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.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

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.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

Graduate ‘brain drain’ – is regional economic growth the solution?

college graduates groupBy Heather Cameron

With the economic performance of cities and regions increasingly reliant on the skills of their workforce, the longstanding issue of graduate ‘brain drain’ to London and the south is something that needs to be addressed.

Although students attend many of the universities spread across the country, a significant number of graduates flock towards the capital at the end of their studies. According to a recent report from Centre for Cities, this deprives other cities of skilled workers and essentially damages the overall economy.

The evidence

A quarter of all new graduates in 2014 and 2015 were found to have moved to work in London within the six months of finishing their degree. And the highest achievers make up a significant proportion. While London accounts for around 19% of all jobs, of the graduates that moved city six months after graduation London employed 22% of all working new graduates, and 38% of those with a first or upper second class degree from a Russell Group university.

Although most cities experience an overall graduate gain, cities outside London don’t retain the majority of students that move to their city to study – the ‘bouncers’ that drive the brain drain overall, overshadowing any gain:

  • Manchester lost 67% of these students upon graduation;
  • Birmingham lost 76%; and
  • Southampton lost 86%.

Other figures show that 310,000 graduates have left the north in the past decade, contributing to a net average deficit of 7,500 highly qualified workers leaving annually, or 75,500 over a decade.

Northern regions have to some extent offset the effect of local brain drain by attracting enough highly qualified foreign workers to fill the gap. But with reductions in immigration, these regions could be left lacking.

Given the UK’s current position regarding the EU, concerns have also been raised over whether Britain faces a further brain drain of academics to Europe, following Brexit. A recent survey highlighted that 42% of academics said they are more likely to consider leaving Britain after the vote to leave.

Why?

While it may seem plausible to assume that higher salaries are the reason for this brain drain, it appears that the main pull for graduates is the availability of jobs and career progression, which London’s vast labour market offers.

However, as recent research from Homes for the North has identified, these are not the only reasons. It highlights the importance of additional non-work drivers of graduate location decisions, including the cost and quality of housing, quality of local amenities and the prospect of home ownership.

Of the graduates polled, 80% said the quality of housing was important, while more than 60% said the cost of housing was important. The quality of green spaces and local amenities was also deemed important by over 60% of graduates.

What can be done to redress the balance?

There have been numerous graduate retention initiatives at the local and regional level aimed at tackling the uneven distribution of graduates, such as graduate wage subsidies and local graduate job matching.  But it seems little has improved. The Centre for Cities research argues that these alone will not tackle the root cause of the graduate brain drain.

It suggests that cities themselves have a vital role to play in ensuring the local job market offers an appropriate number of graduate job opportunities that will allow them to both retain graduates and attract graduates from elsewhere. Policy should therefore broaden its focus to improve local economies by investing in transport, housing and enterprise, rather than focusing solely on graduate retention and attraction policies.

The chief executive of the Centre for Cities commented that the government’s new economic and industrial strategy should be used to strengthen existing devolution deals for city-regions such as Greater Manchester, extending their scope to grow.

Indeed, the industrial strategy green paper, published in January, clearly places emphasis on addressing the economic imbalances across the UK through a number of measures, such as working with local areas to close the skills gap, including new schemes to support the retention and attraction of graduates. However, the strategy has been criticised for providing little clarity on how regional rebalancing and sectoral deals will work in practice.

Final thoughts

While it appears clear that cities outside London need to improve their graduate offer with better job prospects, the evidence on graduate migration suggests it is more complex than this.

As has been argued, the provision of good quality affordable housing could play a role alongside high-skilled job creation and opportunities. With the cost of living in London so expensive, this would make sense, particularly as the average graduate salary in London is not that much higher than the average across other UK cities.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

Managing growth in historic towns

canterbury cathedral

By Heather Cameron

Predominantly set within environmentally attractive surroundings, historic towns and cities have a strong sense of place, offer a good quality of life, are often prosperous and represent models of sustainable development.

