In my last two blogs I’ve explored various different actors and agencies’ roles in information sharing. But what if a game-changing improvement required a fundamental shift in approach?
Perhaps what we really need is a shift in emphasis towards continuity and relationships. This might sound woolly, but by the end of the Assessment Network’s last two roundtables, attendees had convinced me that the idea had more tangible implications than I initially realised.
In my first blog I mentioned James, whose organisation works in a number of disadvantaged communities. He shared an example that illustrates the role relationships play in the sector’s information architecture.
James often finds that locating these families hangs on one person’s knowledge - often the one person in the group who genuinely knows and understands that family
When James brings together professionals working with young people and their families, he often finds that everyone holds a different address for them. Working out where they actually live is therefore the first battle.
This situation is doubly problematic given that lots of the data about young people is linked to their postcode or address; I myself have spent years mapping and analysing data by postcode to understand what’s going on.
James often finds that locating these families hangs on one person’s knowledge - often the one person in the group who genuinely knows and understands that family; normally because they have built a relationship with them and their community over a number of years. James’ conclusion is that:
“All our data points pale into insignificance compared to that key individual’s understanding.”
James isn’t alone in this view. Roundtable attendees argued that regardless of what data-infrastructure and information-sharing protocols are created, nothing quite captures the richness that comes from deep, long-term, human and professional relationships.
These views are backed up by large-scale research evidence. For example, Michael Ronsfeldt, an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan and his colleagues conducted a major study to understand the impact of teacher turnover. The study authors crunched 625,000 pupil data-points, finding that turnover was indeed harmful, particularly for Black and low attaining pupils, a serious problem if we’re trying to map our way to equity. It also turned out that this effect was not explained solely by good teachers being replaced by less effective colleagues. They concluded that:
“One possibility is that turnover negatively affects collegiality or relational trust among faculty; or perhaps turnover results in loss of institutional knowledge among faculty that is critical for supporting all student learning.”
Whilst that’s one mechanism that could explain the effect, John Jerrim and Sam Sims found that in England, teacher turnover doesn’t actually seem to be linked to teacher-collaboration. Something else might therefore be at play. I’ll now turn to roundtable attendees’ reflections on the role of relationships and continuity, and what we need to change based on those insights.
As previous blogs have pointed out, sophisticated use of reliable diagnostic assessments like those used by the West London Zone are an aid to professional judgement, but without continuity it’s hard to strike the right balance between expert judgement, technical expertise and deep human interaction.
Both of the heads at our last roundtable emphasised the problems with a lack of continuity:
Head 1: “You'll see a social worker at one meeting, and you'll never see them again. So there's no continuity… there's no one person saying, I know the bulk of this information and I'm going to share what we need to know”
Head 2: “I might have three or four different social workers in one academic year. And every time we meet with them, I'm actually telling them, ‘this is where we are with the child’.”
Wedenoja et al focus on the effects of having the same teacher in several years, finding that teacher effectiveness is not fixed and that it can shift as pupil-teacher relationships develop.
Too often, rather than building continuity and relationships, we expend time and energy inventing expensive solutions to the lack of continuity. Yet these can never be a real substitute for long-term relationships. Ronfeldt et al’s proposed answer is to increase incentives for teacher retention, but another large-scale US study by Wedenoja et al., suggests a simpler tweak that might reduce the problem.
Wedenoja et al focus on the effects of having the same teacher in several years, finding that teacher effectiveness is not fixed and that it can shift as pupil-teacher relationships develop. They argued that over time teachers “more effectively tailor their instruction to students’ individual learning needs” and that their students gradually “adapt to a teacher’s classroom management and teaching style.”
The researchers recommend ‘looping’ teachers, so that pupils more frequently have the same teacher in several years. The conclusion reminds me of when I was a secondary school form tutor: I remember being heartbroken that I couldn’t keep the same form group as they moved through the school. I had built up such good relationships that it felt a waste not to put them to good use. Link workers in The West London Zone play a similar role, since they are embedded in school and stay with a pupil over an extended period of time. They also come with the additional benefit of bridging between home and school life.
While it might seem that what’s standing in the way of continuity and a more relational approach is insufficient funding, it’s not as clear cut as that. Of course overall funding levels need a boost, but when it comes to relationships, part of the problem comes from how funding is allocated.
Policy makers and funders like to announce new programmes and new initiatives. Budgets are therefore time-constrained and there is limited support available for just ‘extending’ or ‘continuing’ something that’s already underway.
