Beware the quick fix

By Matt van Poortvliet 1 February 2011

As NPC wrote last week, the charity Fairbridge is notable for its long-term support. Most young people attending its centres receive support for over six months. Some relationships last years. But as costs are cut, it is exactly this type of long-term support that is threatened. Why does this matter?

What is the value of long-term support?

The most troubled young people have spent their lives being let down—by their parents, by the care and education systems. They need time to build trust, a sustained relationship and a chance to develop a routine. The best projects are those—like Fairbridge—that they can rely on for long-term support, where they know that they do not just have one chance.

Many youth workers know this intuitively: you cannot simply put a vulnerable young person on a two week course and hope to turn his or her life around. It takes time, effort and (for the charity) funding. Support for young people does not work on a ‘law of diminishing returns’, with big improvements happening quickly, and then impact tailing off.

Yet there is a risk that short-term approaches will be sought as costs are driven down. It takes evaluation to show that the story is more complex—that short-term improvements can be misleading, and that ‘returns’ for young people increase over time rather than diminish.

What can evaluation show us?

Last year, Fairbridge discovered something troubling. Its evaluation, Back from the brink found that the good results from its early engagement with young people did not last. Its monitoring showed that young people’s personal and social skills improved after one week, but suffered a dip after that to a score lower than when they had started, despite ongoing support from the charity (see diagram).

However, scores gradually picked up again so that after ten months they exceeded the score at the beginning and continued to rise. Remarkably, this finding was consistent across hundreds of young people, and across teams in different parts of the country. Nor is it unique to Fairbridge—research into therapeutic programmes elsewhere has shown similar results.

Young people do not develop in a simple, linear trajectory. They experience  ‘ups and downs’; they make progress and suffer setbacks. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that there is a critical point in development in which disruption, and hence discomfort, is a necessary feature of progress.

Reviewing a range of research, the evaluation concludes: ‘It seems that this dip is an essential part of the development process, and that young people need to experience something of a crisis in themselves before they can make progress.’ The conclusion? ‘It appears to take more than a year for the full benefits of Fairbridge to show through.’

What happens to that young person if you stop working with them after one or two weeks, or even two months? Support may be lost at exactly the time when it is needed most. It takes time (and a willingness to evaluate your impact) to see this type of development.

What does this mean for youth services?

It will be a disaster if Fairbridge’s fate is an indication of the broader direction of travel across youth services. Projects that look expensive up-front will suffer regardless of their long-term impact and the savings they generate. As costs are driven down, it is ‘social returns’ that are likely to diminish.

This is the first in a series of three blogs looking at issues arising for charities in the youth sector. Next week: what evidence for youth services?