirations do not count. In fact, they're part of the problem. "

Because I came across a piece of writing the other day that I had started in November 2006 and never finished - all about Every Child Matters. I had been doing a bit of digging to try to work out what the outcomes were about and had found some document or other that gave indicators by which they should be measured. (I never did the thorough job you have recently done and have since lost my sources...) But I remember finding something that mentioned people staring their own businesses - as an indicator of something or other! I really wish I'd finished that piece of work properly now. It interests me that it seems to have been there before but you have found no mention of it in recent documents. I wonder why?

In my book, there is no one way to live and no one successful sort of community. Some people want to live a single, urban life eating takeaway pizza and not talking to their neighbours. Other people are happy to live in the same street all their lives and thrive on extended family ties. The problems occur for people when they don't have choices and feel trapped. I believe this can happen in any sort of life. Govt cannot admit that because it would suggest that money might not actually be the same as happiness...

6:07 pm, March 12, 2009  
Anonymous Firebird said...

That last chart reminds me of the intro to Dad's Army! I can just picture those evil arrows prodding at the community making it back away into a corner.

6:39 pm, March 12, 2009  
Blogger Raquel said...

I was wondering what that chart reminded me of!

8:47 pm, March 12, 2009  
Blogger Gill said...

Ann, I quite agree.

Dani, I'm more interested in this too, but there are some connecting links, as Elaine GH discovered. I'll be posting more about that in due course!

Lisa, thanks for your good luck wishes and these are very wise words, IMO:

"The most important thing is that individuals remain in control of their aspirations and attainments at all times. If they do not adhere to this principle, then the government's wider agenda of economic growth is scuppered anyway - and everyone's miserable to boot."

Allie, what a pity you lost that piece! Business entrepreneurialship is mentioned in the ECM framework and heavily features in the missives from the EU, but is not pushed as part of the UK agenda at the moment, I quite agree - possibly because it's at odds with the 'everyone must have a degree' mentality. Your last paragraph definitely chimes with me.

Firebird, ROFL! And Raquel, me too! It's so obvious now..!

3:27 pm, March 13, 2009  
Blogger mamacrow said...

'Many of the parents had been to the local secondary school and kept the same friends they had known at school.'

and there I was thinking that was a good thing... Does the goverment now NOT want us to have a healthy EQ?

9:48 pm, March 13, 2009  
Blogger Riaz said...

What a complete nonsense of a report. It makes me wonder what runs through the minds of our senior politicians and civil servants.

If there is one thing that economically depressed communities need it is more autonomy and the ability to take control over their own destiny. They don't need more lecturing or control freakery from big government and big business. Many 'poor' areas are only poor because of all the money that flows out of them and into central government coffers in the form of taxes.

11:46 am, March 16, 2009  

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