Thursday, 5 December 2013

Christmas is coming - thank you Peoples Postcode Lottery players

Its December and most people are looking forward to Christmas in anticipation of fun, presents and feasting. At Children North East we are launching our annual 'Giving Tree Appeal' asking for donations of toys, clothes, gifts, food and treats for less fortunate children and young people living in our region. Last year the generous people of the north east donated over 8,000 items which we distributed in time to make a happier Christmas for so many children in need.

Imagine the children of homeless families whose Christmas wish is simply to move back to their old neighbourhood, school and friends; or the children living in a Women's Refuge torn between their desire to see Dad but also to protect Mum from Dad. Children whose Christmas will be like every other day looking after a parent sick with depression; and children whose Christmas wish will be for Mum or Dad to be able to find a job and stop arguing about money. Children North East help children in families like these all year round.

Every December we hold a Christmas Fair at our Family Centre in one of the poorest parts of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, it’s one of the many ways in which players of People's Postcode Lottery really help Children North East give disadvantaged children, young people and families a bit of hope. The families living here don't take their children into town to visit Santa's Grotto because it's too expensive, so we have our own Santa in a homemade snowy grotto with party games, Christmas food and fun.

Since 2007 People’s Postcode Lottery players have given Children North East an incredible £521,383 which has enabled us to lift the hopes of thousands of children and young people. That funding, which comes with no strings attached, is essential for our mission to give disadvantaged children and young people a better chance in life. So thank you, every one of you, everyone at Children North East and the families we support wish you a very happy Christmas.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Community Day of Action - 27th November 2013

Children North East have been working on a pilot project over the past six months to support a local neighbourhood to take action on poverty.  Young people living in and around the Benwell Terraces organised a family fun day which took place during the summer holidays.  As well as having fun over 300 residents took part in a discussion and consultation about what they would like to change in their neighbourhood.  They overwhelmingly voted to tackle the environmental problems of litter and rubbish in their streets.

This isn’t just a bit of litter, Neighbourhood Services are aware that there is a real problem in this patch, estimating that the equivalent bulk of one hundred of elephants worth of rubbish has been collected in the last year alone.

Penalty notices were seen as the only way to address the problem.  Children North East have been researching with local residents what lies behind the problems.  We found there was a problem with the three Bs...

Bag Ripping:  people shared with us stories about families walking down the back alleys, one family member kicks over bins; they are followed by another who rips/slashes the bags which fall out, someone else then looks for any materials, clothes or linen in the bags.  These are then taken to newly opened cash for clothes outlets.  Two shops are now open near the Terraces on Condercum Road and Two Ball Lonnen.  Cash is given in exchange for any textiles at 60p per kilo.   This activity then leaves rubbish and litter all over the back alleys in the Terraces.  It seems as though families in particular A2 nationals are reliant upon this type of income as they are not entitled to claim state benefits.  (Note: A2 nationals are able to be self employed and we were aware of large families being supported by one parent selling the Big Issue).

Bulk Refuge Collection & Fly Tipping: Residents told us that they were not able to afford bulk refuge charges to have larger items removed.  Nor did they have access to cars or vans to be able to take them to the tip themselves.  Families in particular struggled with the fortnightly bin collections and had extra bags by their bins.  Some families also shared with us that they were storing rubbish in their garages and spare rooms.  It also became apparent that others were driving into the Terraces to leave bulk items too (fly tipping).

Boredom: Younger children also talked to us about being bored and spending a lot of their time hanging around the streets.  If they got bored then they would do things like kick over bins in the back alleys.  Parents also repeated to us their concerns about the lack of things to do for young people.  They also worried that given the state of the neighbourhood led to a spiral downwards, why bother putting things in the bin when it’s such a mess?

We have also been talking to people about what solutions would help.  Penalty notices will not address these problems!

Residents wanted a portable container to clear away the back log.  As a result Children North East, Your Homes Newcastle, Newcastle City Council and the Arts Development Team worked with local residents on the day of action.   Skips were placed on each street for residents to fill with unwanted household items. Children and young people from Canning Street, Oakfield and Excelsior Academy helped litter picking and cleaning up smaller amounts of rubbish from the streets and green spaces.

