Thursday, 3 December 2015

A Big Idea for a North East Powerhouse

VONNE (Voluntary Organisations Network North East) hosted a discussion about devolution in the North East at their AGM last Friday. The speakers (Ed Cox, Lord Shipley, Simon Henig and Sue Jeffrey) reflected on a possible North East Powerhouse. Our local councils seem to think they cannot afford to miss out on the offer of more local decision-making power and some money from Westminster, even though it comes with government's insistence on a locally elected mayor, possibly for the whole region.

One of the speakers suggested the Powerhouse could ensure all north east employers pay the Minimum Wage, but that will be a national requirement by 2020 anyway so what would be the point? Several spoke of the opportunity to join up police, fire and ambulance services into a single 'Blue Light' service but that's unlikely to catch the public imagination. We do have more of a regional identity than other parts of England but is that enough to overcome our local differences?

The trouble seems to be that the idea of a North East Powerhouse is not an exciting one for the electorate and that is a democratic problem in a mayoral election. Politicians would not want a repeat of the Police and Crime Commissioners election when just 15% of people voted.

So here's my big idea to get us all behind a north east Powerhouse - what if we were to make our region the best in the country for children? Just think what that would mean - good quality affordable family homes; flexible, family friendly employment policies; health advice and encouragement for parents so that every baby has the best start in life; support for families with small children in Children's Centres, childcare and community groups; good schools hand-in-hand with employers so that school leavers move into apprenticeships, jobs or college; neighbourhoods where children can play safely; community activities for young people run by good role models.

Businesses bring employment to places where people can have a good way of life, and that is what being the best place in the country for children would produce. The NECC would encourage business to relocate here not only because of our landscape, coast, cities, history, culture and transport links but also because of what we offered for families and how we trained our young people for work. Families would want to move here too and our young people would not feel compelled to move away to find work.

So what about it? The north east - best place in the UK for children!

Friday, 22 May 2015

Staying relevant

Charities don't last as long as Children North East (founded 1891) without adapting to the changing needs of children. Last September we started a thorough review of everything we do by asking our staff what they thought we should be doing. Since then we've examined our strengths and weaknesses, and the opportunities and threats that face us. We have also considered the external environment, done some future gazing and discussed our finances. We have summarised all the discussion in our Strategic Plan for 2015-2019 which has been agreed by our board of trustees and shared with all our staff this week.

Back in 1891 our mission was 'To hold out a helping hand to poor children in Newcastle and Gateshead', as one of the early trustees put it: to give poor children 'a hand up not a hand out'. The aims of the charity have changed many times since then and we have redefined them again in today's language. Our mission now is for all north east children and young people to grow up healthy and happy and we will promote the rights of children and young people.

Children North East has always been a service organisation and will continue to strengthen and empower children, young people in families, in schools and in the community; but we will also improve what other workers and organisations do through training, demonstrating good practice and influencing their policies and practice. We will work in partnership with other organisations who share our aims and values in order to reach as many north east children and young people as possible.

Listening to children and young people and hearing the things that concern them will be at the heart of everything we do and we will find ways to hear as many of them as possible, not only the ones we currently work with. To make sure that children's rights really do drive everything we do, we will adopt the 7 principles of the Unicef Child Rights Partners approach in all our work.

There are some 'wicked issues' facing children and young people in the north east today, for example child poverty, the silent epidemic of mental ill-health, child sexual exploitation, progression from school into work to name just a few. At the same time public services are retreating from serving some needs, for example the emphasis on 'early intervention' (which actually means helping families in the years before children start school) means there is much less help for families of school age children unless they are being abused - just ask any teacher.

I believe this is the time for organisations like Children North East that are independent of public services to step up to the mark and take the lead in serving the needs of todays children and young people.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Eliminating child poverty

So it falls to the new Conservative government to comply with the Child Poverty Act 2010 and ensure the UK abolishes child poverty by 2020. What a wonderful legacy that would be for the Tories at the time of the next general election.