This is dysfunctional. James shared the story of how one of his funding streams was shortly to run out, but that he’d finally managed to secure some follow-on funding, under a different heading. For a while it looked like his team could continue to leverage the informational and relational assets they’d spent so long accruing. The problem was that there would be a 3 month gap between the two funding streams. Funders who were disconnected from the on-the-ground reality of this type of work tried to reassure him, saying he could just ‘put things on ice’ and continue as their Gantt chart intended. However they’d failed to understand that staff couldn't wait, and that job insecurity left them with no choice but to move on to new roles.
In How to Run a Government, Sir Michael Barber argues that “strong relationships” need to be one of the factors that go into understanding “organisational health"
Luckily, James found bridging finance at the 11th hour, but too often there’s nothing to be done, and relationships are left to perish - destroying invaluable information and trust in the process.
In How to Run a Government, Sir Michael Barber argues that “strong relationships” need to be one of the factors that go into understanding “organisational health", which is one of the three outcomes he includes in his framework for measuring public service productivity.
“Those who have stewardship of the system at each level [need to] think not just about the present and the delivery of results this year and next, but also consider the long-term well-being of the system - it’s resilience and capacity to anticipate and manage change over time”
Decisions about funding should give far more weight to the value of continuity, ‘costing-in’ the relationships that are at stake and the resilience that hangs on them. In the West London Zone’s case, the fact that funding follows a pupil rather than myriad different projects and programmes mitigates this problem to some extent.
Perhaps if we valued ‘relational capital’ more, we might rethink our tendency to continually throw one of the sector’s greatest assets on the bonfire.
Decisions about funding should give far more weight to the value of continuity, ‘costing-in’ the relationships that are at stake and the resilience that hangs on them.
“Effective support for families on the margins won’t scale through big systems” argued James. For him, intensive, relational work needs to be done at a ‘human scale’. He therefore works at ward level - with a team who can get to know individual streets, estates and families.
But the right scale depends on the type of work being done: small is not always best. Robert argued that when it comes to Childrens’ Homes, we need to operate in wider geographies to ensure flexible supply.
iv. True efficiency
The recent SEND AP Green paper provides a refreshing emphasis on continuity of funding. Paul from the Bolton Impact Trust explained that for Alternative Provision settings- ~50% of funding comes from individual places, yet numbers fluctuate widely year to year and are highly unpredictable. Given that staff represent 80% of a setting’s expenditure, it is impossible to guarantee long-term staffing , despite this being the bedrock of relationships. Current funding models therefore militate against effective provision.
The recent Children’s Social Care review flags the same issue in relation to Children’s Homes: in order to give the illusion of efficiency, place-numbers are kept to a minimum. Yet demand is hard to predict, so when extra capacity is suddenly needed, expensive (and often low quality) emergency spaces are the only way to fill the void. This leads to horrific inefficiency, with a week’s care sometimes costing tens of thousands of pounds. Efficiency-drives have therefore perversely created inefficiency since expenditure increases ‘exponentially’ once a young person reaches a certain point of need.
This has not happened by accident. As Ben Gadsby from Impetus pointed out, public policy can be obsessed with efficiency - cutting waste and trimming-back surplus so that every marginal pound spent delivers maximum impact. But this neglects the resilience-focused, organisational health dimension of Barber’s productivity framework. The pandemic laid bare the fact that hyper-lean services are not resilient to unpredictability.
On top of this, every time a young person goes over a different threshold they shift to a different service and professional, meaning information has to be moved around - or gathered afresh. Professionals therefore spend an inordinate amount of time piecing information together, whilst failing to build up the technicolour picture they need. Meanwhile young people frequently end up having to tell their (often traumatic) stories time and again.
As James put it, “actually, real efficiency comes from really understanding what the need really is” and perhaps, as Ben suggested, “we have over-focused on efficiency, at the expense of resilience”.
Greater recognition of the importance of relationships and continuity is not a woolly or fluffy idea. Instead it should shift the cost-benefit equation and prompt us to make different, more cost effective decisions. Perhaps if we did that we might get far better at pulling together the information we need in order to map our way to educational equity.
This blog was in response to our discussion series 'Mapping The Way to a More Equitable Future for Education' which brings together key voices from the education sector to discuss the barriers to equity in education, and the information policy makers and practitioners might need to overcome them. You can add your voice to the discussion by signing up to our next live webinar event.