In some recent posts I have explored new ways of thinking about the pursuit of social change. I have also questioned the centrality in pursuing such change normally accorded by politicians and their advisors to traditional policy making.
There is no shortage of examples of unsuccessful policy making but there are many fewer of alternative approaches that have achieved success at any kind of scale. This is hardly surprising given that so many of our assumptions and systems are based on the existing paradigm. So when an ambitious example of a different method comes along it is worth noting and praising.
Today sees the launch by a coalition of organisations of Read on. Get on an initiative with the aim that by 2025 every child is reading well by the age of eleven. In the launch document Save the Children (which brought the coalition together) make a powerful, well-researched case for this to be a priority for social progress and justice. Reading well is a building block crucial to children’s personal development, educational attainment and life chances, yet one in four children do not read well at eleven, a figure that rises to two in five for poorer groups. The problem is particularly acute among white working class boys. Shamefully for the England, Romania is the only European country with a bigger socio-economic attainment gap in childhood reading.
Few would argue with the goal of every child reading well at eleven by 2025, but the most interesting aspect of this initiative is its method: it has many of the elements laid out by the exponents of the collective impact approach which is making much ground in the US.
First, there is a clear and inspiring mission which Save the Children has developed with a powerful and board based coalition: Among many others, the campaign is supported by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), Teach First, publisher Harper Collins and the children’s communication charity ICAN.
Second, each partner to the Read on.Get on coalition has agreed a shared set of measurable targets and metrics on the road to delivering their mission. There are important milestones to be reached along the way to 2025 but if the initiative starts to fail there will be no way to hide that failure.
Third, and most important, the campaign is about mobilising civil society not depending primarily on the policy makers’ tool kit of new regulations, Government programmes or budget lines. As the launch document says:
‘We cannot afford to fall into the trap of thinking all children will read well simply as a result of decisions by Whitehall based policy makers….While Government has an essential and necessary role to play, so do we all’
The initiative’s plan contains actions for parents (especially fathers), volunteers, school leaders and teachers, businesses and local partnerships of schools. Rather than more money or legislation Government is asked to play its part through leading and convening. The freshness of this approach is well captured by the words of Russell Hobby the General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers:
‘We ask a lot of schools. There is no end of standards, requirements, demands and expectations. What is different about this campaign is that schools are asking a lot of themselves. This is not a Government imposed target. This is the teaching profession working with parents and civil society to set our own aspirations’.
The other key aspects of the collective impact approach concern implementation; maintaining clear roles for the partners and good communication between them, and the need for a ‘backbone’ organisation to maintain critical mass at the heart of the effort. Whether these elements come together only time will tell.
Will it work? It is much harder for the collective impact methodology to succeed at the national level especially when so much to depends on local institutions and communities. Ultimately, unlike the linear predictability of the policy makers’ imaginary world, the exponents of collective impact accept uncertainty, knowing that everything depends on the hit and miss of building and maintaining civic momentum. The fat-busting Mayor of Oklahoma may be a great example of ‘beyond policy’ leadership but when other US mayors tried to emulate him they fell flat on their chubby faces.
The Read on.Get on. coalition wants every major political party to sign up. If they do – and I hope they will – I hope they also notice they are being asked to play a supportive leadership role not a top down managerial one. If so this commendable initiative might just help our political class generally start thinking more realistically and progressively about social change.