Social exclusion, joined-up thinking and individualization – new Labour’s Connexions strategy

Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith explore some of the key themes and ideas that run through the British government’s Connexions Strategy for young people in England. Five of these are explicit: social exclusion, ‘the knowledge economy’, ‘joined up thinking’, transition, and targets; and two, individualization and surveillance, are not. However, all seven are central to the New Labour project. They explore just why the strategy was deeply flawed.

contents:  introduction · social exclusion · the ‘knowledge economy’ · ‘joined-up thinking’ · surveillance, monitoring and control · targets · transition · individualization · conclusion · further reading and references

Before the Labour Party came to power in 1997 there was some talk of reforming the careers and youth services in England. This was given fresh impetus following the establishment of the Social Exclusion Unit by the new Government, and their much-trumpeted concern with ‘joined-up thinking’. By 1999, the Government was indicating that it wanted to establish a  ‘comprehensive structure for advice and support of all young people beyond 13’ (DfEE 1999: 51). The idea was that every young person would be allotted a personal adviser who could provide one-to-one support, and information, advice and guidance. However, talk of a universal service was largely a matter of rhetoric. The primary interest lay in those young people who were deemed to be at risk of social exclusion – and what was seen as the ineffectiveness of then current provision (due in significant part to the proliferation of specialist agencies and a lack of coordination between them). It was out of this that the Connexions strategy was developed (at the heart of which is the Connexions Service). Attention was to be given to ‘those facing substantial, multiple problems preventing them from engaging with learning’ or ‘those at risk of not participating effectively in education and training’. This means, first, that resources are being taken away from the vast bulk of young people who do not pose a threat to order and to economic development. It means they will receive less guidance and help around career choice, and that fewer resources are channeled into their leisure. Second, it entails a shift of resources from young women to young men – for, as we have seen, it is the latter who are largely seen as problematic in terms of behaviour and educational achievement.

The Connexions Strategy for England (the Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament have chosen to take very different routes) is based on the belief that there are clear links between participation and success at school and participation post-16. The aim of the strategy is to create a ‘step-change in participation and attainment through the teenage years’ (DfEE 2000: 6). This change is necessary, the government argues, to provide ‘a ladder out of social exclusion’ by ‘breaking the cycle of non-participation and underachievement’ (DfEE 2000: 14). There is also some concern around developing citizenship and building ‘stronger, vibrant communities’ (via initiatives such as the Millenium Volunteers, the Neighbourhood Support Fund and citizenship education). Finally, it is argued that ‘by raising participation and attainment we raise individual earnings and boost economic performance’ (DfEE 2000: 15). The strategy brings together a number of estblished and new initiatives and is intended to work across existing departmental and agency divides.

Four key themes have been identified by the government in the strategy:

Flexible curriculum that engages different young people and leads to the relevant, sought-after qualifications. This includes opting out of elements of Key Stage 4 to spend more time on work-related training, broadening options, and reviewing the national curriculum (including an increased emphasis on citizenship). A ‘Graduation Certificate’ is proposed for all by age 19 that recognizes qualifications, key interpersonal skills and voluntary work.

Ensuring high-quality provision in school sixth forms, further education colleges and work-based learning. This entails altering the funding and coordination of provision (through the new Learning and Skills Council and learning partnerships); extending inspection to all 16-19 provision, and recognizing ‘Beacon Colleges of Excellence in Further Education’.

Targetting financial support for those in learning. Policies here include the development of a ‘Youth Card’ that gives some discounts in leisure and rewards participation in learning; extending access funds in further education and introducing them for 16-19 year olds in schools; and piloting Education Maintenance Allowances.

Outreach, information, advice, support and guidance. Included here, are various anti-exclusion and anti-truancy measures; Millenium Volunteers, the Neighbourhood Support Fund, and the new Connexions Service. (DfEE 2000: 18 – 19)

Here we focus on seven key, guiding ideas that run through the strategy. Five of these are explicit: social exclusion, ‘the knowledge economy’, ‘joined up thinking’, ‘transition’, and ‘targets’; and two, individualization and surveillance, are not. However, all seven are central to the New Labour project.