The day ended with a celebration event (a party) at the Beacon.  We will create works of art with recycled rubbish and take the opportunity to speak to residents about how to sustain the change.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Living Wage Week

This is a true story - Jon is in his twenties, he works full-time as a parking enforcement officer, a job he has been doing for the last 18 months. Before that he was in the Army where he served in Afghanistan. Jon lives with his partner who graduated from university in the summer and is looking for a job. They rent a small flat, their only income is Jon's wage which is the Minimum Wage for adults over the age of 21, that is £6.31 an hour for a 37 hour week. Jon earns £233.47 a week before tax (a little over £12,000 a year). Jon told me that they can barely afford to pay the rent and buy food. When bills come in they borrow from his Mam or other family members then pay them back week by week. He said it was tempting to take out a 'Pay Day' loan but he knew he could not afford the interest rate, 'in any case,' he said, 'relatives are more understanding about giving you more time to pay.'

The Living Wage has gone up this week by 20p an hour - from £7.45 to £7.65. If Jon's employer paid the Living Wage his earnings would increase by £49.58 a week to £283.05. I asked Jon what difference that would make to him. A grin spread across his face, 'Wow!' he said, 'that would make a huge difference, I wouldn't have to borrow and we might be able to have a night out occassionally.' Lastly Jon told me he and his partner would like to start a family but could not afford to on their present income.

Low paid workers are not asking for a great deal, simply the means to pay for the aspirations that anyone could reasonably expect of life in the UK in 2013.

Friday, 25 October 2013

A Better Start for Newcastle

Newcastle is one of 15 places in England shortlisted by Big Lottery to invest up to £50 million over 10 years on services for pregnant women, their partners and families with babies and toddlers up to the age of three.

Big Lottery will select up to 5 of the 15 sites for this massive injection of urgently needed money. The City Council, Children’s Services, NHS Trusts, Clinical Commissioning Groups, Voluntary Organisations, parents and others are working hard to produce a winning strategy which must be handed to Big Lottery by 28th February 2014. The winners will be announced in June 2014 and hopefully the money will begin to flow shortly after.

Back in March Newcastle City Council selected Children North East to lead this application. We have been working very hard with the City Council and many others since then. I am delighted that together we have got to this crucial final stage. Now we need a final big push!

Leader Nick Forbes and Joanne Kingsland, Lead Member for Children are fully behind this application; both spoke at an event in the Civic Centre on the 2nd October for parents, local services and professionals to explain Newcastle’s bid and engage them in it.

Each of the 15 shortlisted sites is receiving support from Dartington Social Research Unit (SRU) paid for by Big Lottery. Dartington SRU is based in Devon but known internationally for innovative work to improve public sector services.

Amongst the support provided by Dartington SRU is a confidential local survey by BMG Research, an independent research agency. BMG researchers are currently going door to door in Walker, Byker, Elswick, Bewnell and Scotswood wards. They want to talk to parents of children aged 0 to 8 years to find out what they think about local services for children and families, what is good and what could be better.

Dartington SRU will be running a two day workshop with the Newcastle Partnership to shape our application based on solid data about local need and the latest research about what works to ensure every baby and toddler get the best start in life.

The final applications must be submitted by 28th February next year and the winners will be announced in June. Big Lottery say they will select between 3 and 5 sites who will each receive between £3m and £5m a year for up to 10 years to improve support during pregnancy and for parents of babies and toddlers up to the age of 3.

If you would like to know more about the Newcastle application, please email my colleague Sylvia Copley here at Children North East:

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Peer Mentoring in Schools

Newcastle Youth Link is a Children North East project that is branching out into schools across the City to engage with more young people. The programme will be training young people who have a passion and desire to help their peers overcome difficulties in school and elsewhere in their lives too. Once trained (and our training programme is accredited by OCN so that volunteers can gain a level 2 qualification) the peer mentors are 'matched' with their mentee whom they meet once a week. They advice, guide and assist the mentee to reach their personal goals, things like completing homework or getting involved in a new activity at school or making new friends.

The school programme is currently being piloted in Kenton High School. Children North East has already trained 8 School Peer Mentors who are starting to support their peers as the new school year begins. For example peer mentors helping to induct the new year 7’s, showing them around the school, and making them feel more comfortable with the new environment.

A second programme is about to start in Walbottle school, and with the aspiration for the Newcastle Youth Link to be a presence in every secondary schools across the City.

During the last year Newcastle Youth Link has trained and supports young people aged 18-25 as mentors for young people in schools. Peer mentors are currently based in both Heaton Manor and Benfield Schools. We expect to be active in a lot more Newcastle schools during this academic year.

