The rhetoric of social mobility continues… yet disadvantaged pupils continue to fall behind

skills gap

By Heather Cameron

Despite continued investment to improve social mobility, it has been estimated that at the current rate of progress it will take 50 years to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils in England.

Recent analysis of government data shows the gap between the most disadvantaged pupils and their non-disadvantaged peers has actually worsened over the past decade.

The research, conducted by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), found that while there has been some progress in closing the gap for disadvantaged pupils (those eligible for the Pupil Premium), this has been slow and inconsistent. The gap has also been shown to vary between areas.

And, perhaps most worryingly, for pupils described as ‘persistently disadvantaged’ (i.e. those that have been eligible for free school meals for 80% or longer of their school lives), the gap has widened – leaving these pupils over a year behind their non-disadvantaged peers at the end of primary school and more than two years behind at the end of secondary school.

Widening gap

The attainment gap is evident in the early years, continuing to grow throughout school.

Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were found to be 19.2 months on average behind their peers at the end of Key Stage 4. While this represents a narrowing of the gap by 2.7 months since 2007, this is not consistent across the board. And the gap for ‘persistently disadvantaged’ pupils increased by 2.4 months over the same period.

The EPI analysis indicates that the disadvantage gap grows by five months between Key Stage 1 and 2, and by 10 months between Key Stage 2 and 4.

Persistently disadvantaged pupils are shown to fall even further behind at all phases. For them, the gap grows from six months at the end of Key Stage 1, to 12 months by the end of Key Stage 2 and 24 months by the end of Key Stage 4.

It is argued that the differential rates of progress pupils make need to be tackled to stop the gap from growing throughout the stages.

Indeed, the issue can’t be solved with a one size fits all approach, particularly as there is significant variation across the country.

Variation

The disadvantage gap between local authorities ranges from no gap to seven months in the early years, five to 13 months at the end of primary school and one month to over two years at the end of secondary.

The gap is generally smaller in London, the South and the East at around 16-18 months at the end of secondary. In comparison, the East Midlands and the Humber, the North and the South West experience a much larger gap of 22 months. The largest attainment gap was found on the Isle of Wight, where disadvantaged pupils were 29 months behind their peers on leaving secondary school.

The gap was also found to become worse in rural areas. In Cumbria and Northumberland, for example, the gap widens from nine months at the end of Key Stage 2 to over 25 months by the end of secondary.

But there is also evidence of particularly good performance and notable improvements made in recent years. In Newham, disadvantaged five year-olds perform as well as non-disadvantaged five year-olds nationally, on average. And in Richmond-upon-Thames and Windsor and Maidenhead, the gap for disadvantaged secondary school pupils has closed by over six months since 2012.

This would suggest that there is certainly potential for dramatic improvements in reducing the gap in other areas.

Government action

As an historic problem, successive governments have taken action to address it via investment and targeted interventions. The current government is also working to address the issue, including through Opportunity Areas.

The EPI suggests that while this may be a good start, there are other areas across the country that are not covered by these where “social mobility is stagnating or even worsening”. And it also highlights that the system continues to fail to meet the needs of certain vulnerable groups, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, those from Gypsy Roma or Traveller communities, and Black Caribbean children.

In addition, recent commentary from the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, raised concerns over schools focusing on exam results at the expense of the curriculum, leading to many disadvantaged children being shut out from acquiring a rich and full knowledge:

“It is a risk to social mobility if pupils miss out on opportunities to study subjects and gain knowledge that could be valuable in subsequent stages of education or in later life.”

It has been suggested that government pressure to improve performance has led to a focus on exam and test results. But Spielman argues that this is a mistake on the part of school leaders as it should “not be taken as read that higher scores for the school always means a better deal for pupils”.

Final thoughts

Clearly, while it shouldn’t be forgotten that progress has been made, a lot more needs to be done if the disadvantage gap is to close any time soon.

As the EPI concluded: “If we carry on at this pace, we will lose at least a further three generations before equality of outcomes is realised through our education system.”


If you enjoyed reading this post, you may also like our previous blogs on education-related topics.