Research shows that businesses based in older places are more productive than the average for all commercial businesses across the whole economy. Retail and leisure businesses often seek to cluster in historic areas of towns and cities, and historic buildings are particularly attractive to new business start-ups, especially in the creative and cultural sector. Well-maintained historic places also enhance cultural life and community resilience.

As a result, historic towns are much sought after places to live and work, which has contributed to unprecedented growth.

Growth pressures

While growth is seen as a good thing for the future of town centres, managing it effectively in these areas of historic importance is not without its challenges. Older townscapes and buildings are a valuable and irreplaceable community asset that need to be protected.

Growth in historic towns creates pressure for new housing and development, and the infrastructure that is needed alongside it. It can also lead to increased congestion and depletion of suburban quality through redevelopment and loss of garden space. The traditional infrastructure in these towns may not be able cope with the increased capacity resulting in demand for suitable adaptation.

Managing these growth pressures is a particular challenge for historic towns as they need to try and meet local development need while both conserving the identity and sense of place of the existing town and nurturing the creation of sustainable new communities within them.

The Historic Towns Forum has highlighted that “there are challenges of infrastructure, partnership working, working with major national developers, the tension between modernity and pastiche and how to learn from the past and the present when building at this scale.”

In addition, the main political priority across all areas is economic wellbeing, taking precedence over any heritage considerations. A report from Green Balance in 2014 found that this principle concern was interpreted differently from place to place, with some local councillors viewing heritage as beneficial to a town’s economic and social wellbeing, while others viewed it is a burden and drag on investment.

As the heritage of places can be a particular pull for tourism, not preserving them could lead to a loss in economic wellbeing. The importance of achieving the right balance between sustainable development and heritage conservation is a theme that has been consistently highlighted in the research.

Smarter growth

So how do such places manage growth while also safeguarding both the character of the towns themselves and the settings around them?

According to the Historic Towns Forum, key issues in effectively addressing growth pressures in historic towns include:

  • planning and process;
  • partnerships;
  • finance and economics;
  • climate change;
  • community benefits and community engagement;
  • design; and
  • learning from the past and present.

It has been argued that a strategic approach to growth needs to be taken, such as the approach taken in Cambridge, where the Cambridgeshire Quality Charter for Growth is being used to help steer the creation of high quality sustainable communities.

Partnerships involving a range of local stakeholders, encompassing a shared vision and cooperation are also important for effective growth. Where strategic resources are lacking, which is often the case in smaller towns, community engagement can be of particular importance, as shown in Cirencester.

Key principles of good design have been highlighted to include:

  • learning from the past, including study of appropriate models;
  • localising by understanding local conditions; and
  • transforming action by applying appropriate, robust advances.

The overarching message seems to be that ‘smarter growth’ is required.

Good practice

There are examples of good practice where historic towns are managing growth in a way that protects their heritage. Cambridge, as mentioned previously, is one example. Sutton is another, where the challenges of growth are being addressed through the use of a Heritage Action Zone. The aim here is to balance growth with the management of heritage assets, providing lessons for elsewhere.

It is also important to look further afield. The historic town of Amersfoort in the Netherlands has been presented as a good model for managing housing growth to achieve attractive new settlements and create balanced communities. It has been suggested that this smarter approach is something that historic towns in the UK can learn from.

Another good example is Freiburg in Germany. Although different in terms of development to Britain, some of the issues applicable to British towns and cities have been addressed – including how to attract families to live at higher densities close enough to city centres to avoid car dependency.

As Historic England states:

“Learning is central to sustaining the historic environment. It raises people’s awareness and understanding of their heritage, including the varied ways in which its values are perceived by different generations and communities. It encourages informed and active participation in caring for the historic environment.”


If you enjoyed this blog post, why not read are previous posts on the civic use of heritage assets and the value of preserving our built heritage.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Is the record high employment rate masking the reality of in-work poverty?

wage-packetBy Heather Cameron

The employment rate may have hit a record high of 74.6%, with unemployment continuing to run at an 11-year low, but in-work poverty has also reached unprecedented levels.

