Activity and Learning Agreement Pilots – Programme Theory Evaluation
Activity Agreement Provision (Working Paper 3)
Newton B, Johnson C, Fearn H
Report RR097, Department for Children, Schools and Families, April 2009
a study commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF)
The Activity and Learning Agreements (ALA) Pilots were launched in 12 areas of England in April 2006. Activity Agreements (AA) operate in eight of the 12 areas and are designed for young people aged 16 or 17 who are not in employment, education or training (NEET). Young people have to be NEET for 20 weeks to be eligible. They receive a weekly allowance (three variants of which are being tested in different pilot areas) and continuous support, and in return agree to take part in tailored activities designed to help them progress towards an employment or education and training outcome. Learning Agreements (LA) are aimed at 16 to 17 year olds in jobs without training (JWT) and also operate in 8 of the 12 pilot areas. Under a Learning Agreement, young people take part in agreed activities, which must include undertaking a designated course.
This paper is part of the programme theory strand of the ALA Pilots evaluation. This is a realist evaluation method which focuses on identifying and testing some of the key ‘theories’ that underlie the ALA policy to explore which components of the policy work (or don’t), how, for whom, why, and in what circumstances.
This is the third paper resulting from the ‘focused studies’ element within the programme theory evaluation and explores the theories related to provision and brokerage. It is based on research undertaken among a sample of young people in three Connexions Partnership areas who signed up to the AA between December 2007 and April 2008. The aim of this particular study was to gather evidence in relation to three theories:
Theory 14 (the ‘menu of choice’ theory): If the policy provides a ‘menu of choice’ to the young person then there is a greater likelihood of being able to provide them with activities they need and want in order to progress. This assumes the ‘menu of choice’ is varied enough to appeal to young people with different interests and aspirations and has the capacity to be tailored to what the young person wants to do and when they want to do it. Conversely, constraints on the ‘menu of choice’ may have a negative effect and may lead to disengagement by the young person, unless they can be overcome OR negotiated around to achieve an agreed alternative. The fit between activities is also important to ensure there is some form of development between them – although the need for this may be a constraint, from the perspective of the young person.
Theory 15 (the ‘discretionary fund’ theory): By giving Connexions staff access to a discretionary fund for each young person, they will be able to use it to lift specific or immediate barriers preventing the young person from progressing.
Theory 16 (the ‘broker’ theory): For an agreement to work, the broker must access provision that meets young people’s needs, and to do this effectively a) they need to be fully informed about the range of provision available to them (including things which might be off-menu), b) they may need to negotiate with the young person about what provision best suits them/ is most appropriate and c) the provision needs to be responsive and available (ie at the most appropriate point in the young person’s activity plan).
The study was qualitative in approach and a matched-case method was used. The first stage of this was a series of in-depth interviews with 45 young people who had signed up to the AA. As part of these interviews the research team asked young people for permission to contact their Advisers (to provide the matched-case). The target of matched Adviser interviews for 30 young people was achieved. In addition to the interviews, an analysis of data from the process evaluation was conducted to gather further information about provision across the three Connexions areas in the study.
The ‘menu of choice’ theory
In practice, a mix of menu-centred and young person-centred approaches was used. Advisers in Areas 1 and 2 tended to use a list, calendar or diary of activities with young people to prompt their choices, however they would try to source off-menu provision if the young person wanted it. Advisers in Area 3 did not use a list directly with young people although they sometimes used a training directory to provide information on work-based training or course options.
The ‘menu of choice’ appeared to be varied enough across all of the three Connexions areas, despite the difference in approaches they used to setting out the ‘menu’ to young people. There were few examples where young people had not been able to do something which they really wanted to do, and many examples where young people had been able to take part in a wide and varied range of activities (in particular those who did not have a clear idea about their future goals, who could try out various different areas of work or learning through taster-style provision).
Some provision gaps were identified. The most consistent gap across all the three areas was a lack of work experience placements. This was a particular issue for work-focused young people (in particular if they wanted to do some work-based training).
A few young people had missed activities because they felt they had not particularly wanted to do them, or had felt uncomfortable about saying ‘no’. This was generally in cases where there had been a more menu-led approach.
A key aspect of the Adviser’s broker role was about negotiating constraints: however, some constraints or barriers were difficult to overcome purely via more flexible provision because they were associated with issues centred within the young person, such as severe lack of confidence in group situations or health barriers. In these cases referrals to specialist support services was needed. Some Advisers felt that the 20 week AA period was not long enough to achieve outcomes with young people in these situations, especially if the main problem did not become apparent until several weeks into the AA.