Social exclusion

The underlying theme in the Connexions strategy is that if people become disconnected from schooling and further education, and thence the labour market, they are more likely to pose significant problems for welfare systems and society as a whole. Drug-taking, crime, family breakdown and teenage pregnancy are oft cited examples here. This understanding harks back to notions of a so–called ‘underclass’ of unskilled and disaffected people. Such a group is seen as both a source of social destabilization, and a drain on society’s resources through a ‘welfare state which still only compensates people for poverty and lack of opportunity’ (Brown 1999 quoted in Cisse 2001). One obvious way of eliminating such a drain on resources is to make every effort to ensure people gain entry to the labour market, and to increase the cost to them of not working (through changes to the income support system etc.). As Tony Blair (SEUb 1999: 6) put it, ‘The best defence against social exclusion is having a job, and the best way to get a job is to have a good education, with the right training and experience’.

Significantly, the notion of ‘social exclusion’ has only been in use in the UK for a comparatively short time – and its widespread usage could indicate that it ‘describes a phenomenon that already existed, but lacked a suitable name’ (Page 2000: 4). Room (1995) has described it as ‘the process of becoming detached from the organization and communities of which the society is composed and from the rights and obligations that they embody’. In other words people become disqualified from enjoying the fruits of living in a community. This isn’t simply a matter of people not being able to access material goods, it is also about the nature of the social relationships they can engage in. Thus, for example, when a person loses their job, not only do they usually experience a drop in income, important relationships fostered by the workplace e.g. through unions, may also disappear. For this reason those concerned with social exclusion have tended to draw attention to the interaction of different forces upon individuals and groups such as unemployment, poverty and lack of marketable skills.

The next step that many proponents of the notion take is to argue that the interaction of different forces leads to a spiral. One acts upon the other and the individual is increasingly pushed to the margins. It is this sort of thinking, mixed in with ‘cultural’ notions of an ‘underclass’ (Murray 1994) and analyses of profound structural change (Wilson 1987; 1996), that informed the establishment of the Social Exclusion Unit. The Unit describes social exclusion as ‘a shorthand label for what can happen when individuals or areas suffer from a combination of linked problems such as unemployment, poor skills, low income, poor housing, high crime environments, bad health and family breakdown’ (SEU 1998). Significantly, this understanding looks to a process that can happen to both individuals and neighbourhoods. As Page (2000: 6) has commented, this sort of definition, while being somewhat imprecise, offers certain advantages to its users. It focuses attention on processes, rather than the outcome, of multiple disadvantage. Arguments about the causes of social disadvantage are, thus, sidestepped. In addition, ‘it encourages the search for new ways of intervening in the process’ and is ‘a term with no pejorative implications’ (op. cit.).

There are a number of significant problems with analysis and policies of this kind. However, here we note three. First, there is a tendency in some of the literature to approach social exclusion as a byproduct, or an accident, of economic and social processes. It is either seen as something that occurs as a natural part of wealth creation and change, or what happens to people when they choose to drop out of key social institutions like school and employment. Where policy makers have some care for the welfare of society’s members a likely response is to attempt to contain the worst excesses of ‘exclusion’ (by, for example, providing welfare to work programmes) and to discourage drop out. However, there is a fundamental flaw in such analysis. It fails to properly attend to social closure. Social closure, as Weber has shown, is a process by which social collectivities seek to ‘maximize rewards by restricting access to resources and opportunities to a limited circle of eligibles’ (Parkin 1978: 44). It entails the singling out of social or physical attributes as a means of justifying exclusion.  In other words, exclusion isn’t simply a byproduct or the consequence of a personal choice. It is also the result of deliberate action on the part of a social collectivity or collectivities. It could, thus, be argued that age has been used as a way of judging eligibility for rewards. For example, since 1988 lower rates of income support are paid to those aged under 25 years. Many under 18 years receive no support. The structure was a clear case of age discrimination, ‘since it became possible… for three people who have identical accommodation and living costs to receive different levels of benefit dependent on their age’ (Killeen 1992: 193). In a similar fashion, action by Conservative governments in the 1980s to advantage higher earners by relieving their tax burden has been a significant factor in the growing inequality of wealth in the United Kingdom during the last twenty years of the twentieth century. As a Rowntree study (2000) notes, ‘During the 1980s incomes substantially diverged and in the late 1990s there are signs that the income gap is again widening’. In 1983 14% of households lacked three or more necessities because they could not afford them. That proportion had increased to 21% in 1990 and to over 24% by 1999 (op. cit.). The Labour government elected in 1997 committed to reducing social exclusion, in fact presided over an increase in poverty in the late 1990s.

