Thursday, 27 December 2012

A look back at 2012

2012 has been a strange year; every month brought a mixture of good and bad news. At the same time the cost of living has risen for everyone with many families facing severe financial hardship. Nevertheless through all the uncertainty Children North East staff continued to work with care and compassion for children, young people and parents who are in need.

During the year we started a new service with 3 Rivers Housing for children and their mothers in Durham women's refuge; and set up Newcastle Youth Link in a consortium with Streetwise and Barnardos. In Gateshead we provided the ‘System Navigator’ service as part of the SEN and disabled children pathfinder pilot.

Our Father's Plus service secured commissions in South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham for Family and Community Learning as well as delivering to a Newcastle school cluster and a promising new training development for workers – ‘Men as Protective Factors in Safeguarding’.

In June we celebrated our fabulous volunteers at a glittering event attended by dozens of volunteer young people who received awards from People’s Postcode Lottery ambassador Judy McCourt. Youth Link coordinators organised a residential for volunteers in the autumn.

The Sandcastle Challenge went ahead in July despite floods the previous day. A few schools were not able to get there, but the event went off as brilliantly as ever. Our fundraising events - the Sandcastle Ball, Golf Day and Great North Run were once again very successful. In September our admin staff organised a sponsored walk along the river from Newcastle to Tynemouth which might become an annual event.

Newcastle temporary accommodation moved from Hill Court to brand new Cherry Tree View, named by the children. The service had a fine summer, not only a Jubilee Party but also mini Olympics. The whole organisation gave generously to our mini 'food bank' to make sure the children had breakfasts and lunches through the school summer holiday.

In October we organised elections to Newcastle Youth Council and a residential for the new youth councillors in the autumn half term holiday. The Youth Council is organising a young people’s summit in January to tell Newcastle City Council how the proposed cuts will hurt children and young people.

Ripples from the child poverty conference at the end of 2011 reverberated through the year. Sharon Hodgson MP for Washington kept her promise to organise a Parliamentary reception for the young people who devised and performed 'Hope's Diary' at the conference. Their performance was seen by Ed Balls, Lord Laming and 50 other MPs and Peers in the Houses of Parliament. Children North East got great coverage on Tyne Tees TV news of the trip and the young people had an experience they will never forget.

We have obtained small grants to develop and pilot ‘poverty proofing’ self assessment for schools; training about child poverty for teachers and recently for community development in Newcastle based on the photographs the young people took.

Looking ahead very recently Newcastle have given us a 2 year grant to increase adult volunteer opportunities to build on accreditation of the volunteer training programme this year; and local GPs will be running a surgery for young people at WEYES as a pilot.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Giving Tree

Gifts piled in our meeting room

For the last couple of weeks donations of new toys and clothes, food and cosmetics have been flooding into Children North East from all over the region. As soon as they arrive in our meeting room (above) they are sorted ready for distribution to families in need. Not just families that Children North East know, but we also distribute them via other voluntary organisations, Children's Centres, health visitors and social workers so that families who are struggling to make ends meet are able to provide their children with a proper Christmas.

We have been overwhelmed by people's generosity this year, well over 7,000 gifts (and still rising) have been given, worth many thousands of pounds. It is amazing that even though times are hard for everyone, the warm-hearted people of the north east can still think of others worse off than themselves. Perhaps it is because the recession, rises in cost of living, fewer public services and changes to welfare benefits have been so far reaching that everyone knows someone who has lost their job, is working short hours, has not had a pay increase in years, is under the threat of redundancy or who has lost tax credits, Disability Living Allowance or Sickness Benefit.

When it is people that you know - friends, neighbours, relatives, colleagues - who are finding it particulaly hard this Christmas, you want to help if you can, it's human nature. It gives the lie to what we are constantly told, that the poor have only themselves to blame. The close knit communities of the north east who have seen so much hardship over the years, know that is simply not true. And noone wants to see bairns go without especially at this time of year.

So Thank You so much. And as you enjoy the season, please spare a thought too for the Children North East staff who will be working over the Christmas period to support families in dire need struggling to get by.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Gold from straw

Last Monday I attended the Children England AGM and 70th anniversary debate. Children England is the national membership body for voluntary sector organisations working with children, young people and families. It represents the interests of members to government and supports members by providing reliable information about policy, safeguarding training for staff and so on. I have followed in the footsteps of at least two of my predecessors at Children North East in chairing the north east Children England group and being a trustee of Children England, known in previous times as NCVCCO (National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations).

The debate asked 'what role should the children and families voluntary sector take in 'Austerity Britain'? In 1942 NCVCCO was formed by voluntary organisations asking a similar question - what role would the sector play in the coming post-war Welfare State? (By chance William Beveridge published his famous report exactly 50 years ago this week, the report which formed the basis of the Welfare State - Beveridge was a researcher for Beatrice Webb and worked with her on her famous 'Minority Report on the Poor Laws and the Relief of Distress' which first articulated the principles of a Welfare State in 1909).

On the one hand Andy Benson of the National Coalition for Independent Action argued that many voluntary organisations are no longer connected to communities or to voluntary action, instead they behave too much like businesses, are too reliant on public sector contracts and therefore can no longer be independent or act on behalf of the communities they purport to represent. On the other hand Chris Snowdon from the Institute of Economic Affairs argued that the voluntary sector should be delivering public services because we are likely to be better at it than the private sector, but voluntary organisations should not be permitted to accept public money and also to lobby because that looks like government lobbying in its own interests.

Prof Kate Pickett, co-author of The Spirit Level and from the Equality Trust spoke eloquently about the voluntary sector continuing to speak up with depth of understanding for the vulnerable, about injustice and suffering.

Sir Roger Singleton (chair of the Independent Safeguarding Authority and government advisor) chaired the debate. The truth is that most voluntary organisations for children are like Children North East a mixture of many things. Most are partly funded by government to deliver public services and partly from grants we obtain to fund work we think is necessary. Most use volunteers as well as paid staff to deliver services. Most have local presence in one or more communities where their projects are based. We are in daily contact with vulnerable children, young people and families which gives us  in-depth understanding of the problems they face. Knowing what we know and seeing what we see every day it is impossible not to be moved to speak out or enable children, young people and families own voices to be heard.

Maggie Jones, Chief Executive of Children England summed it up beautifully. The voluntary sector she said creates value out of nothing. We take gifts of people's time as volunteers and small amounts of money and turn them into social value. Like the fairy story we create gold from straw. This is the real value of the voluntary sector which is far removed from the current preoccupation with who should 'deliver' public services and a bewildering array of 'financial products' to finance public sector contracts.. The simple fact is there are people in need and their number is growing, the state is not going to provide them in the ways we have become used to over the last 50 years, voluntary organisations harness the compassion of people who want to help and make a difference. That is what voluntary organisations have always done and will continue to do in 'Austerity Britain'.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Perfect Storms

This week's blog appears as guest blog on the North East Child Poverty Commission's website. It is about recent research by Children England that describes the two 'storms' currently raging around the public sector, voluntary organisations and the vulnerable children, young people and families that they support. They are the 'Business Storm' and the 'Locality Storm'.

In my opinion the report is required reading for anyone interested in the voluntary sector or the impact that cuts in public spending is having.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Living Wage and dignity

One of my favourite Bob Dylan songs is 'Dignity' - how every person needs and is searching for dignity. Dignity includes the right to respect and to be treated fairly, its sums up universal human rights and social justice in a single word.
This week is Living Wage week and I'm very happy to be supporting a Blog Action Day today in support of the Living Wage campaign because it's a campaign for dignity. The Living Wage is £7.45 an hour outside London compared to the statutory Minimum Wage of £6.19 an hour for people aged over 21. Quite simply it is the difference between having just enough for a decent life or not enough. The difference between being treated with respect or not.
Annual salary on Minimum Wage - £11,909
Annual salary on Living Wage - £14,334
Annual UK average salary - £21,330
Over 60% of children living in poverty in the north east are in working families, that is why Children North East supports the Living Wage because it would relieve the pressure on parents trying to get by on very strained budgets and would open out opportunities for their children - things like being able to afford winter coats, or to go swimming, or have a birthday party. The Living Wage can mean the difference between parents needing several jobs and so able to spend more time with their children.

