‘Intergenerational worklessness’ and Communities First – real or imagined?

The London School of Economics Politics and Policy blog is well worth regularly dropping by for interesting comment and research on issues of public policy in the UK, including issues related to poverty and disadvantage.

One of the more interesting of late was this blog by Dr Lindsey Macmillan that deftly debunks the myth of intergenerational welfare dependence i.e., families where several generations of people have never worked and rely on benefits rather than wages; indeed, choose such a ‘lifestyle’ as the poverty porn and government narrative posits.

Macmillan’s PhD thesis focused on the empirical evidence that exists (or not) on the scale of the issue of intergenerational worklessness and concluded that it is massively over-emphasised. Her main findings are:

  • there is only a tiny fraction of multi-generational households (MGHs) in which both generations have never worked (15,000, or 0.3% of MGHs)
  • of which around a third are households where the younger generation has only left full-time education within the last 12 months (thus perhaps only a temporary state of multi-generational worklessness)
  • though sons of workless fathers will be more likely to experience more time out of work than their peers with an employed father, in areas of low unemployment the labour market experiences of sons of workless fathers and sons of employed fathers will be broadly similar;
  • but the experiences in high unemployment areas will vastly differ between sons of workless and employed fathers, with the son of the former spending up to 30% more of his time workless than his friend with an employed dad

Macmillan contends that a family’s experience of work and local labour market conditions are more a factor than any family pathology. Notably that such families will experience a large degree of churn in and out of the labour market over the working lives of both generations. Both generations are therefore more at risk of simultaneous worklessness but by external factors.

A fascinating conclusion, related to the third bullet point above, is the apparent role of informal networks on job-seeking. Though, Macmillan concedes, data is limited on networks in the UK, there is evidence from elsewhere about the value of informal connections. Because as the cost of looking for a job increases with unemployment – due to there being fewer jobs available; a fact that is overlooked, or (deliberately obfuscated?) by the get-on-yer-bike-and-look-for-work lobby – any ‘short cut’ that puts you within reach of a job is a massive boost. An employed friend, or even an unemployed friend of an employed dad, might be potentially useful to you in your job-seeking efforts. Simply,

“For sons with workless fathers, the combination of high unemployment rates and weaker informal connections could be driving the higher rates of labour market churn.”

This should be thought-provoking for those of us working in areas with fragile labour markets, particularly those post-industrial communities whose labour once upon a time ago would easily be mopped up by nearby large steelworks, pits or docks. Not only in terms of how interventions such as, but not exclusively, Communities First (CF) might nurture the informal connections that appear so beneficial to job-seekers in areas of unemployment, but how it should challenge some preconceptions that I have heard expressed over the years by some in CF.

It might be half-expected from the likes of Ian Duncan-Smith for whom, infamously, unemployment in Merthyr Tydfil could easily be tackled by individuals merely catching the train to Cardiff where work would appear, to him at least, be plentiful (though this conveniently overlooks the economic activity rates in the west, east and south of the city). Indeed, in her blog Macmillan links to several policy statements emanating from Duncan-Smith’s portfolio.

It might be somewhat more surprising to hear it from workers in the CF programme. Presumably a programme whose workforce prides itself in knowing its communities and getting to know the needs of individuals its supports will be cognisant of an individual’s circumstances. Perhaps not as much as it requires, though, for unless the households that comprise the 0.3% of MGHs (see bullet one) concentrate in Wales, and specifically in CF areas, there should be not as much experience of (supposed) entrenched worklessness being present in CF as I have heard some express. This is borne out by the majority of households in Wales where no-one has worked for over 6 months (and therefore eligible for support by the Lift/Esgyn programme) actually being single person households and therefore not MGHs

Logo esgyn

Perhaps it’s more a question of perception or language? Perhaps we should not take people at face value if they say their parents have never worked, thus erroneously confirming our bias? Certainly Macmillan’s findings would suggest that one’s parents might have never sustained long, even medium, term employment or forged a career in a particular field or sector. But “never worked”? Though there will be some these must be minute based on the overall data that Macmillan has researched and, therefore MGHs must be the exception rather than the rule in CF communities.

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In response to the Bevan Foundation’s ‘Goodbye Communities First?’ blog

It’s been strange couple for weeks for those of us working on the Communities First (CF) programme.

The Welsh Government’s Programme for Government (PfG) failed to mention CF at all. The First Minister was repeatedly pressed by Radio Wales on the programme’s future but refused to yield any clue as to what happens at the end of this financial year. The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children also failed to suggest CF has a future when setting out his portfolio’s priorities to the Assembly’s Equality, Local Government & Communities Committee.

The cherry on top was Wales Online’s decision to dredge up the 2009 Plas Madoc scandal as part of its reporting of the PfG. Never one to offer balanced reporting of CF it typically failed to report that auditors found precious little of concern in governance inquiries in the scandal’s aftermath.

The Bevan Foundation’s commentary is at least a measured comment at a time when there is a a worrying information ‘vacuum’ about the future of CF. Communities First, which is in its fourteenth year, deserves better.

True, few programmes have received the cross-party consensus and longevity of funding that it has. There have been bumps along the way and the programme was fundamentally misunderstood for many years in its infancy. But we must remember that it has operated in the most disadvantaged communities in Wales.

These are communities that find themselves routinely at the wrong end of tables for chronic health, mortality, employment, educational attainment and numerous other indicators. Given Wales itself tends to fare badly when compared with other home nations and English regions on such proxies for disadvantage, it serves as a sober reminder that these are communities whose disadvantage is so entrenched as to make them among the most deprived in the whole of the UK, and probably further afield.