Second, there are questions around the tendency to focus on employment, education and training in the strategy. The lack of paid work is clearly an important factor in causing both poverty and social exclusion. However, as the Rowntree poverty study (2000) comments:

Even if full employment were achieved, poverty and exclusion would not disappear. Earnings can be too low unless there are minimally adequate child benefit and other allowances to complement them and unless minimally adequate benefits are available for all pensioners and all disabled people. People who cannot work require adequate incomes to meet their needs. High quality, affordable services in every part of the country will also be needed if poverty and social exclusion are to be eliminated.

For a significant number of young people, problems of dislocation, insecurity and deprivation arise from inadequacies in the income support system, the lack of affordable housing and the failure to provide adequate services and opportunities, for example, around care and social support, mental health and leisure. Here we might highlight, in particular, the position of lone parents (the vast bulk of which are women).

The attack on welfare dependency during the 1980s resulted in a change in the way in which lone mothers were viewed. They were no longer seen as victims with special needs for financial support and, as in the case of young married mothers, for casework, but rather as irresponsible, and probably, again in the case of unmarried mothers, manipulative people, willing, for example, to have a baby in order to jump the queue for social housing. (Lewis 1998: 274)

The focus within the Connexions strategy is on the reduction of teenage pregnancy, rather than with enhancing financial and other support for young mothers. It does little to alter their position or the way they are viewed. There are long-term economic problems associated with teenage pregnancy (SEU 1999a). Young mothers suffer from a substantially greater loss of in lifetime earnings than those who have children later in life, whatever the skill level eventually obtained (Davies and Joshi 2001: Rake 2000). But they are not ‘bad mothers’, nor do they lack social skills. As Dowler found in her survey, with one exception, the teenage mothers ‘showed great self-reliance and strength. For all their difficulties – and on the whole they were well able to articulate these – they presented as balanced, responsible, caring parents, who were determined to do the best they could for their children’ (1999: 93). This was despite the fact that a majority were living on benefits so low that it was difficult, if not impossible to maintain an adequate diet.

Third, there is a particular problem with regard to the ‘shorthand’ reduction of complex social phenomenon. Johnston et al (2000: 3) comment, ‘like the underclass concept before it, social exclusion seems to have become a “catch-all” phrase, meaning all things to all people’. Under the banner of social exclusion we find bundled together a complicated array of social issues. Clearly, there are linkages between experiences in say, the housing market and education, and income, but each involves a differing and often conflicting set of factors and forces. Such problems cannot be simply reduced to unemployment and income inequality. The debates around social exclusion do, at least, highlighted the ‘diverse and interconnected problems which face young people’ and ‘the processes whereby some young people become socially included and some do not’ (op. cit.).

The ‘knowledge economy’

A further, key element underpinning the strategy was the Government’s concern with the ‘knowledge economy’ (and the ‘learning society’). Here, interest lay in sustaining economic growth in Britain and Northern Ireland while operating in a global environment that had altered its character in significant ways.

Productivity and competitiveness are, by and large, a function of knowledge generation and information processing: firms and territories are organized in networks of production, management and distribution; the core economic activities are global – that is they have the capacity to work as a unit in real time, or chosen time, on a planetary scale. (Castells 2001: 52)

Nation states have to make their way in this environment. The particular means chosen by those concerned with the New Labour project was to attract and foster the development of industries and services based around new technologies; encourage local innovation, product development and the exploitation of new markets; nurture entrepreneurship; and to develop a skilled and committed labour force. Following writers like Leadbeater (2000), the key resource in this new economy was knowledge.

The significance of the Connexions strategy is, arguably, less about the generation of a highly skilled labour force rather than the elimination or containing of destabilizing influences. At an ideological level this entails a shift from a ‘dependency culture’ into one in which entrepreneurship and work is valued. ‘Environmentally’, it involves making the United Kingdom a more attractive locale for investment and activity. It is believed that business can be generated by enhancing the quality of life through, for example, reducing crime and tackling the overt signs of social exclusion from the streets (such as graffiti, begging and people sleeping rough). At the level of practical skill, there is also the belief that improved levels of literacy and numeracy, and the ability to use information and computer technologies will make the country more attractive to potential investors and entrepreneurs.