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Tourism – is it “killing neighbourhoods”?

deck chairs at the seaside

By Heather Cameron

Today is World Tourism Day (WTD), the aim of which is “to foster awareness among the international community of the importance of tourism and its social, cultural, political and economic value.”  (United Nations)

Commencing on 27 September 1980, WTD is celebrated each year with fitting events based on themes selected by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) General Assembly. The theme for 2017 is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. The UNWTO says tourism can contribute to all three dimensions of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental – as well as the 17 UN sustainable development goals. It argues that in addition to driving growth, the tourism sector also improves the quality of people’s lives.

However, a recent wave of anti-tourism protests across Europe suggests some disagree.

Anti-tourism sentiment

Much of the focus of anti-tourist sentiment during the summer has been in Spain, where a record 75 million foreign tourists visited last year – up 10 million on 2015. Catalonia hosted more visitors than any other. Estimates suggest an extra 30 million people descended on Barcelona, where radical groups have been reported slashing tyres of rental bikes and a tour bus. The tour bus was also reportedly adorned with the slogan “tourism is killing neighbourhoods.

As the number of tourists has been growing exponentially, so too have the tensions over this surge, coupled with the impact of holiday lets on the local housing market and thus local communities.

Majorca has also experienced protests from citizens against mass tourism. Here concerns have been raised over the number of drunken visitors and the rental of apartments to non-locals, reducing the number of places for locals to live and driving up house prices.

Rising rents and the impact on the environment have been cited as of particular concern among local communities.

Social and environmental impacts

Such concern is by no means a new phenomenon.

A 2012 report on the impacts of tourism on society found that while tourism generates both wealth and jobs, it has also been seen to have negative impacts on socio-cultural values and environmental assets of host communities.

At the same time as bringing people from different backgrounds, cultures and traditions together, due to globalisation, it is argued, tourism has led to many communities losing their cultural identity and giving way to a ‘Disneyfication’ of their town or village.

And while tourism has contributed to the creation of national parks and protected areas, it has also been blamed for increased pollution. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the three main environmental issues of tourism are the depletion of natural resources, pollution and physical degradation.

It is suggested that the main problem emanating from these impacts is that the host community picks up the tab for any damages to the environment and local culture.

Tourism clearly generates a variety of consequences, both positive and negative. It is therefore something that requires careful management.  As the 2012 report concludes, “Tourism development should be part of an economic development and must be done in a manner that is sustainable.”

Sustainable tourism

The focus of this year’s World Tourism Day therefore seems particularly apt. As the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has highlighted, this provides a unique opportunity for travel and tourism to come together to address the challenges set out in the UN’s sustainable development goals, and for the sector to address the issues of climate change, physical degradation and disruption that leaders from both inside and outside of tourism consider to be of the highest priority.

Progress has certainly been made, as the WTTC has reported:

  • travel and tourism companies were 20% more carbon efficient in 2015 than they were in 2005;
  • the sector is on course to reach a target of cutting CO2 emissions by 50% by 2035; and
  • the sector is on course to reach the target of 25% reduction by 2020.

However, as the recent anti-tourism sentiment indicates, more needs to be done to manage growth in a sustainable manner.

Final thoughts

Sustainable planning and management is clearly important to ensure the long-term viability of the tourism industry. And as the sector represents 10.2% of global GDP and supports 1 in 10 jobs globally, it is too important not to get right.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like to read some of our other tourism-related articles.

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University degrees – are they worth the cost?

college graduates group

By Heather Cameron

Often cited as the best path to a successful career, university degrees continue to come under the spotlight with questions over their actual value, particularly with tuition fees now starting to increase.

Millions of young people who received their exam results last month will be weighing up their options. But what was perhaps once a fairly straightforward decision for many, is made far more complex by the modern financial burden of undertaking a degree, coupled with the availability of alternative routes without the prospect of accruing tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt in the process.

Cost

It certainly isn’t a cheap option to pursue a university degree. For 2017, many colleges/universities across the UK will be able to charge tuition fees of up to £9,250. And this doesn’t include the living costs of student life. The National Union of Students (NUS) has estimated that the average annual cost of living in England (outside of London) for students is £12,056.

Recent YouGov Omnibus research, which surveyed more than 500 current students and recent graduates, found that one in three recent graduates disagreed that the “costs of going to university were worth it for the career prospects/learning I gained”. It also identified ‘significant pessimism’ among both graduates and students over loans and whether they will ever be free of the burden of repayments during their working life. A large proportion (41%) don’t expect to ever pay off their student loan.

