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Wednesday 30 January 2013

Escaping the straight-jacket: thoughts on the progression whole

Today I went to an ‘expert seminar’ run by The Progression Trust, The Young Foundation, and Joseph Rowntree Foundation, called ‘Progression Whole’. We live in a world where too many young people are left to struggle through key transition points in their lives.  Policy and practice is often over focused on narrow, limited interventions and outcomes rather than the ‘whole person, whole journey’ of an individual. That, in my limited nutshell, is the mantra and message of The Progression Whole. So how do we go about changing things at a system level?

The day kicked off with the suggestion from the always insightful and provocative chair Matthew Taylor that we didn’t need to discuss what progression meant, but needed to get stuck into the nitty gritty of the associated practice, research and policy issues.  The rest of the morning was spent with a mix of presentations and facilitated groups sessions to begin to scratch the surface in those areas. What came through – which Matthew Taylor suggested was a long way from being granular enough - made me think back to the opening comment: maybe the issue we are all dealing with is that progression is not as well defined and understood as we’d like to think it is.

I believe we are in a policy and practice environment where there is a tussle going on between a full monty aspirational person-centred progression vision, and a series of false markers that appear to promise that but are in fact delivering something entirely different. Thus, one can find organisations commissioned to offer move on and resettlement services, under the banner of progressing independent lives, but within a framework and timescale which entirely limits what an individual can achieve.  Resettlement, move on, independent living, are all phrases which might form part of a whole progression but on their own often package up an individual into an outcome rather like one puts on a straight-jacket.  Sometimes, we get lost in the proxy rather than the reality of where someone is.  If we ask the question, what do we need to be able to do and be to make the transition at this point and what/where next, the answer is unlikely to be measured in an exit interview for a resettlement plan.   It is entirely possible at present to be responsible for services that deliver excellent outcomes in delivering very little at all that really helps an individual make a significant transition or transformation in their life journey. That is the bad faith that is the blindspot or hole in our current progression whole.  The difference between coping and thriving is an entirely different type of provision, not that young people are incapable of making the journey between the two stages.

There are a series of complex issues at play here.  One of them is certainly that, in some places, there is a poverty of aspiration for specific groups of young people.  As the recent Joseph Rowntree report on ‘Attitudes, aspirations and behaviours’ indicates, we are awash with language on the  lack of or achievement of aspiration. But little of that is directed at the poverty of aspiration inside the policy and decision making frameworks behind the shoddy deals offered to some young people at the local level.  Linked to this, is the behaviour by which even the sector itself fuels the poverty of aspiration in others by endlessly stereotyping young people in terms of the language that marks their challenges – disadvantaged, at risk, NEETS, vulnerable, etc.  It is yet another straight-jacket which, once we buckle young people into, entirely limits the way their progression is discussed, measured and invested in.  The other issue is the whole nature of complexity itself. Progression must be about embracing the concept of complexity theory; the need for very tailored, co-produced, personalised solutions that ensure the journey is real  and alive for someone.  Within the rigid silos of age-based policies, departmental budgets, specific funding programmes, and a host of other Kafkaesque hurdles, you need dynamite to keep the road of that vision open .

I left the building with a memorable quote from the day in mind: ‘let’s measure what we value and value what we measure’.   If you think about that for a moment, and go back to think about how progression is valued and measured in one’s own organisation, it’s a good starting point to escape the straight-jacket.

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