The Bevan Foundation is right to draw attention to how CF “simply could not swim against the tide of major economic and social forces” such as welfare reform and austerity policies; and who yet knows how CF areas will cope post-Brexit?

However, the truth is that Welsh Government itself has relatively few levers to mitigate the impact of welfare reform and austerity. Stringent cuts to the public sector are not confined to England, and where the Welsh Government does have some devolved scope to mitigate impact, such as discretionary housing payments, these will be increasingly under budgetary pressure in coming years.

CF may be largely impotent against such forces, but we should not devalue or overlook the merit in knowing what the impact of such forces is on communities, neighbourhoods and households. Immersed in communities in the way that CF is means it has ‘intelligence’ in abundance. Better sharing of this intelligence is required however. Since 2009 I have been involved in supporting, training and advising the Communities First workforce. The Communities First Support Service talks increasingly these days of supporting the workforce’s learning. Having such a dispersed programme and workforce across Wales means that it seldom acts with a unified voice on issues. Numerous CF staff will be acutely aware of the complexities caused by, for instance, Universal Credit and housing on the lives of people in or on the cusp of poverty. They will work closely with individuals whose efforts to return to the labour market are undermined by fragile mental health or abusive domestic environments. Or they will see at first-hand how aspects of ethnicity, gender or faith can aggravate poverty. But they rarely share the learning that has happened to inform this understanding.

How these, and a myriad of other factors, combine to affect the lives of disadvantaged individuals is witnessed by Communities First staff, who are potentially as expert as anyone on poverty in Wales. The challenge for WCVA and Welsh Government is to better connect the workforce and so that it can inform policy and practice, both of Communities First and other agencies.

But what underpins this relationship with individuals and communities is trust and the Bevan Foundation is absolutely right to note that it is unlikely that:

“large-scale, government schemes that offer similar services [to Communities First] will have the reach or trust of people in deprived areas”.

But this trust has built-up in Communities First areas over the last decade and more and must not be allowed to dissipate wholesale when the future of the programme is resolved, as it all too often does towards the end of funding rounds as uncertainty creeps into the programme and staff churn happens.

The Communities First workforce is not just a group of workers on a government programme. It is a workforce that is informed about, trusted by and immersed in communities; whose training has been invested in over many years and whose skills have been nurtured; which is underpinned by community development principles; and which, along with Communities First’s cluster configuration, serves to provide an operational and practical apparatus for the connection of other more focused programmes such as Lift or Communities for Work. Moreover, CF provides for an ethical basis for these programmes. The more agencies such as Job Centre Plus move to an outreach approach, the more it needs a programme like CF to mediate its traditional delivery. In this ‘work’ blog about men’s engagement in the Upper Rhymney Valley the Cluster Manager, Sean, talks about how he invites JCP staff to drop by activities with local men in order to be more ‘humanized’. Part and parcel of being disadvantaged is feeling stigmatised and condescended by the very services charged to ‘help’.

Policies that encourage communities to greater ownership of assets, local plans and co-production of services are all well and good but inherent in this is a requirement to re-fashion power relations between stakeholders. Power is seldom given away. So community development as a practice is committed to fairer distributions of local power and a workforce that is trusted to work in the interests of communities will be required to help facilitate and broker new settlements. Former Sustainable Futures Commissioner for Wales, Peter Davies, recently addressed the One Voice Wales conference for Town and Community Councillors. He said:

“We need less of the top down national programmes parachuting into local communities on short term contracts and more support for community led projects that can meet local needs for the long term”

People living in poverty will continue to be vulnerable to pernicious economic and social forces but they are often not having their local needs met either. There should be scope in programmes such as Communities First – or whatever it evolves into or is succeeded by – to help support the third sector and community interests to develop strategies to increase community resilience and not just to work with individuals to improve theirs, as important as this is to them.

It should also be remembered that ‘community-led’ will itself be a contested concept. Local authorities may have a particular interpretation of community-led that differs from independent local trusts or associations. Town and Community Councils may have another. In his address, Davies is right, by quoting Conservative Assembly Member Angela Burns, to draw attention to so-called representative community organisations that actually serve to represent only narrow (self-)interests.

In this respect, governance arrangements must be robust and fit-for-purpose but also allow for the inclusion of new and traditionally under-represented interests.Support for people to enhance their understanding and broaden their skills will be required to ensure that there is plurality in decision-making and that succession planning can provide for continuity. Funders need to be flexible in how they shape and prescribe their funding programmes. At the heart of CF or – gulp, a post-CF programme – must be a commitment to asset based development that recognises that all communities have strengths and assets and should not be defined by their problems or issues.

Among its suggestions for a post-CF approach to tackling poverty, the Bevan Foundation is right to assert that there should be a strong anti-poverty theme in all Welsh Government strategies. Moreover there should be a strong anti-poverty theme to all government – local and central – strategies in Wales and those of government sponsored bodies. If the time has come to end CF, as the Bevan Foundation suggests because it doesn’t address the underlying causes of poverty, there is a danger in pitching programmes and interventions against each other. Peter Davies says the time has come for fewer top down national programmes and I wouldn’t disagree. But there’s an argument that says until the Welsh Assembly has adequate control over (and appetite to use…?) the tax and welfare levers that can mount a robust challenge to poverty at a national scale, then local responses to the impact of poverty will still be required, albeit perhaps fashioned in a different configuration to that which is presently the case. Besides, we certainly need more bottom-up approaches, but if they come at the expense of top-down governmental commitment and vision then change may prove to be only piecemeal and patchwork across Wales. If the powers that be decide that the majority of projects that CF delivers are of, at best, only modest impact, so be it. There is potential to tackle poverty in reconfigured forms of food and energy production, new approaches to caring for our elderly and vulnerable members of society, and in mobilising alternative currencies. If other things work better than CF then I would be among the first to herald them. However, these can be piloted and mobilised locally but aggregating and scaling-up the benefits is not inevitable. It also requires a lot of learning – that L word again – to take place to understand why they are (or might be) successful.The Bevan Foundation suggests transferring the most successful Communities First activities to community ownership; paramount in this is also identifying and sharing why they are successful.