However, it was also noted that many recent graduates may have false expectations about how much they will have to pay back. More than four in ten (41%) said they didn’t understand how the interest rate on student loans works.

Research into the number of ‘contact’ hours a student receives over the course of their degree has been suggested to support the opinion that it is not good value for money. The average humanities student will have around 10 hours per week of scheduled ‘contact’ time in lectures and seminars, although it is often less. And there is much variation across subject areas, which is not reflected in tuition fees. According to an economics lecturer at the New College of the Humanities in London, “It certainly seems like humanities students are subsidising Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] students.”

Job prospects

In addition to the cost of doing a degree featuring in the decision to pursue this path, the employment prospects following a degree have also received attention.

A recent study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that there is a great deal of diversity among graduate earnings. While almost all institutions have graduates with earnings above the 20th percentile of the non-graduate earnings distribution, and most institutions have graduates with earnings above the non-graduate median, graduate earnings for men at more than one in 10 universities were lower than for non-graduates. And earnings for graduate women were found to be worse at nine institutions of the 166 included.

The findings also show that that graduates who came originally from wealthier backgrounds earned significantly more than their poorer counterparts ten years after graduation, even if they had studied the same course at the same institution.

This also raises questions over the value of a degree, particularly for those students from poorer backgrounds.

Having a degree certainly doesn’t guarantee a job with a competitive salary at the end of it, or indeed even a job at all as previous research has shown. Nevertheless, the IFS findings do highlight that higher education does pay for the majority, with graduates more likely to be in work and earn more than non-graduates.

Satisfaction

Satisfaction with degrees among students has shown to be relatively high overall. The latest annual Student Academic Experience Survey reveals that most students believe they are learning ‘a lot’ and perceptions of teaching quality are rising.

However, the survey also shows there continues to be a downward trend in perceptions of value, which has been highlighted as a particular concern. The percentage of students who think university is not value for money has almost doubled in the last five years.

The wellbeing of students also continues to be relatively low compared to the rest of the population and the majority oppose the high-fees model of funding.

Final thoughts

The cost of pursuing a degree along with the evidence on graduate earnings suggests that higher education may no longer be the leveller it once was perceived to be. Rather, it may appear that university degrees are once again becoming a path only for those from the richest households.

Clearly there is a lot for policy-makers to consider.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also like our previous post on graduate employment.

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The rise in youth markets – “transforming town and city centres with the creativity of young people”

16_HelenNesta-1024x768

Credit: National Market Traders Federation (NMTF)

By Heather Cameron

As we recently reported, despite being around for centuries, and following a decline during the recession, traditional retail markets have experienced something of a revival in recent years, with a new generation of innovative young traders coming to the fore.

Latest figures indicate the sector has a collective turnover of £2.7 billion a year from around 32,000 market traders – a gradual increase of around £200 million year on year since 2013.

The last five years has also witnessed the emergence of youth markets and ‘The Teenage Market’ initiative, which are generating income for young people and teaching them valuable entrepreneurial lessons, as well as transforming town and city centres.

Specialist market boom

But this revival is not wholly in the traditional sense of the market sector. Young people entering the sector tend to trade at festivals, fairs and shows rather than traditional markets, contributing to a specialist market boom.

According to a recent survey of the sector by the National Association of British Market Authorities (NABMA), new trends in the most successful product lines – hot and cold food and drink, baked goods, handmade crafts, fruit and vegetables and mobile phone accessories – have fuelled this growth.

Festivals and shows, which are popular with a younger demographic, are increasing in both size and frequency across the UK. Many of these events also take place out of the traditional season.

Such new trends do not come without their challenges, however, as NABMA’s survey also highlighted. Traders reported escalating pitch fees, poor pitch locations and never-ending paperwork. But despite these drawbacks, traders have reported huge returns at such events, where they can turn over tens of thousands of pounds.

Both NABMA and the National Market Traders Federation (NMTF) agree that the sector needs to embrace these new trends and act to engage this new generation of entrepreneurs.

Youth markets

Indeed, national initiatives in support of youth markets have emerged in recent years to do just that.

