Master's Thesis, 2010, 46 Pages
2. Developing a Concept of Effective Engagement
3. Ethnicity and Effective Engagement - Research Evidence from the Early Years
Effective Engagement and Sensitive Service Design
4. Integrated Children’s Centres – The Background
5. Turning to Practice: Engaging Effectively with Somali Parents
Preliminary Remarks and Methodology
Service Engagement of Somali Parents – External Factors
Service Engagement of Somali Parents – Centres’ Response
6. Concluding remarks
7. Annex: Foundation Stage Profile Results 2009 for the Observed Area
(Un-)published Local Material
Inspired by discourses on social justice and human investment, the situation of children and their families has moved to the forefront of scientific and political attention in recent years. Across Western countries, there has been increased concern about the decisive impact, family factors, such as social class, household structure and ethnicity, have on a child’s development, well-being and future life opportunities (Moss 1992; Anning and Ball 2008).
Assessments of children from deprived or black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds consistently show significant deficits in cognitive, social and physical development compared to white middle-class peers even before entering school (Sammons et al. 1999; Feinstein 2003; Strand 2008). BME children thereby often suffer a double disadvantage of deprivation and difference (SEU 2001, Craig 2007). International evidence, however, suggests that adverse contextual effects can be considerably mediated through high-quality Early Years provision and good at-home parenting (Pugh 1992; Desforges 2003; Melhuish 2004; Sylva et al. 2004; Zoritch et al. 2004).
As a cornerstone of the government’s Every Child Matters strategy, the Sure Start programme, initiated in 1998, builds on area-based multi-sector services comprising childcare, early education, health and family support to provide accessible, targeted and comprehensive services for children in pre-school age and their families. Developing partnerships with parents to help children achieve their full potential is an explicit objective. Yet, the National Evaluation of Sure Start Local Programmes (NESS) and first evidence from their successors Integrated Children’s Centres (ICCs) point to significant difficulties in reaching BME families (National Audit Office 2006; Belsky et al. 2007; Anning and Ball 2008; Craig 2008). This raises serious concerns about the appropriateness of service provision for this target group.
The following essay seeks to explore conditions for engaging effectively with BME parents in ICCs. The first section establishes a concept of effective engagement encompassing accessibility, inclusion and outcome dimensions. Drawing on existing research on ethnicity and Early Years provision, the second section provides a framework of individual and structural determinants of effectiveness, which is subsequently applied to the specific conditions related to ICCs.
Given the significant diversity of BME groups and the limitedness of existing research on their experience, general considerations will then be compared with findings from a case study of Somali parents undertaken in a London locality from January to June 2010. In order to develop a more profound understanding of the underlying processes and conditions, a qualitative approach has thereby been pursued, combining documentary analysis with participant observation and semi-structured elite interviews. It will then be contended that while individual, ethno-specific and environmental factors often create additional challenges for engaging effectively with BME parents, those can be overcome through culturally sensitive services provided by well-trained and committed staff as well as their appropriate endowment with financial resources and time to build up trusting relationships. There are, however, indications that the ability of staff to respond to the specific needs of BME parents is constrained by tensions arising from the rapid expansion of service provision as well as the underlying target culture and performance management model.
To analyse the effectiveness of services in engaging with a given target group first of all requires developing a clear understanding of effectiveness and engagement . This is, however, difficult to achieve as both concepts are highly contested.
According to Erlendsson (2002), effectiveness describes ‘the extent to which objectives are met (“doing the right things”)’. It is therefore neither a self-evident nor a neutral concept, but a political construct. Fraser (1994) and Sammons (1996) point out that measurements of service effectiveness are shaped by the underlying policy objectives evolving from power discourses, the time period observed and the point of view taken by the examiner.
Likewise, the term engagement has so far been lacking a clear definition, which makes it susceptible to political and professional interpretation (Heyes 1993; Beresford 2003). Beyond the consensus that ‘engagement is a personal condition’ (Mason 2007) there is little common ground on what it actually entails.
To operationalise both concepts for a subsequent analysis of the situation applying to BME parents in ICCs, it will be suggested to frame effective engagement as a three-dimensional concept comprising accessibility, inclusion and outcomes. This format has been chosen, firstly, because those appear to be the three aspects most widely considered in the general literature on engagement and, secondly, because they allow for accompanying families throughout the service process.
Accessibility is a main precondition for effective engagement as only participation renders an interaction between services and users possible in the first place. It is largely determined by the availability and affordability of provision as well as the physical and personally perceived possibility to participate.
In order to establish meaningful interaction, however, accessibility has to be complemented by an aim for inclusion . According to the Early Childhood Forum (2003: 1), ‘[i]nclusion is a process of identifying, understanding and breaking down the barriers to participation and belonging’. It goes beyond mere physical integration by promoting the involvement of users in planning, delivery and evaluation processes so as to design culturally sensitive and responsive services that value every person in their diversity. Ideally, inclusive services foster ownership, improve the sustainability of involvement and ultimately enhance positive outcomes for users.
As mentioned above, services are considered to be effective if they support the achievement of set objectives. Given that those may differ across agents, it seems useful to consider policy, practitioner and user level goals and effectiveness indicators as well as possible tensions between them. To sum up, effective engagement can be defined as service provision which is accessible to as well as inclusive of users and has positive outcomes measured against policy, practitioner and user objectives.
Having established a concept of effective engagement, the subsequent section focuses on individual and structural determinants of service effectiveness in engaging with BME families.