It was New Labour under Tony Blair that in 1999 decided to eradicate child poverty in the UK by 2020 and to halve it by 2010. In 2007 David Cameron committed his party to achieving this ambition saying, 'ending child poverty is central to improving child well-being.' The 2020 target was enshrined in law in 2010.

Between 1999 and 2010 the number of children living in poverty fell by over 1 million to 2.3 million which was the lowest number since the mid 1980s, but was still 600,000 more than the 2010 target.

In July 2012 the former health secretary Alan Milburn and who is now chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission said, 'I don't believe, frankly, that there is a snowball's chance in hell that we will hit the 2020 target.'

According to the Child Poverty Action Group today there are 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK, that's 27% but it can be much higher in some wards, for example in that part of Stockton-On-Tees (where the current 'Benefits Street' programmes were filmed) the figure is 55%. In other parts of the north east such as parts of Middlesbrough and Newcastle it is even higher. (See: North East Child Poverty Commission)

If child poverty continues to rise for the next 5 years at the same rate as during the Coalition, we can expect that by 2020 the number of children living in poverty will be close to 4.7 million, that's higher than the starting point back in 1999.

Growing up in poverty means being cold, going hungry, not being able to join in activities with friends such as swimming lessons, being different and feeling excluded. And it has long lasting effects, children entitled to free school meals (a rule of thumb for measuring poverty) do less well at GCSE than their peers; they leave school with fewer qualifications and earn less over the course of their working life.

Two-thirds of children in poverty are growing up in families where at least one parent is working. So the problem is more about low wages than it is about benefits.

The UK is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, in fact we are due to be inspected on our progress to implement the 54 convention articles later this year. Article 27 says: 'Children have the right to a standard of living that is good enough to meet their physical and mental needs. Governments should help families and guardians who cannot afford to provide this, particularly with regard to food, clothing and housing'. I wonder what the inspectors will say about that.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

In Harmony

Yesterday I was enthralled by a concert given by the Royal Northern Sinfonia and Hawthorn Primary School, a collaboration facilitated by Sage Gateshead called In Harmony. From the first moment of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings which made the hair on my neck stand up; through Year 5 strings; the wind band, brass band to everyone performing part of 'A Tuba Train' specially written by Stephen Deazley from an idea by Year 6, the concert thrilled the audience of proud parents.

For the last three years every child starting Hawthorn Primary school in Elswick has been given a classical musical instrument and the whole school has been learning to play together alongside professional Royal Northern Sinfonia musicians. Headteacher Judy Cowgill explained excitedly that it gives the children 'experiences they would never otherwise have'.

As well as Newcastle, there are In Harmony projects in deprived areas of 4 other English cities all jointly funded by the Department for Education and Arts Council England. In Harmony seeks to transform the lives of children, young people and their communities through the power of music making.

You could see that happening before your eyes. Boys and girls of all races and faiths making music together listened to by their parents. So much to be proud of, so much to talk about at home and in the neighbourhood, so many new experiences for adults as well as children, admiration and encouragement from parents and teachers alike.

Such a wonderful idea and such a crazy idea - 'let's give a quality musical instrument to every child in a primary school in a deprived part of the city, teach them to play together and get a professional orchestra to play alongside them.' It takes passion and vision to turn a mad idea like that into a reality that works.

The founders of Children North East had a crazy idea - 'let's take a couple of hundred children from the poorest parts of town to the seaside for a day; and let's do it for different children every week during the spring, summer and autumn every year so they get healthier from the fresh air and sunshine.' With the benefit of hindsight its common sense, but at the time some would have thought it madness, ridiculous, impossible. Yet it happened every year from 1891 to the 1930s.

We need crazy ideas in the north east today. Crazy ideas for employment, for housing, for food, for the environment, for children, for young people, for families, for neighbourhoods, for society, for the joy of living.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Under the line

One of my work colleagues has been living on £1 a day for all food and drink for 5 days. She is taking part in 'Live Below the Line' a global challenge to show solidarity with people in extreme poverty, raise money to eliminate global poverty and experience what life is like for people on very low incomes.

