The youth sector has failed to prove its value so far, but now it needs to lead the way on how we understand social and emotional development

In this blog, ahead of "The Measure and the Treasure" conference on 16 March 2017, Graeme Duncan, Chief Executive of Right to Succeed explores some of the divisive questions surrounding the youth sector.

What future are we preparing our young people for?

This is a very live and divisive debate within the education sector at the moment, featuring two very loud poles at either end of the argument: the conservative knowledge lobby versus the progressive lobby.

The conservative knowledge lobby can show the evidence to be on their side and paint the progressive lobby as a bunch of left leaning hippies with completely unproven new age ideas about capabilities, qualitative research and well-being.

The progressive lobby talk about the intrinsic, unquantifiable value of relationship-based work with young people, and the need for holistic range of skills, many not captured in any accepted form of 'measurement’, and paint the knowledge lobbyists to be character-less subject experts whose reliance on their own subject knowledge expertise clouds the breadth of their vision for education.

As with just about every polarised debate, the answer surely lies somewhere between the two extreme poles, but where is the balance, how do we make a case for it and what role does the youth sector have to play in its resolution?

The bright side of modern government is the growing investment in, and acknowledgement of, evidence in policy making. This is still a developing space, but is a huge cultural and political step forwards where the whim of an influential politician is no longer the final word on policy. Even when they still do exert a whim upon the world, they can look forward to the time when they are held to account based on the evidence of what their whim may/did achieve. Justine Greening can attest to how easy it is to defend the government's bizarre grammar school policy against the tide of evidence that it impedes rather than promotes social mobility.

However, the science used in building evidence still lags behind in all realms. Education evidence in particular is still very rudimentary and one-dimensional, with a singular focus on attainment and progress in attainment. This "science" will lead you very quickly to the conclusion that the world is flat. Furthermore, this evidence is not even yet a good road map to help you understand how to generate impact, hence we still haven't been able to break the correlation between advantage and attainment.

As a society, we have to be responsible for the cognitive, social, emotional and physical development of a child, and failure in any one of those realms can have a sizeable impact on a child's future. To fail in cognitive would leave a child without the critical skills and knowledge required to jump qualification hurdles in further/higher education and succeed in employment. Failure in the social realm will leave a child unable to integrate into society, work in a team or become a leader of the future. Failure in emotional development will leave the child lacking resilience and lead to the prospect of poor well-being and mental health concerns in future. Failure in physical can leave the child without a habit of physical activity, unfit and obese, raising the prospect of poor health and low life expectancy. And, these realms of development are of course completely interdependent, so failure in any one will probably have huge implications across a whole child's development.

The youth sector rightly puts itself in the position of delivering social and emotional development for its young people. But, there is not yet a consensus on how to measure these skills, and as a result, no great resource of evidence or dataset on how this happens and what is most effective in supporting it. Beyond the qualitative, the sector cannot make a strong quantitative case for its role in supporting young people to develop. In the world of more and more evidence based governance of public budgets, this lack of consensus on measurement means the sector is becoming complicit in the writing of its own demise.  

Whilst there are several studies now starting to show the link between social and emotional development and their role in driving wellbeing and performance, these datasets pale into insignificance when we consider the scale of the qualifications dataset and what this data can allow in terms of economic interrogation. The burden of proof lies with the knowledge lobby, and policy making will continue to follow this path until someone provides the system shock required to convince education that the world is in fact multi-dimensional. But where is this change to come from?

I fear it is unlikely to come from schools. The high stakes accountability on exam outcomes means it is incredibly unlikely that a critical mass of head teachers will invest significant time and resources in moving forward the development of social and emotional capability. A recent bright spot is the increasing evidence around the role of meta-cognition in closing the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged, which starts to bring skills like self-regulation into the conversation. Furthermore, the Education Endowment Foundation and the Behavioural Insights Team are doing more and more to test the role of character/social & emotional development in driving a range of outcomes, but I'm afraid that short of a large scale revolt against the high stakes attainment/progress accountability (there are signs of this), or a major policy intervention from the incumbent Secretary of State, I don't see the huge investment of time in understanding the social and emotional realms coming from the education sector.

Instead, it needs to come from the youth sector. And there are several reasons why it needs to be you.

Firstly, you have to prove your value to political society. Those of us that work with young people in low-income communities understand what they gain from having a safe, sociable place where they belong beyond outside of the school gates, and we also understand what it means when that service is taken away. But, in times of low public spending, you can either make an outcomes based case for your existence or you will lose out to services that can.

Secondly, your young people deserve the best you can provide, and that will come from targeting your work at addressing specific need and understanding the progress you're making in addressing that need. If there's one thing we've learned from the evidence base so far it is that impact is maximised when there is a significant investment of time and resource in understanding the specific need and addressing that need with a specific, practiced intervention.

Thirdly, you're a community united both by your role in the development of social and emotional capability in your beneficiaries and by overcoming the challenges you face as a sector. That unity needs to be used to build a consensus on what your sector is trying to achieve, what the measures are for that success and what the common theory of changes are.

Fourthly, there is a lot that schools can learn from the youth sector in the social and emotional realm. You have to provide a socially and emotionally stimulating centre in order to attract and retain young people in the first place. You also have significantly greater experience in delivering social programmes like peer mentoring, which although we know it can make a significant difference in the school context, many schools have failed to replicate great practice from elsewhere and haven't achieved outcomes as a result.
The stakes are high, both for the future of the youth sector, and for the development of our young people. Our modern education and our view of child development was designed and built to provide the post-industrial world with young people with broad knowledge, a broad range of cognitive skills and the discipline required to conform and perform. But, with the rise of automation, all predictions for future employment growth centre around cultural, creative, social and emotional capabilities. Qualifications that test only knowledge and cognitive capability will feel very old-fashioned very quickly, and we will soon consider this time as our education system's "the world is flat" moment. The question is, how quickly can we move to a more rounded, spherical world where we see the whole, multi-dimensional picture of child development?

Youth sector, it's over to you to lead the charge on understanding social and emotional development.

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