The Living Wage campaign started 11 years ago in East London; in an article in The Guardian last Saturday David Milliband estimates 1 million people have been lifted out of in-work poverty during that time with no loss of jobs. The campaign is supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Save the Children, KPMG and Aviva amongst others. All Children North East staff are paid above the Living Wage but we have contracts with cleaning companies who do not, we are in discussion with those businesses to persuade them to pay the Living Wage too.

The Living Wage is voluntary but support is growing, just this week Newcastle City Council announced it had become a Living Wage employer and urged other employers to follow their example. Part of Newcastle's commitment is to ensure they only procure services from organisations paying the Living Wage, so it makes good business sense for any organisation wanting to do business with the council to be a Living Wage employer.

5 million workers in the UK are paid below the Minimum Wage, that's 1 in 5 of all workers. The benefit system pays out £4 billion a year on in 'in-work support' for people on low incomes, that would be much reduced if employers paid the Living Wage and therefore good for taxpayers too. The New Statesman this week supports a recommendation by the Resolution Foundation that listed companies should be required to report how many employees are paid less than the Living Wage. That information plus Director's salaries would highlight the gap between best and least well paid and invite businesses to reduce that ratio. That would be another advance in reducing income inequality.

Friday, 2 November 2012

West Newcastle Children's Zone?

Harlem Children's Zone is a pioneering, not-for profit community organisation in New York City which began in the 1990s. It's 20 year aim is simple: to break the cycle of deprivation for 15,000 children and 7,000 adults by ensuring every child achieves at school and over 90% go on to college. They do this by providing free parenting training, nurseries, a free school and extra tuition for pupils attending other schools, out of school activities and intensive targeted support for those in greatest need. All this is available to the  the entire neighbourhood of families, children and young people from pre-birth to college. The two fundamental principles of the project are to help children as early as possible and to create a critical mass of adults around them who understand what it takes for children to succeed. Although it will take at least another decade to know the full success of the project, there have already been significant achievements, so much so that President Obama backed duplicating the model in 'Promise Neighbourhoods' across the USA.

The scale really excites me, one very disadvantaged community, can-do voluntary sector action, a range of different services all coordinated towards a single, ambitious long-term goal. Could the same be done here?

Children North East is a regional charity but we have a cluster of projects, services and activities in Westgate, Elswick, Benwell and Scotswood wards of Newcastle (child poverty rates 57%, 46% and 42% respectively in January 2012, the average for Newcastle is 31%) 3 of the 5 poorest wards in the city. The projects range from parenting training, programmes to encourage fathers to take part in maternity services, outreach to enable families to use Children's Centres including fathers, targeted family support provided by trained volunteers, intensive family work with homeless families and children with very poor school attendance, programmes that encourage fathers to be involved their children's education, groupwork for young carers, courses in mental well-being for young people in and out of school, drop-in advice centre for young people, sexual health services for young people, community cafe and mentors for young people who are trained volunteer young people.

In addition to these Children North East also has the expertise to provide nurture groups in primary schools, 'book buddy' reading schemes, mentoring training for disaffected young people, highly intensive work with families where there is domestic violence, parental mental ill-health or substance misuse and neglectful parenting.

All these different activities are commissioned or funded by different bodies for example separate departments in the City Council; the health service, schools, various grant making bodies. Each has it's own purpose and target group, each is required to report to the funder on different measures, none of the funders make reference to each other - they are not 'joined up', however it would be a simple matter for Children North East to align them, indeed we do to manage them effectively.

Just imagine what could be achieved if all those services were focussed on a common goal such as improving the long-term educational attainment of all the children and young people in those 3 wards. Like the Harlem Children's Zone and working closely with nursery, primary and secondary schools, Children North East services could provide seamless support for parents and children from pregnancy, through the early years, into school and on into secondary school. Some activities would be available for all (for example Children's Centres, parenting training, sexual health advice for young people, Community Cafe) others would be directed at children, young people and parents more in need but the overall goal would be the same for all.

What would it take to do that? Children North East could take the initiative working in partnership with other bodies especially schools. It would take commitment to a common cause by all including a commonly agreed way to define the outcome (such as college entry) and ideally, commitment to funding the whole endeavour for at least 18 years (to see one cohort of young people from birth through their whole childhood and school experience). Pie in the sky - I don't think so.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Views about schools

Several different perspectives on schools this week. I spent 19th October at the Schools North East Summit with headteachers from all over the region. It started with a quiz, I noted these facts:
  • The North East has the lowest class sizes and best teacher/pupil ratios in the country
  • Our region has the second highest per pupil funding for 5 to 19 year olds - £5,140 a year (though there are big variations between different Local Authority areas)
  • 24.4% of north east primary school children claim free school meals, compared to 19.2% nationally
  • 19.5% of north east secondary school pupils claim free school meals, compared to 15.9% nationally
  • On fifth of all north east children live in families where the parent(s) are currently out of work
  • There are 21 Academies in the North East and another 74 schools seeking academy status
  • In 1914 35% of the population of England lived in the north, today it is just 25%
A picture of significant disadvantage but also hopeful signs. The Coalition Government introduced the 'Pupil Premium' of £600 a year for each pupil claiming free school meals, paid direct to schools. That's £80 million across the whole region which will rise to £120 million when the Pupil Premium goes up to £900 per pupil in 2014.

In his address to the summit, Lord Andrew Adonis said schools not only need good leaders (Headteachers) but also good governance (Governing Bodies) to hold the headteacher and senior team to account. Headteachers come and go, the Governing Body is the continuity of the school, it's most important task is to appoint the Headteacher.

He spoke about improving the calibre of teachers by attracting better people into the profession. He said at present there are on average just 2 applicants for each teacher training place, many countries average 10 applicants per place.

On school exams Lord Adonis said of the 40% of pupils who do not achieve 5 A-C grade GCSEs (including English and Maths) only 4% obtain an equivalent to a GCSE qualification by the time they are age 19. He wants to see as many apprenticeship places for those young people as there are now university places, adding government and local councils should take the lead. He felt that abundant apprenticeships opportunities would transform the expectations of disadvantaged young people.

During the week I read his recent book, 'Education, Education, Education' which explains the Academy programme. It starts with a review of the dire state of many comprehensive schools in the 1980s when schools were micro-managed by the Local Education Authority. Gradually power and responsibility has been handed to Headteachers, Academy status takes the logical next step by making the school independent. The concept is inspired by schools established by Guilds or endowed by wealthy individuals and still thriving today.

Other speakers called for parents and communities to get behind schools, there was criticism of parents leaving young people to their own devices and taking no interest in homework or progress in secondary school. The best attended session of the day was Professor Steve Higgins presenting his research about what works and is most cost effective for teaching and learning. The top three recommendations are:
  • Feedback - telling the learner and/or teacher about the learner's performance compared to their goals
  • Meta-cognition - 'learning to learn' by the learner reflecting on their learning
  • Peer tutoring - learners help each other either in small groups or pairing an older with a younger learner
On Tuesday I chaired the Governing Body termly meeting at a large Primary School. It is a very good school, well supported by parents and serves a mixed community (12.5% of the children claim free school meals). We got into a discussion about the cost of extra activities provided by the school; one of the parent governors with 3 children in the school said so far this term she has paid £55 towards schools trips (which are already subsidised by the PTA), charity collections (e.g. non-school uniform days), harvest festival, book club and so on. She made the point that parents regard school trips as essential to learning, everything else is a choice but no parent wants their child to feel left out and everyone is feeling the pinch.

On 26th October I was invited to a seminar in Newcastle University School of Education lead by Professor Michael Fielding from the Institute of Education in London. This was about how the body of young people and adults in a school collaborate to create learning. There was discussion about the nature of democracy in school, human nature and the purpose of education.