And this is key: ‘might be successful’. It takes bold political vision to try and persist with different approaches and that can be found at a local level but on its own can be a lone voice. It takes bold visions at all levels, including the neighbourhood, and for those visions to mesh and connect to achieve lasting change.

Until we better understand poverty – which in the Welsh context the Bevan Foundation does commendable work to do – our policies, strategies and interventions will continue to make only modest in-roads.



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Playwork as Community Development: interview and podcast with Mike Barclay

In our respective day jobs Mike Barclay, from Wrexham’s Play Development team and Ludicology, and I with Communities First, first met in November 2015 when we began liaising over research into the social benefits of playwork in Wrexham.

We finalised the research brief and in so doing I gained a much clearer understanding of playwork (as distinct from play). But more than that it prompted me to consider community development in a different light.

In the research brief Mike referred to community development in a way that caught my eye. Here is a precis of the interview with Mike in which he expands on this idea.

The full interview is available in this podcast:


Russell: What do people need to know about you Mike?

Mike: I have three main roles in relation to children’s play and playwork. One I’m a dad, so working in some support, or not, of children’s play on a daily basis. But then I run an organisation called Ludicology with Ben Tawil. And Ludicology means a study of playfulness, so that’s what that organisation is really about and we provide advice, research and training around children’s play and that’s really about supporting anybody that’s working with or on behalf of children to better understand children’s playfulness and therefore how we work with them. But I’m also the Play Sufficiency Lead for Wrexham Council. So I manage Wrexham Council’s Play Development Team, I support and manage a lot of playwork provision and I’ve only ever been a playworker. I’ve managed to make a career out of being a playworker and there’s not a lot of people who can say that because there’s not many playworkers. So playwork is a real passion of mine. I think the playwork profession has a lot of value that isn’t widely recognised.

Russell: What’s brought us to this situation of sitting around the table now, was that with my work hat on in the Communities First programme in Wales and you with your Wrexham Council hat on, we’re working on a piece of work around trying to better capture, better articulate some of the social benefits of playwork. I’m not going to talk about that now. But as part of the brief there was a sentence that made me stop in my tracks as I was reading, and that was that:

“Playwork might best be understood as play centred community development”

Mike: It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while and I think for a lot of people who are in the UK who have been in playwork for a long time, this is really the way, within playwork, a lot of those people would have thought about it. But I suppose to make sense of it we should start talking about what playwork is about and in terms of what playworkers do, they are first and foremost concerned with supporting children’s right to play. So the outcome of playwork ideally is more playing. A playworker is concerned with the child agenda of playing which is pretty unique really. If you look at most adults who work with children they usually, and this isn’t to diminish their roles at all, come with some form of adult desired outcome. They are working with children towards some future developmental outcome. And playwork isn’t. Playwork is concerned about whether children are able to play as an everyday part of their lives.

“And so primarily, in simple terms, playwork is primarily about enabling and supporting children’s play.”

But then when you think about how do you go about supporting children’s play and think about the realities of children’s play, most people through their own childhoods or through having children, would recognise that children play in all kinds of places. Children don’t just play in these designated times and spaces where playworkers might be: adventure playgrounds or play schemes. Those places are great for playing, but they’re not all of children’s play lives by any means. And actually if we wanted to really support children’s play it would be about making sure that children could easily find time and space for playing wherever they find themselves. In those communities where children rate a very high satisfaction with playing, you find examples of them playing all over the place and that leads you to think it’s more about developing the conditions for playing rather than only about that specific provision. How do we cultivate more favourable conditions so that children can find time and space for playing? And that’s where I think we start to look at this community development role because playworkers, when they’re at their best, are looking at how do you cultivate a culture of playing throughout a whole community.

Certainly some of the best playwork that I’ve seen and I’m really proud to say that I’ve seen it in Wrexham, is those places where playworkers are right in amongst their communities. They might have a designated place, a junk playground which offers certain things, but they’re also right in the middle of their communities, they’re involved in community celebrations, they’re playing hide and seek on estates, they’re cleaning up patches of grass, creating that kind of sense that children’s play is welcome in this community.

“I think in that way, playworkers are doing community development work; they’re trying to develop communities that are supportive of play.”

Russell: You describe it like that and, well, why had that not really occurred to me previously? And I think it’s because maybe it’s that interpretation or conception of play as a certain thing that happens; and defining it in a certain way. It looks like maybe play schemes or council playgrounds and parks, and I think I feel almost a tinge of guilt that I’d overly simplified it. When we first started working together, I picked up quite early on from you – what’s the polite way of saying this? – that you were quite determined to make the distinction between playwork, play and playing. I didn’t want to say the word obsessive! But playwork is a particular thing that is distinct from other things. And that was something I found myself having to coach myself not to annoy you with.

The principles behind doing this podcast is that you see reference to community development quite a lot and you go, well it’s immersed in the community, it’s well intended, it might one day become community development, but it’s not at the moment. And I sense a sort of parallel between how you are describing playwork.