The future of Newcastle Youth Link is looking bright and exciting as the new School Youth Link model is set to really make an impact on the lives of more and more young people all over Newcastle.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Seeing Newcastle through Young People's Eyes

It was a privilege to be at the Newcastle Council Policy Cabinet in the Civic Centre last Wednesday evening. Policy Cabinets are open meetings for the public and stakeholders to discuss important questions with City Councillors. This time for the first time the meeting was lead by Newcastle Youth Councillors. Children North East staff support Newcastle Youth Council to achieve its aims.

Planning started early in the summer when Youth Councillors canvassed the views of young people on the street in the city centre as well as collecting views on postcards from youth groups and schools and the Youth Council's own objectives. We were told there are 64,000 children and young people in Newcastle and although the Youth Council could not speak to them all they had had over 1,000 comments and felt confident they could represent young people.

Later in the summer Youth Councillors analysed all the responses and wrote a detailed report and a summary for the Policy Cabinet meeting focussing on just 4 questions:

  1. Does the Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) curriculum taught in schools prepare young people for life?
  2. How can we ensure young people have rich experiences on offer and can pursue their interests, regardless of the financial resources within their family?
  3. The economy in the North East relies upon city nightlife but what message does this send to young people about how to have fun in Newcastle?
  4. Do young people have a future in Newcastle or will the jobs be elsewhere?
The meeting took place in the splendid Council Chamber and was full. For once the adults shut up and listened to these articulate, confident, thoughtful, engaged young people. It was a very special occasion. You can get a flavour of the discussion on twitter @NewcastleYouth.

Nick Forbes, Leader of the Council chaired the meeting which included young people of all ages from organisations all over the city. So what came out of the meeting? For me it was evident young people want to be prepared for life and expect a large part of that to happen in school but they don't think the present PSHE curriculum is fit for purpose. They want to work with a school to develop a different, more useful PSHE curriculum.

If you have some money the city centre has quite a lot to offer young people, even if you don't young people enjoy being in the centre window shopping and hanging out. If you can't afford to be in the centre you can probably find something - a local youth group or after school activity but it might not be what interests you in which case hanging out on the street is your only option. Youth groups can offer the chance to learn about things you can't do in school - like animation for example; schools don't seem to ask their students what sort of extra-curriculum activities they would like.

Everyone applauded when one young person said TV programme 'Geordie-Shore' should be banned! Young people are very proud of their city, heritage and culture they don't like seeing it trashed on TV - Newcastle is not just a party city. Young people like to have fun but you don't have to get smashed to be having fun. However at night most of what the city has to offer is based on alcohol, there is very little for young people so you get young people pretending to be older than they are blagging their way into pubs and clubs. We were told actually inside it feels reasonably safe but outside, streets full of drunk people are scary. The Youth Council is calling for alcohol-free youth cafes in the city where young people can go in the evenings.

The most moving part of the whole discussion was hearing young people talking about their hopes, dreams and ambitions for the future - to travel, to go to university, to have a good job, to come back to the north east and make a home here, to see their city prosper and be a part of it; and also their concern for peers who might easily become NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training).

The City Council announced they will give the Youth Council an office in the Civic Centre so that they are close to the heart of decision-making and have more influence. The adult councillors clearly want to work with the Youth Council in the interests of all young people in Newcastle. I hope the Youth Council feel very proud of themselves, they prepared for and delivered a stunning and memorable Policy Cabinet. I very much hope that some actions will come out of it.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Poverty and rubbish

Last week Children North East organised a Fun Day in a small neighbourhood in West Newcastle. It is an area of old terraced houses and back lanes in the northern style and one of the most racially mixed parts of the city.

With a small amount of money we provided free ice cream, face painting, animals to handle (snakes and big spiders) and pavement art. Over 270 children, young people and curious adults came along. The ice cream and face painting were huge successes - a lot of children are from economic migrant families many of whom had never tasted ice cream nor experienced having their face painted before. Half way through the afternoon someone offered music and set up their sound system on the street including karaoke creating a street party atmosphere. Everyone had a great time and asked when would it happen again?

The event had another purpose - to ask people what they wanted to change about their area, overwhelmingly they said clear up the rubbish in the back lanes and on the streets. The council estimates the equivalent of 100 elephants bulk of rubbish is left on the streets in this small area every year which looks unsightly and is expensive the clear up.

The reason for our interest in the area comes from our project 2 years ago asking children to take photographs of what poverty looked like where they live. The pictures they took here showed children playing in the rubbish, young people hanging out in derelict rubble-strewn backyards, boarded up shops and cheap takeaways. Those same children and young people helped planned the Fun Day to get some action going that will make a difference.