Everyone has something to say about schools and education but what was missing was the children's point of view. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child* (to which the UK is a signatory) has 3 articles about education:
  • Article 28 - Children have a right to an education. Discipline in school should respect children's human dignity. Primary education should be free and wealthy countries should help poorer countries to achieve this.
  • Article 29 - Education should develop each child's personality and talents to the full. It should encourage children to respect their parents and their own and other cultures.
  • Article 30 - Children have a right to learn and use the language and customs of their families, whether these are shared by the majority of people in the country or not.
In addition:
  • Article 3 - All organisations concerned with children should work towards what is best for each child.
  • Article 12 - Children have the right to say what they think should happen when adults are making decisions that affect them, and to have their opinions taken into account.
*The wording of the Articles here come from a booklet published by 'Unicef Youth Voice UK' for children and young people.
I have written about Children North East's current school project in previous blogs, our aim is simply that disadvantaged children should feel as much part of their school as all the other children. We think no child is going to do well in a school they don't feel a part of; and we believe that the way to achieve that is by asking the pupils what are the things about school that make it hard to feel that you belong.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Is homework elitist?

Yesterday the BBC Radio 4 PM news programme spoke to the former French Minister for Education who wants to ban 'homework', instead he suggests the last 30 minutes of each school day should be set aside for children to complete 'homework'. His reasons were that homework 'is a source of inequality between children' because it is unfair that some children get extra help with homework from their parents or tutors employed by parents, but other children have no assistance. He also said 'children are children, the school day is very long, it is better for children to be free after school so they grow up better.' Astonishing, imagine Michael Gove expressing the sentiment that children need time to just be children!

The programme discussed the idea with a teacher of English in Paris who spoke for one of the French teaching unions and also the Master of Wellington College. In general the French teaching unions are in favour of the proposal, they see homework as a factor widening the divide between children from poorer families compared to those from more affluent ones. They also think homework can potentially be divisive to the relationship between parents and school, for example if the parent cannot help the child with the homework it may make the parent feel inadequate and more difficult for them to have an 'equal' relationship with the teachers. The Master of Wellington College said homework ought to be enjoyable, give children the chance to practice working alone and encourage curiosity, wonder and enquiry.

It is not for me to comment on the merits of otherwise of homework, I want to point out that the French appear to be aware that aspects of education can worsen inequality. By contrast in the UK the debate is about how excellence in educational achievement is a route out of poverty (viz another news story yesterday about top universities encouraging applications from school pupils in more disadvantaged places).

By talking to children and young people about school, Children North East has discovered lots of ways in which schools unwittingly discriminate against poorer children - obvious things like the cost of school uniform and school trips but more subtle ones like administration of free school meals, assumptions made by teachers about shared life experience of the class (e.g. that everyone has been on holiday, everyone has been to a museum or has access to the internet at home) and prejudices about children's families, 'what do you expect, just look at the parents.' We have spoken to a few schools about this and they have been shocked, having never considered it. We have a small grant this year from the VONNE Policy and Representation Partnership to develop and pilot a toolkit for schools to audit themselves and hopefully make changes for the better.

Tomorrow I will be a panel guest at the Schools North East Summit and have a short opportunity to speak briefly about child poverty to a great many headteachers in our region.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Muddled opinions about keeping children from harm

As a society our views about safeguarding children from harm are very muddled - take some recent examples:

On the one hand there was an international hunt for 15 year old Megan Stammers when she disappeared to France with her teacher Jeremy Forrest. He now faces charges of abduction even though there is no suggestion that Megan was taken against her will and her parents have emphasised they do not believe she was in danger in Forrest's company. On the other hand in Rochdale are girls of a similar age to Megan coerced and sexually exploited by a gang of men, however neither police nor social workers took action because they were deemed to have made a 'lifestyle choice'.

In Machynlleth Wales, April Jones was abducted launching a massive hunt by concerned volunteers. Mark Bridger has been charged with her murder though her body has yet to be found. Every parent fears the loss of a child, for generations we have warned children not to talk to strangers but yesterday it emerged that Bridger is the uncle of April's half sisters, so she undoubtedly knew him, he was not a 'stranger'.

The NSPCC says on average every week in England and Wales one child is killed at the hands of someone else, the majority of deaths are babies under one year old. There is no central government register so the exact number is not known however estimates vary from 50 to 200 children a year. Whatever the actual number, very few get the publicity that April has had. [By comparison the Department of Transport keeps statistics about children involved in road accidents - 2,412 children (age 0 - 15) were killed or seriously injured in road accidents in 2011.]

Children are more often abused and sometimes murdered at the hands of their parents, carers and other people who know them than they are by strangers, but again few hit the headlines. An extreme exception was Jade Philpott, 10, and brothers John, nine, Jack, seven, Jessie, six, Jayden, five, and 13-year-old Duwayne, who all perished when a blaze ripped through their home in Allenton, Derby, last May. The parents were eventually charged with arson and their murders having originally presented themselves to the police and media as distraught victims.

Currently TV soap EastEnders is running parallel stories about the care of two babies. Lexi is the daughter of teenage mother and young offender Lola who is under very close scrutiny by social workers. Viewers can see Lexi is loved and thriving, Lola has bonded with her and she has family help and support. This is contrasted with the story of baby Scarlett/Patricia whose mother well-off Janine has left in the care of her husband Michael Moon. Viewers can see this baby is rarely held or cuddled, Michael is depicted as cold towards her and frequently leaves her in the care of a variety of other characters for long periods at very short notice. We are left asking which baby should the authorities be more concerned about?

The truth about Jimmy Savile is emerging and with good reason people are asking why none of his predatory sexual interest in teenage girls came to light before? We should remember that it was not until 1987 and the Cleveland child sexual abuse scandal that the nature and scale of the sexual abuse of children came to public attention. Prior to that people might have been aware of 'perverts' in their communities, parents would advise their children to stay away from certain adults, school yard and street talk between children in the neighbourhood passed on knowledge about which adults to be wary of too. But talk about sex was largely taboo and 'sexual abuse' was not discussed. It is hardly surprising that teenage girls assaulted by men in the 60's 70's and 80's were reluctant to come forward - would their word be believed against that of a Star? Savile seems to have targeted girls at their most vulnerable, as patients in hospital or away from their parents, he really was a 'stranger' to them yet people may well have felt they 'knew' him because of his TV presence.

So what do I conclude from this brief, and highly selective survey?

  1. Children have rights. The UK is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which includes the right to be protected and also to be heard in their own right,  it should not depend on whether you have parents to stand up for you.
  2. The way child abuse is presented in the media skews both the extent and the reality. We end up with a  kaleidoscope of lurid stories instead of a measured analysis of the whole picture.
  3. Poor parenting occurs in families of all incomes, classes and social circumstances, same as good parenting.
  4. We should judge the quality of parenting from the point of view of the child's experience, not our prejudices about the parents.
  5. Some men (and women) are sexual predators of children and young people. They are extremely devious in pursuit of their goals. We must trust what children tell us about them.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Changing the child poverty narrative

Last Saturday The Journal front page featured children's photographs of poverty in the north east from our project last year, inside was a double page spread about the rising number of children living in poverty highlighting the recent Save the Children campaign. The article included quotes from Sara Bryson, Policy and Development Officer here at Children North East; noted the growth in the number of Trussell Trust food banks in the region; and included this example:
"Father-of-two Steven lives in Newcastle's West End and said living on the breadline is humiliating and embarrassing for his children. The former delivery driver receives housing benefit and survives on £288 a month which he gets from his disability living allowance. After paying for all his bills and buying food, he said his family barely has enough to survive.
"He said: 'I'd say my children live in poverty. Things were tough when I was growing up and I can't say that much has changed. The kid's notice it, of course they do. They know they don't have as much as other people. They don't get the same food they used to. I've got two children and they share a room and that's not right really. The oldest is 10 now so it's not long before she's going to need her own room. I can't imagine how I'm going to find the money for that.
"Steven buys all his clothes in charity shops and gave up smoking to free up more money for the family. 'It's the little things that hit you like when my children's school say they're changing the uniform. They want us to buy an £11 jumper with the logo on and the same one in Asda is £3. For the children there is stigma. You go to school and they come home and ask for packed lunches because the other children have them.'"
You can now see some of the photographs the children took beautifully presented with thoughtful comment on the Poverty and Social Exclusion website which is run by the Open University, 5 other universities and the National Centre for Social Research.

