Advantaged thinking, by Jane Slowey

Jane Slowey CBE

Jane Slowey CBE

Advantaged Thinking is the name the Foyer Federation has adopted for the asset or strengths based approach it uses in its work with young people struggling to make the transition to adulthood.

Advantaged Thinking is about using the advantages we possess as humans – our assets, talents, resources and abilities – to create the conditions for a society in which everyone can thrive.

It starts from the premise that everyone has the talent and ability to create their own future and be someone in life. With the right set of opportunities and support, their talents can be harnessed for personal and social good. 

By contrast, ‘DisAdvantaged Thinking’ looks at young people through the lens of their disadvantage. It labels young people - as ‘vulnerable’, ‘disadvantaged’, care leavers, young offenders.  When we describe someone as a “homeless young person”, rather than a young person who has ‘experienced’ homelessness, we are more likely to see and respond to their housing need rather than the other things that may be the key to them realising their potential.

Seeing young people as problems to be solved or victims in need of charity, leads services to frame their offers in terms of ‘needs’ or ‘deficits’. When young people access services, their first interaction with staff is often through a risk assessment, which goes over again those things in their past that have led them to be considered ‘vulnerable’. This can make it difficult for them to create a positive narrative about who they are, what they are good at and what or who they want to be. ‘DisAdvantaged Thinking’ teaches people that it is enough for them to survive or to cope with their disadvantage rather than enabling them to build a thriving, sustainable life for themselves.

For the Foyer Federation, the origins of Advantaged Thinking date back to around 2007, well before ‘assets based’ approaches were in vogue.  Indeed, it can be argued that Foyers themselves, developed in the early 1990s as an alternative to hostel provision, were in themselves constructed on the idea that existing services were limiting rather than releasing young people’s potential. Foyers were intended to provide a positive induction to adulthood for young people who, for all sorts of reasons, didn’t get that from home. They offered a holistic approach that integrated an offer of accommodation with learning, employability and personal development. Foyers were intended to prevent young people from needing crisis services in the future.

In the early days Foyers, like much of the beyond profit sector, experienced a rather ‘hand to mouth’ existence, managing a plethora of funding streams and brokering partnerships at the local level to create a coherent offer. This changed in 2003 when the government allowed Foyers to bid for Supporting People funding and, for a few years, Foyers had an element of funding security they had never before experienced. Sadly, the goose had not laid the golden egg and Foyers became increasingly dependent on one source of funding. As public spending has been squeezed, Foyers have seen commissioners effectively turning their services back into the hostels they were designed to replace.

In many ways, the ‘naming’ of Advantaged Thinking and its increasing centrality to the work of the Foyer Federation has been a mechanism for reconnecting with its original mission, to create a positive induction to adulthood for those young people who don’t get it from home.

Over recent years, the Foyer Federation has used its national fundraising capacity to develop a number of tools, products and activities that embed an Advantaged Thinking approach across its network. These include the development of a Reclaimed Foyer Offer based on 4 key criteria:-

  • That the Foyer should be a place of choice, not somewhere the local authority ‘sends’ you;
  • That the Foyer should create a balanced community of young people at different stages in their journeys, able to provide peer support and role models for each other;
  • That the Foyer should have a clear focus on learning and work as the most effective route out of poverty and disadvantage;
  • That the Foyer should have a genuine ‘something for something deal’ at its heart that requires the young person to engage with what is provided in exchange for a meaningful offer that is tailored to their individual needs and aspirations.

A refreshed Quality Assurance Framework, underpinned by the Foyer Federation’s 7 Tests of Advantaged Thinking is being piloted within the Foyer network. The University of Cumbria has been working with the Foyer Federation to develop an Advantaged Thinking approach to measuring impact. This work has involved an international literature review to demonstrate that strengths based/asset based approaches work. This led to the development of an Advantaged Thinking theory of change, which has been co-produced with young people and those organisations involved in the Reclaimed Foyer Offer pilot are developing their own theories of change based on this work.

It is interesting that Advantaged Thinking has also provided the Foyer Federation and its members with a mechanism for challenging the way services are currently being commissioned. Some Foyer parent organisations have refused to tender for services where the contract being offer does not allow them to provide a genuine Foyer service. Others have persuaded commissioners to adopt an alternative approach. An increasing number of members of the Foyer network are choosing to work with the Foyer Federation to find alternative ways of configuring and delivering the Foyer approach.  That is not easy, particularly as state funding is increasingly concentrated on statutory duties and crisis funding. However, it has the potential to enable independent organisations who have, effectively been co-opted by the state, to wrest control back and reassert their independence. 

Advantaged Thinking is also being applied beyond the Foyer network. TrustYouth, is an emerging alliance of organisations working with young people who believe that, in our ‘topsy turvy’ world, we are squandering the talent and potential of too many young people and that Advantaged Thinking and other asset based approaches can help turn the world the right way up.

And, of course, Advantaged Thinking has a resonance that goes well beyond young people.  As someone who is looking ageing straight in the eye, a ‘disAdvantaged thinking’ narrative is all too evident and needs challenging.

Jane Slowey, March 2017

 Jane Slowey CBE was CEO of the Foyer Federation from 2004 to 2017. Previously she was Chief Executive of Birmingham Voluntary Youth Service Council, Vice Chair of the West Midlands Regional Assembly, and also a councillor on Birmingham City Council, where she chaired the Community Affairs Committee. She was awarded a CBE for services to young people in 2009, and has honorary degrees at Newman University and the University of Birmingham. Jane is a member of the founding group of A Better Way.

This blog has been adapted from a presentation given shortly before Jane left her role as Chief Executive of the Foyer Federation.  For further information about Advantaged Thinking, including the 7 Tests of Advantaged Thinking and ‘Being Advantaged Thinking’ training and to find out more about TrustYouth, see the Foyer Federation’s website www.foyer.net or contact grace@foyer.net.