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.