What all these different organisations (and others such as the North East Child Poverty Commission) are trying to do is to bring to people's attention the reality of child poverty today. Children North East's particular contribution is the children and young people's lived experiences through their photographs and commentary. The general public's view is that 'real' poverty either does not exist in this country or that it is not as bad as in previous times; alternatively that people who are poor have only themselves to blame for managing their money badly. It is very difficult to change people's minds, 'shouting' at them certainly does not work, it just polarises attitudes. Those of us that want to change the current mindset about poverty have to find ways to engage in a discussion with the sceptics and gradually win them over.

With that in mind I wrote this letter to The Journal which they printed last Tuesday:

"Dear Sir

Thank you for drawing attention to the scandal of child poverty in our region today. Doubtless some of your readers will think that times were hard when they were young, I am sure they are right, but in some ways it is harder to be poor today because now you know you are poor. You know because of TV. Television shows you constantly how much everyone else has, and reminds you how little you have. That constant reminder is a torment that might make you feel hopeless or angry.

Some readers will blame the parents for mismanaging money; they will point to parents buying fast foods for children instead of cooking proper meals. Of course healthy eating is very important but a Gregg’s sausage roll is 370 calories, one fifth of the recommended daily intake for a primary school child. At 68p it’s very hard to beat on price per calorie, and it’s hot so you save the cost of heating the oven at home.

The UK is the sixth wealthiest nation on earth; it is criminal that children go hungry here. The reason they do is because the wealth is not spread out, the poor don’t have enough and the rich have far too much. The gap between the poorest and wealthiest has widened and widened until now it is as big again as it was in Downton Abbey times, you would have to be in your 90’s to remember what poverty was like then.

Yours Sincerely"

Thursday, 27 September 2012

What is the voluntary sector for?

A colleague who works for another children's charity told me recently of her encounter with a local authority officer who was responsible for commissioning services for children. She had a meeting with the officer to explain a new service for abused children that her charity intends to set up in the local authority area. The service would be free to the children and families and no cost to the local authority either. You might have thought the local authority would be pleased but no, this 'commissioner' rejected the idea on the grounds that the local authority had done a needs analysis and was distributing its resources as it thought fit to meet those needs. Furthermore the proposed new, free service would be 'unhelpful' because it was likely to raise public expectations and create additional work for local authority staff who might be referring children to the service.

The arrogance is breathtaking, yes local authorities have a duty to work out what children in their area need and either provide services themselves or procure them from somewhere else; and yes local authority finances are limited; but to have the audacity that 'we know best' for all the children in our area; and then look a gift horse in the mouth when everyone knows they have less and less to spend, is staggering.

I started my career working with children and families in 1976, in a voluntary organisation. Back then the voluntary sector was where new ways of working with disadvantaged people were dreamt up and tried out, those that worked well were promoted to the public sector and many were taken up. The public sector had great respect for voluntary organisations seeing them as valuable partners in helping people in need. It was understood that a voluntary organisation representing say disabled children, or based in a particular neighbourhood was far better placed to understand and adapt rapidly to the changing needs of that community more perceptively and quicker than public services could.

The Coalition government's view of the voluntary sector goes something like this. Larger voluntary organisations (like Children North East) are just businesses that don't make a profit so they must be cheap; smaller organisations run by volunteers who aren't paid must be really cheap; therefore it must be cheaper for voluntary organisations to run public services than public authorities. So they want us to compete for contracts from local authorities to run services; be paid on 'payment by results' terms and in the meantime take out loans to cover our costs; or form partnerships with investors to set up new services that can then be sold to create a financial return.

Of course voluntary organisations are subject to the same tax, financial, health and safety, employment and other legislation as businesses but there the similarity ends. Our purpose is to improve the lot of our beneficiaries, not to create wealth. As local authorities replace grants with contracts offered by competitive tender, voluntary organisations are having to think and act in more 'business-like' ways to maintain income but that does not mean we are businesses. And what is the point in just being a contractor for the public sector doing what they think best? As head of a children's charity I feel accountable to disadvantaged children, not the public sector. What is more, in common with every voluntary organisation I have a Board of Trustees whose job it is to hold the organisation 'in trust' for the benefit of the beneficiaries - to make sure we do our best for children, not just do the whim of some public body.

A great many voluntary organisations for children, young people and families are currently re-thinking their role and how they will adapt to the changing world around them. We have been here before - study our Annual Reports from the 1940's and you will find a vigorous debate about the role of children's charities in the new Welfare State. As the public sector shrinks, more people will be turned away from state support, but will still be in need and they will have nowhere else to turn but the voluntary sector. The public sector will not only look for cheaper ways to do the same things but eventually need to do different things that are cheaper still - the models for how to do that effectively are far more likely to come from voluntary organisations in touch with the day to day reality of children's lives than a distant 'commissioner' . So, the role of the voluntary sector is clear, it is to understand what is happening to our beneficiaries, innovate to meet their changing needs and where necessary point out how and why they are being failed. In my view to do that effectively we have to retain our independence and that means not being too reliant on public sector contracts. I welcome partnership with local authorities to do that, after all the voluntary sector can bring in additional money for services that the public sector cannot access, but very few local authorities have woken up to that fact.

I am pleased to tell you that my colleague's charity is going ahead with their new project regardless of what the local authority commissioner thinks. The public sector has neither a monopoly on understanding people's needs nor of providing for them, and long may that remain.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Pupil Premium

The 'Pupil Premium' is in the news today, this is extra money that government gives to schools for each pupil receiving free school meals, this year it is worth £630 per pupil which can add up to many thousands of pounds for a big secondary school in a poor area. The Pupil Premium costs government £1.25 billion a year. Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted Chief Inspector wants schools to demonstrate how they are spending the money on disadvantaged pupils when they are inspected. The Pupil Premium has been going for a year but Ofsted has found more than half of schools are simply using the money to fill gaps in school budgets.

So what should schools spend the money on? The National Foundation for Educational Research has published results of an opinion poll of 1,567 teachers about barriers to learning. The most cited factors were: lack of parental support (75%), lack of aspiration (54%), low self-esteem (46%), and lack of effort (38%). However teachers apparently do not think poverty (16%) or poor access to resources (15%) have much impact on learning.

Earlier this year the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published three academic studies which show repeated initiatives to improve aspirations have been ineffective but tend to support the teacher's view that parental support is crucial.  Liz Todd Professor of Educational Inclusion at Newcastle University who was one of the JRF researchers said:
"The existing evidence supports the use of interventions focused on parental involvement in children’s education to improve outcomes. If our education system is to give children and young  people the best chance of achieving their goals, it is essential that they and their parents are helped to succeed and not simply encouraged to have higher aspirations. We know that most young people value their education and want to do well in order to get a good job when they leave school. The barrier for many is realising their ambitions."
The Education Endowment Foundation publishes a toolkit based on research by Durham University about the most cost effective ways to get the biggest increases in educational attainment for disadvantaged pupils. How schools spend the Pupil Premium will depend on the type of community they serve. For example the Times Educational Supplement quoted the Head of George Green's School in East London where 59% of pupils claim free school meals saying there is a straightforward link between poverty and learning:
"If you have pupils coming to school hungry or who haven't got a decent place to sleep, then of course that is going to have an influence," she said. "It is common sense."
Children North East offers a range of activities for schools that increase parental involvement in primary or secondary education such as 'Family Man School Days' and family learning programmes. Accredited training courses for young people that improve low self-esteem and friendship groups that do the same for primary school children. We can work across the boundary between school and home especially to increase school attendance and reduce unauthorised absence. And lots more besides, just look at our website:

Thursday, 13 September 2012

'The bestest time ever'

Never mind the Olympics and Diamond Jubilee, Children North East put on our own summer of fun and sports for families who would otherwise have had no outings, no holidays, no family fun times or happy memories of the summer of 2012; such as families living in temporary accommodation for homeless people.
Torrential rain didn't dampen our Jubilee tea party, the children had spent weeks preparing - painting a giant union flag and making metres of paper chains and bunting. There was a typical British 'afternoon tea' including red, white and blue cup cakes and cucumber sandwiches. The younger children enjoyed having their faces painted by the older ones and everyone joined in traditional games of hopscotch, 'in and out the dusty bluebells' and our home made 'pin the ears on the corgi'!