This September will see the fifth National Youth Market take place in Manchester, an annual event run by the NMTF in partnership with Manchester Markets. Young people between the age of 16 and 30 from all over the UK trade at this event, showcasing their entrepreneurial talent.

The NMTF also supports traditional market organisers to run specialist markets aimed specifically at young people. Many towns and cities from across the UK have launched their own youth markets, such as those in Manchester and Cambridge, with over 100 such events taking place every year.

Also in its fifth year, is The Teenage Marketa fast-growing national initiative that’s transforming town and city centres with the creativity of young people”. This initiative provides a free platform for young people to trade at specially organised events. In addition to the retail offer, it also provides a platform for young performers to showcase their talents

Created by two teenage brothers from Stockport to support their town’s large population of young people, The Teenage Market initiative has quickly expanded across the country with thousands of young people taking part in events. Following the success of the first event, it was quickly recognised that the initiative could play an important role in the town’s regeneration strategy; a role which was highlighted by Mary Portas in her 2011 review of high streets.

Revitalising town centres

According to Portas, “Markets are a fantastic way to bring a town to life… I believe markets can serve as fundamental traffic drivers back to our high streets.” And one of her recommendations was to build upon current successful initiatives “to help attract young entrepreneurs to markets and really start building the innovative markets of the future.”

Indeed, the positive benefits for the towns and cities running The Teenage Market events include a rise in footfall, an increase in spend in the local area and a rise in the number of visitors to their local market.

Not only this, but the fusion of retail and live performances has succeeded in attracting a new generation of shoppers and visitors to local markets, helping to breathe new life into town and city centres.

Final thoughts

In an era of online shopping and declining high streets, the fact that local markets led by a new generation of traders are flourishing can only be a good thing.

And with an ageing population of traders, it is arguably now more important than ever to encourage young traders in order to secure the future prosperity of the markets industry.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also like our previous post on street markets.

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Universal Credit – “forcing many into debt”

Jul 07 Dealing With Debt - Magnifying Glass

By Heather Cameron

“The biggest change ever made to the benefits system… is currently failing too many people and forcing many into debt.”

This is the conclusion of a new report from Citizens Advice on Universal Credit (UC). It warns that the roll-out should be paused to allow ‘significant problems’ to be fixed.

What is Universal Credit?

UC was introduced in 2013, with the aim of simplifying the benefits system, making transitions into work easier and making every hour of work pay. UC replaces six means-tested benefits and tax credits with one benefit, to be paid in arrears, as a single household payment, on a monthly basis.

The objective of UC is to help people on low incomes or not in work to meet their living costs. It affects a range of people, both employed and unemployed, disabled people with health conditions, single people, families, homeowners and renters.

Roll-out so far has been gradual but the process is to speed up considerably from October. By the end of roll-out in 2022, it is expected around 7.2 million households will receive UC, over half of which will be in work.

With such a significant number of people affected, it is imperative that the system works in their interests. But evidence from Citizens Advice suggests the system has a number of flaws that need addressing to prevent 7 million households from facing serious financial risk.

And this isn’t the first time similar conclusions have been reached.

Flaws

Back in February, a Guardian investigation found that policy design flaws in UC are pushing thousands of benefit claimants into debt. Former welfare minister Lord Freud also admitted to MPs that administrative problems and design issues with UC are causing around one in four low-income tenants to run up rent arrears, putting them at risk of eviction.

In 2016, an inquiry into UC and its implementation by the Public Accounts Committee highlighted the inflexibility of the payment systems which may cause financial hardship for some claimants.

Citizens Advice highlight three “significant problems” with UC:

  • people are waiting up to 12 weeks for their first payment without any income;
  • UC is too complicated and people are struggling to use it; and
  • people aren’t getting help when the system fails them.

The data shows that:

  • more than one in three people helped on UC by Citizens Advice are waiting more than six weeks to receive any income, with 11% waiting over 10 weeks;
  • nearly a third of people helped have to make more than 10 calls to the helpline to sort out their claim;
  • 40% of people helped said they were not aware they could get an advance payment to help with the initial waiting period for their first payment;
  • over half of the people helped borrowed money while waiting for their first payment; and
  • UC clients are nearly one-and-a-half times as likely to seek advice on debt issues as those on other benefits.

A recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation similarly highlighted the issue of waiting time, arguing that it required immediate action.

While Citizens Advice support the principles of UC, it argues that pushing ahead with roll-out while these problems remain will only put thousands more families at financial risk.

Recommendations

In response to these findings, a number of short and longer term considerations were highlighted where action will be needed to help secure the aims of UC by the end of roll-out. These include reducing the six week wait for initial payment, improving the support available for those moving onto UC, and helping people achieve financial stability on UC.

The charity recommends that the roll-out is paused while the government addresses the significant issues that have been highlighted. If improvements are not made, it is argued that both UC claimants and the government will face significant financial risks, which will increase rapidly if thousands more households move onto the benefit later this year.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous article on in-work poverty.

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Working longer – the reality ‘behind the headlines’

Senior businessman in office working on laptop

By Heather Cameron

With no shortage of headlines highlighting the record employment rate in the UK, and the increasing number of older workers widely reported, it may seem that the outlook for the ageing workforce is a rosy one. But do these headlines hide the reality?

Recent analysis from Age UK argues that the headline employment rate doesn’t tell the whole story about working longer, “making it an insufficient – and even misleading – tool for public policy decision-making”.

The statistics

The most recent official figures show that the employment rate (the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 who are in work) is the joint highest since comparable records began in 1971, at 74.8%, while the unemployment rate is the joint lowest since 1975.

Data also shows that the employment rate for people aged 65 and over has indeed increased since the 2008 recession. It is currently at 10.4%, up from 7.3% in 2008.

Age UK has also recognised the increase in employment rates for older people, noting that, in fact, the older the age group, the greater the increase in employment. However, the average number of hours worked has declined since the recession, indicating a more complex and perhaps less reassuring situation than the one portrayed in the media.

The biggest drop was for 50-54 year old men, whose average hours declined by 29%. For men aged 60-64, the average number of hours declined by 8 hours (over 22%), while women aged 50-54 experienced a fall of 18%.

The only age group not to see a decline was women aged 60-64, which is likely to be as a result of the raising of the State Pension age.

Choice or necessity?

The change in the State Pension age was justified on the grounds that it gave people more choice and more scope to continue working if they wished to.

A recent CIPD survey found that the most common reason for wanting to work past 65 is that employees believe it will help keep them mentally fit, followed by wanting to be able to earn a sufficient income to continue to do the things they enjoy.

As Age UK suggests, it may be that the reduction in working hours is a good sign if it is due to older workers choosing to wind down their hours, maybe to enable them to juggle other responsibilities such as caring for their grandchildren, while still earning a wage.

However, the research suggests it may be less through choice and more as a result of the changing labour market such as increasing underemployment (working less hours than they would choose to) or increasing insecure working practices driven by the rise in self-employment and the ‘gig economy’.

As it is likely working fewer hours will mean less income, this could be a cause for concern since it will be more difficult for older workers to maintain their standard of living until they meet the State Pension age and for them to save enough for retirement.

Another issue highlighted by the CIPD, is that most employees don’t believe their organisations are prepared to meet the needs of the over 65s, suggesting that there is a need for employers to also review their practices in terms of managing older workers.

Final thoughts

It is clear that while, for some, choosing to work beyond the traditional retirement age will be a lifestyle choice, for many it will be a necessity. Any substantial reduction in working hours for these older workers could consequently pose a real issue.

It would therefore make sense for policy makers to heed the warning from Age UK not to rely on the headline rate of employment for older workers, and rather look beyond it to the reality of many struggling to get and keep the secure, well paid jobs they want and need.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in reading our previous post on the pros and cons of the gig economy.

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Designing for positive behaviours

St Paul's Cathedral, London, England

By Heather Cameron

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” – Winston Churchill, 1943

This much borrowed saying from the former prime minister was made during the 1943 debate over the rebuilding of the House of Commons following its bombing during the Blitz. Although many were in favour of expanding the building to accommodate the greater number of MPs, Churchill insisted he would like it restored to its old form, convenience and dignity. He believed that the shape of the old Chamber was responsible for the two-party system which is the essence of British parliamentary democracy.

