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.