We asked people where the rubbish comes from, they told us people in need of money knock over the wheelie-bins, haul out the rubbish and take away any clothes they can find which they sell at a nearby 'Cash for Clothes' shop for 60p a kilo. They are driven to these desperate measures through necessity but it leaves mess everywhere. The council has suggested fining people - but how would you catch them and where would they get the money to pay a fine?

By the end of the day we not only had a remit from the community but also  a small group of young people and adults keen to find on a solution. Our next step is to form them into an action team. I'll let you know what ideas they come up.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Fulfilling Lives - A Better Start

I am delighted that our application on behalf of Newcastle City Council and partners to the Big Lottery 'Fulfilling Lives - A Better Start' programme is through to the next stage. Newcastle is one of just 15 places selected from 40 applications submitted at the beginning of June this year.

Big Lottery have commissioned Dartington Social Research Unit to work intensively with each of the 15 sites between now and 3rd January to create a partnership and develop a business plan that will give parents and babies living in challenging circumstances the best start in life. Children North East has also been awarded a development grant to help the process along. Business plans must be submitted to the Big Lottery by 3rd January who will then select 5 places which will each receive up to £5m a year for 10 years, a huge investment in pregnancy, parenting and babies.

Children North East will be leading a partnership of organisations working in the wards of Walker, Byker, Elswick, Benwell and Scotswood. In these wards 25% of pregnant women are obese; figures for low birth weight are worse than the England average; in one ward only 18% of women are still breastfeeding when their babies are 8 weeks old; Newcastle has the highest child obesity figures in the country in reception year (age 6); and the highest proportion of incidents of domestic violence in the city occur in families where a child is under one year old.

The partnership will recruit more midwives to advise obese women and those experiencing domestic violence. It will set up an online resource to prepare fathers for parenthood and train nursery nurses to support parents with new babies. Programmes will also address nutrition, smoking and alcohol consumption and advice on healthy living during pregnancy, achieving higher breastfeeding rates and improving parents skills in budgeting and preparing healthy food.

As new parents become proficient they will be invited to train as volunteer ‘doulas’ to advise and support new parents. An accredited training programme will be developed and as the number of doulas grows, an offer of doula support will be made to all new parents thus spreading the learning and impact to other parts of the city.

The next four months are going to be very exciting as we create the partnership and develop the plan, it is a fantastic opportunity for health, council and voluntary organisations in Newcastle to dramatically improve services and support for expectant Mams and Dads and their babies.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Daniel Pelka - seen but not heard

In among the storm of justified outrage about the starving and eventual killing of Daniel Pelka by his parents I see only Daniel and wonder why no one seems to have talked to him.

We will have to wait for the findings of the 'serious case review' to find out the details of what happened and what all the teachers, social workers and doubtless many other professionals were trying to do about it - incidentally that is why none of them are available for comment at the moment in case they incriminate themselves or others ahead of the serious case review. But here was a little boy at primary school. He wasn't a baby at home, he was out in the community and he could talk. Had someone asked him why he was searching the rubbish bins for food he might have told them but we don't know yet whether anyone did ask him.

Had he thought they could help him he might have asked a teacher or some other kindly adult to help him, but so far it appears he did not ask. And that is where my concern lies. Is it right that children in primary school are apparently not encouraged to confide in their teacher, classroom assistant, playground assistant or dinner nanny? Who or what prevents them? Why is there a culture in school that does not encourage that sharing? Are we comfortable with the idea that school is only about 'processing' a cohort of children through each year? That the human relationships between adults (not just teachers) in school and children is somehow at best a luxury or at worst irrelevant?

Children are not little creatures to be 'parented', 'educated', 'trained' or 'managed' until they eventually, to the relief of everyone, turn into adults. From birth they are people, the same as adults have been people from birth. Children are citizens the same as everyone else but they deserve and need extra care from all adults because they do not (yet) have the capacities that adults do. And every adult has a responsibility to look out for children for the simple and obvious reason that we are all part of the human race; the care of children is everyone's business not just the province of some professionals who have it in their job description.

Thursday, 25 July 2013


It has been a busy couple of weeks for our Board of trustees. It is easy to think of the trustees of any charity or voluntary organisation as at best a group of supportive amateurs and at worse interfering busybodies. Nothing could be further from the truth, legally the trustees ARE the charity, they are accountable to the Charities Commission (and in our case also Companies House) to ensure the charity meets its charitable aims and that its affairs are effectively and legally conducted. To carry out their duties properly they need detailed and timely information, furthermore trustees do this work voluntarily. Our Board of trustees meets once a quarter but has four sub-committees that meet more often.