More than half (55%) of people in poverty are living in working households, including millions of children, according to the latest Monitoring poverty and social exclusion (MPSE) report.

And new research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) published last week says four million more people are living below an adequate standard of living and ‘just managing’ at best.

Statistics

The findings of MPSE paint a bleak picture for a substantial share of the UK population. It notes that the proportion of the UK population living in poverty has barely changed since 2002/03, remaining at around 21%. And at 55%, those in poverty in working households has reached its highest level since the data set began in 1994/95.

Of this 55%, four fifths of the adults in these families are themselves working – a total of 3.8 million workers were living in poverty in 2014/15, an increase of around a million since 2004/05.

Female employees make up the single largest group within this group at 1.5 million, followed by male employees at 1.4 million. However, the majority of workers in in-work poverty are male (53%) as there were 620,000 male self-employed workers in poverty in 2014/15, while there were 250,000 female self-employed workers.

The story is different for workless households, however, as the proportion of people in poverty in these households has decreased, with the number in workless or retired families having fallen by half a million. Despite the significant increase in the number of people aged 65 and over, the figures show there are 400,000 fewer pensioners in poverty. There have also been reductions in the number of children in workless households.

While this is clearly encouraging, as the MPSE report suggests, it is difficult to categorise this as progress since there has been little change in the relative poverty measure overall.

Moreover, the new research from JRF warns that millions of just managing families are on the tipping point of falling into poverty as 30% of the population are living below the minimum income standard (MIS). In addition, 11 million people were found to be living far short of MIS, up from 9.1 million, who have incomes below 75% of the standard.

So what is causing these worrying statistics?

Contributory factors

The labour market has undoubtedly had some influence on these figures, with low wages and insecurity. Although average incomes have begun to rise, they are still below their peak. Male weekly earnings are still lower than 2005 levels and female weekly earnings, although now equal to 2005 levels, are still below what they were in 2010.  And with inflation expected to return, it has been suggested that hourly pay is unlikely to reach its pre-recession peak before 2020.

However, this is only part of the issue. There are also a number of other contributory factors, including:

  • increasing cost of living;
  • housing market failures; and
  • cuts in welfare benefits.

The increase in numbers living below an adequate standard of living has been driven by rising living costs while incomes stagnate. The price of a minimum ‘basket of goods’ has risen 27-30% since 2008, and average earnings by only half of this. The JRF analysis suggests the cost of living could be 10% higher by 2020, a period when much state support has been frozen.

Housing is also an important factor. It is often too expensive and of poor quality, particularly in the private rented sector. The MPSE findings show that the number of private renters in poverty has doubled over the last decade, with rent accounting for at least a third of income for more than 70% of private renters in poverty.

Households accepted as homeless and those in temporary accommodation have also increased and landlord evictions are close to a ten-year high.

Added to this, is the four-year freeze on benefits, tax credits and Universal Credit (UC), along with a reduction in the overall benefit cap. The benefit cap mainly affects households with children and will increase the number of families affected, from 20,000 to 112,000.

All this puts those on the lowest incomes at risk.

Way forward

Clearly, strong growth in the number of people in employment does not mean an end to employment-related disadvantage.

To help end poverty, the JRF has called on the government to make a number of changes, including:

  • reversing cuts to the amount people can earn before their benefits are reduced;
  • ending the freeze on working age benefits;
  • extending support to low wage sectors to reduce the productivity gap; and
  • investing in a living rents scheme to provide more affordable housing.

As the MPSE report concludes, “solutions for in-work poverty require more than just more work.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous articles on poverty.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

The disability employment gap – what needs to be done to change employer attitudes to disability?

Disabled parking (1).jpg

By Heather Cameron

‘Employment rates amongst disabled people reveal one of the most significant inequalities in the UK today’ (The work, health and disability Green Paper, 2016)

The government’s recent green paper highlights the extent of the disability employment gap in the UK, showing that less than half (48%) of disabled people are employed, compared to 80% of the non-disabled population.

