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.