Mike: I’m now very wary of maybe me using community development in the wrong way! But children are driven to relentlessly try and find opportunities for playing. And what we’ve seen over recent decades, I think, is adults almost trying to take ownership of the word play. There always has to be a why children play. So children play because it’s about learning; or children play because it improves physical activity. That’s not why children play. Children play because they are driven to do it and they’re motivated because of the pleasure they gain from doing it. It is that simple. We don’t really treat children often as people. But playworkers do and we say those kinds of people are very playful, that’s what they do and therefore we should support that because they have a right as a person to do that stuff in their communities. And so for playwork, play is about stuff that kids do for whatever reason they do it. But in saying that, we recognise that all kinds of benefits are coming from them doing it. The irony is that when adults try and take ownership of that play and try and make it purposeful to get to the developmental outcome they desire, we see adults getting involved and making play less playful.

Russell: It’s quite powerful I suppose to say children do it for its sheer, intrinsic value and the pleasure they drive from it.

Mike: That’s what the Welsh Government says.

“The definition in the Play Policy says that it’s freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated. It’s more or less child led. It’s highly variable, it contains all of these kinds of elements of uncertainty and it is done for its own sake.”

And when adults try and support it for some other external goal it isn’t really playing, and children know it. And where they get enough playing they have a better attachment to the places because they can recognise people and instiutions who are supportive of play, and they can recognise communities that are supportive of play. It’s about recognising that children aren’t quite as simple as you might think.

Russell: So playworkers get that

Mike: Hopefully

Russell: And when I say playworkers, in the same way that there’s a particular definition in your mind and the sector’s mind of what is and what isn’t playwork, does that follow the same for what is and isn’t a playworker? The reason I ask that is because in the community development sector there has been for the last few years this drive to professionalise it, and I always use that term advisedly because there is a certain pejorative connotation that that throws up. But to develop, articulate and form that consensus around values and principles and to develop occupational standards. So a community development worker is somebody that does these things, informed by these values and abides by these principles. Is there the same parallel with people who are playworkers?

Mike: Yes, I think so and I think the really important point is like you say there, that I think there has been a danger in the past that it’s seen that playworkers are the ones that work with play, therefore other people don’t. And that’s certainly not the case. And in terms of the things we do with Ludicology and in Wrexham, we’re saying that anybody who works with and on behalf of children and their families would be best placed to do so where they have a good understanding of children’s play and how to work with it. Many of the problems we come across is where we work against children’s innate playfulness. So everybody would be better off understanding children’s play. But I do think playwork has a distinct role in terms of being focused on play as the outcome, not coming at it from other adult prescribed outcomes, and being primarily concerned with cultivating these more favourable conditions and relating to children by supporting their play.

I think there is real value in that profession being appropriately recognised and that’s what playwork has been trying to do. Playwork came out of the junk playgrounds, the concept of which was brought to the UK from Denmark. But it was through that emergence of playwork over probably 60 years that we then worked towards what we call the Playwork Principles which is a kind of ethical framework that guides playwork practice. Only eight principles. But that stuff was only introduced around 2000 onwards. But those values and ideas had been developing for 40 years before that and I think within playwork there is certainly a shared appreciation of what playwork is. I don’t think that playwork’s always been very good at articulating what it is and that’s maybe why it’s not as well-known as it should be.

Russell: People tend to have conversations with each other, within that very, sort of, closed shop. Community development is the same. Communities First as a programme is the same. We talk to each other about things, we learn from each other, we don’t necessarily tell other people or stakeholders and certainly not those people who don’t get it or don’t want it, for whatever reason. I can certainly see a parallel there.

MIke: Yes and I think part of it comes down to going back to play as an outcome. It’s all about how we construct childhood and play in the UK and the fact that play isn’t really currently seen as a legitimate outcome in its own right. Play is not as important as learning or sport or these other things in our society we value more than playing; although the irony is that for children playing is probably the most important one. But if play was really valued, and people really understood what happens when you work in support of play, then I think that position might change.

Russell: So is part of the role of playworker about persuading others – funders, the powers that be, political leaders, community leaders – of its intrinsic value, that it as an outcome is enough in itself? And something else you wrote in that initial brief was about the extent to which playworkers support the development of positive attitudes towards children and that corrected me where you think, ‘Ok, they’re just supervising kids playing’.

Mike: Yes. Advocacy is one of the Playwork Principles and I think it’s advocacy at many levels. As a playworker I hardly do any work with kids now. I still count myself as a playworker but I spend most of my time advocating to strategic decision makers, funders, elected members and parents and other professionals. But we’ve got playworkers out today and they’ll be advocating maybe in a very subtle way to parents and people wandering past. So I think there’s all kinds of little bits of advocacy but really maybe ‘conversations’ is a better word. I think there’s all kinds of conversations to be had about children and their position within communities. And that stuff has to happen on a day by day basis. Also sometimes I think it is taking a stand and I’ve seen playworkers do that, who won’t allow children’s rights to be railroaded. I think there’s a real justice issue around children in communities, particularly around spatial justice and this idea that it’s very easy to overlook children’s rights because they have less power.

“And so often adult decisions and preferences get prioritised, sometimes at the expense of children. And it’s not about saying we should prioritise children’s rights over adults’; it’s about a more equal distribution. So I think often playworkers are mediating between child and adult agendas and giving children more of a voice.”

Russell: In the first place, identifying and drawing attention to those power imbalances or inequalities, doing something to address, maybe even them out a little bit more is I suppose bread and butter to somebody calling themselves a community development worker. The community with whom you are doing that, whether it’s children and young people; whether it’s with communities of interest, based around ethnicity or other characteristics; whether it’s to do with what’s been primarily my background, areas of deprivation and disadvantage, you’re having to redress those power imbalances. And sometimes some of the most deeply rooted ones are not between the haves and the have nots, so to speak, but within the have nots where you’ve got people or some sort of very prominent community role “representing”, in inverted commas, the community. And although that’s important – a traditional representative form of democracy is a staple of our society – you can do it in a participative way and the power imbalances or power struggles that have come about where your traditional councillor has found his or her role a little bit undermined, have been absolutely fascinating to see up close.

