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.