Newcastle temporary accommodation is in the shadow of St. James's Park (Sports Direct Arena) football stadium, you can hear the roar of the crowds but few children ever get to see inside. We were given tickets for the men and women's Olympic matches, fabulous once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, 'the women were really good at football, it was a great day, my little brother enjoyed it too especially when everyone was shouting and cheering. We have been part of the Olympics!'

Our own Mini Olympics took place in beautiful sunshine. We hung flags, lanterns and balloons outside. The afternoon started with the children carrying their own home made Olympic torches in procession followed by sack races, egg and spoon, three-legged race and the 50 metre sprint for older children. Excited children called 'Can we do it again!' until everyone was worn out. The afternoon ended with a family game of rounders and a picnic lunch.

The City Council commissions Children North East to 'deliver' certain outcomes for families, for example improved daily routines; parents better able to set and keep to boundaries and manage behaviour to get children to schools on time; safer homes where children can play and grow. Of course we do all that very effectively but they don't sound much fun. Raising children well can be hard work but it should never be no fun, family life should be enjoyable for parents as much as children, these summer activities are part of how we help families to play, have new experiences and create lasting memories.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Head or heart?

Last week Patrick Butler a Guardian journalist phoned me having read my blog about Children North East staff feeding children out of their own pockets this summer. He is interested in the rapid rise in the number of Food Banks being set up and rightly christened ours a 'Mini Food Bank' in his blog. That prompted some debate on Twitter as to the reasons why children are going without food and what should be done about it. The UK is the 6th wealthiest country in the world, no one should go hungry here. The reason children go without meals is structural - not enough properly paid jobs. But faced with a hungry child what are you going to do, explain how hard it is to change the system or give them something to eat? This week Save the Children launched their first ever poverty appeal for UK children making exactly that point.

One of my colleagues said 'The thing I love about Children North East is it's heart, if we see a problem we just get on and do something about it.' It's true, for example last Christmas Eve one of our staff was visiting a family, they had nothing for Christmas and were expecting to have a miserable time. She came straight back to the office and took them the office Christmas tree, decorations and all. Perhaps a different organisation would have worried it contravened a policy regarding donations of electrical equipment. What we know is it cheered the family up no end.

Last week BBC Radio 4 'Four Thought' broadcast a talk by Ian Robertson, Professor of Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin about how power affects the brain. People in positions of power experience increased amounts of the hormone dopamine in their brains which stimulates increased testosterone in both women and men. This has the effect of them becoming more focused, smarter, more confident and more aggressive; but it also has the effect of making them less empathetic, more ruthless and to appear more callous. I emailed Professor Robertson and asked if he thought the same would apply to people at the top of the social pecking order especially in very unequal societies. He replied yes, there is evidence to support that: 'Research in the States showed for instance that high social status drivers (assessed by value of car) were more likely to engage in traffic violations and display other behaviour that is similar to that shown by people high in power.' If you regularly drive around Newcastle you would probably agree!

Save the Children don't have any projects in the North East so I was delighted to be asked to comment on their new campaign on local radio and TV. I am shocked by the comments made by some people about poverty on radio phone-ins. Not just the lack of sympathy but the outright aggression towards less well off people whom I regard as less fortunate and therefore deserving understanding and help. BBC Look North broadcast my observation that poverty is not the same as it was in the 1920s or 30s; inequality - the gap between the best and lowest paid people in the UK has widened enormously since the second world war to the extent it is as big now as it was in Edwardian times and the 1920s.

If being better off and perhaps feeling superior to our fellow citizens is affecting our brains, I hope we have the good sense to pay more attention to our hearts, how it feels to be poor amongst people who have so much.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Reasons to be cheerful - part 3

Yes I was (and still am) an Ian Dury fan; it was great to see 'Spasticus Autisticus' performed and danced to at the Paralympics opening ceremony last night in front of Marc Quinn's movingly powerful statue of artist Alison Lapper pregnant; the whole stadium singing 'I Am What I Am'. Stephen Hawking's final words at the ceremony were 'Be curious', it's a good injunction, not just about the natural world but also about each other. In recent weeks the Guardian has reported extensively how public views are hardening against disabled people. We used to think they were deserving but increasingly they are seen as scroungers and benefit cheats and even attacked in public. We would do well to be curious about people who are unlike us, that not only goes for the disabled but also the poor and people of other cultures, nationalities and races.

Children North East has more reasons to be cheerful this week. Our major contract to deliver sexual health services to young people has been renewed for a further year into 2013-2014, this is terrific news as it the principle income for our young people's drop-in. And another contract to help families of disabled children get the services they need has been extended for a few more months too.

We have a commission from a cluster of schools (a 'cluster' is a secondary school and its feeder primary schools) for our 'Family Man' days that get the fathers into school and encourage them to be involved in their children's education; and we're trying out 'Build It With Dad' DIY days too.

We have developed and piloted a training day for professionals about 'Fathers as Protectors' in work with children - very often fathers are ignored by professionals working with children, but they can be part of the solution.

On the 18th August Beamish Museum invited us to take 25 Dads and their children for a visit - they all had a great time, its all about bonding. Yesterday we took a group of families and children living in temporary accommodation to visit the fabulous farm and outdoor activities at Daisy Chain in Stockton - another charity that benefits by support from The People's Postcode Lottery and works with families of children who have autism.

We were kindly given some weeks in static caravans and arranged for some families to make use of them. It is amazing how much good a stressed out family gets from a week away together, sometimes it's the only family holiday they've ever had. One lad learned to swim while on holiday - what an achievement for him!

Last but not least, lots of young people have shown interest in becoming volunteers for our 2 new Youth Link projects in Newcastle, and the first group have already started their training programme. All in all plenty to be cheerful about.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

More reasons to be cheerful - and worried

More good news this week. Children North East is one of 38 providers approved  by Newcastle City Council that Newcastle schools can chose to purchase services from. No guarantee that schools will, but Newcastle Council is to be congratulated on trying to create a market for voluntary sector services.

There are glimmers that the market for family work may be beginning to happen too. In recent weeks two councils have referred complex families to us asking us to work with them. It looks like the Family Wise programme (Children North East is a sub-contractor) is at last wanting to purchase services from us too.

Children North East 'Youth Link' peer mentoring projects have found a niche whereby our trained volunteer young people work with young people who have special educational needs to help them use public transport to get to school or college instead of the council having to pay taxi fares for them. Councils are very interested in this as most spend huge amounts on taxis. We are calling it 'Bus Buddies'.

We applied to two councils to provide adult and community education programmes and have been successful. We are now negotiating with both about the exact nature of the parenting provision they want us to provide, especially engaging fathers in parenting. These won't be large commissions but further our aim to encourage positive family relationships.

Our training for adult volunteers to work with parents has been accredited by OCN, a national body. This means volunteers completing the programme can get an accreditation which demonstrates quality and helps the volunteer's CV.

BUT on the worrying side we also heard this week that 25% - that's one quarter of all homeless people in Newcastle are now young people under the age of 25; and the People's Kitchen in Newcastle has seen a large rise in the number of young people coming to them for food and help to find accommodation. The YMCA has said this is a national trend which they say has been exacerbated by an 11% cut by government to the 'Supporting People' programme that helps young people and adults with housing problems.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

It's the little things that make the difference

Children North East families and parenting service has been busy this summer providing inexpensive activities and good experiences for whole families. Families whose lives are overshadowed by misfortune and hardship, often don't include much fun. So there have been picnics in the park, Diamond Jubilee parties, day trips to the seaside and 'mini Olympics' - races in the park.