She had to plan how to spend her £5 very carefully checking what she could and could not afford to buy. She didn't allow herself to use her store cupboard except for salt and spices. Normally she eats a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables, these were immediately unaffordable, instead she bought a bag of diced frozen vegetables. She found that tinned potatoes were a cheap alternative to fresh. She also bought a bag of cheap teabags but milk was too expensive so she drank it black. She has found it an eye opening experience and very boring so is looking forward to return to normal after 5 days.

The Trussell Trust Newcastle West End food bank is now the largest in the country, since 2009 demand has increased 8,000% so it now distributes 4 tons of food every week. Everyone receiving food has been referred by a care professional such as doctors, health visitors, social workers, Citizens Advice Bureau staff, welfare officers, the police and probation officers who issue people in crisis a food bank voucher. Clients bring their voucher to the food bank where it can be exchanged for three days supply of emergency food. Food parcels have been designed by dieticians to provide recipients with nutritionally balanced food.

It is very hard to imagine why people would not prioritise buying food. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty, chaired by Frank Field found that the answer is simple. If you have limited income you will pay your rent first because otherwise you will be evicted. You will pay for gas and electricity otherwise they will be cut off. If your children are entitled to free school meals you know they will get one meal a day during the school day, families Children North East know will prepare one meal a day at teatime. During the school holidays they prioritise food for the children and the parents live on leftovers or go without.

Friday, 24 April 2015


Last Wednesday evening Children North East thanked and celebrated our 243 volunteers for the 8,500 hours they have given this year.

The writer Ivan Scheier defined volunteering from the point of view of the volunteer:

'Volunteering is doing more than you have to, because you want to, in a cause you consider good.'

We tend to think of volunteering as something organised, managed by voluntary organisations. United Nations Volunteers rejects any criteria limiting volunteering and says ‘Most empirical studies are concerned with volunteering undertaken in the context of formal organisations. However, focusing only on this aspect of volunteerism overlooks a large amount of volunteer action. Our definition is broader. It includes many acts of volunteerism that take place outside a formal context.’ (United Nations Volunteers, 2011).

So if you ask people if they 'gave or donated their time to the community, unpaid' (as did research in Australia) they found over 80% replied 'yes'. An example of such volunteering might be helping an elderly neighbour. This is the 'social economy' which would also include unpaid caring work in the family. Other names for it might be 'community', 'society' or 'the common good'.

It is tempting to place a monetary value on volunteering, for example if each hour was paid at the minimum wage, but that is economic thinking rather than social good thinking. The latter means honouring the relationships made between people who volunteer and the people they help; the positive feelings of being useful and being valued; the lessons that both learn about themselves and other people; of life satisfaction and general happiness.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Teenagers are citizens too

This week I've signed an open letter to broadcasters to ask politicians what they will do for children in care in the forthcoming leader's debates. The letter is part of Children England's #ChildrenAtHeart campaign to ensure political parties consider the needs of children in their policies.  I've written before that children are citizens, but its worth repeating. Just because they don't have the vote doesn't mean they aren't important.

The sign of civilised society is one that protects and supports the vulnerable. Children are vulnerable because they are powerless - they don't have political or economic power; and are therefore dependent on the rest of us. The letter is about children in care because they are the most vulnerable of all children and actually the state has more responsibility for them as 'Corporate Parent' having total responsibility for them while they are in care.

Kathy Evans, Chief Executive at Children England recently wrote a wonderful piece in Children and Young People Now magazine reminding us of the hysterical rejection of young people during the first decade of this century - anyone in a 'hoodie' was feared and despised. Of course it's not new that young people in the teenage years have perplexed adults but some public attitudes towards young people would not be tolerated if expressed towards say women, disabled people or racial groups.