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Figure 1: Determinants of Effective Engagement, Source: Own Design.
Sociological thought has long dealt with the problem of reconciling structure and agency. Structuration theorists such as Simmel (1971) argue that individual behaviour is guided by pre-existing systems of norms and values, which are, in turn, shaped by the outcomes of social action; a process Giddens (1984) termed ‘reflexive structuration’. Following this rationale, effective engagement can be seen as the result of a complex interaction between parents and the social services ‘system’. This, in turn, is shaped by their shared environment as well as the individual situation and ethnicity of the parent.
BME parents’ specific characteristics often represent a considerable challenge to engagement because they bring about specific needs social services have to adjust to. While it is necessary to acknowledge the high diversity between and within groups, it can also be said that BME parents are more likely to have low levels of education and English language proficiency (DfES 2006b). This is important, because findings by Skeggs (2004) suggest that both factors have a decisive impact on parent’s ability to acquire, understand and utilise information on service provision. BME families are also considerably over-represented in the lowest income-quintile, with 70% of Bangladeshi, 60% of Pakistani and over 50% of Black families living in income poverty (DWP 2009). Phillips (2009) points out that deprivation limits the ability to cover costs of transport and service provision and is also linked to living in neighbourhoods with higher rates of over-crowding, unemployment, crime and ill-health.
Furthermore, Bell et al. (2005) suggest that employment patterns and household structure impact upon service use as they determine time resources parents can draw from. Thus, Platt (2007) stresses that 57% of Black Caribbean mothers raise their children alone while a high percentage simultaneously work full-time, which leaves little space for active involvement. Likewise, a case study of the Coram Parent’s Centre (Page et al. 2007) found that Bangladeshi parents were experiencing difficulties accessing services at mainstream times due to fathers’ unsocial working hours combined with high female care responsibilities evolving from large family sizes.
The extent and nature of parental engagement is also strongly associated with parents general view of childhood, parenting and the public-private responsibility share as well as their familiarity and previous experience with services or prejudices towards them (Barn 2006).
As stressed before, individuals are tightly embedded in cultural, environmental and systemic structures that interact with their own conditions. Although the strong diversity of individual experience defies generalisations, there are certain determinants of engagement which are strongly associated with parents’ ethnic origin. Schermerhorn (1974) defines ethnicity as a collectively constructed identity based on perceived similarities in language, culture, religion, ancestry or values. Other authors, however, are highly critical of ethnic categorisations for staying remote from self-perceptions as well as sociological concepts (Fenton 2003) and masking strong in-group variation, thus essentialising culture (Fraser 2000; Malik 2005).
It is nevertheless widely acknowledged that self-perceived as well as externally ascribed ethnic belonging impacts significantly upon service use. Firstly, ethnic groups generally share a common set of basic values, customs and concepts related to honour, gender role models or parenting, which may affect parental engagement with services (Braun 1992; DfES 2006d). Likewise, religion and kinship patterns can be a strong factor of social control restricting parents’ self-determination (Abbas 2002; Dale 2002). Evidence from Bell et al.’s (2005) study on the use of childcare among BME families, for example, indicates that Black Caribbean parents were most likely to use formal care given high rates of lone parenthood and full-time work as well as a strong valuing of independence. Contrastingly, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black African parents relied more strongly on maternal care and extended families reflecting community expectations and a higher level of suspicion towards social services, an observation supported by findings from Barn et al. (1997). Secondly, people from the same ethnic group often face similar patterns of disadvantage evolving from historical and contemporary discrimination. Siraj-Blatchford (1992) understands present discriminatory practices and beliefs as a legacy from the Empire. She argues that notions of ‘black’ inferiority still shape practitioners’ interaction with ethnic minority parents and are constantly reproduced through the media, while Tomlinson (2005) and Reay et al. (2007) point out that social services as such have been poorly adapted to an increasingly diverse society.
Beyond considerations of ethnicity, the service-parent relationship is also affected by the wider environment in which interaction takes place. This encompasses national and local policies as well as the situation of the community the services are provided to. Craig (2007) stresses that the extent to which services are able to reach BME parents is strongly conditioned by the ethnic composition of the community as well as services’ relations to local groups and other providers. His findings suggest that enhancing BME participation is particularly difficult in areas characterised by high levels of ethnic diversity, in-group conflicts or service fragmentation.
Lastly, social services themselves can be both a contributor to and hinderer of engagement depending on the extent to which individual, ethno-specific and environmental characteristics are acknowledged in provision, targets and resourcing. This will be examined more closely in the following section, drawing on existing research on ethnicity and engagement.
In political and scientific discourse, BME families are often framed as ‘hard-to-reach’ groups (Lloyd and Rafferty 2006, DCSF 2008, Together for Children 2009). According to Cook (2002), this conceptualisation is largely ‘misleading and counterproductive’ (p. 525), because it devolves responsibilities for non-participation to individuals while neglecting the impact of service design on reducing access barriers. Thus, Bell et al. (2005) suggest that financial and time constraints can be overcome if services are affordable, available at convenient times and within physical reach. Wadsworth and Taylor (2004) highlight the importance of language barriers and lack of awareness of, as well as trust in, available services in explaining low participation rates of BME parents. This calls, as Pugh (1988) argues, for comprehensive systems which provide adequate information in a range of languages and through a variety of different channels, such as outreach work, other practitioners and local organisations or spearhead events on service premises and high-frequented sites.
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