Mike: Yes and I think playwork is political and it has certainly been at the centre of many political issues within communities. There was a community recently and they were doing a consultation around the redevelopment of some of the housing; maybe adult priorities are given greater emphasis. But then the playworkers take the children into the consultation and it’s not always an easy situation for adults to be in, but it does start to change those processes and maybe it does enable something that is a little bit more democratic or at least something that’s a bit more just. But as a consequence playwork is always going to be tied to political issues.

Russell: Absolutely. You sometimes hear this within Communities First: “We’ve got to be apolitical, non-political”. The reality is what we’re talking about is the distribution of wealth and resources and power. If that’s not politics then I don’t know what is. That’s been the case for thousands of years.

 Mike: Yes and maybe it’s politics at a local level, with a small p.

Russell: But I think it should be embraced and if we’re talking about trying to create more rounded, more fully engaged citizens, we know there’s a big democratic deficit in a lot of disadvantaged communities. Then surely showing young people or people at whatever formative age that there’s merit in getting involved, in putting their view forward. That can only be a good thing. It comes back to this thing about well why do we have to justify this? There’s clearly an intrinsic value in it; they’re the community leaders of tomorrow, they’re the informed parents of tomorrow.

Mike: And they’re the children of today. That’s a big part of it for me, is about how often do children meet an adult who is pretty much on equal terms with them? I think that playwork spaces are pretty democratic spaces. They should be places where if children go, “Actually we want to pull that down now”, they can pull it down. It’s pretty empowering for kids really. More so now than ever, I think children spend time in environments that are supervised and run by adults and those adults can, I think, overextend their authority.

We were looking at different levels of satisfaction with opportunities for play in communities and a couple of the places where children didn’t just say it was good but the majority of kids in that community said it was great, were the places where they had sustained playwork. I was talking to the kids, and these were in some of what would be seen as more economically deprived areas, and we asked this group of kids, what’s the thing that helps the most? And they were saying, without a doubt the adventure playground. Which perhaps was no surprise but what was really interesting was they then went on to talk more about what the adventure playground did for them when they weren’t at the adventure playground than what happens inside the adventure playground. And they were telling real stories of things that had happened to them. They got chased by a dog, they could go and find the playworker. They forgot their coat and they were cold, they went and found a playworker. There was some scary bloke chasing them, the playworker walked them home and when it got dark they rang mum to say, kid’s on the way. These might seem like really little things but to kids they’re really big things and they build up.

What you get from that is a really trusting relationship, that there are these adults out there who are keeping an eye, who are making the community feel a bit safer, helping them get along with stuff, and as a consequence what you see where you have sustained playwork is this culture of playing.

Russell: Which is why I’m interested in this, it’s about how that can help make, in that instance, slightly more cohesive communities, which might sound big and grand, because it might be what you’re talking about is a little cul de sac of 20 houses, but then a lot of people talk about how they don’t know their neighbours anymore. So we can overlook the significance of that at our peril.

Mike: I think play is just a really important part of the human condition. And when we talk about community development, like you were saying, redistributing power and stuff like that, often the ways in which we do that are through a form of playing or another, whether it’s bringing people together to have a bit of a picnic or a water fight. It isn’t done for some external reward, it’s just something everyone can do. And I think there is something very powerful about adults being around children playing. I think that’s some kind of evolutionary thing where we benefit from seeing kids having a good time.

Russell: I think that’s absolutely right. That’s fascinating. I could probably talk for another couple of hours. Do you want to give another little plug for yourself and Ludicology?

Mike: Yes, so people can visit the website www.ludicology.com where we also do a podcast, so there’s more on there really about playwork and the concept of play sufficiency as an organising principle for communities. If people are interested in this stuff they can find out more there. And in terms of the work in Wrexham they can visit www.wrexham.gov.uk/play and find out more about what we’re doing in and around Wrexham.

And if anybody ever wants to come and visit stuff we’re always open. We have visitors from all over the world coming to Wrexham. It would be nice if we made more of it in Wales and particularly in Wrexham ourselves. But there are still many other places where good playwork happens in the UK. Unfortunately in Wales we have seen a significant reduction in it as a consequence of reductions in public funding.

Russell: Which is an ongoing challenge for a lot of us in this sort of work. Mike, diolch yn fawr, and it would be nice to do this again some time.

Mike: It was a pleasure, thanks for having me on.

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Thoughts on “Wales’s Most Deprived Estate: The Fight Back”

Last night BBC Wales broadcast an episode of Week In Week Out (WIWO) entitled Wales’s Most Deprived Estate: The Fight Back. The 60 minute documentary is available to view on BBC iplayer.

It focuses on the Lansbury Park estate in the St James ward in Caerphilly/Caerffili. The 2014 Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation singled it out as Wales’s most deprived community. The WIWO coverage was largely balanced and was a nice antidote to the usual exploitative ‘poverty porn’ coverage of poverty and deprivation.

The principal theme was how some local people – all women interestingly – had decided to set up their own action group because, in the words of one of the women, they

“Have been let down. Big time”

The focus of their efforts and a cause célèbre for their frustrations was a derelict community centre. The other motivating factor was the perceived lack of engagement by the local authority, and by extension, the Communities First (CF) programme.

The BBC online article that served as a taster for the broadcast refers to the usual list of public expenditure invested in a community as proof of action, while CF is cited as actually prioritising and targeting Lansbury Park, despite the residents feeling they are “forgotten people”.

There is a tendency by such programmes to see things in such binary terms – either forgotten and ignored, or prioritised and focused upon. The figures supplied by the local authority stating that 8,600 people were helped to improve their parenting, employment prospects and to escape domestic abuse suggest that clearly some people are not forgotten about.

