Building a more resilient system for our young people

by Loic Menzies, 18 May 2023
Little girl building a tower with wooden blocks

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the need for resilience across society into sharp relief. Much of the need to protect the NHS stemmed from a myopic focus on efficiency – running near capacity, operating just-in-time delivery, and focusing on only the most pressing acute need. The same could be said of many of the crises gripping our education system. 

In the education and youth sector, capacity and resources are swallowed up by urgent crises - pupils whose mental health has reached breaking point, young people needing emergency residential care and students needing specialist educational placements. This leaves little time or money for strategic planning and preventative work. But that is no different to what is going on across government. 

Throughout public services, a long-standing failure to prioritise prevention has stacked up future problems. Too often, a desire to avoid waste has drowned out other priorities, even if - in the long term, this drives its own form of inefficiency by undermining our communities’ and services’ resilience.

The government’s “Resilience Framework”, published last December, signals a recognition that this needs to change. It defines resilience as “an ability to withstand or quickly recover from a difficult situation… [and] to get ahead of those risks and tackle challenges before they manifest”.  

Over the course of Cambridge Assessment Network’s ‘Mapping the Way to Educational Equity’ project, time and again, the issues that came up were challenges that span Whitehall. For example, dilemmas like how to balance autonomy and centralisation; problems with deploying evidence in complex systems; and the need to invest in relationships through longer term funding. 

After attending one of our roundtables, Nigel Ball from the Government Outcomes Lab at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government agreed to host an afternoon of discussions to explore some of the issues that had been raised, at a cross governmental level. We were fortunate to be joined by over twenty policy experts and civil servants from across government, including several former treasury officials and DfE advisors.

In a new report out today, based on those discussions, we present a series of suggestions for ‘adjusting the dial’ so that resilience is valued alongside efficiency. 

  1. Bring different local services and service users together to understand underlying needs - for example by targeting budgets towards joint goals, and focusing on relationships between staff and users.
  2. Reshape public procurement - for example by ending the endless treadmill of small, short-term funding pots and building on innovative models of ‘relational contracting’.

These ideas are closely linked to many of the topics explored as part of the ‘Mapping the Way’ series.

The report also proposes reforms to the way the treasury classifies spending through a new designation of ‘preventative spending’. Such an approach could be transformative for young people when it comes to early intervention and family support..

Throughout the ‘Mapping the way’ project, we have emphasised the need for better information to guide us on our way, and this lies at the heart of Cambridge Assessment Network’s mission. In our new report we pick up on this theme and show its relevance across government. 

We argue that investment is needed in research and data-infrastructure, in order to improve data-linking and move towards live data. Recent improvements in the quality of school attendance data are an example of this. Our report also calls on policy makers to value narrative and experiential evidence - helping young people to tell their stories in their own terms so that our understanding goes beyond the averages and thresholds that are currently dominant.

Hundreds of you have been involved in the ‘Mapping the Way’ project over the last eighteen months and we hope that you will be pleased to see how your thoughts and priorities are now being built upon at a cross-governmental level. 

The new report, which is supported by Cambridge Assessment Network and the Government Outcomes Lab is out now.

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