Last week the Operations Committee had an extended meeting to examine and discuss our annual project impact reports. Each Children North East project produces a summary of its work every year, there are 16 in all. Each of our trustees also visits a project at least once during the year. We also look at how much it costs to work with each child or young person and where possible compare that to other voluntary organisations (this information is hard to come by). One of our trustees remarked how 'muscular' all our projects are meaning they deal with the depth of people's difficulties in effective ways. The big themes of the charity's work become clear - improving family relationships; improving the health and wellbeing of children and young people; empowerment and reducing the impact of poverty.

This week there were meetings of the Finance and Human Resources committees and a meeting of the Board itself. Finance scrutinises up to date management accounts making sure we keep on budget; and it considers how best to manage financial resources and physical assets strategically. Human Resources monitors key data such as sickness; recruitment and retention and this time our annual Equality and Diversity report and advises accordingly. In case you are wondering, the fourth committee is about fundraising and communications, it meets next week.

Each committee reports to the Board which takes the important decisions. This time the Board made decisions about our buildings, investments and valuing staff and supporters. It also noted that the work done by the Operations Committee on the project reports contributes to an ongoing discussion between trustees and staff about the future direction of the whole organisation and finally recommended the organisation look in more detail at the way it addresses equality and diversity in the workforce and with service users.

Children North East is currently looking for up to 4 new trustees. In particular we need people with skills in finance, human resources, marketing, fundraising or IT. If you would like to be considered, please contact me: You can also read more about being a trustee for Children North East on our website:

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Cost of child poverty

Today Child Poverty Action Group published estimated costs generated by child poverty rates in every local authority and constituency in the UK. The local authority estimates, produced by Donald Hirsch of Loughborough University, are contained in a new report on how local authorities are trying to tackle child poverty at a time of social security cuts and upheaval.

The report, 'Local Authorities and Child Poverty: Balancing Threats with Opportunities' is launched today at a CPAG conference in Birmingham aimed at assisting local authorities fulfil their obligations under the Child Poverty Act to implement effective local child poverty strategies. The report and the conference have been funded by Barrow Cadbury Trust.

In the North East region the numbers of children officially living in poverty in each local authority and the cost is:

Children below the relative poverty line
Cost of child poverty in £millions
1.    County Durham
2.    Newcastle upon Tyne
3.    Sunderland
4.    Northumberland
5.    Middlesbrough
6.    Gateshead
7.    Stockton-on-Tees
8.    North Tyneside
9.    South Tyneside
10.  Redcar and Cleveland
11.  Hartlepool
12.  Darlington

The North East is losing £1,635 million every year due to child poverty and a large part of that cost lands on council services. This is not only a waste of money but a waste of our children’s prospects. We need to stop paying for failure and instead invest in our children’s future potential.

Friday, 12 July 2013

School dinners

A government-commissioned school food review has recommended Headteachers insist everyone has school dinners, that means banning packed lunches which the report says are often less healthy than school meals because they frequently include crisps, sugary drinks and sweets or chocolate. Headteachers are also encouraged to ban children from leaving school at lunchtime to buy food such as chips and pizzas from local shops. However the review also says that take up of school meals is only 43% despite huge improvements in quality in recent years.

There is good reason to be concerned about the food our children eat. Newcastle upon Tyne has more obese and overweight 4 year olds than anywhere else in England; and of the 2,300 babies born in Gateshead every year, 230 will be obese by the time they are 4 years old and 480 will be obese by the time they are age 10.

The Local Authority Caterers Association is very concerned about decreasing number of children choosing school dinners. If take-up dips below a certain point it will no longer be financially viable for school caterers to provide meals at all.

In our research to Poverty Proof the School Day we found many children and young people who are entitled to free school meals do not take them up because of the stigma it entails. For example we found a school in which children who had free school meals had to queue in a different line at lunchtime; in another school dinner money envelopes were collected in class on Monday morning, all the free school meal children had no envelopes to be collected. One school had a sophisticated biometric card system but the pupils knew who got free school meals because on school trip days they all got a standard school packed lunch in a brown paper bag. Children told us they preferred to go without dinner or nagged their parents to give them a packed lunch to avoid the shame of being identified as having free school meals.