Sarah Jayne Blakemore is professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London. She explains how new brain imaging techniques have made us realise the huge, fundamental changes that take place in human brains between puberty and the mid 20's. Changes and growth as dramatic as happens in the brains of babies and toddlers.

Current public policy is to concentrate resources to children and parents in the 'early years' i.e. pregnancy, babies and children up to age 4. The argument being that investment at that stage of life has good long term benefits. This is true, but Professor Blakemore's research suggests an equally strong case for youth services, secondary education (and probably parents of teenagers too). This is particularly important today when council support for youth services has all but disappeared in many local authorities.

I wish that politicians would take note of the growing body of knowledge about young people's brains in formulating policy for this important group of young citizens.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Investors in People

People are sometimes surprised that children's charities are not inspected. A few of the things we do are inspected by Ofsted; in common with all charities we are regulated by the Charity Commission which means we have to file our annual report and accounts with them; and as a registered business we also have to file our annual accounts with Companies House. Apart from that we are free and independent. However in a competitive world it can be hard to know how we compare to other organisations so things like Investors in People, Investors in Volunteers, CHAS etc. are really important ways for us to ensure we are up to the mark.

This week we received the report of our Investors in People re-assessment which spoke of a 'positive assessment process'; Children North East being 'impressive in many areas' having a 'strong golden thread from mission and purpose to objectives' and 'outcomes supported by a strong business planning process which includes, staff, managers and trustees'. The assessors interviewed 29 people, including some volunteers to reach these conclusions. We employ about 60 staff so it was a large sample.

Last year we changed the organisational structure of Children North East mainly because project staff wanted to collaborate more but the former structure of the organisation put obstacles in the way of that happening easily. So I was reassured the IIP found support for the changes from staff at all levels - 'people felt empowered to put forward ideas, develop solutions and collaborate'. Middle managers in particular said the changes were correct and understood why they had been necessary.

So, very encouraging feedback from an impartial, external source and Children North East has 'comfortably met the standard' for the Investors in People award for a further 3 years.

Friday, 6 March 2015


It's too easy for politicians to ignore children because they don't vote, but children are as much citizens as adults. In fact children need and deserve the attention of the powerful because they have no power themselves. Children England, the representative body for charities and voluntary organisations of all sizes working with children, young people and families believes it’s time to tell politicians that children can’t be ignored in anyone’s plans this year. We all have a childhood, and all children should be at the heart of plans for the future.
Children at Heart is an umbrella campaign organised by Children England for everyone who cares about children. Children England's members like Children North East have contributed to a manifesto but the campaign is much broader than a list of suggestions. The strength of social media enables anyone to connect with and contribute to this simple reminder to put the welfare of all children at the heart of politicians and voters intentions during the coming months and the next government.
My top priority in the campaign is that all parents should be paid the Living Wage. With two thirds of poor children growing up in families where at least one parent is in work, paying them the Living Wage would make a big difference to the lives of all those children. But I'd also like to see the next government commit all new policies to a 'Family Test' that assesses the impact of any initiative on family income, stability and wellbeing.
There is another meaning to the phrase 'children at heart' which reminds us that we have all been children, we know what being a child is like. Let's stay close to the unique perspective that children bring and try to be a bit more like 'children at heart' ourselves.
With that in mind, and it being World Book Day yesterday here is the Storyteller's Creed:

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge.
That myth is more potent than history.
That dreams are more powerful than facts.
That hope always triumphs over experience.
That laughter is the only cure for grief.
And I believe that love is stronger than death.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Families United

Last Friday I spent the day 'on the shop floor' with some of our families and parenting staff at the end of an intensive course of work with several families - parents and young people. We call the course 'Families United' and it runs every day for a whole week during school holidays. The whole family is invited to come along. In the morning session the parents meet in one room while the children are in another room. At lunchtime everyone joins together with the staff for sandwiches followed by fun activities for the families all together in the afternoon.