Despite an increase in the number of disabled people in work, this employment gap between the disabled and non-disabled population has remained largely static at around 30 percentage points for the past decade. There are nearly four million disabled people in work, but research has shown that more disabled people have fallen out of work than moved into work, while the rest of the population has experienced movement in the opposite direction.

The government’s manifesto ambition is to halve the disability employment gap by 2020 – equivalent to 1.12 million more disabled people in work – but at the current rate of progress, it has been suggested that it would take more than 200 years for the employment gap to halve.

At a time when the UK’s employment rate is at its highest level since records began, with almost 75% of the working population in work, this is a disheartening statistic.

Barriers

This suggests that disabled people continue to face significant barriers to work. Some that are regularly cited, include:

  • physical barriers such as access to transport and accessibility within places of work;
  • a skills and qualifications gap between the disabled and non-disabled population, with disabled people only about half as likely to go to university as non-disabled people, and less likely to take up an apprenticeship;
  • insufficient support for disabled people;
  • insufficient support for employers; and
  • employer attitudes.

Employer attitudes have been cited as an ongoing issue which appears to stem from a lack of awareness and understanding.

A recent survey of recruiters found that 95% said companies are ‘fearful’ or ‘unsure’ about hiring disabled people. And analysis from disability charity Scope, suggests that employer attitudes haven’t improved over the last four years.

A new report from the Work and Pensions Committee found that many employers are not sure of their Equality Act duties, or are unwilling to make adjustments for disabled employees. It also suggested that there may be ‘discriminatory or unhelpful attitudes’ about the capabilities of disabled people.

Employers’ views

Indeed, employers themselves have highlighted the challenges of employing disabled people. Recent research from Disability Rights UK, which surveyed businesses from across the UK, reveals that one in 10 businesses believe they are unable to employ disabled people.

It also found that the biggest challenge to employing disabled people is that applicants aren’t always willing to be open about their disability, with around half of respondents (47%) saying that it would help if job applicants were more willing to be open about their health condition. Other challenges highlighted include:

  • fellow staff or line managers not having sufficient training to support disabled colleagues, and the lack of accessibility of some businesses for people with certain types of impairments;
  • concern that disabled people are more likely to take time off work;
  • difficulties in discussing the management of disabilities;
  • the cost of modifying equipment, making it expensive to employ disabled people; and
  • concerns that disabled people will claim discrimination if the job does not work out.

Such concerns are often misplaced, however. The survey indicates that businesses feel constrained by a lack of information about the adaptions they may need to make, and the support available to them. It seems that not enough people are aware of Access to Work, the government scheme that provides grants for adjustments to support people with disabilities or health conditions in employment.

And not all attitudes were negative. The vast majority (84%) of respondents said that disabled people make a valuable contribution to the workplace; and more than four-fifths (82%) considered disabled people as productive as non-disabled staff.

Final thoughts

The research clearly demonstrates that more needs to be done to tackle the disability employment gap. The Work and Pensions Committee report concludes that the government will stand little chance of halving the gap unless employers are fully committed to taking on and retaining more disabled people.

In particular, a transformation in attitudes to disability employment and support for disabled people will be required.

As the government’s green paper argues, “real and lasting change will only come about if we can also address negative cultural and social attitudes about disabled people and people with long-term health conditions.”


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

‘Think globally, act locally’ – local job creation

Jobssign2

By Heather Cameron

The Local Government Association (LGA) last week called for greater devolution of employment and skills funding to councils and a ‘radical rethink’ of the way Jobcentre Plus works. Chairman of the LGA’s People and Places Board said:

“Job centres need to engage with more unemployed people for a start and then help more claimants move into sustainable employment. This is crucial to boosting local growth. Councils know best how to do this. We know our local economies, we know our local employers and we know our residents and we can bring local services together in a way central government will never be able to.”

Local solutions

Of course, local solutions for job creation and economic growth is not a new idea. Local development and job creation initiatives first emerged in the 1980s, in response to a ‘new phenomenon of high, persistent and concentrated unemployment that national policies seemed powerless to reverse on their own. Since then they have continued to spread and develop.

