For Professor Bill Jordan it is time to go back to practice that instils a sense of belonging rather than self-reliance
The news that the UK comes bottom of the Unicef index of child well-being should be a shock to social services. It is perhaps not surprising that our children’s scores are well below those of the Scandinavian countries, with their generous supply of public support. More shocking is that our position is far beneath those of Spain and Italy, whose services for young children are about one-tenth as extensive as those of Denmark and Sweden, and that we come well below the Czech Republic and Poland, far poorer countries.
The question is then why are our professionals less able to “deliver” well-being to young people than their counterparts in Scandinavia, or grandmothers in Spain and nursery nurses in Poland? And why are we bracketed at the bottom of the table with the US, the other rich country which tries hardest to instil self-reliance and individual enterprise in its young people?
Our social services in the UK have been reshaped to promote the kind of society in which these virtues are rewarded. Successive government reforms have given priority to choice in social services, encouraging children to set themselves individual targets for personal success. The needs for attachment, belonging and a sense of membership, which in Spain and Italy are met by extended family, community and church, have been given much lower priority. Kindergartens and schools in Denmark and Sweden pay far more attention to social group interaction, co-operation and inclusion than their counterparts in the UK.
But beyond this, professional training and practice too have been transformed in line with the ideology of independence and value for money. Practice has been broken down into a sequence of specific, technical tasks. In this way, services can be costed before they are “delivered”, and the outcomes associated with each unit “consumed” can be measured. All this enables individualisation of the “packages” purchased by public bodies and choice for consumer-citizens.
The question raised by the child well-being figures is whether these approaches, however technically impressive, translate into services that help young people lead happier, more fulfilled lives? Even if they can be shown to reduce specific problems or improve certain skills, the evidence suggests that they do not add up to a sense of well-being or a good quality of life.
Focusing on specific deficits, problems or behaviour may yield impressive evidence of effectiveness, but may not help young people make sense of their experiences, or give them a coherent context for integrating their identities. What is it that binds us together, in families, groups and associations, and in democratic political life? What are we trying to raise our children to believe in?
Social services were set up partly as a means of communicating a vision about the good life together among citizens after the Second World War. As part of the modernisation and reform agenda, the whole collectivist ethic of solidarity has been ditched by recent governments. So has the approach to practice that started from relationships – now dismissed as woolly and unscientific. But if, as this research indicates, our young people’s greatest lack is in supportive, reliable relationships and a sense of secure belonging, isn’t it time to revive this aspect of professional service?
If professional staff cannot provide continuity of care, protection and guidance, children may need volunteers – such as mentors and peer-group counsellors – to supply reliable long-term relationships. But for the future, it is time to restore empathy, perseverance and resilience to the curriculum for social work, youth work and community work. Technical competences will never be adequate substitutes.
● Bill Jordan is professor of social policy at Plymouth, Huddersfield and London Metropolitan Universities. He is author of Social Work and Well-being, out this month and available from email@example.com