Authors: Julie Cummings (Public Affairs & Communications Officer), Hannah Thomson (Research & Evaluation Officer) & George Coulton (Data Coordinator).
Our mission at The Brilliant Club is to support students who are less advantaged to access the most competitive universities and succeed when they get there. Improving fair access to university can be classed as a ‘wicked problem’: a public policy issue without a single, clear solution, but which greatly affects people’s lives through complex and overlapping factors linked to the specific context of the problem (Rittel & Webber, 1973; Head, 2008).
We recognise that working towards fairer access to the most competitive universities addresses just one element of improving life chances. The local education system, economy, transport, and housing all affect the lives and outcomes of the students we work with too. To find out more about these place-based aspects of improving life chances, we brought together a group of representatives from organisations that take place-based approaches to education, community, or social mobility projects, for a virtual roundtable discussion in July 2022. The organisations represented were Save the Children, Renaisi, Bradford Opportunity Area, Right to Succeed, Parent Power, Citizens UK, Sheffield Hallam University, and West London Zone.
This blog summarises the learnings and advice shared by attendees to contribute to sector discussions.
Disparities in regional economies, educational outcomes and life expectancy across England mean that the argument for a one-size-fits all approach to boosting life chances is increasingly redundant (Education Policy Institute, 2022; Harari, 2020; Office for National Statistics, 2022). Place-based working has regained popularity in England in recent years, partly due to increasing regional inequalities and the government’s subsequent levelling-up agenda and focus on so-called left behind communities. But what is a place-based approach and how can it help address problems linked to education and life chances?
Our roundtable attendees brought their experiences of working on place-based projects of varying scale, scope, and age. For example, West London Zone supports children and young people through a link worker embedded in their school, who provides a tailored support package for each young person. This means the programme can deliver highly contextualised support from local organisations, by creating connections between schools, organisations, families, and young people. On the spectrum of place-based working, West London Zone’s activities are hyper-local, whereas other organisations like Sheffield Hallam University deliver projects on a more regional level across South Yorkshire.
All our attendees were against the idea of a strictly codified definition of a place-based approach. The very nature of approaches rooted in place means they will each be contextually appropriate to the communities in which they are operating, and one shared definition may not be accurate. Instead, attendees argued a set of flexible common principles would be more appropriate.
The following common principles of place-based approaches were proposed:
Relationship-building was identified as a crucial element of a successful place-based approach. Drawing on experience, attendees emphasised that taking the time to build relationships between their organisations and communities cannot be underestimated. If a place-based approach is to be truly driven by a place, it must authentically respond to the needs of the local community. It is difficult, if not impossible, for an external intervention to recognise and dictate what a community needs without input from that community.
Those delivering place-based projects should approach relationship-building conversations with a vision for their project, but not a rigidly predetermined agenda of the work that needs to be done. This is important to leave space for the project to be shaped by the community. On-going communication and continuous learning are vital in not just establishing, but also maintaining, community relationships within a place-based project.
Several attendees used similar ways to build relationships with the local community and secure its input into place-based projects. Save the Children advocated a ‘storytelling approach’ to project planning for its Children’s Communities as opposed to a more common research-led model. This approach meant that the organisation was able to gather stories from across the community to inform its planning. Notably, it was felt that community members consequently shared details and issues that would have otherwise gone ignored in the project delivery.
Likewise, Citizens UK and Parent Power host ‘community organising relational 1-2-1s’ with community members to build trust. Relational 1-2-1 meetings are intentional conversations in which those delivering projects can build relationships with community members to understand the issues that matter to them. They involve active listening to find out what is important to people in their local area and how something can realistically be done to tackle the issues. Through this process of relationship-building, the organiser can identify areas for action that their place-based project should address (Citizens UK, 2013).
Listening and building relationships with communities subverts the idea of who is an ‘expert’. It recognises that those who live and work in the place will have the best understanding of the problems it faces and ideas on how these issues can be addressed.
One key aspect of this shift in power involves working with communities to identify local power structures and which stakeholders have decision-making power. In doing so, communities can break down complex problems into identifiable and winnable issues. This can happen on an individual level and by commissioning local organisations to deliver activities. Overall, it develops a better understanding around what a community might need to feel empowered to make change which is shaped directly by its needs.
This way of working is embodied in Parent Power, a model which brings together parents and provides Citizens UK community organising training so parents are empowered to make change in their communities through context-specific campaigns and secure educational opportunities for their children. For example, Fenland Parent Power chose to campaign around the lack of public transport in the area, which the group identified as a barrier to local children accessing the opportunities that may help them progress to university. Parents came together to draft a letter to Fenland council leaders to request a meeting to discuss the issue and promoted their campaign through the media with a BBC Radio Cambridgeshire interview.
In addition, community expertise can be built into project governance. Opportunity Areas, for example, include partnership boards in their structure. Board members are comprised of local sector leaders from education, business or the third sector. Because they live or work in the area covered by the Opportunity Area, the partnership board members facilitate a consultative community approach and a more devolved, partnership model for opportunity areas (Department for Education, 2022).