Indeed, it has since been widely acknowledged that the built environment has a direct impact on the way we live and work, thus affecting our health, wellbeing and productivity. A new report from the Design Commission, which opens with Churchill’s statement, is described as “a very valuable contribution” to the debate on how the design of the built environment can influence the way people think and behave, “making a healthier, happier and more prosperous and sustainable country”.

Impact of design

The report, which follows a year-long inquiry, is described as providing “solid evidence in difficult areas” on what it is in the built environment that makes people’s lives better. Evidence was gathered on four specific areas believed to be the most important to national policy:

  • health and wellbeing
  • environmental sustainability
  • social cohesion
  • innovation and productivity

It is suggested that design acts at two levels: it can affect individual choices of behaviour, which can then affect health and sustainability; and it can affect the way people are brought together or kept apart, which can then affect communication and creativity, or social cohesion.

The inquiry therefore looked into how people’s behaviour, health and wellbeing are affected by their surroundings; the role design can play in encouraging environmentally sustainable behaviours; the role design can play in social cohesion through its effects on creating or inhibiting co-presence in space; and how the design of work environments can drive innovation and improve efficiency, therefore tackling the current ‘productivity crisis’.

The evidence

The evidence highlights the built environment as “a major contributing factor to public health”. A range of public health issues, including air pollution and obesity, were suggested to be directly linked to factors within the built environment. Other recent research has similarly highlighted this link between health and urban design.

Evidence of the potential for design to positively influence sustainability behaviours, such as greater cycling and walking activity, was also highlighted, with New York cited as a good practice example.

Providing evidence on social cohesion, a senior university lecturer stated that “to divorce the physical from the social environment is inappropriate”. Other submissions referred to the “alienating effects” of various aspects of modern corporate life on civic participation, including estate management, crime and safety, the perceived negative impacts of poorly-conceived urban planning and poor or no maintenance.

Well-designed places, on the other hand, are suggested to improve access and facilitate social cohesion. Nevertheless, the evidence also noted that regardless of how well designed a place may be, “neglecting its aftercare will lead to antisocial behaviour and environmental damage.”

The relationship between the built environment and productive behaviours is supported by substantial evidence, according to the report. In the context of the UK, a lack of access to daylight and fresh air is cited as a reason for offices failing to get the best out of their workers. One study cited, indicated an increase in levels of both wellbeing and productivity in office environments with so-called ‘natural elements’.

Policy – “muddled and fragmented”

While there is evidence of good practice throughout the UK, a principal argument from the report is that more needs to be done.

Policy making for the built environment has traditionally been “muddled and fragmented”, according to the report. It suggests that there is a lack of understanding of the significance of the influence of the built environment on behaviour among policy makers at all levels and therefore makes recommendations for central government, local government and the private sector.

It argues that the relationship between government and local authorities requires reconsideration, calling for greater power at local government level.

Despite encouraging steps with regard to devolution in positively impacting behaviour and quality outcomes, such as in London, it is suggested that more can be done in terms of better collaboration between all stakeholders.

It is also noted that as national policy will be now be conducted in the context of Brexit, adaptation of the regulatory regime will be required.

Final thoughts

The key message from the Design Commission’s inquiry is evidently that the design of the built environment is particularly important in the context of current challenging times for the UK:

 “The way we design our built environment could be one of our greatest strengths in navigating the course ahead… If we get this right, we can build a Britain that is healthier, happier and more productive.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in some of our previous posts on related topics:

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Metro mayors – what is their worth?

market_townBy Heather Cameron

As voters went to the polls once again on 4th May for the local elections, six combined authorities in England saw directly-elected metro mayors chosen for the first time, as part of the government’s devolution agenda.

The six areas – Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, the Tees Valley, the West of England and the West Midlands – account for almost 20% of the population of England. This means a third of the English population, including London, now have a directly-elected metro mayor.

Advocates of the role believe metro mayors have the potential to transform both local democracy and local economies. However, not everyone is as supportive.

What are directly-elected metro mayors and what are their responsibilities?

Directly-elected metro mayors are chairs of their area’s combined authority, elected by the local population. Their role involves working in partnership with the combined authority to exercise the powers and functions devolved by central government, set out in the local area’s devolution deal. In contrast to existing city mayors, who are also directly elected, or local council leaders who make decisions for, and on behalf of, their local authorities, metro mayors have the power to make decisions for whole city regions.