The morning sessions for parents include some teaching for example about brain development of children, what children and young people need from their family to grow up well and parenting skills but also time to share and reflect on their experiences of growing up, how they learnt about parenting, what it means to them to be a parent, what they feel about their children and so on. If you've ever been on an intensive training week (on any subject) you will know that they can be a very powerful experience.

Meanwhile the children are engaged in creative activities with staff while talking about similar topics. Being so closely involved with the families, the staff can encourage parents and children to try out new ways of relating to each other and to praise attempts to be different. At the end of each day the staff have a debriefing sharing observations and understandings of children and parents so that everyone can encourage and reinforce changed behaviours.

Last Friday was the final day so I was privileged to sit in on the final sessions and hear parents share the things they had learned that they intend to keep going. At lunch it was evident that relationships between some family members had begun to heal during the week. After lunch the staff gave everyone a gift as well as framed photographs taken during the week and certificates to congratulate everyone on completing the week.

One thing which struck me was the importance of respect in family life. Families are held together by very strong attachments and children rely absolutely on their parent(s) for survival until they are old enough to fend for themselves. Yet we cannot take those ties for granted, it is too easy to verbally abuse and continually put down those closest to us just because they are there. Civility and mutual respect are the oil that enables families to meet the needs of everyone in the family, which is after all what families are for.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Decent jobs

On Friday I was interviewed by journalist Tom Esslemont for BBC Radio 4 news about poverty in the north east. The point made by everyone he spoke to was that there are not enough full-time, well-paid, long-term jobs in the north east. Today the front page of The Journal picked up on the same theme. The Trussell Trust (which runs Food Banks) reports that 22% of those seeking help this year were referred because of 'low income' meaning people in jobs and that this is up 6% on the previous year.

To illustrate the point, over the weekend I found out that the retail chain Next recently changed the employment contracts of pretty much all their shop staff to just 13 hours a week apparently to reduce the amount they have to pay for national insurance. Staff who have mortgages, families, childcare costs, financial commitments and could formerly rely on a set number of hours work each week were suddenly and arbitrarily reduced to 13 hour contracts worked over 3 days each week. I am sure Next would say that staff can increase the number of hours they work to suit themselves by exchanging shifts - a system operated online. But the demand for extra hours is so great, shifts are snapped up in seconds.

I heard too that Top Shop only employ staff aged under 18 so that they only have to pay £3.79 an hour Minimum Wage instead of £5.13 for those age 18 to 20 or £6.50 for those age over 21. The Minimum Wage is the minimum employers can legally pay; the Living Wage Foundation recommend the minimum should be £7.85 an hour outside London.

At what point did it become acceptable for any employer to have such limited regard for the legitimate needs of their employees? Mahatma Gandhi listed 'Commerce without morality' amongst his 7 deadly sins:
The seven deadly sins
Mahatma Gandhi
Wealth without work,
Pleasure without conscience,
Knowledge without character,
Commerce without morality,
Science without humanity,
Worship without sacrifice, and
Politics without principle.

And in 'The Wealth of Nations' (1776) Adam Smith identified five moral problems created by capitalism: impoverishing the spirit of the workers, creating cities in which anonymity will facilitate price-fixing, expanding the ranks of the rich who lack virtue, inducing government to create monopolies and privileges, and separating ownership and management in ways that lead to what we now call agency problems.

Fortunately not all retailers are behaving like 19th century mill owners; I did also hear about cosmetic shop Lush who do pay their staff the Living Wage rate.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The art of helping

I have been re-reading a wonderful book called 'Zen in the Art of Helping' written by David Brandon, published in 1976. Everyone has at some point been both a helper and been helped. We know what good helping is like and we can also tell when some well intentioned person is actually hindering rather than helping us. Brandon's essential point is that the best kind of helper is someone who is wholly present for you - not distracted by other concerns, not needing something from you, not simply following a procedure but willing to enter into your world and try to understand it with you.

