Tuesday, 23 December 2014

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens famous story about Scrooge was published 171 years ago but is perhaps even more relevant today than when it was written.

Scrooge, a committed miser is shown the error of his ways by four ghosts who visit him on Christmas Eve. The final spectre, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge his own deathbed, funeral and grave. Scrooge is terrified to realise he will die alone and unloved, mourned by no one, and resolves to change his ways. Throughout the story Dickens shows us that redemption comes through the joy of giving, especially charitable giving.

At the start of the story Scrooge is visited by his nephew who remarks. 'I have always thought of Christmas time as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.'

We are one of the richest countries in the world, we are home to some of the wealthiest people who have ever lived. During the second half of the last century we became a much more equal society than in Dickens's time but today income inequality is again greater than it was 100 years ago. No matter how much you have, and how 'fair' you think you should be entitled to everything you have, nevertheless we are all mortal, all on the same journey through life.

The next scene is a visit from two gentlemen who say. 'At this festive season of the year, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts.' Adding 'Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.' Scrooge replies that the prisons, workhouses, treadmill and Poor Law are good enough for the poor.

Today's equivalents would again be prisons, Universal Credit and Job Seekers Allowance. But also the indignity of food banks, the benefits cap, the unfairness of the bedroom tax and mean-minded immigration regulations.

Scrooge is taken by the Ghost of Christmas Present to visit the homes of many families cheerfully celebrating Christmas. Finally the Ghost reveals, 'from the foldings of its robe, it brought two children, wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable...They were a boy and girl.' Whom the Ghost calls Ignorance and Want and warns against ignorance in particular. When Scrooge asks what can be done to help them the Ghost taunts him with his own words 'Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?'

We do not see the Want in our society, we are no longer confronted by children with no shoes freezing on the winter streets. Instead the media serves up a spectacle of the poor as ignorant and lazy. We make judgements about other people's lives from the comfort of our own homes and convince ourselves that because we are fortunate to have work, family, friends, community it is somehow 'fair' that others do not.

At the end of the story Scrooge gives, not only to Tiny Tim but abundantly to all. He remembers and re-engages with the joy he felt at Christmas time when he was young and he laughs, 'really for a man who had been out or practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long line of brilliant laughs!'

In the last two weeks Children North East has witnessed abundant giving from thousands of ordinary people all over our region who have bought and donated toys, gifts, food, clothing, treats and money for cooking and heating. We have been busy distributing them all to children, young people and families in need this Christmas. The Spirit of Christmas is very much alive and well right here in north east England!

I wish you all a very Joyful and Happy Christmas.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Self medication

In the wake of Robin Williams tragic suicide has come a plethora of analysis about the nature of comic genius and mental illness as we ordinary folk try to understand why anyone would want to kill themselves. Many of the accounts of his life note his long 'battle' with alcohol and drugs, he himself made comedy from it in that famous interview with Michael Parkinson. Even there amongst the laughter, was deep darkness.

A couple of months ago I met a woman who had struggled with alcohol all her life until a perceptive Children North East family worker noticed something that changed everything. When she was referred to us Paula was drinking a litre of vodka every day and her two teenage children were at risk of being taken into care. Our worker spent a lot of time getting to know Paula and gained her trust.

Paula’s life has been very hard – three female relatives including her mother all committed suicide. All the men in her life have been aggressive and involved in violent crime. But our worker recognised something else beyond this tragic story, a pattern of elation followed by depressed mood.

She encouraged Paula’s GP to refer her for psychiatric assessment and nagged the psychiatric service until they did. Paula was diagnosed with a bipolar illness which was then treated with medication. Since her teenage years Paula had learned to ‘self-medicate’ with alcohol, now she has medication she herself recognises that she no longer needs to drink.

When I met her Paula had not drunk alcohol for 6 months, I found her to be a warm, caring mother who told me the referring social workers had decided that her children will remain with her.

12th August was the United Nations International Youth Day, the theme this year is young people and mental health.Wouldn't it be great if everyone working with young people had the understanding to recognise mental health difficulties before they become problems that ruin the whole of adult life?

Friday, 8 August 2014


Meet Hope a 12 year old girl living in the north east and experiencing poverty. She is a fictional charater developed by young people based on their shared experiences. From today you can become her friend online and learn about her life at www.adayofhope.co.uk 

Hopebook is an exciting development that grew out of collaboration between Children North East and Live Theatre with the creation of 'Hope’s Diary' in 2011. Artistic Director Amy Golding took child poverty data, images and focus group information to a Culture Code Hack held at the Tyneside Cinema in 2012.

The CultureCode Initiative was an opportunity for north east cultural and digital communities to work closely together, increasing their understanding of each other’s work and the mutual benefits of collaboration, by connecting cultural organisations with software developers and creative technologists to see what amazing things would happen.

Hope explores issues of child poverty by placing you within a day in the life of a 12 year old girl called Hope. Hopebook mirrors the way in which Facebook is used. You become friends with Hope who posts about her life and experiences.  The reality behind those posts can be revealed by clicking on an icon.  Interactive games can be played which highlight the obstacles faced by children and young people growing up in poverty. 

