Thursday, 30 December 2010


First a huge THANK YOU to all the people who gave Christmas gifts for children during our annual 'Giving Tree' appeal, and to the businesses who helped to advertise, support and to collect gifts. Last year over 6,000 gifts were donated and this year looks to have exceeded that record. This really makes an enormous difference to children and families in need at this time of year. It tells them despite all the difficulties that life can bring, people really do care about the worst off in our society. It is the 'Big Society' in action, in the same way as it always has done.

Children North East ends the year in a very different place to its start. There has been a change of government, the emergency budget and the Comprehensive Spending Review. We all know about cuts in public spending but none of us yet knows quite what that will mean for our service users or our services.

We recognised early what the scale of the financial problem might be and got to work quickly and enthusiastically. It was important first to revisit our objectives and restate our commitment to children, children and young people's rights and to countering the effects of inequality on them, their families and communities. This gave us a firm basis from which to think clearly about the services we can offer and freed us from thinking that the only ways to finance our work were through contracts or grants to run whole projects. We are beginning to see that local authortities, schools and eventually GPs are prepared to purchase individual pieces of work from us.

During the last few months we have made many applications to Big Lottery and charitable foundations for funding for projects as well as continuing to talk to local authorities and PCTs about next year’s grants and contracts; and we have joined with other organisations to make applications for Big Lottery grants and to collaborate on other projects.

I think we have made a tremendous start to respond and adapt to the new funding environment; and I am optimistic that Children North East will cope well next year when some of our services will change from 'being funded' to 'being bought'. However there is still lots more to do and several months more uncertainty before we will know what size of organisation we will be in 2011-2012.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Boys reading

Last week the BBC news reported 10% of 11 year old boys have a reading age of 7 or less. Michael Gove was interviewed and predicatbly said the solution is to give schools more freedom so that those who get the best results can support others.

Primary school is the time to learn how to read. By the time children move to secondary school at age 11 it is too late. Academic studies found that text books for year 7 (the first year of secondary school) typically require a reading age of 13 or 14 years. They are a struggle for 11 year olds but will be an impossibility for someone with a reading age of only 7. Secondary school teachers are trained and expect to teach subjects, they assume that the basics - reading and maths have been covered in primary school. Secondary school teachers just don't have the time or skills to focus on reading.

A couple or weeks ago we had a contract monitoring meeting with representatives of Gateshead Council. Last summer Gateshead looked at their data on 'vulnerable' children - the ones that need most help in school. They looked at many factors and found that typically vulnerable children had 6 or more factors but almost always had the same four factors. The four factors are - free school meals (meaning children from poorer families), late birthday (meaning born after Christmas so younger when they started school and remaining among the younger members of the class), poor scores at Key Stage 1 maths, and poor scores at Key Stage 1 reading.

Children learn to read when people read to them at home and with them at school. Many primary schools employ learning support assistants or volunteers to help children with their reading. However not all can afford to do this or have local communities able or prepared to give time to help children read.

School leadership counts for much but so do money and community resources. Michael Gove says the 'pupil premium' - £430 a year for each pupil registered for free school meals, will enable schools to provide whatever support they think best. Doubtless David Cameron would say the 'Big Society' would encourage adults to volunteer to help out in schools, but is that realistic in all communities?

Friday, 17 December 2010

The value of the voluntary sector

Nick Hurd. Minister for Civil Society was expected in the region yesterday. In anticipation the Journal, Chronicle and Northern Echo all ran features about the impact cuts in public sector funding are likely to have on voluntary organisations and community groups. The theme was picked up today by BBC Look North.

In the event Nick Hurd did not turn up. However Children North East featured prominently in the Journal and a family we worked with spoke eloquently on Look North. They are looking after their grandchildren who would otherwise be in care, and said if it were not for organisations like Children North East more children would be in care at great cost to Local Authorities.

Jo Curry, Chief Executive of the Voluntary Organisations Network North East (VONNE) was asked whether David Cameron's idea of everyone doing some voluntary work would take the place of voluntary organisations. She said the 'Big Society' already exists in the north east! A quarter of the population here have done some form of volunteering in the past year but Jo made the point there would be far fewer opportunities to volunteer if the voluntary organisations were not there.

Last week the Northern Rock Foundation published university research commisioned about the state of the voluntary sector in the north east. We have fewer active voluntary organisations per head of population than other regions, but voluntary organisations in the north east deliver more public services than in other regions particularly 'social services' such as the work Children North East does. In the main funding for those services comes from the public sector.

This week Local Authorities found out how much money they will receive from central government. Two of the authorities that face the biggest cuts (over 8%) are in our region - South Tyneside and Middlesbrough. In September the BBC commissioned research which found that Middlesbrough was the least resilient town in the country in the face of cuts to public services. No surprise places like Dorset Windsor and Maidenhead, West Sussex, Wokingham, Richmond upon Thames and Buckinghamshire all get cuts of 1% or below.

Friday, 10 December 2010

The unkindest cut

Student protests against increased university tuition fees have grabbed the headlines this week, but amongst the protesters have been a smaller group of young people drawing attention to the abolition of Education Maintenance Allowances (EMAs). These are means tested payments made to students from poorer families who would otherwise not be able to afford to stay on in education after GCSEs. Poorer families need the additional income that their 16 year old could bring in from any kind of job. The last government brought in EMAs to take the pressure off these young people so they got the chance to do A levels. But the Coalition has abolished new EMAs from January 2011. Students who already have an EMA will continue to get it for the rest of this academic year but not the following year. The government says something called 'learner support funds' will be available through schools, colleges and training providers to help students who most need it to continue in learning, however no other details have been released. There is a real risk that many able young people will not continue their education after GSCE let alone consider a university education.

Friday, 3 December 2010

New website

At last our new website is working please visit us at:

We are delighted with all the work done by our Webdurance team who have given their time and talent free to produce our new website. It started with a marathon 24 hour event at Newcastle University last summer followed by a lot of tweaking since. However the main problem has been sorting out where to host the website. Our existing web server did not have the specification required to host the new site and the all important content management behind it which enables us to easily update and edit the content of the website. It has taken a lot of work arounds followed by extensive testing to finally get us to this launch.

I am very pleased with the result. It is a great improvement on the old site and has the potential to grow to include things like selling our Christmas cards online next Christmas. So big, big thanks to Steve and the team for all their hard work.