The ‘fit’ between activities and how they were sequenced was important to build progression into the AA and to ensure that young people recognised the benefits of each activity they had done. Activities did not necessarily have to be incremental – there was a role for trying things out and changing track if the young person found they did not want to pursue a particular course of action. Having a broad enough menu of choice to provide the flexibility for young people to do this was crucial, so that they did not feel ‘boxed in’ to a particular pathway.
Building in fall-backs and safety nets was a useful ploy adopted by Advisers to ensure that the young person was progressing in different ways.
Overall, the AA was generally flexible enough to be tailored to what young people wanted to do and when they wanted to do it, although this was inter-dependent on the other provision theories. Use of the Discretionary Fund and brokerage from the Advisers were crucial components of whether the menu could be tailored to individual needs and could provide timely provision.
The Discretionary Fund (DF) theory
The DF was seen as an extremely useful tool by both young people and the Advisers. Advisers appreciated the flexibility it gave to the programme and felt it allowed them to be more person-focused when exploring possible courses or equipment the young person needed. Young people in turn appreciated that they could get help with work or course-related equipment they may need. Overall young people had a sound, if not detailed, understanding of DF.
The DF was seldom used to buy in bespoke provision or courses for an individual young person, but was more often used to create new, tailored provision that could benefit a number of young people with similar needs. This new tailored provision helped to build a more comprehensive ‘menu of choice’ in all three regions. All Advisers felt that the DF was an important part of the programme as it allowed young people with very specific or unusual career goals to benefit from the AA.
Some Advisers felt that there could be more flexibility in the ceiling of DF as some young people did not need any money spent either on bespoke courses or equipment. Their ‘budget’ could be used to offset equipment or provision for young people who needed more financial support .
Spending the DF was not taken lightly by either young people or Advisers. Advisers expected the young people to prove that they deserved the money spent on them and young people were aware that there were limitations to what could be spent.
There was little difference between the two urban areas in their approach to using DF for bespoke provision and equipment. The rural area spent less on bespoke provision for individuals due to the increased costs of travel. They worked extremely hard to make up for the lack of funds by spending the DF on tailored courses or opening out provision explored for one individual to a wider range of young people.
Overall the results of the study indicated that the DF helped to remove specific or immediate barriers for the young people so they could progress. This supports the theory regarding DF that was identified during the programme theory process. The study also found that having the DF helped to broaden the ‘menu of choice’ available to young people, and assisted the brokerage role by involving young people in decisions about how the DF might be used.
The brokerage theory
Brokerage was a key element of the AA for young people and their Advisers. It offered a link between available activities and meeting the needs and aspirations of young people. All young people valued the support from their Advisers and the option of negotiating activities rather than being told what they would do.
Advisers’ experience of researching and sourcing activities in addition to those available through the menu led to broader views of available provision which could then be ‘sold’ to young people. Important to this were formal and informal mechanisms for Advisers to share their experiences with others.
However, examples from one of the urban areas particularly demonstrated that certain young people could be encouraged to research the specialist provision they wanted. This process was felt to deliver benefits to the young person in terms of study skills but also in encouraging them to find out more about their chosen option to help clarify its appropriateness.
All Advisers emphasised the need to set out the benefits of provision to ensure young people were involved in activities that would meet their needs. With some young people, the process of getting them signed up to provision that was peripheral to their core goal was sometimes lengthy and this demonstrated the role for the regular review meetings. These established a supportive working relationship through which Advisers could raise opportunities and challenge perceptions. However, some young people needed little, if any, persuasion to engage in provision and, in these cases, the negotiation might focus more on establishing a learning or work path, best suited to the individual, so that activities could build towards this.
There was little evidence that a delay to an activity caused particular difficulties to individuals. The reason for this was the Advisers’ skills in setting expectations appropriately: if young people could see that provision that met their core goal was scheduled, they could be persuaded to participate in peripheral and contributory activities in the interim. In this way, activities could be used as an incentive to help sustain engagement in the AA.
There was evidence that provision could come too soon for certain young people whose underlying barriers did not become evident until they tried to engage, or later in the programme. Advisers recognised the potential danger in this: if a young person tried to engage, but failed, it could have a negative effect on their confidence and self-esteem which in turn could impact on their outcomes at the end of the Agreement.
A final point is that some Advisers noted that the AA is not appropriate for some young people, for instance those with significant personal or contextual barriers to engagement (such as health/ mental health problems or insurmountable problems in the home environment). For some of these young people, the 20-week timescale was not long enough and the AA did not offer the depth of emotional or psychological support these young people required. Often these young people had been referred for additional counselling, treatment for substance misuse, or other medical or personal-related support.
Activity and Learning Agreement Pilots – Programme Theory Evaluation : Activity Agreement Provision (Working Paper 3), Newton B, Johnson C, Fearn H. Report RR097, Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2009.
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