One of our family and parenting staff enjoys taking photographs, she takes her camera to all these events and  captures all the children individually, with their siblings and in family groups. In her own time and at her own expense she prints the photographs and organises them into albums - one for each family. It sounds like a nice, kind thing to do, a little 'extra' for each family, until you realise that many families possess few or even no pictures of their children.

A family are evicted from their home, possessions including photographs are easily lost. A woman flees domestic violence, she doesn't want to draw attention to her plans by taking photographs so they are left behind. Children of the same parents are separated when the parents separate, there are no pictures of the children together. Printed photographs not in albums are mislaid or damaged, digital photographs on phones are lost when the phone is stolen or stops working. And so on.

Imagine not having photographs of yourself as a child when everyone else does? Imagine being a child at school and the whole class is asked to bring in a photograph of them as a baby when the topic is family history, but you don't have one? You can't take part, you feel excluded, different (yet again).

A few photographs in an album is a small thing but can make a huge difference to disadvantaged families and children - a sense of identity, memories of good times, family history, a keepsake to treasure, a sense of belonging to the same society as everyone else. So thank you for your thoughtfulness, kindness and generosity ___ (you know who you are), it is little things like this that touches lives.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Newcastles of the World - and our brilliant young people

Did you know there are over 100 places called 'Newcastle' in the world? Every two years 'Newcastles of the World' gather in one of the cities, this year it was the turn of our very own Newcastle upon Tyne to host the biggest ever gathering for a week of events that took place at the end of July.

This year for the first time young people from other Newcastles were invited to take part - young people came from South Africa, Germany, Switzerland and Japan. Newcastle Youth Council (which is supported by Children North East) organised a range of workshops and activities for the young people. South Africa brought some of their Youth Parliament representatives; Germany and Switzerland have long established youth councils and Japan did not have a Youth Council but went away enthused to create one.
Delegates from places called Newcastle all over the world on a visit to Alnwick Castle at the end of July
The week consisted of discussions, civic events hosted by the Mayor of Newcastle and sightseeing tours in the region.

The youth delegates debated common concerns - environmental issues; enterprise, education and employment; youth image - the way in which young people are portrayed in the different countries; and Youth Councils, this last being lead by young people from the Newcastle upon Tyne Youth Council. On the final day the young people fed back their conclusions to the adult delegates, who accepted their proposal for a website with guidance about how to set up youth councils and so that young people living in different Newcastles can be in contact with each other.

The next gathering will be in Newcastle, Ontario, Canada in 2014. Our own Youth Councillors had a fantastic time and hope maybe they will get to visit Canada in two years time as young representatives of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Reasons to be cheerful

We have just received a grant of £76,000 from the People's Postcode Lottery Care Trust. It is wonderful to have this 'unrestricted income' meaning we are free to spend it how we think best, rather than the grant giver stipulating what it must be spent on. We need unrestricted income to keep the show on the road, filling in gaps left by reduced grants from local authorities. So thank you People's Postcode Lottery Care Trust and an even bigger thank you to all the players of the People's Postcode Lottery who buy the tickets that contribute to good causes.

BIG (the Big Lottery Fund) has announced two new funds for the North East. One is for people with 'multiple and complex needs' meaning people suffering from combinations of mental ill-health, homelessness, substance misuse or release from prison; the other is to help young people age 18 to 25 into employment. BIG is looking for one application for each fund in the Tyne and Wear area, each must be from a partnership of third sector organisations (charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises). These are for reasonable amounts of money - £4 million over several years for the complex needs one. Children North East is part of discussions with other organisations to develop these applications. A common feature of adults with complex needs is that they have lost contact with family, even their children - Children North East could assist rebuild those relationships in those cases where all involved want that to happen.

We applied to the North East Policy and Representation Partnership for a small grant to develop a 'child poverty toolkit' for schools. Unintentionally many schools do things that exclude poorer children - the way they manage free school meals, uniform policies, assuming all pupils have internet access at home, the cost of school trips, asks for charity such as non-school uniform days and so on. We have spoken to some schools about this and they are eager to have some help, our toolkit will challenge them to ask the right questions and suggest improvements.

We had a regular review meeting with the People's Postcode Lottery recently, they were very happy that the number of regular players is increasing as apparently it always does in hard times, the hope of winning a big prize is a great attraction when people have little money. BIG gets its money from the National Lottery, for the last 7 years the London Olympics have had a share of that, the voluntary sector hopes that will now revert to supporting other good causes.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Passing the funding buck to well-meaning staff

Newcastle City Council has its own temporary accommodation for homeless families. For many years Children North East has enabled the children of families living there to play - we run a creche and an after school club as well as supporting the parent(s) to find and move to permanent tenancies. At any time there are about 60 children living there. This work is funded by grants from the City Council and some we obtain from charitable trusts.

Earlier this year the City Council cut its grant by 10%. We duly made savings by cutting out our 'activities budget' - this is money set aside for children's activities during the holidays, in the past this has included meals for some children. We are applying to charitable trusts to make up the difference but so far with no luck.

It is not well known that far from being 'benefit scroungers' some families in the UK have 'no recourse to public funds (NRPF)' meaning they are not entitled to welfare benefits, generally they are 'refused' asylum seekers or people who have overstayed their visa. There are a good many families in this position in the temporary accommodation in Newcastle.

They don't have a right to work either so they are entirely dependent on friends, family or charity. During the school term the children of these families do get one meal a day for free at school but now the school holidays have come their families often have nothing to give them. In previous years we have used part of the activities budget to offer children cereal for breakfast and a simple lunch such as beans on toast during school holidays. J R Holland the fruit and veg wholesalers are generous throughout the year and donate fruit for the children.

This year we cannot afford to do this having cut the 'activities budget', instead our own staff are plugging the gap by buying a little extra in their weekly shop and donating it. So here we have a Government without the humanity to care for very vulnerable people until they are deported by giving them even a minimal amount of money to feed their children; a local authority providing shelter for those families but forced to cut back on its spending by the Government; passing that cut on to a charity which too has to economise; the buck passes to the charity's staff who cannot stand by and do nothing while in daily contact with children in basic need of food; so they take it upon themselves to make sure children do not go hungry. This is the reality of the so-called 'Big Society' in 'austerity Britain'.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

More trouble with 'Troubled Families'

Louise Casey's report 'Listening to Troubled Families' is distressing reading. She interviews 16 families summarising their life stories and including verbatim excerpts from her conversations with them. It will take you half an hour to read all 16.

All but one are interviews with women, although 4 of the 16 are two-parent families, we hear little of the men's histories, plenty of the women's. Theirs are like stories from a war zone - repeated abuse, rape, dozens of homes, in and out of care, false starts, rejections and dashed hopes, victims of crime - experiences that amount to serial post-traumatic stress and grief. In some of the interviews you can feel the fragmented memories of someone suffering from post-traumatic stress. They have barely got over one misfortune before another befalls them, victims of bad luck. One of the most striking things is how little control any of the interviewees have had over the course their lives have taken. None seemed to have chosen to become parents at the time they became pregnant.

They are adults in crisis under enormous stress but still trying to be parents (blog 31st May 2012). It can take years of patient listening and 'being with' someone (such as a counsellor) as they repeat over and over again the memories of trauma, loss, shame and regret gradually making a coherent account and in the process gaining some control of them. They take enormous pride in their children's achievements, putting paid to the idea that these families lack aspiration.

A disproportianate number of the children have chronic health problems, learning difficulties or other special needs. These children have lots of medical appointments and need to be accompanied to them by parents, yet one of the objectives of the Troubled Families initiative is to get parents into work. How many employers are sympathetic to employees continuously taking time off for children's health appointments, school appointments, attendance at meetings to discuss children's behaviour or parenting training? The Troubled Families programme envisages appointing someone to coordinate all the services provided to each family, difficult to combine that and parents finding and remaining in employment.