‘Joined-up thinking’

Another important part of the equation has been the Government’s concern with the duplication of, and lack of coordination between, agencies and services. Here government policy has been significantly influenced by work undertaken by the ‘think-tank’, Demos (Bentley and Gurumurthy 1999). As Watts (2001) has commented:

The core of the analysis was the belief that a key cause of the ineffectiveness of current provision was the proliferation of specialist agencies, each dealing with a disconnected part of the young person’s life…Accordingly, there was a widely-held view that the agencies needed to be brought more closely together, and that – as part of this process – there was a strong case for each young person to be linked to a key worker who could form a relationship of trust with them, see their problems as a whole, and ‘broker’ the support of the relevant specialist agencies.

As with ‘social exclusion’ there are significant problems with ‘joined-up thinking’. First, there has been little detailed or sustained research with regard to the analysis. Where it has been a focus, for example, Cole (2000), the material has been largely anecdotal or case-study based. We lack hard evidence that the approach works in this context. It may well be that many partnerships between agencies are not well planned and ‘suffer from bureaucratic and funding straightjackets which seem to prevent suitable and sensitive partnerships and “joined-up” solutions’ (Cole 2000: 17) – but there is some evidence that the Connexions strategy will exacerbate this. It has its own bureaucratic and funding straightjackets (as many agencies within the pilot areas have found).

Second, the notion of ‘joined-up’ services proceeds from a dubious assumption – that young people benefit from dealing with services that share information with one another. At one level there is some sense in trying to avoid duplication, and in ensuring that those working with particularly problematic clients know important information. However, there is a downside to it. It could work to curtail the freedom of young people to ‘shop around’ for services. The ‘key worker’ or personal advisor allocated to them may not be competent or appropriate. As Richard Sennett (1973) wrote in a different context, there can be considerable benefits in disorder. There is also an issue for agencies. Many work on the basis of a ‘fresh start’ – and may well not welcome such information. Unfortunately, in the current context they may not be able to avoid making use of it. In addition, the compilation of comprehensive files on young people, allied with an emphasis on coordinating the efforts of agencies can lead to an depersonalised approach that emphasizes the management of cases rather than working with the young people’s accounts of situations and experiences. It also involves a significant extension of the surveillance of young people.

Surveillance, monitoring and control

There has been a strong focus on the surveillance of those who may cause a problem to social order. In recent years this has resulted in the growing use of close circuit television, failed attempts at curfews and the use of welfare workers to monitor the activities of families and individuals. More covert or implicit forms of surveillance have gone almost unnoticed – such as the use of course work for qualification and the monitoring of individual ‘progress’ within schooling. These are what Staples (2000) has termed the ‘mundane’ practices of surveillance. The Connexions strategy is a further extension of this activity. Detailed records are kept on individual young people. Those deemed to be ‘at risk’ are subject to special monitoring – notably with regard to post 16 options. Tasks that flow from this monitoring include: ‘seeking to prevent drop-out from options, arranging alternative provision when they unavoidably leave options – including links with specialized agencies, and using outreach to bring back into learning those who are not in it’ (Social Exclusion Unit 1999b: 81).

There is also an element of compulsion in the scheme, although it is said that people will generally not be required to use the new service. Some, such as young offenders supervised by Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) will be subject to a mandatory assessment of their educational needs. However, a range of financial and other incentives will be brought into play. The question that immediately arises concerns the environment such ‘incentives’ will create. If people feel compelled, rather than actively choosing to use the service then a number of serious questions arise about the work that can be done.

As a result, there are fundamental questions concerning the infringement of civil liberties within the strategy. More comprehensive records are kept on individual young people – and they are shared among agencies. One significant element here is the possibility of bringing together records from different sources. An agency may well gain information from the Connexions database, and be able to combine this with healthcare records. (Under Clause 65 of the 2001 Health and Social Care Act, the Secretary of Health can open computerised patient data to any organization where they consider it to be in the public interest. This requires neither the patient’s consent nor knowledge). This creeping process of gathering information on individuals renders them ‘more and more transparent, relentlessly reducing the private spaces into which people have traditionally been able to retreat for refuge and self-definition’ (Whittaker 1999: 4). The practical effect of this for those individuals who are deemed to need of ‘in-depth guidance’ or ‘intensive sustained support’ is that they will be subjected to increased monitoring and intervention. They will have to meet regularly with their personal adviser and be subject to assessment, planning and review. It is this that increases the danger of inhibiting the process of  ‘self-definition’. Working through issues and questions with another person is not a problem in itself – in fact we could argue that through conversations with others we can develop a deeper understanding of who we are and what we want to be. Rather, here it is the focus and context of the work, and the fact that substantial use is made of material gathered on the person, rather than from them that is the issue. Personal advisors will also have targets to achieve, and these reveal the constraints on self-definition that the Government desires.