Schools have taken the healthy food message to heart, vending machines that sold sugary drinks, sweets and crisps have been removed but we spoke to children and young people who told us they were all still widely available in school sold by enterprising young people on the 'black market'. One young person even made a video about it in our video stories project.

Then there is the mystery of the missing free school dinner money. If your school uses a 'credit card' type system for school meals you can top it up at the start of the week and spend against it, the remaining credit is carried forward day by day. Not so for free school meals, the notional amount for a free school meal is £1.90 if you spend less than that then tough, all you get is £1.90 again the next day. But no-one seems to know where all those unspent pennies go? And finally what does £1.90 actually buy in the school canteen - can you get food and a drink or must you go without one because you can't afford it?

Children North East supports moves to improve the health of children and young people especially healthy weights but the reasons why pupils chose not to eat school dinners are complex and need to be understood by listening to what the children have to say about them. It is only then that effective strategies to change behaviour will emerge.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Poverty Proofing the School Day

Last week Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshore said that even outstanding schools are failing poorer children, "These poor, unseen children ... are labelled, buried in lower sets, consigned as often as not to indifferent teaching. They coast through education until – at the earliest opportunity – they sever their ties with it."

In our research with poorer children and young people they told us they feel more disadvantaged in school than anywhere else. They told us about all sorts of ways in which schools unwittingly make it obvious which students are poor and harder for them to fully engage in and benefit from education.

"Look, there’s Hope,
She’s got holes in her shoes,
Pays nothing for dinners
And holds up the queues,
Going home with a face full of sorrow,
But don’t worry Hope,
We’ll get you tomorrow."

For the last year we have been working with children, young people, teachers, parents and Governors in four schools (two primary and two secondary in both urban and rural areas) and the North East Child Poverty Commission with funding from the Voluntary Organisations Network North East (VONNE) Policy and Representation Partnership to develop and pilot an audit for schools to 'Poverty Proof the School Day.'

Groups of children and young people in all four schools explored what poverty is in a UK context - did they know who experiences poverty in their school? And if so how do they know?  They walked and talked the school day from start to finish unpicking all the policies and practices within their schools. They looked at what questions to ask of schools to Poverty Proof their Day. The audit was developed from this process, the real lived experiences of children and young people themselves. The children and young people tested and refined their questions by auditing one another’s schools.

Over the next few weeks we are launching the audit to encourage schools to take it up in the new school year starting September 2013. Schools can register online at:

Ofsted wants to improve teaching for poorer children and threatens to reinspect schools previously judged outstanding if they are not doing well by their poorest children.

The Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit is based on rigorous academic research and recommends the cost effective teaching methods to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils.

Children North East thinks both these approaches are important but believes our 'Poverty Proofing the School Day' audit looks at another vital dimension - the social experience of school life from the point of view of the children and young people who are the 'customers' of the education system.

We want to reduce the stigma and discrimination children and young people experiencing poverty face in schools. We want to 'level the playing field' in school so every pupil gets the same chance to benefit from education no matter what their background. 'Poverty Proofing the School Day' will enable schools to identify and remove barriers to learning and support them to reduce their attainment gap.

“I know I’m different, I don’t have the same things everyone else does,
but that doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.”

Friday, 21 June 2013

We become a Living Wage Employer

Children North East has become one of the few organisations in the north east region to become an accredited Living Wage Employer.

The Living Wage is an hourly rate set independently and updated annually, based on the cost living in the UK, currently it is £7.45 an hour outside London.

The Living Wage campaign started in London and has been running for ten years. In that time it has lifted over 45,000 people out of poverty.

Two-thirds of poor children live in working families, their parents are in low paid jobs. Often this can be several part-time jobs at the same time. The Living Wage can make the difference so that perhaps parents only need to have two instead of three part-time jobs and can spend more time with their children. As one of our cleaners said, 'the Living Wage has given me more freedom and independence.'

We hope other north east employers will follow our example and pay the Living Wage; it would make a huge difference to the lives of children growing up in poor families. You can find out more about the Living Wage campaign here:

There are also good business reasons for paying the Living Wage. For example an independent study found that more than 80% of employers believe that the Living Wage had enhanced the quality of the work of their staff, while absenteeism had fallen by approximately 25%.

66% of employers reported a significant impact on retention within their organisation and a reduction in cost of recruitment. One London Borough has claimed that because of that, paying the Living Wage has caused no additional costs.