Therein lies the nub though.

Communications Logo - Communities First - JPEGCF has evolved from the sort of intervention that would hold highly-visible community events, meetings and consultations to one which is more intensive, responsive to individuals’ needs (often very complex) and targeted at those determinants of poverty and disadvantage. A derelict community centre is not such a determinant; which is not to say that it was not an eyesore or that the need for neutral, accessible space is not important for communities to express themselves, interact, celebrate and collaborate. The challenge for CF has been to retain and nurture the broader community interest in and emotional attachment to this new approach that cannot, by default, respond to those who are most articulate, loud or determined. Indeed, it must respond to often marginal voices, uncover hidden poverty, and sometimes be discreet and confidential. However, an overlooked, in my mind, aspect of the community involvement strand of CF is the imperative of establishing the right to act, even, the right to be there.

It is not enough to tout new-fangled budgets and programmes, well-meaning rhetoric, or even to genuinely  aspire to make a(ny) difference. In rugby there is the phrase “earning the right play”. It means doing the spadework that gives you not just the ability but the right to express yourself and to apply your tactics and gameplan.

Community development requires the same thing and it requires one to be cognisant of the surroundings and circumstances in which one finds oneself. Arguing the extent to which Lansbury Park is forgotten or prioritised is irrelevant; that that is the perception, at least held by some, is what is key. I could not help but feel that the current CF configuration and strategies had left too many people in Lansbury Park behind, and so its right to act – irrespective of how effectively, on what, and with what statistical justification – had not been earned (or perhaps had been lost in CF’s evolution over the years). Quite simply, there seemed to be little acknowledgement on the part of some the residents of what CF had been doing and achieving locally.

There is not a CF area in Wales that will not admit it can do more and better to enhance the level and quality of engagement with local people. Acting reflectively and self-critically are key principles for community development. By doing both off the back of the the broadcast and accompanying profile, will serve to articulate things in less binary terms, with the aspirations of local people and the focus of CF potentially being able to dovetail for mutual benefit. There is enough room for CF to do what it does, for the women to do what they think is important, and for other people in Lansbury Park to do what they want to do. Grassroots action in communities like Lansbury Park can be all too rare, enfeebled and reliant on too few pairs of hands. The greater the mosaic of community action, the more sustainable its roots will be; the more energy it can generate; the better regarded it will be by local people.

All of which, frankly, makes it easier for Communities First to achieve.

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Neighbourhood policing and community development: Gainesville, Florida style

The very same I day I published my Neighbourhood policing, digital engagement and community development blog  (15th January) a police officer was filmed sympathetically dealing with some young people shooting hoops in Gainesville, Florida.

I stumbled across this Telegraph article that chronicles what happened when the officer, Bobby White, attends and then returning with the “back-up” he promised, one of whom was NBA legend Shaquille O’Neill.

It was a masterstroke by whoever managed to persuade Shaq to agree to be part of the ‘back up’. Clearly, his input guaranteed the media spotlight; but it shouldn’t disguise how important it was that White kept his word and returned to play with the young people

It’s simply great policing on White’s part. He addresses the young people with respect – which they show in return – and he has been rewarded with a huge local, viral, and media presence. #BasketballCop and #HoopsNotCrime trended and Gainesville PD received ‘incomprehensible’ level of social media traffic.

The point of the original blog, and the Telegraph article that prompted it, was to illustrate how digital engagement was complementing, and in some cases replacing, traditional models of engagement by police. A week after the #BasketballCop shot some hoops with teenage Floridians, Gainesville PD drew a full house for a public meeting, the staple of the traditional model of engagement.

Despite how popular Bobby White and Gainesville PD had become it is a nice touch that White’s “basketball buddies” also attended the meeting.

A more sober observation is that given recent press coverage of the relationship between American police and black male youths it is a poignant and refreshing reminder that matters can be handled in a civilised manner.

It is also easy to overlook that it was digital engagement via Gainesvile PD’s YouTube channel that underpins this uplifting episode. Had they not uploaded the initial video recorded from White’s police car then most people would still be none the wiser. That video has had almost 300,000 views. “The Rematch” clip (the one above) has had over 1.5 million views. I love how a brief scan of Gainesville PD’s other clips have received more modest viewing figures: 818 views for their Christmas holiday safety clip; 549 views of a burglary caught on CCTV; 1,301 of their August edition of their occasional ‘Police Beat’ videos. The video that preceded that of White attending the basketballers has been viewed 5,009 times

Clearly, those that managed the account made hay of the whole thing. But what I also like – and this goes to the heart of quality engagement – they remained alert to the need to remind citizens of the ‘bread and butter’ issues; that despite the media frenzy, it was business as usual. So in between Shaq and #BasketballCop tweets they also updated on the relatively more mundane: traffic issues, swearing-in of new officers, car thieves and community safety advice:

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Neighbourhood policing, digital engagement and community development

One of the first media stories to catch my eye as I dragged myself back to work from my post-Christmas cheese and chocolate-induced stupor, was this Telegraph story about increasing use of social media by police officers and forces to engage with the public; the so-called “new version of bobbies on the beat”.

It is easy to be churlish; to think of it as a corner-cutting or tokenistic exercise, or a cheap way of dealing with cutbacks. Working in and with communities for over 15 years, a visible police presence was one of the ‘staple’ demands of communities; up there with “something for kids to do”. I’m less ‘frontline’ now but I imagine it remains the case. This is, however, despite there being little evidence that the traditional British bobby on the beat has ever had any actual impact.