Some of the interviewees have been seriously mislead by professionals - one parent thought her son was in a special class for gifted children when in fact it was a remedial class. How can parents be expected to work with the public services if they are not told the truth? It is not just a matter of rights but respect to inform parents what is going on with their children. Given that so many of the parents had spent periods in care when they were children, often with traumatic consequences, it is astonishing that they have any faith at all in 'helping professionals'.

These portraits are meant to represent an underclass that the popular press portray to be feared and loathed in equal part, and the coalition government tell us are responsible for society's evils and unnecessary or unaffordable expense and who therefore must be controlled or punished. The truth is very far from that portrayal.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Troubled Families - Human Rights

I am in two minds about the government's 'Troubled Families' programme. On the one hand Children North East would agree that working with the whole family often intensively can bring about profound changes; on the other hand I worry about the rights of these 120,000 families.

The 'Troubled Families' programme was announced as the response to last summer's riots but had in fact been planned some months previously. It takes the Labour Government's 'Family Intervention Programme' model but targets it to 120,000 families and couples it to 'payment by results' rewards of £4,000 to local authorities for each family where there is an improvement in school attendance, reduction in anti-social behaviour or crucially the parents go into work.

Local Authorities were given a target number of families to identify using local data. I was part of these discussions in Newcastle and Gateshead who struggled to identify the required number. The north east did not have riots last summer; unlike other metropolitan areas (notably Manchester) we do not have high numbers of people subject to ASBOs having followed a policy of using them sparingly. School attendance is generally good in the north east and though there are part-time and short term jobs, we lack full-time, long-term jobs for unskilled workers. Newcastle and Gateshead councils both felt they already knew all the families in difficulty in their areas and were already offering them services. They say the issues are more to do with ill-health, insufficient income, homelessness and the stresses they cause including substance misuse, domestic violence and sometimes neglectful parenting.

Louise Casey who heads up the Troubled Families Unit in the Department for Communities and Local Government now has the names, addresses, benefit records, criminal records and other personal data of 120,000 families – without seeking their permission. Her justification is to ensure that they get the services and help that they need and deserve; and ultimately reduce the cost of the damage they cause to society and inconvenience to the rest of us. I wonder how many are middle class families? Almost certainly none, even though alcohol abuse is rampant in middle class families; mental illness, drug misuse and domestic violence are prevalent in all classes; and neglectful parenting by better off parents can be masked by sending children to boarding school and holiday activities. The fact is better off classes have financial resources to avoid using state-run services (unless they have a child with a disability). Despite the good intentions, collecting data on the weaker members of society looks like an assault on their human rights. In my darker moments I wonder what might become of those families if they don't improve? Would a UK government be tempted to consider dawn raids to round them up and send them to Gulags?

Local Authorities are now planning how they work with these families in need. Many are considering commissioning intensive support for particular families, parenting training and long-term support. Children North East can offer all these as 'spot purchases' meaning councils can buy these services from us one at a time. We have been anticipating this sort of business model for last the year and are well-prepared for it, in fact the sooner councils start to buy from us like this, the better! However our approach will always be to ask agreement of the family to work with us, we believe they always have a choice; and we will always engage every member of the family, especially the children, not only because children have rights as well as adults, but because more often than not their opinions and feelings are the key to making the difference.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited

Last night Children North East was delighted to jointly host a public talk by Stephen Armstrong, author of 'The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited' with the North East Child Poverty Commission. Stephen Crossley  Commission Coordinator write about the event on his blog. I can't do better than that so please read his blog here:

Saturday, 7 July 2012

A sparkling occassion

Our annual Sandcastle Ball took place last night at the Gosforth Park hotel. Once again it was a fabulous party evening superbly hosted by Steve Walls who also enterained during dinner by singing - what a a great voice.

Of course the Sandcastle Ball is connected with the Sandcastle Challenge last week. We are indebted to GB Building Solutions, especially Dawn Limerick and Martin Westgate of Robertson Construction, our main sponsors. Together with John Matthews, Ces Maddison, Brian Hodgkinson and Stu Burlinson they form the Sandcastle Committee who help organise the beach event and support the Ball. They give up their time for meetings, site visits, table sales, raffle & auction prizes in the run up to both events. So a huge thank you to them all.

Another big thank you to Stu who kindly brought his band 'Under The Radar' - what a treat, if you haven't heard them you should, they got everyone dancing and rocking the night away.

Thank you too to staff from Barclays Bank who volunteered their help on the night to make everything run smoothly alongside Children North East staff who also volunteer their time.

Congratulations to Clare Stagg of Plan It who won the Sandcastle Trophy for the best design, execution and construction on the beach working with Ryhope Infant School from Sunderland. Their design was 'the route of the torch' - a map of the whole country showing the route of the Olympic Torch.

A great many businesses also donated raffle and auction prizes so a big thank you to them all for their support of Children North East. I hope all the winners enjoy their prizes.

Lastly none of this could happen without a lot of hard work over many months. So thank you Carol Taylor, senior fundraiser at Children North East and the team - Eileen Botterill and our student Emma Patterson.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Fun at the seaside

Nearly 2,000 primary school children from all over the North East ventured to South Shields beach this morning to take part in the annual Children North East Sandcastle Challenge.

140 teams from 50 schools took up the Challenge, sadly a handful had to cancel at the last minute due to the deluge yesterday. This year;s theme was the Olympic Games and as in previous years I was amazed by the imagination and creativity of all the children who took part. Many schools sent teams of mixed age groups so that older children helped the younger ones. The youngest were from Year 1 and the eldest Year 6 (ages 6 to 11 years).

The children told us how they had learned about the Olympic Games in class then suggested designs and voted to select the one to build. Of course many children had recently seen the Olympic Torch.

The Sandcastle Challenge is a reminder of how Children North East started in 1891 by taking poor children from Newcastle on a day trip to the seaside for the health benefits of fresh air and sunshine. Thanks to the research of Dr. Hazel Jones-Lee, one of our trustees we now realise this was no one off event but a weekly occurrence from March to October every year until well into the 1930s. For example in 1895 7,814 children went in 23 (free) weekly trips! They plodged in the sea, played on the beach and I expect they built sandcastles too. We know from a contemporary account that they were fed 'a large meat sandwich and tea for lunch and 'the largest buns I ever saw' and mugs of tea for tea!

Today the 5 winning teams and their designs were (in no particular order):

Hareside Primary School - 'Swimmers'
Brunton First School - 'London 2012 Rings'
Roseberry Primary School - 'Torch'
Ryhope Infant School - 'Route of the Torch'
St William's RCVA Primary School - 'Zeus'

Congratulations to each winning team who all receive a prize of £200 courtesy of GB Building Solutions.

To view the photos taken on the day please visit our facebook page

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Hope in Parliament

Sharon Hodgson MP made a commitment at our conference last November to organise a reception at the House of Commons for young people to tell MPs about their experience on poverty. So it was yesterday we took 10 young people and our exhibition of children's photographs of poverty to London. About 50 people came – Lords, MPs from the north east and elsewhere including Ed Balls and Steven Twigg as well as other important people.

The young people with Ed Balls
The young people, the youngest just 10, were amazing, completely unphased by the surroundings or guests. I have seen their drama, 'Hope's Diary' developed with Newcastle Live Theatre, 6 times and get more out of it each time. The lines delivered in the school scene, 'don't worry Hope, we'll get you tomorrow' and the aside in the dinner queue 'I know she's on free meals but she eats so much she's taking the Mick' when the audience knows this is the only meal Hope will have that day – they really hit home.

I was delighted to tell the audience that Children North East and the North East Child Poverty Commission will be developing a 'poverty proofing toolkit' for schools this summer to pilot in the autumn term. The idea being to challenge and support schools to change often unconscious practices that make it more difficult for poorer, disadvantaged children to get the best out of and achieve their potential at school. We already have a lot of interest from some schools.

