Passion for positive thinking

Laura McCardle
Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Laura McCardle meets Jane Slowey, chief executive of the Foyer Federation.

Jane Slowey: “Government will always label young people as vulnerable rather than starting with a vision of what life should be like.” Kiti Swannell
Jane Slowey: “Government will always label young people as vulnerable rather than starting with a vision of what life should be like.” Kiti Swannell

After a decade at the helm of an organisation, some leaders can become a little battle-hardened and jaded. But Jane Slowey, who will mark 10 years as chief executive of the Foyer Federation in September, is positively brimming with energy, her passion for young people's issues seemingly undimmed.

"The world around young people has changed dramatically during that time and I think it is more challenging to grow up in the 21st century than it was, for example, when I grew up," says Slowey, who was awarded a CBE in 2009 for her championing of the rights of disadvantaged children.

"The challenges with the changing world in terms of the environment, information and employment are massive for young people."

The federation, a not-for-profit organisation, designs and creates campaigns and initiatives for a network of 120 Foyers - accredited learning and accommodation centres where 16- to 25-year-olds can access housing, learning, training and employment opportunities - with the key aim to find the talent potential in every single young person it works with.

This ambitiously positive outlook taken by the organisation reflects Slowey's personality and encapsulates the "advantaged thinking" ethos she has been championing over her tenure at the federation.

Slowey says too many youth policies, services and organisations immediately view young people as a deficit – something she is clearly frustrated by – and says it is vital that society invests in unleashing their potential instead.

"We start from the point that all young people have talent potential and as a society we have a vision for what life can be like for all young people, but actually what we do is have ambition and make investment in some young people rather than others," she says.

"We have been developing our own talent and advantaged thinking concept for five or six years now and one of the things that started us on that journey was what a smooth transition into adulthood looks like."

Slowey says there is a "huge social injustice" in the opportunities afforded to different groups of young people moving from adolescence to adulthood, and uses an analogy between those who attend university and those who do not.

She says the investment that goes into supporting students through university, the networks available to them and the opportunities university presents means they are able to develop a resilience that helps them tackle the challenges of early adulthood. In contrast, young people who do not go to university do not have the same support or investment and often become "stuck".

Advantaged thinking approach

In these cases, Slowey says it is vital that society takes an advantaged thinking approach. "One of the really sad things about the deficit-based approach is when we tell the story about young people; what we do is we cast them either as victims in need of charity or 'layabouts' in need of a kick up the backside, rather than in need of investment," she says.

"When I see adverts about the work that charities do, I know they are designed to make me feel guilty or pity.

"If you're a young person walking past that kind of advert, what does it make you feel? It doesn't make you feel good about yourself."

The principles underpinning the advantaged thinking concept run through the federation's new seven-year strategy, which was launched in April. The strategy introduces a youth offer that builds the foundations for a positive transition into adulthood.

The ambitious vision brings together the core components of housing, education and employment with the concept of advantaged thinking at the core.

It represents the culmination of a process that started more than five years ago when the organisation recognised that the Foyer network had become too reliant for funding on the Supporting People independent living programme, something that was brought into sharper focus when the ringfence for the funds was removed in 2010.

The organisation's work is now independent of public funding - it raises its own money - and is heavily focused on demonstrating innovation and creativity - something Slowey says services should embrace more often.

"Our view is that we don't think it's always about the amount of money, but really the way in which the money is spent," she says.

"We're not sure government funding is usefully spent really, and it tends to focus on crisis prevention rather than early intervention.

"The trouble is the government always starts with a deficit model, so it will always target those young people who are most vulnerable, label them and then target a remedy rather than starting with a vision about what life for young people should be like."

The federation is trying to address that and is in the early stages of developing a new youth housing offer for young people on low incomes.

"We are doing some really interesting work with three of our members to shape a new youth housing offer that doesn't rely on supporting people and could be affordable enough for somebody on a low income or young people in further education," she explains.

"There's a deal that says if you are working, you could have affordable housing. You could make a contribution perhaps by mentoring or contributing in some other way.

"I think this moment in time, with all its challenges, is a real opportunity."

When it comes to tackling youth unemployment, Slowey says current government policies, such as Jobcentre Plus, are failing and that the money should be redirected and used in a more effective way.

She is, however, supportive of the Cabinet Office's increasing focus on social action - most notably through the National Citizen Service - to equip young people with a range of life skills because she says these qualities are sought after by employers.

However, she has doubts about how effective the Cabinet Office, which gained responsibility for youth services policy in July 2013, can be when much of the funding and management of youth services still sits within the Department for Education.

"The Cabinet Office's emphasis on the importance of these skills for life are really good, but there tends to be a fundamental tension between what's emerging from the Cabinet Office and the DfE, which focuses on academic achievement," says Slowey.

"The real question is how influential can the Cabinet Office be when the bulk sits with the DfE? You have to ask, where are the resources going to come from to try out some of the exciting ideas that are emerging?"

Outsourcing services

An aim of the DfE's proposals to outsource the delivery of children's social care is to introduce more innovation in service provision, but Slowey says she is sceptical about the whole idea. "I personally have a real question about where it would be right for children's services to be delivered at a profit rather than the common good," she says.

"Having said that, I believe that the third sector has a lot to offer both to the delivery of the services for children and young people, and also for innovation and finding different ways of doing things."

Slowey refers back to the concept of advantaged thinking and says the focus should be on the vision underpinning the service rather than the body providing it.

"I think one of the problems is, the delivery can only be as good as what is being commissioned," she says.

"Unless we move beyond a context in which we see many children through the lense of their vulnerability rather than what they want to be, we will be seeing them primarily in need of protection rather than as an investment.

"If we have the essence of what we are trying to do right, if we start with a vision that all young people are trying to succeed, I think there are lots of ways we could deliver that."


  • Slowey spent eight years as a Birmingham City councillor in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
  • She was appointed chief executive of Birmingham Voluntary Service Council in 1998
  • Slowey became chief executive of the Foyer Federation in 2004
  • She was awarded a CBE for services to disadvantaged young people in 2009
  • She is chair of Skills Effect, a charity that champions the skills development of those working for voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises
  • Slowey sings in a choir
  • She has two grandchildren – one-year-old Ava and five-week-old Alex

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