We have two aims for Hopebook - to place adult decision makers within the day in the life of a child experiencing poverty and the decisions that they have to face; and to encourage as many young people as possible to share with us their views and experiences. 

Whilst playing Hopebook users are asked a few questions. Including what change they would like to see locally to tackle child poverty. We will use the data from this to inform our work on a children’s manifesto on poverty, that we are coordinating for the APPG Poverty.

This is an exciting development that we think has never been tried before. It has potential to engage large numbers of children and young people nationally in the discussion and debates about child poverty, using a medium that they already engage with, in their millions.  We also believe it has the potential to influence policy makers and decision makers, who increasingly use mediums such as twitter.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Making a manifesto

In February this year 30 young people from the north east, north west and London gathered in parliament to work on a young people's child poverty manifesto. They were representatives from youth councils that  are worried about the impact poverty has on children and young people's lives. They had been invited by the All Party Parliamentary Group of MP's working on child poverty to come up with practical ideas for improvement - a young people's child poverty manifesto. Children North East was selected by the APPG to facilitate this work.

Last weekend the work was concluded during a residential at the Thurston outdoor centre in the Lake District owned and managed by South Tyneside Council. The manifesto will be launched in parliament this autumn so I won't talk about it now. Suffice to say the experience of poor children in school features prominently.

A couple of weeks ago The Children's Society hosted a 'Select Committee' run by young people along with politicians to enquire into poverty and education. Children North East was invited to talk about our 'Poverty Proofing the School Day' project. We believe it is unique in trying to change the way schools pay attention to the needs and experience of students from poor families. We believe that creating a 'level playing field' for all students is an essential prerequisite for better educational outcomes for disadvantaged students of all kinds. The Select Committee will also be reporting in the autumn.

The aim of all this work is simple, with a General Election next May we want all the political parties to commit to policies that will help eradicate child poverty - actually a goal enshrined in law. But for once we want them to take notice of suggestions from those who really understand what  is needed because they live the humiliation of poverty every day, that is the children and young people themselves.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Sandcastle Summer Party

It’s always a pleasure to see so many friends and supporters of Children North East for an evening of fun and fundraising. That is what happened last Friday at our annual summer fundraising party - we no longer call it a charity ball because over the years it has gathered the reputation of being the best party of the summer season!

Sandcastles remind us how the charity started in 1891 taking poor children from the grimy, sooty city to the fresh air and sunshine of the seaside to benefit their health. Every year we organise probably the UKs biggest sandcastle competition on South Shields beach where teams of school children assisted by business professionals compete for the coveted Sandcastle Trophy that was awarded on the night. This year's winners were Faithful & Gould and their school team St Mary Magdalene RC, Seaham The trophy remains with Faithful & Gould until next year when the next business winner will be announced. Take a look at dozens of photographs form the Sandcastle competition on our facebook page: www.facebook.com/ChildrenNorthEast

We raised a fantastic £25,600 on the night but for me there was a more important, human story that night:

Callum is 17 years old, he has Cerebral Palsy and Epilepsy, he lives in Newcastle. Callum contacted our Newcastle Youth Link peer mentoring project asking for a peer mentor to help him find voluntary work. He wanted more for himself than just going to college then back home reading comic books and playing video games. Callum was assessed by Karen, our disability specialist at Newcastle Youth Link and given a trained young female peer mentor. Their first goal together was to assist Callum to learn how to use public transport and find his way around Newcastle.

The mentoring relationship was progressing well when Callum was invited to speak at the Sandcastle Summer Party. He came with Karen and his peer mentor and spoke from the heart of his difficulties and experience of Youth Link. Perhaps Callum’s words contributed to the exciting and profitable auction which followed, but most generous and more important were the offers of two voluntary opportunities for Callum that evening. One could not have been more perfect – sorting out donated comic books in the Oxfam charity bookshop.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Normal men and child sexual abuse

Earlier this week I was invited to contribute to a discussion on BBC Radio Newcastle which asked whether men (and to some extent women too) have become so sensitised to the charge of child sexual abuse that they would not help a sick, hurt or distressed child.

The Saville, Harris and Hall cases show how far we have come since the 1970's and 1980's. The legal term 'sexual assault' was not coined until the 1970's and the phrase 'child sexual abuse' became common in the 1980's. Of course that does not mean these things did not happen before then but that was when they began to spoken about publicly.

In the UK it was the Cleveland Child Sexual Abuse Enquiry in 1988 (chaired by Lady Justice Butler-Sloss) that really brought the extent of child sexual abuse to public attention. Since then we have all become much more attuned to the possibility of adult sexual interest in children, for example schools no longer allow parents to take photographs during sports days, swimming galas or school plays.

During the same period fathers have become much more involved in parenting and enjoying caring for their children. For example it is far more common to see men out alone with a baby or toddler and these days almost every male toilet has a baby changing facility. For young men active fatherhood is a welcome and important aspect of their masculinity which they look forward to and relish when the opportunity arrives.