As we have seen in relation to schooling and other areas of welfare British governments increasingly have made use of crude outcome targets by which to direct and judge the activities of agencies and individuals. Alexander (2000: 532) argues that the English system has become, within the space of a decade, ‘centralized and ruthlessly policed’. Its focus on goals, curriculum and achievement has meant that other key aspects of the education process get sidelined. Much more of teachers’ time is spent on administration and upon demonstrating that they have ‘delivered’ the required curriculum. There has been a corresponding decline in their ability to build relationships with students and to develop and sustain extra-curricula activity such as clubs, teams and the performance arts. One of the strange features of this movement is that there is now substantial evidence to suggest that a focus on relationships and involvement in clubs and groups brings substantial benefits to those participating. This can involve better health and a significant improvement in educational performance (larger, possibly, than the testing regime produces) (Putnam 2000: 296-306, 326-333).

This emphasis on outcome and delivery is the result, in significant part, of the importation of business thinking and ideology into public services. As Stewart demonstrated some time ago there is a fundamental problem with the way that such business models have been applied to welfare agencies.

The real danger is that unthinking adoption of the private sector model prevents the development of an approach to management in the public services in general or to the social services in particular based on their distinctive purposes, conditions and tasks. (Stewart 1992: 27)

Not only has there been a lack of proper regard for the purposes and nature of public services, the introduction of targets has brought with it a great deal of dishonesty. In schools, for example, there are issues relating to the way in which attendance is managed and reported, and how students are inappropriately primed for SATs tests (Davies 2000: 150-163). In target-driven environments significant advantages flow from fiddling figures (providing the agency or individual isn’t caught). This is something that applies from the bottom to the top of the chain. There is some evidence that senior DfEE figures have colluded with the massaging of figures (and engaged in a little of their own) as ‘good results’ show the electorate that their policies are working (ibid.: 39-51). A culture where figures are manipulated, and students inappropriately primed is not the best basis for the cultivation of citizenship

The new Connexions Service has a similar target culture:

It will be an outcome-driven service, allowing local discretion over delivery, but with clear targets to cover the multi-agency nature of its work. The principal targets will relate to participation and attainment in education, training or work, since it is clear from the Bridging the Gap report and other research that participation has a major impact on a young person’s more general ‘well-being’. (DfEE 2000)

For the moment we have some broad policy targets, for example reducing truancy from school by a third by 2002. These will be translated into specific attainment targets for local service providers. Under these arrangements workers are judged on the numbers of people that they work with entering education, training or employment, and the shifts occurring in other behaviours. They are not going to be assessed to any significant degree on the happiness, well-being or development of the individual or the community of which they are a part. There is an inbuilt dynamic to act upon people rather than work with their concerns and interests.


The Connexions strategy retains a rather tired emphasis on the problems of the transition from ‘school to work’ (or youth to adulthood). Sociologists of youth have, in the main, during the last two decades sought to free themselves from the straitjacket of viewing youth as a homogeneous group undertaking a fixed journey through adolescence. They wanted to escape from the constraints of an all-encompassing linear model of psychosocial development, assumed to be applicable to all. This process has been encouraged by a growing willingness to acknowledge the variable impact of gender, race, locality and class on the lives of young people. Coles (1995; 2000) in particular has encouraged a shift away from placing a primacy upon the transition from education to employment. He has argued that we must recognise three main youth transitions that should not be categorised as having a pre-determined order of importance. These being the transition from:

full-time education or training to full-time employment in the labour market (school-to-work transition);

family of origin to the family of destination (domestic transition);

residence with parents or their surrogate to ‘independence’ (the housing transition).

