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Tune to implementation

Edited on

09 March 2017

It’s easy enough in principle to start doing new things. It happens every day, in every walk of life. But it often happens in isolation; one thing over here, another over there. More rarely is there a successful attempt to get everything on the same wavelength and coordinate the implementation of new things, particularly when we are talking about putting complex new polices into practice within cities.

The transition from policy and strategy into delivery of tangible results in a systematic way still remains a challenge for cities and governments. URBACT has created a new type of network to support cities in making this transition. This is a major step for URBACT as it signals a willingness to move into what is traditionally more difficult territory.

The Stay Tuned network is one of seven of these new “Implementation Networks” approved by URBACT in autumn 2016. Led by the City of Ghent and involving a total of nine cities from across Europe, this network will focus on the theme of reducing Early School Leaving (ESL) and boosting the frequency of qualification in young people.

Arwen Dewilde, Project Lead for the City of Ghent says, “I think the types of policies and interventions to tackle early school leaving are pretty well understood - some places are ahead of others in terms of activity, but cities see it as a core problem to tackle and are doing plenty of things in this area. But a lot of that activity is what we’ve always done or what just “feels right”.  The difficulty is in turning new policies into tangible actions that really work and understanding what actually makes them work. And in a coordinated and measurable way. Cities need to be able to demonstrate their results and understand why and how they achieved those results. That what’s we’re hoping this project will achieve.”

Of course, Early School Leaving (ESL) is not a new problem. There have always been differences of opinion on the value of schooling and on the form that schooling should take. Furthermore, the breadth of educational options on offer to young people is now greater than ever before, incorporating a wide variety of opportunities to suit different learning styles and aspirations. This ought to ensure that a large majority of young people will successfully complete their schooling.

However, there is still a significant number of youngsters starting their adult life with few or no formal qualifications or skills. This is a result of leaving school early or failing to reach a high enough standard to obtain much needed qualifications. Besides, this has significant consequences for both the individual and for society in general, including an increased risk of unemployment, poverty and social exclusion, as well as the mental and physical health problems that may result.

It is no surprise therefore, that reducing ESL has been an EU priority for a number of years, with an increasing structure and focus around it. ESL is an explicit priority within the EU2020 strategy and the latest policies embrace and advocate the proposed “whole school approach to tackling early school leaving” as set out in 2015 by the EU’s Education & Training Working Group on Schools Policy. This includes conducting activities at all levels, and covering five thematic areas of Governance, Leaner Support, Teachers, Parents & Families and Stakeholder Involvement.

There is already significant activity in ESL-reduction in all member states. For example, both Portugal and the Netherlands have achieved significant reductions in their ESL rates in recent years, Portugal from a greatly above average rate, the Netherlands from a below average rate, demonstrating that results can be achieved regardless of which end of the spectrum you are stating from.

However, despite this activity, only a relatively small amount of successful practice is reviewed and evidenced in detail at EU level and there is little research focussing on the detail of the interventions that really work at reducing ESL and crucially why they work. As a result, it is difficult to discern the relative importance of the way things were implemented versus the quality of the policy that was adopted.

An example of useful analysis of a successful programme is the Dutch Government’s “Anval op de Uitval” (Drive to Reduce Dropout Rates) Programme, which started in 2002. This programme was better reviewed and evidenced than many and in addition to ongoing reviews of the programme, the Centre for Public Impact developed a useful case study in 2016. This also highlighted the importance of good data in the design, monitoring and evaluation of projects and the positive difference the effective use of good data can make.

But data is only one of many challenges faced by the city partners in the Stay Tuned network. Early school leaving is a complex problem with multiple causes and dependencies which are interlinked. This is where the URBACT methodology of using an “integrated approach” is crucial - taking into account the full range of themes and disciplines which have a part to play when designing and implementing solutions to city problems.

“It’s like trying to make bridges” says Dewilde. “Making connections between many actions that are currently isolated from one another - not truly integrated actions which are focussed. Policy at the moment tends to be groups of actions, rather than coordinated actions. And even when they are integrated they tend also not to be as well-focused as they could be.”

In the case of ESL, this means engaging multiple departments and other stakeholder groups in the design and delivery of the projects at a local level, including things like housing, social care and economic development as well as education departments and schools.

Many cities are familiar with using this type of approach for planning and strategy development (particularly those who are experienced in URBACT and similar planning methods). However, moving to delivery of action plans in a collaborative and integrated way is still not yet standard practice in many cities. Many of the practices and behaviours needed to achieve this shift to collaborative and integrated working can be unfamiliar and challenging. Key methods such as open innovation and user-centred design are becoming much more common within city administrations, as are the concepts of collaborative and social innovation.

The URBACT implementation Networks represent a great opportunity to develop and use such methods whilst also having a peer-support and learning network to strengthen the practice of reducing ESL, alongside a focus on understanding the methods and the nuances of what makes implementations succeed or fail.

Dewilde echoes this. “The project is a really exciting opportunity for Ghent (and all the partners, actually) - for us to push our work in this area much further. It gives us the framework to bring together a range of partners within our city, who don’t always work together on this, but all of whom have a role to play. I’m also hopeful that it will give us the chance to strengthen our practice and our understanding around the early school leaving phenomenon, but also exchange tools and methods for implementing policies with other cities within the Network. It won’t be easy, but we hope this project will help us with our work on ESL but will also give valuable insights about the process of implementation to share across the city authority as a whole.”

Understanding the conditions of implementation are as crucial as understanding the practice itself. This is often neglected and Stay Tuned is seeking to change that. It’s about the art of doing; a new type of journey for URBACT but therefore an exciting one, with the opportunity to make a real difference to results. Let’s do this.