Men must face up to the fact that there is a case to answer. The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women campaign to end violence against women reports that worldwide 50% of all sexual assaults are on women under the age of 16 (New Internationalist, July 2014). But sexual interest in children is abhorrent to all but a tiny minority of men.

David Aaronovitch in an article in The Times earlier this week described how a young girl in primary school was left for hours in soiled clothes after a stomach upset because the teachers would not clean and change her lest they be accused of sexual abuse. How can this possibly be right? It is so obviously wrong not to help a sick, hurt or distressed child.

I was once in a similar situation myself. I asked the child if they would like me to help them and if they would like to be showered down, they agreed so I helped. I found a towel and some clothes and rinsed the soiled ones. Later I explained what had happened to the child's mother, both were very grateful. I am just a normal bloke, I think any other adult would have done the same.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Parent's Needs

Last week I posted a blog titled 'Non-Profit Zone' in which I talked about what actually helps children and young people in need of help. This list comes from the Oakland Parental Stress Service in California in 1976. It may be old but it has timeless relevance for anyone working to help parents in need.

Parent’s Needs (same as children’s needs)
  1. Parents need help to feel good about themselves.
  2. Parents need to be comforted when they are hurt, supported when they feel weak.
  3. Parents need someone they can trust and lean on.
  4. Parents need someone who will put up with their crankiness and complaining.
  5. Parents need someone who will not be tricked into accepting their sense of low worth.
  6. Parents need someone who will not criticise them even when they ask for it, and who will not tell them what to do or how to manage their lives.
  7. Parents need someone who will be there in times of crisis.
  8. Parents need someone who will help them understand their children without making them feel stupid for not having understood in the first place.
  9. Parents need someone who can make them feel valuable and not someone of less value because they had to ask for help.
  10. Parents need someone who can understand how hard it is for them to have dependants when they have never been allowed to be dependent themselves.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Creativity on the beach

Every year Children North East organises probably the biggest sandcastle competition in the UK on the beach at South Shields. Last Friday the rain stayed off until 1,600 children from 45 primary and special schools matched with professionals from the building industry had constructed their designs in the sand.

This year's theme was 'Run, Run, Run' echoing the Great North Run which this year will see the 1,000,000th runner cross the finishing line making it the largest participation sport event in the world. Of course the Great North Run starts in Newcastle but ends by the sea in South Shields.

So how do you  illustrate a run using sand? Well the Red Arrows always fly by at the start of the race and perform at the end. Several teams made giant running shoes but how ingenious to pick out the detail in different colour sand? A guitar with driftwood strings refers to local hero Mark Knopfler Dire Straits lead guitarist who will entertain at the start of this year's race - note the paper runners all round his guitar. Would you have thought of Michael Morpurgo's 'Running Wild' - the story of Oona the elephant sensing and running away from a tsunami before it hits? And of course 'Run, run as fast as you can, you can't catch me I'm the Gingerbread Man!' These were just a few of the children's amazing creations in just one hour.

One of my colleagues who works in schools often remarks how wasteful it is that education excites so few children. As you can see from these few examples their potential is so great. Given the right inspiration and encouragement the younger generation could cure cancer, reverse global warming, ensure we can feed everyone on the planet and journey to the stars. We owe it to them and the future of the human race that they get the chance to.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Non-Profit Zone

Last week we had a short break in Berlin, our first visit to that amazingly vibrant city. Opposite the former Check-point Charlie with it's iconic 'You are now entering the American Sector' notice is this billboard:
At first I thought it was an ironic riposte to global capitalism in keeping with the spirit of street art found everywhere in the city, actually it's supported by the Association of German Charitable Foundations. Just two weeks ago the UK government backed down from a proposal to outsource child protection services under fierce opposition from social work academics and Children England. I share Children England's concern about the 'commodification' of childhood by consumer culture and marketisation of services for children in need. Shouldn't there be areas of life that we agree to keep as 'Non Profit Zones'?

I spent yesterday afternoon at a seminar discussing 'Local Authority commissioning intentions' for children's services. Councils and the NHS are embracing 'Early Intervention' as one solution to their financial problems. It's the old idea that prevention is better than cure so investment in helping families before problems become too entrenched, more difficult and more expensive to change makes financial and ethical sense.

I am uneasy about some of the easy logic here. The motivation to help people is because they need a helping hand, not because it saves money further down the line even though it may be 'a stitch in time'. What is actually being 'commissioned' is our humanity to help another in need. The success of commissioned contracts is usually measured as outcomes set by the commissioner not the person being helped. Your outcome could be fewer children subject to child protection plans, mine might be to enjoy my kids more. I think the children would vote for more good times with Mam and Dad and that is what will make them happier, healthier and more settled in the long run.

As soon as money is introduced into the relationship it is inevitable that questions of price will follow. However price has no relevance to what actually happens between the helper and the helped. The sorts of things that help another person are being with, understanding, showing care, belief, 'sticking with', trust. Remember any time in your life when you were helped and you will know what I mean.

This is especially true for children and why I think that nurturing, teaching and helping children and young people should be a 'Non-Profit Zone'.