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Early intervention and social class: A critique of the potential for notions of preventative work to reinforce the social control functions of social work…


I have been invited to write an opinion piece for an online debate tomorrow night entitled “Early Intervention: Concept, Context, Reality and Prospects”.

Although it is difficult to challenge the idea that those involved with preventative work and early intervention with children and families are often benevolent and seek to provide appropriate support services to ameliorate the life chances of vulnerable children and young people, I wish to question the potential for early intervention work to confound or even reinforce notions of social class based on professionals’ understanding of class deficits and relative morality. Early intervention work does not operate in a class-vacuum, and although social class is a nebulous and contentious concept, it has powerful and real consequences in terms of life chances and opportunities.

Let’s briefly consider the history of the study of preventative measures. One of the first large-scale, longitudinal research studies to try to establish what factors can predict future problem behaviour was the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development (Farrington 1995). This study involved in-depth interviews with young White, working-class boys in London and their families about their living arrangements, education, social networks and so on, the researchers then followed the criminal careers of the boys over a 40 year period to see what correlating factors could be associated with future criminality and offending. What they found was that many of the markers of being young, male and working class in London in the mid c20th had some association with future deviancy – for example, living in a deprived neighbourhood, coming from a low-income household, poor educational attainment and so on. Despite the obvious sample-bias, this study has had huge influence over what we now refer to as early intervention.

So the question is how can we disaggregate markers of social class from factors associated with future “problems”? Let us consider one of these associated factors, that of poor educational attainment. If we map children in receipt of free school meals (This is a means tested benefit and therefore an indicator of low-income) to attaining GCSEs we can see that there is a strong correlation; only 32.6% of children in receipt of free school means get 5 GSCEs grades A to C, whereas 60.7% of children who are not is receipt of this benefit achieve the same goal. Therefore it could be argued that for many children, poor attainment at school is related to household poverty. How far can we attribute poor educational attainment to poor parents rather than poor parenting? This is where the notion of identifying factors which may influence early intervention work becomes somewhat murky. For example, what measures can we take to disassociate social class deficit from individual pathology? The truth is that we do not have a tool to achieve this other than normative notions of morality. How do we make distinct the “good enough” parent from a parenting deficit? Furthermore, of, and how do, children and families access to social and cultural goods impact on professionals’ understandings of potential future “problems”?

The obvious way to find out would be to sort out the problems of poverty and class inequality. Once we have achieved this, then it would easy to spot the potential for future social need. However, I doubt there currently is any political support for this project, so early intervention is seemingly stuck with an imperfect, and potentially confounding, knowledge base. My concern is that the potential to use early intervention as a measure of social control is great, with, potentially, children and families being coerced into interventions based on a defective model of identification. Furthermore, there is massive potential for this to be amplified as the processes of neo-liberalism and globalisation further the lumpenisation and precariatisation of families from lower socio-economic classes.

Tom Henri (@tomhenri) is a lecturer in Social Work at Goldsmiths University of London. You can find Tom Henri’s own blog Unsettling Social Work here.

Topic:    Early Intervention: Concept, Context, Reality and Prospects

Date:     Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Time:    20:00 to 21:00 GMT  (15:00 to 16:00 EST)

Official Twitter Feed:  @SWSCmedia 

The debate hashtag is:  #SWSCmedia 

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