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Building a stronger society

Posted on 12 August 2011
Tags: education, Every Child a Reader, family interventions, London riots, National Citizen Service, volunteering

Last Friday, I was at a 2011 BBC Proms highlight. The Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra is the flagship of Venezuela’s El Sistema, where 250,000 children and young people participate in orchestral music, over three quarters of whom live below the poverty line. The programme is a testament to the transformational power of the combination of opportunity, hard work and music, and reputedly takes many kids away from a life of drugs and crime. The performance of Mahler’s 2nd symphony under Gustavo Dudamel was all the more special as it combined forces with the astonishing talents of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain.

Just 24 hours later a riot was taking hold in Tottenham. As disorder spread through English cities over the next few nights, it was hard not to contrast the life enhancing work of one set of young people, with the destructive power of another.

There are a multitude of hypotheses about what caused the riots, too many of them politically partisan. For us social scientists, it’s clear that there won’t be a single, simple cause. For the moment, take your pick from the BBC’s list. Or use Tim Harford’s sardonically suggested method: “The riots are clear confirmation of my long-held view that [insert pre-existing worldview here].”

I’m determined that NatCen’s wealth of understanding about social issues grounded in research contributes positively to a more considered debate, and in particular, to an understanding of how positive social change can be brought about.

We need to cut through the polarised debate. Whether or not poverty and/or inequality contributed to the riots; whether or not it was amoral acquisitive consumerism; whether or not social media played a harmful role …There are some basic things that most commentators and members of the public do actually agree on:

• First, that in any society where there is demonstrable inequality, the government has a role in enabling the less privileged to have access to opportunity, particularly through education

• And that second, creating a strong society also depends on strong families – even if views on what families should look like will differ.

We’ve done some very relevant pieces of social research in these areas, some published very recently, which illustrate the positive things that can be done to build a stronger society.

Family interventions

It’s pretty obvious that no amount of hectoring from politicians about the importance of parental responsibility is going to make any difference with seriously struggling families. Intensive family interventions (formerly known as Family Intervention Projects) work with the most challenging families and tackle issues such as anti-social behaviour, youth crime, inter-generational disadvantage and worklessness in families. They take an intensive and ongoing “multi-agency” approach to supporting the whole family and helping them overcome their problems, coordinated by a single dedicated ‘key worker’. They were instigated by the previous government, but have been continued by the present one as part of David Cameron's objective to turn around the lives of troubled families.

We’ve been evaluating the programme for the Department for Education, and it’s clear that for many families, there are very positive results. Around two thirds of the families in the programme with difficulties with family functioning saw such problems lessen, including poor parenting, relationship or family breakdown, domestic violence or child protection issues. And a similar proportion of families with reported involvement with crime and anti-social behaviour saw an improvement.

The most consistent factor in explaining success was the length of intervention. So it’s expensive. But so is anti-social behaviour and family breakdown.


Just this week my colleague Emily Tanner blogged on the power of intensive reading support for kids who struggle with reading, with all the knock on consequences for them as they go through school and later life if it’s not addressed. This new evidence shows that intensive reading support can have a positive impact on children who start school labelled a ‘low achiever’. Our report, Evaluation of Every Child a Reader, shows that both boys and girls can benefit from Reading Recovery, a programme of daily one-to-one support from a specially trained teacher. Cathy O’Donnell also managed a link to the one woman force for social good that is Dolly Parton……


El Sistema shows the importance of “meaningful activity”. Music is one route, but volunteering could be another. This week we saw the publication of our consortium’s evaluation of the ‘v’ initiative, set up following the previous government’s Russell Commission, and which aimed to create a step change in the quality, quantity and diversity of youth volunteering. Over one million volunteering opportunities were created and taken up by young people aged 16-25. The evaluation found a range of very positive impacts on communication skills, confidence, and engagement with local community, and Carol McNaughton Nichols has argued that taken together, “these impacts provide the skills young people need to be confident, grounded and resilient.” The current government’s energy in this area is of course being directed into the National Citizen Service.

We’ll continue to share our work identifying what works in terms of building a better society over the coming months. Whatever the causes of the riots, the solutions must be grounded in authentic understanding of what works.

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