Thursday, 22 December 2011

Generosity and kindnesses

Every Christmas we receive thousands of gifts of toys and games for children and young people, and donations of food and money for parents struggling to make a good Christmas for their families. They come from staff in businesses, well meaning individuals, radio appeals who then pass on gifts to us to distribute. A few children came with their parents bringing gifts to our head office.

This year we encouraged people to consider gifts that will brighten a child's life and be a vivid memory for months to come - tickets for ice skating, visits to Santa, the pantomime and the Christmas film releases. We know that poorer children and young people miss out on these experiences in particular and a great many people and businesses have given generously, some including extra cash for hot chocolate drinks, ice cream and treats on the trips out.

You might have thought there would be fewer gifts and donations this year in hard times but not a bit of it. We have received more gifts than ever before plus all the generous trips out as well. Our project and office staff have all rolled up their sleeves to sort and distribute everything in time for Christmas - it has been quite a job but lots of fun too.

This is the season of goodwill and I am an optimist but can I detect a slight change in public opinion? Is it possible that people are thinking we are 'all in this together' and paying a little more attention to each other? Could it be that not being able to afford to spend, means money and spending are slightly less important to us all? Maybe it is even possible that how much a person has might become less important than the kindnesses we show each other? I wonder what 2012 will bring? Happy Christmas!

Friday, 16 December 2011

120,000 'Troubled Families'

David Cameron has announced a network of 'caseworkers' and £400 million (from existing grants to local government) to coordinate services to 120,000 so called 'troubled families'. This is part of the government's response to the riots last summer and what David Cameron calls the 'responsibility deficit' whereby people are apparently disconnected from community and family.

This initiative is not new, it is a reworking of the 'Family Intervention Programmes' piloted by New Labour. Some of the 'FIPs' were targeted at families engaged in anti-social behaviour and some at families living in poverty. FIPs recognised that most of these families already have a plethora of professionals involved with them but their combined efforts are not coordinated. The FIP workers not only engage with the whole family but also the professional network. FIPs have been effective but they are very time intensive and there are families who refuse to take part.

David Cameron appointed Louise Casey, a civil servant who was policy adviser on Anti-Social Behaviour to New Labour, to lead on this new approach to families. However in the new scheme the 'caseworkers' will not work directly with the families, instead they will coordinate the professionals currently working with them. At the press conference announcing the initiative Louise Casey pointed out "The typical profile of a rioter is 35% out of work or on benefits, 42% on free school meals, 66 % with special educational needs, only 11% with five plus GCSEs, and 70% living in the 30% most deprived post codes, and 36% excluded from schools."

Out of work, free school meals, deprived neighbourhoods describes poverty not poor parenting. Students with unmet special educational needs are unlikely to do well at school, more likely to become frustrated at schools and are therefore more likely to be excluded. That is a problem with the educational system, although parental interest in and support for education is certainly very important in success at school.

Louise Casey quoted an opinion poll saying "86% of the population thinks that the riots were caused by bad parenting."

So here we have policy lead by opinion poll which lets the government off the hook of dealing with the real problems of lack of jobs and rising poverty. The approach is based on existing good practice but watered down because caseworkers will not be working directly with families. Money for the intiative will be diverted from other necessary local goverment services for children, young people and families. Coordination is important but any family worker, counsellor, therapist or youth worker will tell you what actually works, what makes a difference is not the system, or the model or the theory but the relationship with the family, client, service user, young person.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

What do you think about child poverty?

Yesterday the National Centre for Social Research published the British Social Attitudes survey for 2011. One section is about child poverty. 43% of people agree with the statement that there is some child poverty in Britain and 36% think there is quite a lot. That's 79%, a clear majority agreeing that child poverty exists in Britian today. I find that encouraging beacuse we had assumed that most people thought child poverty was something that existed in third world countries, not in the UK. Furthermore the survey found 51% think that child poverty will increase in Britain during the next decade.

The survey also asked people about the causes of child poverty. 75% thought the reason is due to drug and alcohol problems of parents; 63% think it is that parents do not want to work; 56% blame family breakdown; 51% put it down to lack of parents education; and 50% think the cause is long term unemployment. Undoubtedly these are all possible difficulties that families may experience but in the experience of Children North East and the academics who spoke at our conference overwhelmingly child poverty is a 'structural' problem caused by there not being enough well-paid jobs to go round.

82% of people surveyed consider it very important to reduce child poverty in Britain while 16% think it is quite important, that is pretty much everyone. However 79% think central government should be responsible for reducing child poverty but 46% say responsibility for ending child poverty rests with parents and 32% say relatives should be responsible.

Questions about child poverty have been asked in the surveysince 1986. Much was made in the press yesterday that this year's survey showed a hardening of attitudes towards the poor. In fact successive surveys show that attitudes are not consistently moving in one or other direction. There is speculation in the survey report that attitudes to poverty may vary according to the prevailing economic circumstances. When times are hard, people think that the poorer members of society are likely to be even more worse off.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Dissing the North East?

We have received some adverse comment about the children's photographs depicting poverty in the North East. A few people think they display a negative image of the North East.

This rather misses the point. The pictures were taken by children and young people to illustrate their experiences of their lives and where they live. The fact there are no pictures that tell of the great cities, history, sport and culture of the North East and very few of the beautiful countryside and coastline, demonstrates how excluded the children and young people are from all those things. Poverty excludes you from the expeiences and opportunities that everyone seems to take for granted, it makes you feel those things are not for you.

On 23rd November, the night before our child poverty conference, the BBC hosted a viewing of the documentary 'Poor Kids' before an invited audience at the Tyneside Cinema. The film interviews and shows the lives of 3 children living in Leicester, Bradford and Glasgow. The issues shown are exactly the same as those we found among children and young people all over the North East.

Another comment about the photographs was posted on our website and said, 'Reminds me of my childhood in the 70s in the East Midlands. You would have hoped things would have got better.'

Far from the photographs being isolated and negative portayals of the North East, they probably reflect the everyday experiences of poor children and young people in all parts of the country. They remind me of houses, places and experiences of children and young people I have worked with in London and the North East for 36 years. What poverty looks like does not seem to change much.