When I worked in Communities First in communities of the Gwent valleys the turnover of neighbourhood bobbies was huge. In 5 years I worked with over twenty. To be perfectly honest the vast majority of them never truly learned enough about their communities; they seldom established productive relationships with partners; and it undermined the credibility of the neighbourhood bobby role. I recall one bobby telling me that she would return after days off to often see a mountain of enquiries and correspondence related to her patch that had been left unattended because her colleagues saw them as only hers to deal with. Another remarked how many of her colleagues were disinterested in the neighbourhood role because it wasn’t as “sexy” as other policing roles and duties.

Another perception held by the community that served to erode the credibility of the neighbourhood role was that of sergeants who oversaw the neighbourhood division doing the job as a final ‘call of duty’ before retirement; a cushy desk-job that wasn’t taken seriously. Again, the turnover in personnel in this role was high and served to alienate communities rather than foster cohesive relationships. From a community development point of view I could see plain as day where the police were going wrong, organisationally and often individually:

  • they didn’t involve people in decision-making
  • they would obscure matters and alienate people through neglecting to de-jargonise terms
  • they would not, or at least only tokenistically, promote the opportunity for communities to define their priorities (though the introduction of PACT meetings went some way to addressing this)
  • didn’t seek out diversity and plurality of views (attending a CF Partnership meeting, though necessary, should have not on its own ticked the box ‘Engagement’, but often did)
  • most importantly, it was not clear whether collective reflection on their practice, values and beliefs was a routine process

Curiously, the most effective neighbourhood bobby I ever worked with was a relatively new recruit having had a background as a manager of a Sainsbury supermarket. With customer service skills honed in that cut-throat sector he recognised the merit in making people feel valued, taking time out for them, explaining decisions and providing feedback. Without necessarily realising it he would probably not learn much new if the National Principles for Public Engagement were placed in front of him.

If Twitter and Facebook allow for engagement that is responsive, personable, in an appropriate level of formality and focused on individual and/or community needs then it is arguably providing for a more effective interface with communities than ‘traditional’ neighbourhood policing can do; or at least the neighbourhood policing I have witnessed.

The days of police surgeries are increasingly numbered in communities; and if they aren’t in some communities, they should be. I remember these being a routine feature in communities: an advertised weekly/fortnightly drop-in in a community setting where the neighbourhood officer and perhaps a PCSO would be available. Certainly informal and locally accessible, they tended however to be poorly attended . Most people with crime and community safety issues don’t want to advertise that they are off to speak with the police. The police knew this and the the community representatives/leaders knew this. Suggest stopping them or finding alternative means of engagement would be resisted; a veritable case of doing what has always been done irrespective of the results or impact. They became a crutch to communities who feared losing something that they had a degree of control over against a backdrop of dissatisfaction with and a lack of control and influence on a service as outlined above.

Interestingly, I recall encountering a CF team in the Gwent valleys about 3 years ago who mentioned how their neighbourhood officers would now drop-in to the CF office of a Monday morning, access a PC and browse local Facebook pages. They gleaned more intelligence about the community and learned more about specific instances of disorder or nuisance this way than in a month or more’s worth of surgeries. They could also build a more informed and accurate picture of events over a weekend from the myriad of different perspectives that were provided by people sharing and interacting on Facebook. Would people confide this with bobbies face-to-face in a surgery setting? The consensus was overwhelmingly not, and the time taken to build a similar picture in ‘traditional’ methods was so much greater.

At that time the bobbies didn’t have their own Facebook page and so there was little engagement. The Devon and Cornwall example in the Telegraph article, and in a Welsh context the reporting of crime – or “crimemongering” – by the popular @EvanstheCrime, highlight the benefits of taking that bold step and not just ‘lurking’ but actively engaging. I’d be curious to know whether the Gwent example eventually did this and how it has affected their relationship with the local community.

Like in so many instances of tentative public sector embrace of social media, they probably encountered some resistance or apprehension on the part of their seniors if they did become more active and participative; the article acknowledges this was certainly the case in Devon and Cornwall:

“force bosses were initially uncertain about whether their officers should use the tool, but are now fully behind the new method of community engagement”

Having spent a lot of focus and time in work of late on welfare reform where there are concerns about the impact of a digital-by-default approach to aspects of benefit claims, rent management and compulsory job search, there is a parallel here with policing. Tackling people’s perception of crime is critical, irrespective of the actual recorded crime; which incidentally was always regarded with suspicion anyway because the their poor trust in policing prompted many people to see the reporting of crime as a pointless exercise. If, say, older people or disabled people could attend a surgery and subsequently feel safer (let alone listened to or feel engaged) then this is important; digital engagement ought not become the default mechanism because there are people who lack the digital literacy and access to technology to engage fully, even partially, via social media. There remains a need for informal, accessible, safe and occasionally discreet face to face engagement and a drop-in at a sheltered housing scheme or a youth club or in partnership with a support group/agency should not be rejected completely.

Speaking of youth clubs, though the article doesn’t touch on this, I’m also interested in the extent to which young people’s engagement with policing is enhanced and improved via a shift to increased digital and social media engagement. Should digital engagement repeat mistakes I used to witness – seek narrow range of views, jargonise,

sweeney-296x370There is a lot of evidence, at least anecdotally within Communities First, that young people are engaging more effectively with the programme and articulating their thoughts, desires, ideas and concerns because engagement is aligning itself with how young people are engaging with each other. I recall the ‘old model’ of engagement did little, in my experience, to narrow the chasm in the relationship between police and (most) young people.

Anyway, I’ll leave the last word to @HonestFrank who tantalises at what The Sweeney in a digitally-engaged age of neighbourhood policing might look like…


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Reflections on using Audacity for learning

I’m a bit behind on the excellent University of Leeds’ Blended Learning Essentials: Getting Started (BLE) course. Work, illness and family have got in the way.