We have been highly critical of the transition model and do not wish to re-visit those critiques in any detail (see, for example, Jeffs and Smith 1999). However it is helpful to note that a growing volume of research highlights the need to avoid placing undue reliance upon this model. The fundamental weakness remains the emphasis it places upon the uniqueness of the youth experience. Mounting evidence has obliged the transitional model to move on from a uni-dimensional stance by recognising that its differential transitions from childhood to adulthood follow variable timescales. Moreover they occur and re-occur throughout the life course. In order to sustain the artifice advocates of the transitional model and supporters of discrete services and policies directed at ‘young people’ have retreated and re-written the script. The ploy has been to add to ‘transition’ a ‘succession of qualifying adjectives … “long”, “extended”, “fragmented”, “fractured”, “disrupted”’ (Cohen and Ainley 2000: 80). It has been a ‘repetitive and redundant’ (op cit) exercise. One that has succeeded only in eroding the validity of the transitional model espoused.

The flaw flows from the erosion of the transitional pathways themselves. Little more than three decades ago over 90 per cent of young people moved from school direct to employment, where with minimal or no training, they expected, like their parents, to work, often for the same employer, until retirement or in the case of women marriage or pregnancy heralded closure. Now for the best and worst reasons increasing numbers of people move in and out of education throughout their lives (Field 2000; Tuckett 1997; DfEE 1997). Re-training has become a prerequisite for flexible labour markets, so that even those not changing careers or employers are expected to constantly update their skills. We have moved rapidly from a society where for all but a tiny percentage education was confined to the ‘school years’ to one where lifelong learning and continuous education are increasingly the norm. Post-school education and training now embrace a burgeoning remit with almost every life event deemed to necessitate an educational input – preparation for entry to school, marriage, parenting, retirement, divorce, a significant illness, loss of a partner, and so on ad nauseam. Within such a context the notion of a transfer from schooling to work linked to a narrow age band has diminishing credence. Likewise concerning the transition from the parental to an independent home. As Fitzpatrick (2000; see also, Furlong and Cartmel 1997) shows the process of leaving the parental home has become more prolonged and complex in recent years. In part this is because working class young people are acquiring the middle-class pattern of returning home for periods before setting up an independent home. The reasons vary between what Jones (1995) distinguishes as the ‘positive’ and the ‘negative’. The former linked to study, training or employment; the latter to conflict with parent(s), moving due to unemployment or a desire to escape parental surveillance. Irrespective of what produces the break two trends are apparent. First, young people are remaining in the parental home for much longer. Second, whether they live in the parental home or in a state of quasi-independence elsewhere, an increasing number of young, and not so young, people are reliant partially or wholly upon parents for financial support (Schneider 2000). The reasons include growing levels of student debt; unemployment and short-term employment that make forward planning difficult; a discriminatory benefits system that assumes parental support up to the age of 25; and the high costs of entering the housing market, especially in London and the South East. Such dependency has not emerged by accident. It is the direct consequence of government policies, some of which have been in place for over a decade, designed to make young people ‘more dependent upon their families for practical and emotional support’ (Morrow and Richard 1996: 14). Such policies have also been designed to transfer welfare costs relating to young people from the state and employer to the family and individual (Jones and Bell 2000; Jeffs and Spence 2000).

We can see how a number of the elements we have discussed combine in the strategy.

Our challenge is simple, but vital. If we are to succeed as a nation, and if our young people are o succeed as individuals in the knowledge economy of the 21st century, we must provide all teenagers with the opportunity they need to make the transition to adulthood…. This Government has established a wide range of programmes designed to improve the health and welfare of young people and to support them in making the transition to adult life. We now need to build on these developments, provide support for young people wherever and whenever it is needed, and overcome the fragmentation of much of the current services… (DfEE 2000: 8-9)

At one level the focus on transition is odd given the Government’s discovery of lifelong learning and the practical, and conceptual problems associated with the notion of transition (see Jeffs and Smith 1998). Transitions of the kind focused on in the strategy, for example, around training and education, getting and changing jobs, and having children, are not just the preserve of youth and can occur at different times in a person’s life. At another level, the use of an outdated model should not surprise us given what we have already said about the ‘shorthand’ reduction of complex social phenomenon that characterizes the project. In such circumstances it is very easy to draw upon established explanations. Furthermore, a significant number of those advising and prodding the government have a vested interest in the notion of transition to adulthood. Some work for agencies that seek to offer solutions to the problem of transition (e.g. through youth work, experiential learning and training). Others may well have made their name as ‘experts’ on young people and transition. Rethinking the nature of young people’s experience could be a risky business for them – they stand to lose resources and influence.