The devolved powers predominantly focus on strategic matters, including housing and planning, skills, transport and economic development, with the exception of Greater Manchester, which also has powers and funding related to criminal justice and health and social care. Each devolution deal is very much tailored to the local area however, so the combined authorities will have varying powers and budgets.

The aim of metro mayors is to support local economic growth, while providing greater democratic accountability.

Concerns

While the government believes the role ensures clear accountability over devolved powers and funding, concerns have been voiced within local government itself about the accountability, effectiveness and necessity of the incoming combined authority mayors. And democratic support for the role has always been weak.

In terms of accountability, metro mayors will not be accountable to an elected assembly, as in London, but only to their cabinet made up of other council leaders. This, and their potentially wide-ranging powers have been highlighted as a concern in terms of back-room stich-up deals being created between mayors and individual authorities“.

Their introduction has also been described as “potentially worrying” as the local people were never given the opportunity to have a say on the new roles and that, instead, they are products of ‘deals done behind closed doors between councillors and representatives of central government.’

It appears rather ironic that this proposal of greater devolution may actually reflect an imposition from central government of its own policies and desires on local government.

Nevertheless, the new metro mayors do enable greater local control over local matters and have been argued to represent the best chance yet of ensuring devolution is sustainable over time. It is also likely they will get increasing powers over time, as in London.

But the question remains whether they will facilitate local economic growth and help to re-balance the English economy.

Final thoughts

Whether the new metro mayors will succeed in this aim or not, only time will tell. There has been little evidence of improved performance under elected mayors in England so far, although it has been suggested there is some evidence that their introduction has resulted in quicker and more transparent decision-making, that the mayor had a higher public profile, that the council was better at dealing with complex issues, and that there was improved relationships between partners.

Some of the successes of the London mayor have also been suggested to be an indication of the potential impact of the directly-elected mayor role.

As has recently been argued, their success, or otherwise, “should be judged on whether they improve prospects for the people who live in their city regions, stimulating growth and getting local public services working better”.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous articles on devolution:

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Who am I? The importance of life story books for looked after children

paper family on hand

By Heather Cameron

Every adopted child in the UK should have a life story book – an account of a child’s life in words, pictures and documents containing information on the child’s birth family, care placements and reasons for their adoption – which is given to them and their new family when preparing for a permanent placement.

Local authorities have a statutory duty to create life story books for all adopted children, providing them with a sense of identity and understanding of their early life before adoption. They are a well-established practice in the UK and most local authorities provide guidance on preparing them.

However, research has found that the quality of life story books varies hugely.

Variation in quality

The research, conducted by the Voluntary Adoption Agency, Coram, in collaboration with the University of Bristol, focused on adopters’ perspectives on their children’s life storybooks, which it identified as lacking from the academic literature.

Although adopters welcomed the idea of life story books, they were critical of their execution. And despite accounts of positive experiences, there was a broad consensus that:

  • many books were of poor quality;
  • children had been poorly prepared to explore their histories;
  • adoption professionals and agencies did not seem to prioritise life storybooks; and
  • adopters felt poorly prepared in how to use and update life storybooks with their children.

While 40% of adoptive parents said their books were ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, a third said they were ‘terrible’.

Issues were raised around lack of communication, opportunity to provide input and what was included in the books. One adopter said “We did not have the opportunity to discuss but what I would have said was this is rubbish – all of it is rubbish”. Another said “I can never show my daughter hers because there is stuff in there that I don’t ever what her to see”.

Another theme to emerge was an excessive focus on the birth family, foster family or social worker rather than the child, and the use of inappropriate language.

For those who regarded their books in a positive light, they believed the story was told well, was age appropriate and honest, and didn’t construct a ‘fairy tale’ that would give the child an unrealistic view.

Invaluable

For adopted children, life story books can be key to providing details of their history and background, providing continuity in their life histories and preparing them for a permanent placement.

Often, they are the only thing an adopted child has by way of personal, accurate and detailed information on their past. As one mother commented on the importance of birth photos, “It’s all they have left of their own babyhood”.

