As I begin my last day as Chief Executive of the Foyer Federation and set out on the next stage of my own personal journey, it’s perhaps not surprising that I wanted to pause for breath and look back over where we’ve come in the last 12 years.
Foyers were originally set up as an alternative to hostel provision and to provide a positive induction to adulthood for those young people who don’t get that from home. They were intended to offer much more than a crisis response to youth homelessness by providing personal development, enabling young people to build their emotional health and wellbeing and connecting them with learning and employment as the best routes out of poverty and disadvantage.
I joined the Foyer Federation in 2004, when the network of Foyers had grown to around 120, with an established accreditation process, developed at the request of young people who wanted a consistent service across the country. As an organisation, we were working with government, who understood the distinctive approach Foyers could offer. At the time, we were developing and rolling out a national learning programme and, for the first time, many of our members were receiving revenue funding under the government’s Supporting People programme to support their work.
But there were clouds gathering on the horizon. Supporting People was already under pressure and, within a couple of years, it became clear that the goose had not laid a golden egg. Indeed, for many of our members, an over reliance on a particular strand of public funding is now threatening the very existence of their Foyers. As commissioning has become more prescriptive, local authorities are focusing their resources largely on those young people for whom they have a statutory responsibility. This means they are largely purchasing ‘safety net’ services, despite the rhetoric at both national and local level about prevention or early intervention. For Foyers this has meant being asked to take more and more young people with higher levels of need, and we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of 16 and 17 year olds in Foyers, who often form the vast majority of young people with whom they work. This has been accompanied by pressure to move young people on as soon as their immediate housing crisis has been stabilised regardless of whether they have built the skills they need to build sustainable futures. Gone too are the days when a local college could phone a Foyer and ask them to take a young person on one of their courses, who was at risk of homelessness. With referrals now controlled by local authority homelessness teams, that young person would need to be made homeless before they could access a service and, of course, and it is all too likely that they will have dropped out of college in the process. There is a sizeable and growing cohort of young people who do not qualify for state support but whose need to develop their assets and maximise their contribution to society has never been more acute. In short, the ‘foyerness’ is being squeezed out of Foyers and Foyers are being turned back into the hostels they were developed to replace.
The Foyer Federation could, of course, have gone with the grain of this and accepted this dilution of their offer as an inevitable consequence of the political, social and economic situation. At this crossroads on our journey as an organisation, however, we chose to take a more ‘savvy’ path. We decided to focus on our role as a thought leader, innovator and challenger of the status quo. Having done that, we have reconnected with the original charitable mission set out by Shelter and Diageo and have a vision that is consistent with what drove development of Foyers in the first place.
The truth is that, as an organisation, we have always believed that young people will only thrive when services focus on their strengths and assets rather than on their disadvantages. Over the last few years, we have given the asset based approach that has always underpinned the Foyer approach a name – Advantaged Thinking – and set about applying it within the Foyer network. As we did that, we came to realise just how far the Foyer approach was being corrupted through its funding relationship with the state and became convinced that our role was to try and reclaim it.
I have been lucky enough to work with trustees who have been brave enough to see risk as an opportunity and have been prepared to invest the organisation’s reserves in the development of a vision that some of the most progressive funders in the sector are now supporting. We have recently begun to pilot what we are calling a Reclaimed Foyer Offer within our network. This offer builds on the four core principles that underpin the Foyer approach:-
- That they should be a place of choice for young people, not somewhere they are ‘referred’ to by the authorities.
- That they should provide a balanced community where young people at different stages of their journey can live together and learn from each other and from the skilled staff who work with them.
- That Foyers should have an explicit focus on learning and work, as the most effective route out of poverty and disadvantage.
- That the relationship between the Foyer and the young person should be underpinned by a ‘something for something’ deal that, yes, requires a formal commitment on the part of the young person but where they can expect the service to provide them with the skills, resources and opportunities that will enable them to build a sustainable, long-term future for themselves.
The Reclaimed Foyer Offer aims to rebuild the trust that has broken down between young people and service providers so that young people can, once again, turn their experience of disadvantage into a positive resource, shaping services that work for them. The Reclaimed Foyer Offer is supported by a new Quality Assurance Framework underpinned by some ground breaking work with the University of Cumbria to create an alternative, asset based approach to measuring the impact of the work our members that has been co-produced with young people.
Advantaged Thinking has a resonance that goes well beyond the work of the Foyer network. It has enabled us to build common ground with other organisations through an alliance of like-minded organisations called TrustYouth. Those of us in TrustYouth believe it is time to turn our ‘topsy turvy’ world the right way up and accept our collective responsibility for society’s failure to create the conditions in which all young people can thrive. We are working together to challenge the deficit based approaches that underpin so many services targeted at young people and encourage those who create policy, provide funding and deliver services to do things differently.
The Foyer Federation’s new Chief Executive, Tokunbo Ajasa-Oluwa, joins an organisation with a clear vision for the future, staff and trustees who are committed to achieving it and a great network of partners who share our conviction that we can do better for young people. We are strongly driven by a mission that is as authentic and relevant today as it ever was and an offer that can help release the talent and potential of young people. What is even more exciting is that Tokunbo brings with him skills and experience that will enable him to lead the Foyer Federation to places I couldn’t have taken it. What more could I ask for as a leaving gift?
During the course of these reflections, I have realised that perhaps the greatest privilege of leading this maverick organisation has been the journey it has taken me on. And I suspect that’s exactly how it should be for a charity where, as leaders of the organisation, whether trustees or employees, we hold its mission in trust. I leave a brave, maverick, authentic, savvy and loving organisation in great hands. I am confident that the next stage of the Foyer Federation’s journey will shape itself, nurtured by a desire to learn and share and by the passion of those who believe we can do better in nurturing future generations.
“Traveller, there are no roads. Roads are made by travelling.” (Spanish proverb)