Although unemployment is at an 11-year low in the UK, according to recent research many countries, including the UK, are seeing widening gaps in the geographic distribution of skills and jobs. And the importance of local solutions has again been highlighted.

The OECD’s most recent edition of Job Creation and Local Economic Development argues that local development is a key tool for addressing the problem of such unequal distribution. Similarly, in its submission to last year’s Autumn Statement, the LGA argued that local government is central to the delivery of locally tailored solutions to national public policy challenges.

Boosting productivity growth, while ensuring growth delivers improved living standards and distributes the benefits of increased prosperity equally, are highlighted by the OECD as the twin challenges facing all policymakers. Underlined as a crucial but difficult task, it is argued that ‘actions originating at any single governance level or policy area will not be sufficient’.

Whole-of-government approach

The OECD report, therefore, examines how national and local actors can better work together to support economic development and job creation at the local level. In particular, it outlines what both national and local actors can do to improve the local implementation of vocational education and training (VET) and SME and entrepreneurship policies.

Among the recommendations for national actors include:

  • Design VET frameworks that allow local stakeholders to tailor training to local labour market needs while still maintaining a certain level of national consistency
  • Build the capacities needed to make VET systems more agile locally
  • Develop a strong national apprenticeship framework that builds a high quality system, includes strategically-designed incentives for employer participation, and allows for flexible delivery frameworks
  • Maximise the efficiency of SME and entrepreneurship policy delivery by allowing for local tailoring, co-locating services, using intermediary organisations to deliver programmes, and/or developing formal agreements for the division of competences and financing between governance levels
  • Develop national frameworks and strategies to support disadvantaged young people in entrepreneurship, and clearly assign responsibility for this policy portfolio to a single agency or ministry
  • Embed entrepreneurship into national education frameworks, while also providing integrated packages of entrepreneurship support in other settings to reach young people outside of the education system

Among the recommendations for local actors include:

  • Balance the need to meet pressing local labour market demands with ensuring that VET helps to move local economies to higher skilled and value-added products and services
  • Encourage VET teachers and trainers to maintain contact with local employers and industries to keep their skills and knowledge up-to-date
  • Boost employer engagement in apprenticeships
  • Tailor the delivery of apprenticeship programmes so that they work better for a broader range of employers, including SMEs, and disadvantaged populations
  • Forge connections across administrative borders in developing and co-ordinating entrepreneurship and SME policies
  • Work with organisations that have already established relationships with disadvantaged youth to maximise the reach of entrepreneurship programmes
  • To better reach disadvantaged youth, provide integrated packages of support, use hands-on learning methods, and involve entrepreneurs in programme delivery

Decentralisation?

The report concludes that local actors need both flexibility to tailor delivery of national policies to local conditions and the capacity to use this flexibility to ensure informed decision-making.

It is noted that this doesn’t necessarily mean political decentralisation, but rather ensuring the right tools are used to add local flexibility while maintaining national coherence.


If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our previous blog on Local Enterprise Partnerships

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

 

Innovation – just another meaningless buzzword?

Innovation Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.

By Heather Cameron

As one of the trendiest terms of recent times, innovation has become familiar across the business world. But has its excessive use to refer to anything new effectively made the term a meaningless buzzword?

Lack of meaning

Certainly, critics argue that innovation is overvalued by its promoters and that it is what follows innovation that is really important.

An article published in Aeon magazine last year discusses this view. It highlights that over the last decade questions have been raised over the intrinsic value of innovation, citing a number of statements, including:

‘Innovation is in grave danger of becoming the latest overused buzzword’

‘Innovation died in 2008, killed off by overuse, misuse, narrowness, incrementalism and failure to evolve… In the end, “Innovation” proved to be weak as both a tactic and strategy in the face of economic and social turmoil.’

Even a professional innovation consultant interviewed for the Wall Street Journal said he had advised his clients to ban the word at their companies, describing it as just a ‘word to hide the lack of substance’.

The article suggests that maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the labour that sustains functioning and efficient infrastructures, has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.

Indeed, an idea can be argued to be of little value on its own.

Meaningless or misinterpreted?

