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.