Chloë Darlington, Policy and Communications Manager at Children England contributes this guest blog during Human Learning Systems Week. Children England’s mission is to change the world for England’s children by harnessing the energy, ingenuity and expertise of the voluntary organisations that work on their behalf.
Children England is a small charity running a big project: to help children and young people design a child-centred welfare state, including health, housing, education and community services as well as social security. We started this initiative before we knew quite how precious the safety net of public services would become, in late 2019, with a group of young people leading research into their peers’ experiences of the welfare state, and their hopes for it. You can probably imagine how significant the presence — or absence — of institutions like school, social services and GP surgeries felt to young people as the pandemic turned life upside down. The young views informing the research became all the more acute.
To be totally up front: when we brought together the 26 Young Leaders of the project from across England we didn’t tell them about Human Learning Systems (HLS). Neither did we explain New Public Management — one of the main diseases in the welfare state that led us to seek funding for a child-centred re-design of it. With expert support from Leaders Unlocked in facilitating a truly youth-led social change project, we tried not to impart any of our own beliefs about the welfare state other than that there should be one and that children and young people should have a say in its policies and practices.
We didn’t need to tell them about the theories and models informing public services, or how those manifest in benevolent or damaging treatment of people. From their first meeting, the Young Leaders had a clear, shared idea that the welfare state is a collective endeavour, created by and for everyone, at any time in their life, and should therefore be universal, non-stigmatising and free at point of delivery. This didn’t mean it should treat everyone identically, however. From their diverse experiences of education, healthcare, housing and other services, the Young Leaders gave examples of how transactional relationships and standardised expectations of what a young person needs or can achieve are undermining their wellbeing — aiming for equality when what they want is equity.
Their peer research confirmed this. Without needing to refer to New Public Management, young people described a school system that is causing distress with its relentless focus on exams and testing as the measure of ‘success’ for all students. Teachers who want, but don’t have time, to build genuine trusting relationships with their students and who instead rely on school policies that demand the same behaviour of every young person, irrespective of their individual character and the many circumstances affecting their wellbeing.
Young people universally expressed love for the NHS — but lamented thresholds for mental health treatment that are so high, those with anything but the most unmanageable symptoms are discouraged from seeking help — or must wait for their symptoms to worsen before they’ll be entitled to it. They saw very clearly the boundaries of offices, administrative regions and job descriptions which thwart good co-operation between services and oblige a young person to navigate separate complicated systems and repeat themselves in the different languages of each one.
It’s painfully clear to children and young people that they are not seen as unique, whole individuals by systems in the welfare state; they’re compartmentalised into physical needs, into academic abilities… or in the case of housing, barely visible at all. They must shape themselves to the system, rather than expect the system to shape itself around them. They have to become experts not just in dealing with the system, but coping with its unintended harms. No wonder we end up needing such extensive language to be able to talk about public services.
So how would young people design a new welfare state? Our Young Leaders have devised a set of values and approaches to guide it. I’m using some HLS headings to show you how I think these values (in bold) relate to HLS principles, but I’ll leave you to decide where the connections should be drawn — it’s a rich kaleidoscope of sympathetic ideas.
The challenges of complexity
The first and most important quality they attribute to the welfare state, and one I think the HLS Community will appreciate as a key site for a conceptual and practical transition from NPM to HLS, is interdependence. The Young Leaders believe people, and the services they use, are inescapably interdependent, and that any aspect of children’s wellbeing — for example their mental health, or educational achievement — is the product of a myriad factors from the quality of their relationship with their teacher to whether their mum can pay the electricity bill. They’re comfortable with the complexity of individual experience, and are calling for public services to embrace a correspondingly flexible and co-operative approach so together they can take a holistic approach to individual needs.
Their vision for a new welfare state is also based on a more equal distribution of power and responsibility between decision-makers, practitioners and citizens, with much more agency for ordinary people, including children and young people. They envisage young people participating in community services not only as users or patients but as volunteers, mentors and service designers — for example in a Community Health Hub where there is such a range of activities and roles on offer that everyone in the area has a reason to come in and contribute — as well as receive support. We’re confident this would help diminish the stigma of asking for help.
They want every school class to spend one day per week in the community, rather than at school, forging relationships with other generations, learning about practical issues and collaborating on local initiatives. They want the neighbourliness and mutual aid of the pandemic to be sustained beyond times of crisis so that communities are active in creating wellbeing. The approach they want services to take, of listening and taking action / enabling others to act, also applies to citizens and communities: action is a moral imperative in a safety net for which we take collective responsibility, and simply ticking a box to say a form was filled in or a phone call was made can’t be assumed to have made a difference in someone’s life.
The Young Leaders’ analysis of the benefits system in particular, but also of the housing market and some aspects of health and education policy, showed opposition to systems run on scarcity — systems designed to ration support and therefore categorise people according to their costliness to the state, inevitably leaving some without the help they need. Whilst these systems are not identical, and some are overly centralised while others are neglected in favour of market responses, they intrinsically don’t feel like healthy systems, and make collaboration to produce positive outcomes related to them a sisyphean task.
The Young Leaders believe we need a shift from scarcity and punishment to dignity and universality. This involves inherent respect for everyone’s potential rather than treating people as problems to be categorised and solved, which is particularly important for the youngest citizens as they develop their sense of self and purpose in society. In the range of policies they’re discussing, this approach is applied through ideas as big as Universal Basic Income and those as simple as free school meals for all students.
One of our Young Leaders, Deborah, has in fact summed up much more succinctly than me their vision for the ChildFair State, and it’s undeniably compatible with Human Learning Systems.
It isn’t surprising that young people with so much evidence and lived experience of the welfare state, especially during the pandemic, should come up with a vision for public service that breaks down the silos and hierarchies of New Public Management in favour of humane, holistic and empowering local approaches that look much more like Human Learning Systems. We hope to run a local pilot of ChildFair approaches that uses HLS to test and learn from youth-led changes at neighbourhood level.
But I think it’s useful to note that without any guidance or suggestion that there were pre-existing models, young people from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences quickly saw and articulated the fatal flaws in New Public Management — for system sustainability and for children’s wellbeing. And that with support to develop their own alternative, they’ve offered us a vision of collaboration across generations, sectors and statuses that would genuinely give trust and agency to all the people on whom positive social outcomes depend — that is, everyone. You don’t need to call it Human Learning Systems to use it as a spur to better ways of working in your own community. So, if you’re looking for allies in the campaign to change commissioning, partnership working or measuring success in your area of work, why not talk to children and young people? Or better still, start with them and they’ll tell you what needs to change and how. You’re likely to get a vision unencumbered by money, management and metrics — and fuelled by compassion, imagination and honesty.