This was on the day when The Guardian newspaper reported their survey in which teachers said they notice more and more children unable to concentrate in class because they are hungry. As more families struggle to make ends meet and schools close breakfast clubs because of cost, teachers are buying food for some children themselves and Greggs has seen a 60% increase in requests from schools for their free breakfast clubs.

Tyne Tees television followed the young people to Parliament – Sharon Hodgson said it was 'like a modern day Jarrow Crusade' for broadcast at 6 pm on Friday 22nd June. You can read what MPs and others had to say about it on Twitter: #hopeinparliament or watch the Tyne Tees TV report about the trip on You Tube

Friday, 15 June 2012

Celebrating and thanking our volunteers

Last night I attended our celebration to thank all our volunteers for the wonderful work they do for the beneficiaries of Children North East and their fantastic commitment. It was a great pleasure to welcome Judie McCourt from The People's Postcode Lottery who gave certificates to the volunteers in recognition of the huge numbers of hours they give. The People's Postcode Lottery have given over £430,000 to Children North East over a great many years and we are extremely grateful to the players of The People's Postcode Lottery who make such generosity possible.

We currently have over 100 volunteers, this is many more people than we employ. For over 30 years we have been recruiting, training and supporting volunteers to befriend parents and young people in need. Some volunteers have gone on to professional training courses and become paid staff for Children North East.
Almost all the volunteers last night event were young people from our 3 Youth Link projects in Sedgefield, Tynedale and Blyth. 'Youth Link' projects recruit young people (often students but increasingly they stay on as volunteers once they start work) to mentor other young people in some kind of need. For example young people who have low self-esteem, very little confidence, poor emotional well-being, falling out with their parents; lacking friends or having difficulty joining sports activities or social clubs because of conditions like ME and autism. The real strength of Youth Link is that it is much easier for young people to relate to someone close to their own age. These projects are all  about ‘having someone to talk to’ and are highly valued by the young people and families who use them.

We train all our volunteers and they are supported by staff to visit young people referred by professional agencies and help them achieve their goals. The training for our Youth Link volunteers is a course we have developed that is accredited through the Open College Network – the course is worth having as well as the experience of learning about other young people's lives and of helping them. Whether the volunteer pursues a career in the helping professions or not the experience is a valuable addition to their CV.

Volunteers save the public sector money. For example Youth Link volunteers have been commissioned to support young people with learning difficulties and other special educational needs to learn how to use public transport to get to school or college instead of taxis paid for by the local Council.  We are currently setting up two new Youth Link Projects in different parts of Newcastle upon Tyne, I believe we will be recruiting more and more volunteers.

The young people received certificates in recognition of 100 hours and 200 hours volunteer work. This is the number of hours spent with the young people or being part of a steering group to develop the services. It takes about a year to build up 100 hours. (At the suggestion of volunteers, they are awarded a hoodie when they complete 50 hours volunteering).

There was also a new special award to remember two fabulous ladies who collected over £1m for charities and were terrific supporters of Children North East. Olive and Margaret, known to thousands of party-goers in Newcastle as ‘the ladies in the Bigg Market’ were a regular sight on Saturday night touring the clubs and bars dressed as cowgirls with their collecting buckets. In 2010 Noel Edmunds honoured them with a trip to America to meet their heroine Dolly Parton on his Noel’s Christmas Presents show. Sadly Olive passed away last December but we will remember her's and Margaret’s extraordinary commitment as an inspiration to new generations of volunteers. This special award was for one volunteer who has made an outstanding contribution.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Going Hungry - Free school meals

Going Hungry, Young people’s experiences of Free School Meals is a report this week by the British Youth Council and Child Poverty Action Group. It found that many students who should receive free meals are not given enough credit to cover a full meal, while some children living in poverty are not eligible for free school meals because of the complex system governing eligibility.

A survey of 1,026 young people and focus groups with young people from Calcot, Gateshead, Redbridge and North East Lincolnshire found that overwhelmingly, young people feel that all children from low-income families should receive free school meals.

Around 65 per cent agreed with the statement that “students from low income families” should receive the allowance compared to 11 per cent who said “students from out-of-work families”.

Currently pupils receive free school meals if their parents receive income support; income-based jobseeker’s allowance; income-related employment and support allowance; support under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999;  the guaranteed element of state pension credit, or child tax credit if their annual income does not exceed £16,190.

Source: Children and Young People Now magazine

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

More misery for poorer families

Government plans to localise the help with council tax whilst cutting funding for it by 10% leave local councils with a tough challenge to design replacement schemes, according to a new report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Plans are to abolish Council Tax Benefit from April 2013 and let local authorities in England, and the Scottish and Welsh governments, set up their own schemes.

Some of the key findings-

  • ‘Having schemes that vary across the country will reduce transparency and increase bureaucracy.’
  • ‘The cash funding cut will be greatest in more deprived areas, where spending on Council Tax Benefit is currently highest.’
  • ‘the requirement to protect pensioners in England will imply a 19% cut in support for working-age claimants, on average.‘
  • ‘Cutting support for council tax and localising it are two distinct policy choices: either could have been done without the other. Whether you think that cutting council tax support for low-income families is the best way to reduce government borrowing by £500 million will depend on your views about how much redistribution the state ought to do. But the advantages of localisation seem to be outweighed by the disadvantages, particularly as it has the potential to undermine many of the positive impacts of Universal Credit.’
Source: Social Welfare Training Benefits Newsletter, June 2012

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Sod calm, get angry

'Keep calm and carry on' was the commercial theme of the Jubilee referring to the Queen's grace and fortitude and a glance back to Britain in adversity during the second world war. I was struck that Prince Charles in his short speech after the concert on Monday evening referred to the difficult times that so many people in the UK are experiencing. The Archbishop of Canterbury in his sermon at the service of Thanksgiving on Tuesday morning contrasted the collective happiness and sense of safety felt in the Jubilee events with "... the traps of ludicrous financial greed, of environmental recklessness, of collective fear of strangers and collective contempt for the unsuccessful and marginal" which are the norm. And the Bishop of London published a pamphlet in which he advises us to use the Jubilee to consider "How fair is our society? How much poverty and inequality is there? How much consideration are we giving to the well-being of future generations? What care are we taking of our shared environment? – these are questions we should not shirk." The UK is a far more unequal society than we were 60 years ago and life is set to worsen for the poorest.

Back in March the Institute of Fiscal Studies said that so far we have seen only 12% of all the cuts planned to welfare benefits. From October 2013 most in and out of work benefits will be replaced by the Universal Credit which is supposed to 'simplify welfare benefits and make work pay'. Families will receive the same benefit both in and out or work but it will taper off as they earn more. This is to be welcomed if it ends having to wait up to 6 weeks between making a claim and receiving a payment as in the current system which results in people running up debts when their job ends. However assessment for Universal Credit will be of family rather than individual income, only one person will be able to claim for the whole family. Imagine what that might mean for women forced to rely on whatever their man chooses to give her from 'his' money. The Credit will be paid monthly instead of fortnightly making it much harder for many families to budget.

People receiving Universal Credit while in work will be required to work a minimum of 24 hours a week (already increased from 16 hours) per family; and they will be required to increase their hours or get a better job in order to remove reliance on Universal Credit. They will be expected to travel up to 90 minutes to work instead of the existing 60 minutes. Remember too that support for child care has dropped from 80% to 70% of the cost of child care while you go to work.

Universal Credit will be capped, the DWP estimate the cap will be £500 a week (including other income such as Child Benefit) for couples and £350 a week for single people. The government's own Impact Assessment estimates 67,000 households will experience a reduction from their current level of income from benefits in the first year; 69% of which have 3 or more children. Once your assessment for Universal Credit has been made your entitlement will remain the same unless your total income drops more than £2,500 a year. Responsibility for Community Care grants and Crisis Loans (currently the last safety net for families with no money) is to be transferred to Councils, whether you get one or not is much more likely to depend on where you live.

Keep calm and carry on? I don't think so, time to get angry.