Done well, they can be invaluable, as described by one adopter:

‘a good quality life storybook builds a bridge back to that huge part of her that we didn’t see and it is her main link to her past’

It has therefore been argued that life story work should be prioritised and appropriate support provided.

Ingredients for success

Coram’s research highlighted several key things for successful life story work; one being having staff dedicated to life story work.

Bournemouth has been highlighted as an example of good practice for their life story work. Their separate adoption department appointed a dedicated family support practitioner to take on responsibility for the life story books for children adopted in Bournemouth.

In 2012, the council received an ‘outstanding’ rating by Ofsted and was named as joint adoption service of the year.

Also highlighted by the research, was that gaps in the narrative were not helpful, and support for adopters is paramount, as is training for social workers.

To improve the quality of life story work across the board, Coram’s report urges adoption agencies to make considerably better use of life story books and invest in improved training for professionals, while monitoring the quality of books produced and providing better access to support and guidance for adopters to engage in such important work with their children over time.

Bournemouth illustrates the importance of doing life story work well. And as the research concludes, “linking a child’s past and present is crucial ‘bridging’ work in enabling permanence in placements”.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous articles on kinship carers and the value of foster care.

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Hidden in plain sight – the value of green spaces

jardin public

By Heather Cameron

They may be something most of us see every day but take for granted – the area of green space we pass on our way to work or frequent in our lunch break. And although we might make use of such spaces on a regular basis, is the true value of them really understood?

As highlighted by a recent report from the Land Trust, green spaces provide even more to society than we often think about.

Wider value

It has long been recognised that green spaces provide multiple benefits to communities and wider society, but there has been limited robust evidence on their wider economic value. The Land Trust report highlights that the services delivered by soil, grass, flowers, trees and water provide society and the economy with significant benefits.

It suggests that several important functions are provided by these green spaces, including:

  • Reducing and preventing flooding
  • Cleaning our water
  • Storing and removing carbon
  • Cleaning our air, reducing air pollution

Such functions help to alleviate costs to local and wider communities, such as to the health service, other public services and local businesses. Previous research has similarly alluded to such benefits.

Independent research by UK scientists in 2011 highlighted the true value of nature in relation to the economic, health and social benefits, estimating that it was worth billions of pounds to the UK economy.

Other research has also shown that green space has been linked to reduced levels of obesity in children and young people, and that access to open spaces is associated with higher levels of physical activity and reductions in a number of long-term conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and musculoskeletal conditions.

The proportion of green and open space is also linked to self-reported levels of health and mental health, through improved companionship, sense of identity and belonging and happiness. And living in areas with green spaces is associated with less income-related health inequality, thereby reducing the effect of deprivation on health.

What the Land Trust’s report does differently, is demonstrate these widely recognised benefits in physical and monetary terms to help create a greater understanding of the economic contribution of well-managed green spaces.

Natural capital accounting

A ‘natural capital accounting’ approach was taken to translate these benefits into financial terms, taking consideration of the physical land, its quality, how it is managed, used and the functions it performs.

Two different parks – Silverdale Country Park in the Midlands and Beam Parklands in London – were used in the study to demonstrate this value. Overall, Silverdale’s annual natural capital value was estimated to be £2.6 million, with a return on investment of £35 for every £1 invested, while Beam Parklands’ natural capital value, based on a 99 year period, has been valued at £42 million – an increase of £21 million since 2009.

Other benefits provided by Silverdale include:

  • Nearly £400,000 per year of flood risk reduction benefits
  • An annual value of £82,000 for the park and its maintenance to retain and purify water
  • A wider annual value of £840,000 of absorbed and stored carbon
  • A potential increase of 113% in local air pollution absorption since 2011

Other benefits provided by Beam Parklands (primarily a flood defence) include:

  • Nearly £600,000 per year of flood risk reduction benefits
  • Nearly £800,000 per year of educational and health benefits to the local community

As two well-maintained green spaces, they indicate the importance of long-term investment.

Final thoughts

Perhaps these financial values will help people to better comprehend the true value of our green spaces. As the report notes, it is important to remember that they are “not ‘one off’ monetary values or price tags” but rather an indication of what our green spaces are worth and their benefits to both society and the economy.

Put simply, as the Land Trust concludes, “green spaces… are valuable to society”.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous articles on pocket parks and green spaces.

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