David Brandon was a mental health social worker and social work teacher. He was writing shortly after the creation of local authority Social Services Departments (in 1972) when it seemed possible that social work could transform society. He would not recognise the sort of social work practised in local authorities today. Each person in need is processed to 'assess' their need or the 'risk of harm' they present to themselves and others; decide whether or not their circumstances meet the 'threshold' for 'intervention' and if so, 'allocate' a 'package' of support. Bureaucracy replaces the human, helping relationship. The best that can be said for it is it protects the worker and attempts to impose fair treatment for each service user.

Tolstoy wrote the story of an Emperor who wishes to know three things:

What is the best time to do each thing?
Who are the most important people to work with?
What is the most important thing to do?

The sages and philosophers are unable to answer these questions satisfactorily so the Emperor himself goes to visit a hermit in the mountains. The hermit does not answer his questions but in the course of events the Emperor comes to understand these answers:

The most important person to work with is the one in front of you.
The most important thing to do is to make them happy.
And the best time is now.

How do you do that? Well, the psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom said 'It's the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals.' Which brings us right back to being wholly present for the person in need.

The voluntary sector does not have a monopoly on good helping but it is common in our sector. It is precious and we must not take it for granted. Pressures of money and time could easily extinguish it and we would end up no better than the public services. As voluntary sector managers we must ensure that we protect and enhance the conditions that enable good helping to bloom.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Time to talk day

Today we are all asked to have a 5 minute conversation about mental health. It's a campaign to make everyone more aware of mental illness.

It got me thinking about people in my own circle who have or have had mental illness. I was surprised how many people there are and the variety of difficulties they have encountered: clinical depression, anorexia, suicidal thoughts, self harm, psychosis, dementia. It seems like a lot and I don't think my circle of friends, relatives and acquaintances are unusual.

Fortunately all have recovered or at least coped through the care of family and friends, clinical care and the passage of time. But I don't remember it being easy for any of them to talk about it either at the time or since.

Why is there a barrier to discussing mental health? Is it stigma, fear or shame?   Feelings that would be absent for many (but not all) physical health conditions.

The Children North East 'BU' mental health and wellbeing project has produced this short video 'Beneath the Mask' which has a simple message about the stigma of mental illness - always do the friendliest thing. The video makes clear that does not have to be talking, it can be as simple as being attentive and respectful.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

People's Postcode Lottery

Last week I attended the annual People's Postcode Lottery charity gala in Edinburgh along with Chief Executives of the 50+ charities supported by People's Postcode Lottery. It was a glittering affair celebrating a massive increase in the number of People's Postcode Lottery players in the UK during 2014 and the £68.6 million raised for good causes across Great Britain and internationally.

Last December it was reported that together with its sister lotteries in The Netherlands and Sweden the group is the third largest donor in the world after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust. Postcode Lotteries have given £430.3 million to good causes since being founded in 1989.

Here in the north east last Saturday players of People’s Postcode Lottery in Whitley Bay celebrated a £2 million win shared between them. Children North East is fortunate to be supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, our congratulations and grateful thanks to the lucky winners.

By comparison the UK National Lottery has raised £32 billion for good causes since it was founded in 1994. Charities can apply to the National Lottery for grants for specific work, but the application process is time consuming, highly competitive and there is no guarantee of success. If the application is successful the grant is ‘restricted’ meaning it can only be spent on the purpose for which it was given. Restricted grants are time limited and it is increasingly difficult for charities to secure money to continue to fund useful, successful projects long term once the grant comes to an end.

Unlike the National Lottery, money given to charities by People’s Postcode Lottery is ‘unrestricted income’ meaning that the charity can decide how to spend the money. Unrestricted income from local fundraising, gifts or People’s Postcode Lottery enables charities such as Children North East to continue to provide services to local children and young people in need.

At the gala People's Postcode Lottery surprised everyone by announcing an extra £25,000 for every supported charity, I was stunned and delighted. This is very good news when the need for our work is constantly growing.