An array of definitions can be found for innovation, perhaps the most widely referred to being that of the OECD:

‘the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service) or process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method in business practices, workplace organisation or external relations’

The important term here is implementation. Other definitions similarly refer to innovation as the implementation of such things that add value. Therefore innovation isn’t just about the new idea/technology/process, it is about the application of it and the outcomes it achieves.

As a recent blog in the Huffington Post noted, while being ‘new’ matters to the definition of innovation, ‘it is far less important than the description of what’s achieved through innovation’.

With so many definitions, it is hardly surprising that innovation has not only been overused but has often been misused. In particular, it has often been used instead of invention. The difference between these two terms is that an invention is the creation of an idea whereas innovation is an activity or process that adds value.

As the Aeon article suggests, innovation isn’t technology and that highlighting maintenance ‘involves moving from buzzwords to values, and from means to ends‘.

Final thoughts

Perhaps the Aeon article’s conclusion sums things up pretty well:

Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end? A focus on maintenance provides opportunities to ask questions about what we really want out of technologies. What do we really care about? What kind of society do we want to live in? Will this help get us there? We must shift from means, including the technologies that underpin our everyday actions, to ends, including the many kinds of social beneficence and improvement that technology can offer.

Rather than labelling innovation as meaningless, perhaps it is more accurate to say that innovation means little on its own.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

‘Olderpreneurs’ – the new generation of start-ups?

Senior Man on Laptop_Fotolia_61314537_XXL.jpg

By Heather Cameron

Entrepreneurs are often portrayed as bright young things launching start-ups, but does the reality of start-up demographics paint a different picture?

Changing demographics

The UK has certainly witnessed a boom in young entrepreneurship in recent years – the number of under-35s starting businesses in the UK rose by more than 70% between 2006 and 2014.

However, recent research suggests that the boom in young entrepreneurs may be waning. According to research commissioned by Google earlier this year, the majority of young people are “not interested” in starting a business, with four out of five young people surveyed saying they would rather work for a well-established company. Particular concerns were also highlighted over risk and instability.

The UK is, however, still ranked in the top 10 countries with the most favourable conditions for entrepreneurs to start and scale new businesses. And official data suggests that the UK continues to see record numbers of business start-ups, exceeding 600,000 in 2015, up on the previous two years.

So if it isn’t the younger generation heading up this record number, who is it?

‘Olderpreneurs’

Despite media coverage of the entrepreneurial spirit of the younger generation, the average age of an entrepreneur in the UK has actually been estimated at 47.

And according to the latest data from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), the most notable increase in entrepreneurial activity has been amongst the over 50 age group.

Referred to as ‘olderpreneurs’, this group could arguably be the new start-up generation.

There has been a 46.5% increase in freelancers over 50 since 2008, an age group that accounts for 72% of all self-employed people. According to official statistics there are around 1.8 million self-employed people over the age of 50 in the UK.

With an ageing population that is also becoming healthier, perhaps this shouldn’t be such a surprise.

Motivations

Motivations for people starting up their own businesses include redundancy, retirement, family circumstances, growing older and life stage milestones.

As life expectancy increases, many don’t want to give up work at the traditional retirement age, as they still lead active lives. Retirement has been cited as an ‘important tipping point’ for some, with the main motivation not to make money or grow their business, but rather something to keep them occupied or earn some extra money while doing something relatively easy.

The introduction of pension freedoms last year has also led to more over 50s using their pensions to fund new business ventures. The over 55s cashed in more than £4.7billion of their pensions in the first six months after pension freedoms were introduced.

Economic impact

And such activity is good news for the economy. It has been suggested that if the employment rate of 50-64 year olds matched that of the 35-49 age group, the UK economy could be boosted by £88 billion.

Older entrepreneurs have also been shown to be more successful than their younger counterparts. It has been highlighted that businesses run by owner-managers over 50 drive up revenues at their companies three-and-a-half times faster than GDP growth – 11.5% compared with 3.1%.

And older entrepreneurs create jobs at a rate more than seven times faster than the UK economic average.