There are wider economic benefits too. Poorer families tend to spend their money locally which puts more income into local businesses.

Children North East has been drawing attention to the impact that poverty has on the lives of poor children, paying low paid workers the Living Wage is one way in which employers can make a real difference to their lives.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Families under Pressure

Children North East has been supporting families for over 30 years because we believe it is almost always best that children grow up in their own family unless it is unsafe to do so.

Family life can be the source of the most rewarding and also the most frustrating and difficult parts of our lives, sometimes both at the same time! When you think about what makes a family it is not surprising that all families are complicated.

You grow up and become a person. You meet someone and become a partner. You are in a relationship, most people want that. Then the two of you have a baby and you become parents. You have gone from having one to three roles – person, partner and parent. And also the number of relationships in the family has tripled, not just one relationship between you and your partner but also now between you and the baby and between your partner and the baby – three relationships. Add another child and the number of relationships in the family doubles to six – the first three plus you and your partner's relationships with the new child and the relationship between the two children. Add a third child and the number of relationships in the family jumps to ten. That is a lot to handle even when everything is going well.

Every relationship goes both ways. Parents respond to what children need but equally children respond to and shape what parents do. That’s why we coo to babies but talk to children when they start to use words. The most remarkable thing about families is that they are constantly adapting to the needs of each individual. Babies and young children rely utterly on the parent but they also worry when parents are upset, ill or under stress. And of course adults respond to each other too.

Blended families incorporating children from previous relationships add to the complexity, bringing with them continuing relationships with previous partners. And families rarely exist in isolation; there are grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. You continue to have roles in relation to them – child and sibling to add to your other three roles.

There are stressful times in every family for example when someone is ill or experiencing change such as starting school or changing job. There can be stresses on the whole family too like moving house or a drop in income. Some tensions like school exams are short-lived; others like adolescence are to be expected; then there are unusual or long-lasting pressures such as chronic illness or disability. Each person in the family will respond to stress in different ways which has a knock-on effect on everyone else in the family.

Sometimes families under stress need a helping hand which is where Children North East comes in. We are never 'friends', we don’t take the place of partners or extended family; and we don’t step in and take over; instead we help adults with their parent role. Most people find it easier to accept help from another parent – one of our specially trained volunteers.

But when parents are really under pressure something has to give. Stress can become depression or other mental ill health; tension and constant worry can become aggression or even violence; the odd glass of wine can gradually become solace in drink or drugs.

Families really are under financial pressure right now, we are finding families are frequently in need of food; our projects now keep supplies and refer parents to the Food Banks that have sprung up everywhere. More young people are telling us about suicidal thoughts, are self-harming and attempting to kill themselves.

Stress is clearly mounting up for families and vulnerable young people and there is little hope of significant improvement in the near future.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Getting it right for volunteers

June 1st to 7th is Volunteer's Week the annual celebration of the fantastic contribution millions of volunteers make across the UK. It is also to encourage more people to become volunteers. Last night Children North East thanked our own volunteers at an event in St. James Park, Newcastle.

Since our similar celebration event a year ago we have set up two new volunteer projects for young people in Newcastle. We now have five of these 'Youth Link' projects - the others are in Tynedale, Blyth and Sedgefield. They all recruit and train young people as volunteers to mentor other young people in some kind of need. That could be difficult family relationships, social isolation due to disability or illness, difficulty joining youth clubs, sports activities or work experience - the list is as long and varied as there are young people. The training is approved by OCN the National Open College Network and for those young people who complete it, leads to a level 2 qualification.

Our whole 'Youth Link' model is approved by the Mentoring and Befriending Foundation as meeting their standards for mentoring. The standards are exacting and the process of becoming approved is exhaustive involving staff and volunteers in all the Youth Link projects so we are very pleased to have achieved it. Voluntary sector organisations are not subject to inspection or external review so applying for and gaining approval from national bodies such as the Open College Network and Mentoring and Befriending Foundation are important to us because they reassure us that our practice is excellent, encourage us to constantly improve and enable others to judge us against a fixed standard.

With all that in mind we are also delighted to have been awarded the Investors in Volunteers standard for the first time this year. Investing in Volunteers (IiV) is the UK quality standard for good practice in volunteer management.  It is the benchmark of quality for volunteer management and involvement. Achieving it proves the effectiveness of our work with volunteers and enhances our reputation. We are one of 650 organisations that have achieved the IiV standards. This was a very demanding process that involved the whole organisation in a review of everything about our volunteers - not only young people but also adult volunteers who support parents in need as well as all the people who volunteer their time to fundraise for us. An external assessor read all our policies and procedures in relation to volunteers, interviewed staff at all levels as well as a selection of volunteers. We we were required to do some additional work in relation to volunteers for fundraising to satisfy the assessor, but in the end we met the standard and achieved the award.

