Thursday, 31 March 2011

Goodbye Western Tynedale Children's Centre in Haltwhistle

Today we say goodbye to the staff team at Sure Start Children's Centre Western Tynedale in Haltwhistle. Our contract to manage the Children’s Centre on behalf of Northumberland County Council is ending, the County Council has decided to manage the Children's Centre itself and our staff team are transferring to become employees of Northumberland Count Council.
Children North East has worked in Western Tynedale for 18 years when the Rural Action for Families in Tynedale (RAFT) first started. RAFT toured isolated villages in a converted double decker bus offering the same sorts of services now provided by Children's Centres. In 2002 in conjunction with the Haltwhistle Partnership, we set up a prototype Children's Centre in a shop on Haltwhistle High Street. In 2007 when the present building opened, we won the contract from Northumberland County Council to manage the Children's Centre services and have done so ever since.
We have cooperated fully with the County Council to ensure a smooth transfer of responsibility for the Children's Centre in the interests of the families who use the Centre and our staff. However we did challenge the decision of the County Council to take over management of the Children's Centre on the grounds of lack of consultation, lack of communication about the reasons for the decision and unfairness because all other contracts with VCS organisations to manage Children’s Centres in the county have been extended until March 2012. We had local support however when the County Council eventually responded it was clear that they would not be moved.
During the course of the TUPE negotiations it became clear that the County Council's motivation is to save money by amalgamating management and staffing of all the Children’s Centres in Tynedale which may mean limiting opening hours and a reduced service to families.
We feel we have an obligation to families in Tynedale to do what we can to ensure they continue to have access to the same services as at present. So I have written to the MP for Tynedale to tell him our fear that families may suffer as a result of the County Council's decision.
Children North East is proud of the difference that our staff and volunteers have made for families in Tynedale over 18 years. In particular the present staff team at the Children's Centre who achieved a resounding ‘good’ in all aspects of the Ofsted inspection last autumn to add to national awards in former years. We are leaving a strong legacy in Haltwhistle and outreach to the surrounding communities.
I hope that Sure Start Children’s Centre Western Tynedale will continue to thrive and wish the staff every success for the future.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Transition Fund

The Transition Fund is government money to help voluntary sector organisations adapt to the new funding environment. It was set up because government recognised there will be fewer grants in the future from councils and other parts of the public sector for voluntary organisations; and that there are likely to be fewer but larger contracts. They saw that voluntary organisations will need to become more enterprising and fund themselves in different ways to survive.
Children North East applied for and I am delighted that we have been awarded £180,000 from the Transition Fund. Our application proposed, and the money will be spent in a number of ways. This is very good news for Children North East, it will enable us to adapt to a new era for the voluntary sector and help us to remain vibrant, relevant and effective.
We need external advice from a charity finance consultant to help us adapt our financial forecasting and budget monitoring to support income generation particularly spot purchasing. We also want to franchise some of our existing service models so that we can spread the benefit of our services to more children and young people, this will also need external advice to achieve.
We urgently need to improve marketing. In future schools and GPs rather than local authorities and PCTs will be purchasing services for children, young people and families so we must make sure they know about what we offer. Some of the grant will help with this.
Research and development is really important so that what we do remains relevant to the needs and wishes of children and young people in the region. So we will be investing more in that.
The Big Society is about opportunities for volunteers and getting more people involved in local charities not only in services (as we have done for over 30 years) but also fund raising and helping with the general running of the organisation. We also want to be able to provide apprenticeships, student placements and work opportunities for young people.
Finally the public sector will still want to buy our services but one at a time (spot purchasing) rather than funding a whole service. Part of the grant will go towards supporting us to do that.

Monitoring this grant is very 'light touch', the government wanted to make it easy for voluntary organisations to spend the money wisely without too much bureaucracy. We can start spending the money immediately!

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Now it's really frustrating

Last week I thought the long wait was over and announcements about funding for our services were immiment, but 7 days on and we are no further forward. In 2010-2011 we received nearly £500,000 from Newcastle City Council in the form of grants and contracts mainly for work with families, we still don't know how much of that will continue after 31st March.

Prudently we issued 'at risk of redundancy' notices to staff (40% of all our workers) in those services in January and have been working through the consultation process with them since then. This month we are having to tell them their jobs are ending on 31st March. We do not have the reserves to pay people after that, there is no alternative but to let skilled and experienced people go.

I have been going to team meetings of staff in this predicament. Is is impressive that although they are extremely worried for themselves, their first concern is for the children and families they work with, people who are among the most vulnerable in our society. They want to be able to make 'good endings' with each family, their professionalism cannot be faulted but time is running out. Should they tell families now that support will cease at the end of this month? But that would only add to the burden vulnerable people already carry. Or should they wait a little longer in the hope it all works out OK? It worries them other services may not be there either to refer families to, so families could be left with little or no support. It is barely acceptable to string staff along to the very last moment waiting for announcements about money but another thing entirely to take away support from families and children in need with no warning.

Our family support services in Newcastle utilise a lot of trained and willing volunteers too - very topical in the 'Big Society' but actually we have been doing it for years. We have been talking to them about the financial situation. They too put the children and families needs first and are still prepared to take on new work even though they know there could be no paid back-up for them if the funding stops.

So, I had hoped by now we would know where we stood and be able to plan (to set a budget!) but instead we have a continuation of the uncertainty which began before Christmas but now it is really frustrating.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

The long wait is nearly over

Local Authorities have taken different approaches to how they manage grant funding to voluntary organisations in the context of reductions in their own funding. Newcastle City Council decided to create the 'Newcastle Fund' - a single fund for all voluntary sector grants. They did this by amalgamating all the existing grants in every part of the Local Authority and inviting voluntary organisations to apply for assistance. If successful the benefit for the voluntary sector would be guaranteed grants for 3 years (instead of the former piecemeal arrangements); and the benefit to the Local Authority would be far better knowledge of what it spends on services provided by voluntary organisations and understanding where are what they are doing.

The scheme was very oversubscribed caused in part by Council Departments encouraging voluntary organisations to apply to the Newcastle Fund instead of looking to contractural arrangements for funding direct from Departmental budgets. However true to their word the City Council has started to announce allocations this week. I am delighted that WEYES has been granted a significant sum each year for the next 3 years to replace the grants we used to receive annually.

We also applied for grants forsome other work in the city - with families living in temporary accommodation; children not attending school; and supporting families in the community. We very much hope to hear good news about those applications very soon.

Disappointingly we heard this week from the Big Lottery 'Youth in Focus' fund that two applications we were involved in had not been successful. Both were partnerships of voluntary organisations, one for work with young carers in Northumberland and the other with care leavers in Newcastle. However the experience of developing and making those applications collectively was beneficial to the extent that everyone involved in them wants to apply to other funders for grants or other forms of funding to make the work happen.