It has also been suggested by the Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise (PRIME) that start-up failure rates in this age bracket are remarkably low. It recently revealed that 95% of its members were still in business a year or more after starting up, compared to the national average of just 66%.

Final thoughts

A significant percentage of the UK population is past retirement age. And the number of people aged 50 to State Pension age is expected to rise by 3.2 million, while the number aged 16 to 49 will have reduced by 200,000 over the next 10 years.

As a result, keeping this group economically engaged surely has to be a priority.


If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our previous articles on entrepreneurship and self-employment

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

Who’s afraid of the big, bad robot? Preparing the labour market for a future with AI

massive production

By Heather Cameron

Science fiction is slowly becoming science fact”. This is what the interim Chair of the government’s Science and Technology Committee said in their recently published report on robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).

While admitting there is still some way to go before we witness systems and robots like those portrayed in the creative arts such as Star Wars and Ex Machina, the report noted that there have been a series of recent advances across these fields that are beginning to have transformational impacts.

But just what will these impacts look like, particularly in relation to the labour market?

‘Transformational impacts’

Driverless cars and supercomputers that assist with medical diagnoses are highlighted as some of the transformational impacts of AI that have already arrived.  Others include improved automated voice recognition software and predictive text.

The increase in processing power, the wealth of data and the development of techniques such as ‘deep learning’ have all contributed to the recent progress.

However, the report also notes that such advances raise a number of social, ethical and legal questions that require consideration. These include issues about the transparency of AI decision-making as well as privacy and safety.

And while there is much excitement about the potential of AI to improve and enhance our lives, there is also widespread concern over the potential impact of increasing automation on the workplace.

Implications for employment

Fears over increased unemployment as a result of increasing automation are longstanding. The inquiry found conflicting views over the potential impact to the workforce, with some predicting a rise in unemployment, while others anticipate a transformation in the type of employment available.

It is likely that some occupations will become obsolete. Deloitte has warned that 11 million jobs across the UK economy are at high risk of being automated by 2036, with the retail and transport sectors most vulnerable. The research also indicated that almost 750,000 net jobs had been lost in manufacturing since the turn of the millennium, while the wholesale and retail sector saw net job losses of 338,000.

However, it was noted that millions of new roles had also been created in order to meet changing demand. So perhaps it is adaptation within the workforce that is needed.

Indeed, the Committee’s report highlights a need to focus on delivering the skills needed for people to adapt and thrive as new technology continues to emerge. It has been argued elsewhere that cognitive and social and behavioural skills should be made a priority in any skills strategy for the 21st century to “make workers more resilient to technology-driven labor market shocks like automation.”

And of course some sectors may be more susceptible than others.

Recent research by McKinsey suggests that the impact of automation differs dramatically across sectors and activities. It found that:

While automation will eliminate very few occupations entirely in the next decade, it will affect portions of almost all jobs to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the type of work they entail. Automation, now going beyond routine manufacturing activities, has the potential, as least with regard to its technical feasibility, to transform sectors such as healthcare and finance, which involve a substantial share of knowledge work.”

Another common theme highlighted throughout the inquiry was that robotics and AI could increase productivity and efficiency. One recent study estimated that ‘£1.24bn in automation investment could raise the overall value added by the manufacturing sector to the UK economy by £60.5bn over the next decade’.

Future

There are clearly many debates about the potential impact of robots and AI, but it is not yet clear what the actual impact of advances in these fields will be on the labour market.

What is clear is that there is a need for skills to be developed for a world where AI is more prevalent.

But as the inquiry highlighted, the government doesn’t yet have a strategy for developing these new skills or responding to the social and ethical issues it poses. The report therefore recommends that “the government must commit to addressing the digital skills crisis through a Digital Strategy, published without delay.”

Perhaps the future will be similar to the past, as written evidence to the inquiry suggests:

During the industrial revolution, mechanisation did not change long-run equilibrium employment because new jobs emerged which were unimaginable at that time. Similarly, jobs lost to automation today might be replaced by jobs we cannot yet imagine.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.