There is a view that voluntary work is straightforward and cheap. It ought to be simple for willing people to find out about volunteer opportunities and apply and they should expect to receive a helpful and timely response. But they also deserve to be kept safe from harm while they are volunteering and for it to be a satisfying experience, those things don't happen without planning, training, supporting, celebrating, in short Valuing volunteers in the same way we value and manage our staff. Furthermore organisations have the same duty of care for volunteers as they do for staff or services users - for example to be healthy and safe while they are volunteering.

So let's thank, celebrate and encourage volunteering but at the same time let's make sure that volunteers get the best possible experience through good quality management.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Absolute poverty

Last weekend an 80 year old man told me about growing up in Middlebrough in the 1930s. He was one of 8 children, his father worked but was often unwell. If his father could not work the family had no money, there was no social security to fall back on, they had to go without. Even when he was working there was barely enough money to feed the family. Most weeks they took the father's suit to the pawnbroker in exchange for money to buy food. When the father was paid the first call was to the pawnbroker to redeem the suit ready for the next time. His father only ever had the same one suit. The family depended on their wits and especially their mother's skill and ingenuity to be clothed and fed. This, he said was what real poverty was like. He understood today there are not enough jobs to go round and people struggle but they have the safety net of welfare benefits.

Yesterday a report by Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam reported more than half a million UK people may rely on food banks. It calls the amount of food poverty in the UK a national disgrace.

The report blames benefit cuts, unemployment and the increased cost of living for the growth in hunger and poverty. It attributes some of the rise in food bank reliance to unemployment, increasing levels of underemployment, low and falling income, and rising food and fuel prices. Oxfam says: "Cuts to social safety-nets have gone too far, leading to destitution, hardship and hunger."

The report was backed by the Trussell Trust, the UK's biggest provider of food banks. It said
more than 350,000 people required help from its food banks during 2012, almost triple the number who received food aid the year before. Children North East is finding that the families we work with are increasingly in need of food, we keep small stocks but refer people to the rising number of food banks.

Does anyone want to live in a country where people are reliant on handouts of food? Do we really want to return to the hardships of the past?

Responding to the report the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) said: "Our welfare reforms will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities."

It added, "The benefits system supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed so no-one has to struggle to meet their basic needs." The department also defended its new universal credit system, which will be implemented nationally in October, saying it will simplify the benefit system and leave "three million households better off".

Yesterday Jayne Linney of the #STOPIDSLYING campaign announced on Twitter that her petition calling for Ian Duncan-Smith the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to be held to account for his use of statistics had been successful, she got over 100,000 signatures. He has been summoned to apprear in June before the Work and Pensions Committee.

John Lennon once sang:

'I've had enough of reading things
By neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians
All I want is the truth
Just gimme some truth.'

I know who I believe - who do you?

Saturday, 25 May 2013


A sad week, the funeral of a family man, a man younger than me but like me the father of teenage daughters. Eighteen months ago the funeral of another family man, also the father of teenage daughters. My own father died in February. Yesterday Drummer Lee Rigby's wife Rebecca said he was a devoted father to his son Jack. The horror of his death here in our own country literally brings home the deaths of all those soldier fathers killed far away.

We notice mothers, celebrate motherhood, read and endlessly discuss how to be a mother. Even the generic word 'parent' in practice frequently means mother. But we only really notice fathers when they are bad; the rest of the time fathers are like the walls of the house, essential, constant, so obvious they are hardly noticed. When tragedy strikes and they are gone we are suddenly homeless. It is heartbreaking to witness all those daughters and sons lose their Daddy.

The funerals have celebrated the lives of each Dad with humour and affection. We want to keep our fathers close by remembering and speaking about them. They are so much a part of us for all our lives that they are never really gone; that is where the pain and I think eventually the comfort lies - my Dad, no longer here with me but always a part of me.

June 16th is Father's Day. Perhaps this year we should remember everyone who has lost their father as much as celebrate all Dads. Later this year I intend to remember my father by walking Hadrian's Wall from coast to coast - I don't know why, it just seems the right thing to do. And on Father's Day I will make a fuss of my daughters so they know how much they mean to me.