It’s nice however to ease my way back into week 3 with the case study on open tools such as Prezi, Audacity and WordPress. I’m familiar with each. However, it’s really interesting to hear other people’s uses of such tools; familiarity can breed contempt and it’s important to remember there’s always something else to learn. I’ve been an avid user of Audacity – one of the internet’s best kept secrets – for a couple of years. I produce a podcast about the Welsh national football team as well as using the medium to share learning among a disparate workforce on the Communities First tackling poverty programme in Wales whose learning I support. These podcasts are currently hosted on Soundcloud but will soon migrate to our new moodle.

Here’s an overview of how I use it and some top tips.

Audacity is free to download and can be used on a number of operating systems. As someone familiar with Microsoft (MS) packages and Windows, Audacity’s similarity to these was reassuring at first. The File, Edit, View tabs largely do as you would expect them to in an MS package. There are also lots of the same Ctrl+ shortcuts such as Ctrl+c for Copy and Ctrl+v for Paste. Furthermore, the Play, Record, Pause, etc. buttons resemble an old tape recorder. How simple can it get?!

audacity 1

In order to record there’s very little else you need to know; the entire interface tends to be for navigating your recording during the editing stage.

There are some exceptions to this. When recording it is important to ensure that it recognises your microphone (often this is automatically done; if not, close and re-open Audacity) and you will need to set your recording level (the scale to the right of the mic symbol below).

audacity 2

The microphone is in my opinion your most important consideration, over and above familiarising oneself with the software. If you are starting out in recording and editing lesson content it is worth investing in the microphone. But don’t go crazy. A piece of advice someone gave me was to buy a mid-range mic. Spend hundreds of pounds and you no doubt have a brilliant mic; but it will capture more sound than you know how to edit. A cheap mic won’t capture enough quality sound with which to do anything.

blue yetiFor about £60 I bought a second hand Blue Yeti (right) and have been perfectly happy with it. It is powered by usb, has two simple knobs (for volume and gain), four settings depending on the direction from which people are contributing, and has a long usb cable which is handy for moving the mic around. It also folds down as well which makes it easier to carry round, though it is heavy, but reassuringly so. I also dig its retro look.

The other important consideration is your recording environment. The ideal recording location will depend on what you wish to capture. A monologue précising a lesson or recapping key points will require your voice to be the focus so somewhere quiet and without interruptions will be helpful. If you want to record a lesson in a classroom environment complete with contributions from learners then the background noise will not matter so much; the location of the mic within the recording space will be key though. The Blue Yeti allows for voice (i.e,. yours) from a single direction to be prioritised over those from others but doesn’t exclude them altogether. This might be particularly useful in a classroom setting when recording an actual lesson. That long usb cable may also come in handy here.

Echoey rooms can be difficult to record in and rooms with windows close to main roads will pick up low frequency sounds like roadworks or traffic. The best thing to do is to play around with whichever space you are in beforehand and have a practice with different settings, both on the mic and in Audacity.

My top tips for recording:

  • let learners (and yourself) get familiar with the presence of a microphone. It can be off-putting for some (and brings out the extrovert in others!) and if this inhibits people’s contributions then it undermines the quality of the content.
  • have a dry-run at the start of every session. Record a couple of minutes, and listen back through headphones. You will better judge the audio quality through headphones than through your PC/laptop speakers.
  • consider issuing a briefing sheet to learners/contributors beforehand. I remember recording with someone who was extremely nervous and expected to be sitting by the mic with headphones on, like in a radio studio. This is a quite logical assumption if you don’t know what to expect. For the podcasts I record with workers in Communities First I issue this briefing.
  • place a folded piece of clothing or piece of carpet under the mic to serve as a dampener. A lot of sound can be picked up from underneath.
  • talk naturally. No-one needs to be an orator of Richard Burton standards; similarly some people feel the unnecessary need to shout their contributions or lean in close to the mic. Again, these are reasons to have a practice couple of minutes at the start.
  • don’t panic! If a contributor gets tongue-tied, pauses, forgets something then just pause, wait and resume making the point. The “ums” and “ers” can also be easily edited out.
  • feel free to move the mic around (within the radius allowed by the usb cable obviously), tilt it re-point it.
  • Always, always record a few seconds of ambient sound i.e., the sound of ‘silence’ in the space you’re recording. This ambience can be invaluable for adding in to your final edit. It sounds counter-intuitive but don’t be surprised by the number of times you will want to add some ‘nothing’ to your edited version.

My top tips for editing:

  • don’t edit your original source recording. Rather, open a new Audacity file into which you copy and paste from the original file. It is so much easier and allows you to edit in bitesize chunks. It also makes navigating your edited version easier.
  • in the early days, split your original file into mono (from stereo) and edit in mono. The final recording will still be played back in stereo. Again, it simplifies the task in hand. Once you become more skilled you can edit in stereo.
  • be clear on your file-naming system early on. I used to get into a pickle between using words such as ‘final’, ‘main’, ‘draft’ in filenames. I also used to date the original recording but you might not publish the final mp3 until several days later, or in a different month. Again, I’d get confused.
  • audacity 3fade in and fade out (under the Effects tab, right) the beginning and end of your recordings. They serve to gently lead in to your recording, rather than jump straight into it at excessive volume; and indicate that the recording is drawing to a close. You can aslo use fading to distinguish between distinct elements within a recording.
  • have a play around with a practice recording and try different features to see what they do. I’ve never met anyone who knew what the ‘Nyquist prompt‘ does when they started off using Audacity.
  • But don’t feel obliged or pressured into using them all or even most of them. I use about 20% of Audacity’s functions and am perfectly happy with the content I produce.

Pob lwc/Best of luck!


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