• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Wednesday 25th June, 2008

Is social exclusion a more useful key than need?

The Children’s Fund was launched by the UK government in 2000 with a remit to promote multi-agency working to prevent and reduce social exclusion among children between the ages of five and 13. It has operated in all 150 UK local authorities and between 2000 and 2008 it received around $1.9bn (?960m) in funding. Marian Barnes and Kate Morris from the national evaluation team have been examining the strategies adopted in two partnerships and a regional consortium which targeted groups vulnerable to social exclusion: disabled children, refugee and asylum-seeking children, black and minority ethnic children and gypsy/traveler children.So material deprivation, for example, is identifiable in a shared struggle to obtain benefits and in the disproportionately high likelihood that children will live in poor neighborhoods. Their geographic mobility is curtailed because they are allowed to settle only in certain places (travelers), or they are dispersed (asylum-seekers), or they lack transport to participate in certain leisure activities (disabled children). Access to goods and services can be limited by the failure of mainstream services to understand their needs. Black and minority ethnic children, for example, are considerably over-represented in school exclusion figures.Barnes and Morris identify seven strategies, which all services employed to varying degrees.One sought to integrate children into existing mainstream provision, for instance by transporting gypsy/traveler children to sports and leisure services. So-called “separatist provision” involved providing opportunities equivalent to those enjoyed by other children, such as by designing play services specifically for disabled children. Efforts to divert “at risk” young people from anti-social behavior by encouraging changes in behavioral and lifestyle choices characterized another set of strategies. The authors conclude that such approaches were mostly about improving children’s experience and, to some extent, addressing exclusionary attitudes and practices within their communities. They paid much less attention to changing services or addressing the socio-economic circumstances that underpin many experiences of exclusion.So, does a focus on social exclusion do much to change how the children’s services community views children? How does it differ from an approach that focuses on children in need and on how risk and protective factors interact to produce impairment to health and development?Barnes and Morris suggest that a social exclusion perspective focuses on discrete groups of children defined by the demographic and administrative categories that render them susceptible to multiple disadvantage. Little effort is made to differentiate within these categories: the focus is on the most marginalized. It is also implied that a concentration on social exclusion will tackle the multiple problems that such children share rather than on their individual presenting needs.These observations may overstate the distinction. True, a needs perspective encourages greater disaggregation of children’s lives, but approaches other than those informed by social exclusion focus on multiple problems. Moreover, many hypothesized chains of risk emerging from research on risk and protective factors frequently illuminate the multiple factors that need to be addressed.Advocates of social exclusion as a conceptual underpinning for policy and practice also argue that it accentuates the role of structural forces in producing disadvantage. This is nearer the mark, although chains of risk also typically highlight the importance of socio-economic factors. So it tends to boil down to a question only of emphasis.Perhaps a more obvious distinction is that discourses of exclusion are more concerned with assigning responsibility for a child’s circumstances, whether it lies with broader social forces or professionals or with the child’s own parents or attitudes. There is talk of perpetrators and victims and inequalities of power. This may help to give responses to social exclusion a more radical-sounding edge, but, as Barnes and Morris note, policy and practice are nevertheless more likely to focus on the excluded than the excluder.

Highlighting the instruments of inclusion

A further question is to how a focus on social exclusion affects the shape of services, and what distinguishes it from a more traditional needs-led approach.Certainly there are differences of emphasis between inclusion- and need-orientated approaches to service provision. The former attempt to shift the emphasis from individualized provision for specific children at risk towards the broader context in which children develop. It also highlights the ‘instruments’ of exclusion and so encourages attention to possible changes in how society is organized. As such it seeks to exert its influence beyond the child and family.Endorsement of local, community-based forms of resistance to disadvantage is another feature of the discourse. Good examples would be “Grey economy” activities by people in poverty and the establishment of supplementary schools within black communities. Thus, some Children’s Fund projects not only provided mentoring in school for individual refugee and asylum-seeking children but also tried to create a more sympathetic educational environment.Again, some of the features that advocates would like to think are unique to a social exclusion perspective can be found in services that have a different orientation. So, an emphasis on greater service coordination is also implicit in much commentary on needs-led services: it is a means of organizing services better to meet children’s needs. Strategies designed to combat social exclusion furthermore frequently resemble in practice the caricatured needs-led approaches so frowned upon. Parenting courses, for example, are promoted as means to help the “excluded poor” but a needs discourse might encourage similar interventions as a means to encourage authoritative parenting indicated by research to contribute to positive outcomes for most children.Thus, the so-called normalizing tendencies of the social inclusion discourse render it less radical than its advocates would like and more like the approach it seeks to replace. Put another way, there appears to be a natural drift towards the “weak” model of exclusion, focused on the individual who is excluded, and away from the “strong” model with its stress on the excluder in the form of broader social forces.A social inclusion perspective offers some useful insights into children’s well-being and encourages a welcome emphasis on structural problems that too often are glossed over in the search for risk factors that can more easily be addressed. But it doesn’t offer a magic new solution, and efforts to promote inclusion should not ride roughshod over sound, evidence-based interventions.• Barnes, M. and Morris, K. (2008) ‘Strategies for the prevention of social exclusion: an analysis of the Children’s Fund’, Journal of Social Policy 37 (2), pp 251-270.

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