‘Deep hanging out’ with young people improves services

NicoleLocal government exists to make life better for local people and in order to do this effectively it is imperative to listen to our citizens, and be active and responsive. This is particularly true when it comes to services for children and young people in care.

Traditionally, outcomes for these citizens are often less good than their peers. Recent statistics show that just 13.2% of children who have been in care for six months or more left school with five GSCEs grades A*- C compared with 57% of all children.  Too often we find there is a culture of low expectation for children in care. So how can councils become more responsive and nurturing to those who are most vulnerable?

At Derbyshire County Council we’ve been working with Nesta through its Creative Councils programme to readdress our approach to building relationships with children and young people in care. To truly understand the realities of experiencing life as a child in our care, we have been employing different methods of engagement including the practice of ethnography.

Ethnography is a qualitative research method which has been around for decades but is rarely used in local government in the UK. It involves ‘deep hanging out’, and in our case researchers observed and immersed themselves in the lives of children and young people in our children’s residential homes.

We have learned that what young people tell us, when asked, is often different from the reality of their lived experience. Traditional consultation methods only tell us so much about what really matters, yet many councils rely on this data, which can be detrimental to providing truly effective services.

At first I was rather reluctant to take up the practice as we regularly engage with children and ask them about their experiences. However we soon realised through ethnography that children sometimes tell you what they think you want to hear and it’s only when you step into their worlds that you see and understand what is really going on. By employing ethnography we’ve been able to gain new insights into how our services need to evolve, particularly in the area of money management.

For the past couple of months we have been trialling a new approach to how money for young people is now accessed. A new ‘endowment’ is currently being tested, which gives young people the opportunity to develop their own life plans through a financial endowment, managed with a key adult.

Shaped by the young person and those that know them best, the endowment has the potential to put relationships at the heart of improving outcomes for children in care and helps the council to provide a nurturing, responsive and personal parenting role with each child, where bureaucracy is minimised.

The feedback we have been receiving so far has been very positive. A young person recently reported that he feels more in control of his finances and what he chooses to spend his money on. He also feels there are no barriers between him and his carers. Although the outcomes are still to be measured we are optimistic that the returns in the long run will be successful.

Transforming the relationship between the council and children in care has also involved shifting the culture of the organisation in its widest sense, and the application of ‘social pedagogy’ has been central to this. Social pedagogy is a mindset about education and it provides a conceptual framework for the upbringing of vulnerable young people which is based on a holistic approach by staff and carers. Key aspects of how the council provides parents for children in care was highlighted by undertaking ethnography, and social pedagogy responds to this by providing a new focus on the relationship between the children and the adults that care for them.

Traditionally local government has been sceptical of social pedagogy but there is now a national demonstration programme being run by the Fostering Network to show the effectiveness of social pedagogy in the UK. This follows the success of social pedagogy projects recently implemented in Scandinavian countries like Sweden and also in parts of Scotland.

We have been adopting this approach in children’s residential homes in Derbyshire. It has helped to transform living environments for young people and most importantly provide a visible and positive change in the way adults work with the young people in their care.  Young people now have more control over their lives and the environment where they live. They are now cooking with their carers and are able to decorate their houses with them. By participating in joint activities like these carers and children are able to forge better relationships based on trust, respect and mutual understanding.

Derbyshire’s social pedagogy journey also continues through a unique partnership with the University of Derby where we have created an academic course dedicated to social pedagogy – the first of its kind in the UK. Many of our staff are now being taught on the programme and we believe this approach will enable us to focus more holistically and effectively on the upbringing of our children.

Local government can really benefit with being more in touch with those it is there to serve, not just when it comes to children’s services but across the spectrum of council provision, from housing to health and recreational services. In order to do this we can learn from ethnography and social pedagogy practices which were perhaps often overlooked in the past or too easily rejected. In the long run this thinking will help to make local government services more effective, engaging and ultimately will help to drive down costs and to make the lives of its citizens’ happier ones.

  • For more information on the Creative Councils programme and the other four Councils click here. 


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