Last, we should note that the strategy falls in line with other elements of government policy. There is an increasing focus upon targeting interventions at named individuals. Essentially a form of case management is seen as the dominant way of working. People are identified who are in need of intervention so that they may re-enter education, training or work. Individual action programmes are devised and implemented. Programmes are then assessed on whether these named individuals return to learning or enter work – rather than on any contribution made to the quality of civic life, personal flourishing or social relationships that arise out of the process.

This orientation can be contrasted with working to enhance the readiness and capacity of groups and communities to better meet their members’ needs. While there is recognition within the activities of the Social Exclusion Unit of the significance of neighbourhood and community, this has not been expressed in a sustained and coherent way in government policy as a whole. The folly of this can be seen in the mounting evidence concerning the significance of ‘social capital’ – and its impact upon community safety, health and educational achievement. This is how Putnam (2000: 19) introduces the idea:

Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a sense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.

In other words, interaction enables people to build communities, to commit themselves to each other, and to knit the social fabric. A sense of belonging and the concrete experience of social networks (and the relationships of trust and tolerance that can be involved) can, it is argued, bring great benefits to people.

Gauthier and Furstenberg (2001) found that in those countries where the state invested most in cultural and sporting facilities young people responded by investing more of their own time in such activities. The research literature strongly indicates a positive outcomes from engaging with education, in the broadest sense; structured leisure activities; good social contacts with friends; and participation in the arts, cultural activities and sport. The higher the score relating to each of these the enhanced the overall performance in terms of education and lowered the likelihood of involvement even in low-level delinquency (Larson and Verma 1999). There is really nothing unique in this outcome – for similar engagement amongst older people also produces improved health and well-being (Rowe and Kahn 1998; Putnam 2000).


Part of the problem of approaching the different themes in the strategy is the extent to which many of the ideas are part of the dominant way of ‘making sense’. ‘Joined-up’ thinking seems like an obvious good – but when it is placed in a growing environment of centralization, surveillance and control the dangers become clearer. Similarly, a focus on individuals doesn’t seem bad – but when it is at the cost of working for communal coherence and democracy, and when, in the words of C Wright Mills, public issues become defined as personal troubles, it becomes deeply problematic. Fine words about social exclusion will come to little unless governments grasp the nettle of income redistribution. In a society characterized by a growing divide between rich and poor, talk of ‘breaking the cycle of disadvantage will amount to little. Talk of community and citizenship in this context is a thoroughly one-sided affair.

An alternative strategy would look somewhat different. It involves looking to strengthen civic community and association Putnam (2000); to moving beyond a patronizing and outmoded focus on ‘youth’ (Jeffs and Smith 1999b); to attempting to contain the worst excess of late capitalism and globalization, and to working to narrow differences in wealth and income via progressive taxation and other means. Sadly, the Connexions strategy is simply another aspect of the growing centralization and control that has characterized education and welfare policy in recent years. However, as has been argued elsewhere, possibilities for more convivial and holistic ways of working are there (see Beyond Connexions). The question is whether agencies, educators and local people are ready to grasp them.

Further reading and references

Alexander, R. (2000) Culture and Pedagogy. International comparisons in primary education, Oxford: Blackwell.

Bentley, T. and Gurumurchy, R. (1999) Destination Unknown. Engaging with the problems of marginalized youth, London: DEMOS.

Brown, G (1999) “Modernising the British economy – the new mission for the treasury” 30th Anniversary lecture, Institute of Fiscal Studies, 27.05.99. HM Treasury News Release 86/99: (online) Available from

Bynner, J. and Parsons, S. (2000) ‘Marginalization and Value Shifts under the Changing Economic Circumstances Surrounding the Transition to Work: A Comparison of Cohorts Born in 1958 and 1970’ Journal of Youth Studies 3(3).

Castells, M. (2001) ???Information technology and global capitalism’ in W. Hutton and A. Giddens (eds.) On the Edge. Living with global capitalism, London: Vintage.

Cisse, T. (2001) ‘Beyond Connexions. Issues in constructive engagement, the informal education forum, ,

Cohen, P. and Ainley, P. (2000) ‘In the Country of the Blind?: Youth Studies and Cultural Studies in Britain Journal of Youth Studies 3(1).

Coles, B. (1995) Youth and Social Policy, London: UCL Press.

Coles, B. (2000) Joined-Up Youth Research, Policy and Practice. A new agenda for change?, Leicester: Youth Work Press.

Davis, N. (2000) The School Report. Why Britain’s schools are failing, London: Vintage.

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© Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith 2001. Last update: July 08, 2014