Acknowledging and embedding the invaluable knowledge of local people into a project transfers power to the community. It goes beyond simply consulting people and creates a shift, so interventions are not done ‘to’ communities but ‘with’ and therefore ‘for’ them.
Creating place-based change to improve educational outcomes and life chances does not come from looking at individual needs alone, but from looking at a local context holistically. As with systems thinking, the success of place-based working depends on cross-sector action to address complex problems (Government Office for Science, 2022). This might involve coordinating cross-sector with health professionals, the education system, and the local jobs and skills market. All the organisations represented at the roundtable are involved with elements of cross-sector working to achieve their goals.
Likewise, the wicked problem of improving life chances cannot be solved overnight. Projects should be medium to long-term, sometimes even cross-generational to truly have an impact. This approach is recognised in Bradford where the Alliance for Life Chances is working to improve the life chances and outcomes for a generation of children by 2040 in what has been termed ‘a generation to transform a generation’.
While the principles explored above sit at the heart of a successful place-based approach, they can also give rise to challenges.
Drawing on their experience, our roundtable attendees identified a number of challenges to be aware of when planning and delivering place-based projects:
Maintaining momentum throughout a cross-generational project can be difficult, especially when those who hold the community relationships move on from their role. Relationship building should be embedded within the project and not reliant on one person to avoid losing the knowledge and trust of the community if they move on from their role.
Parent Power South London found that community organising training from Citizens UK enabled parents in the group to carry projects forward independently and build their own momentum over time, thus reducing the need for an external facilitator. The group was established in 2017 with initial asks around transport to university open days, and after sustaining weekly virtual meetings during Covid-19 lockdowns, has grown to focus on a number of other campaigns and now includes Empoderando Familias, a Spanish-language chapter.
One mechanism to share power with communities is by demonstrating that their voices have been heard and action has been taken as a consequence. This may involve explaining the systems in which power lies and demystifying who is a decision-maker.
However, an important element of sharing this power and building trust involves managing expectations around what a place-based project can realistically deliver. Some communities, for example those classed as being in areas of high deprivation, may have experienced many interventions over the years which have overpromised what they can deliver. If these relationships are not well-managed, with honesty and transparency about the scope of the project, people may feel mistrustful in future which is ultimately counterproductive.
There was also some discussion about how to define a ‘place’ and how this impacts the delivery of a place-based project. Most attendees expressed that they had at one point encountered a tension between the administrative definitions of a place, such as council wards or constituencies, and the local identity of a place. This community idea of a place is often shaped by local transport links, in particular bus routes, which in practice delineate where people may travel to on a daily basis.
Similarly, there may not be one common identity within a small geographical area due to high rates of inequality. As such, many communities may live within a single place, each shaped by their experiences and opportunities.
Our attendees identified that defining a place tends to be more important to funders and larger organisational bodies involved in delivering place-based work than the communities themselves. Contrasting and contested definitions of a place must be at the very least acknowledged and ideally reconciled for a place-based project to be established successfully. Failure to do so will impede the delivery of a place-based project.
Using place-based approaches to address societal problems enables organisations to address the things that really matter in communities to create real change.
However, in the context of wider society and funding pressures, it can be difficult to encourage funders and policymakers to be interested in place-based approaches. Charity funding is often contingent on demonstrating the scale and the measurable impact of an organisation’s work, a concept which can clash with the principles of place-based work. The full impact of intergenerational projects, for example, may not been seen or measurable for many years. Quantifying the ‘success’ of an intergenerational, context-specific project with shifting aims in the way that policymakers and funders often look for is not an easy task.
This issue surfaced throughout the roundtable discussions. In the UK, we are used to a Whitehall-centralised system in which decisions about communities are often made from a distance. Measuring the impact of a place-based approach lies in understanding the changes made within and by a community. This starts with the community achieving their self-determined aims and can grow beyond the scope of a specific project if the power to make change is transferred to a community in a sustainable way.
Place-based projects emphasise empowering local communities, with a long-term, cross-sector commitment to understanding and addressing localised issues. This offers a promising community driven opportunity to transform educational outcomes and life chances for young people.
There is a growing number of place-based projects across England which aim to address complex social problems in a more holistic way (National Literacy Trust, 2020). While these projects, along with the organisations that have established them, are at different stages of embedding place-based work into their practice, it is clear that this way of working will only expand as the evidence base for its effectiveness becomes more developed and widely shared.
With thanks to the roundtable attendees who contributed to the ideas explored in this blog: Rachel Parkin (Save the Children), Graeme Duncan (Right to Succeed), Dr Matt Williams (Fenland Parent Power), Beverley Wong (Citizens UK & Parent Power South London), Greg Burke (Sheffield Hallam University), Kezia Jackson-Harman (Renaisi), Anne-Marie Canning MBE (Bradford Opportunity Area) and Jonny Singh (West London Zone).
You can read more about The Brilliant Club’s policy work here.
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