Tag Archives: Cuts

Politics is not welcome in the nursery

I write this blog with a sense of anger and despair. Even playing Verdi very loudly and a glass of wine could not quell my alarm.  Why such gloom?  Our Minister Elizabeth Truss has decided to continue with her ill-considered plan to reduce ratios (click here to read the Minister’s speech today at the Policy Exchange in full).  I am not alone in my gloom if the responses from the sector on Linkedin and Twitter are anything to go by. The comments made by the Minister in the Sunday Times and the Telegraph, where she says she has a mandate to change the ratios, makes my blood boil. What mandate?  No one I know has anything but derision for this idea.

She has hardly visited nurseries, ignored all our advice, clearly has never read any research and did a flying visit to France to check two nurseries there and, on this basis it would seem, has decided to reduce the ratios from one adult with four two year olds to one adult with six two year olds. I also understand she will make a similar recommendation for ratios in baby rooms increasing to one adult with four babies.

Her premise is that we can use the reduced cost by cramming an extra two children to every staff member to either pay for a more qualified staff member or reduce the cost to parents. This fails on a number of counts:

  1. The qualification of a staff member has no relevance when you are alone with six two year olds. Qualified or not, little toddlers need hips and laps and lots of love and adult attention.
  2. The reduced staff costs will be increased by agency staff as the permanent staff drop like flies from stress and exhaustion.
  3. Parents will not be happy to find that they have to sign up to higher ratios with more risk to their children for a chance of a very limited fee reduction.
  4. Two tiers of provision may result where better organised nurseries achieving economies of scale may be able to keep ratios higher with poorer nurseries being forced to reduce ratios and decrease the quality of care. I fear poorer children will lose out.
  5. Risk of accidents will increase. What will we do, ban all interesting creative activities and tie them into chairs?

And then a number of further questions come to mind:

  • How will we change nappies and spend time on this intimate activity, talking to the child or enjoying a little singing game when we are trying to keep our eyes in the back of our heads to make sure 5 other toddlers are safe?
  • How will we balance the learning needs of all six toddlers and plan for each of them?  We are being forced to operate a mass approach to childcare causing us as practitioners to fail children and parents in our mandate to provide inspiring, creative and high quality early years education.
  • Has the Minister any idea as to the number of two year olds coming through the Two Year Old Programme that have language and behavioural issues and need additional care and attention?
  • How will we spend any time at all with parents? How will we meet the EYFS requirements?  Ofsted will surely see a decrease in standards.

I could go on and on (luckily I won’t!).  Toddlers aged two years are very different from those aged two and a half or those nearly three.  They need different activities and experiences.  They cannot be put in a classroom and taught.  They need a personal touch, lots of negotiation, high levels of communication and engagement, fun activities indoors and outside. We have a raft of research going back as far as Froebel which identifies the importance of childhood and what works best for our small children. Our longitudinal studies are examples of best practice valued the world over.

Ironically Mr Gove, Mrs Truss’ boss, is trying to reverse some of the political policies which have damaged a previous generation of young adults. I suggest he now make a forensic examination of what his junior Minister is advocating against all advice.  Otherwise he will have presided over a similar legacy as the one he is currently addressing. Except this time it will be of his making.

Remember the words of Graham Green in The Power and the Glory:

There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.

Mr Mayor, please take an interest in the childcare sector and build a London fit for the next generation

When I started working with children many many years ago, I never envisaged talking about children and the economy in the same breath. These days, I never give it a second thought.

As part of their broader London childcare project, the Daycare Trust provides an annual review of the capital’s providers; and while no one review can ever be perfect, it does capture a fair snapshot of the sector’s current state of play.

Of course, there’s no doubting London is an expensive place to live, work and do business – with its own peculiar issues that are not always easy to generalize.  Our great capital is made up of a series of villages woven together by the larger global village, and the challenge is making these two dynamics work in a way that allows for successful local economies and an overall successful city.

The survey represents 803 provider settings in London, providing a minimum of 15,275 full-time equivalent places across the private, voluntary and independent sectors (with the private sector providing the most places). So what did the sector say? Well unsurprisingly, the biggest worry is staying in business.

  • 52% said they were fearful that parents cannot afford the fees
  • 47% said they were hit by local authority cuts
  • 33% are still worried about the level of free entitlement funding for 3 & 4 year-olds
  • 31% are concerned about staff recruitment, pay and retention
  • 29% are worried about falling occupancy rates

In all, the sector is worried. But really, it’s the politicians that should be more worried. The economy first of all needs people to work, so they can earn a living and then spend it, helping to flow money through the economy and create new wealth. Having good, affordable childcare is a critical element in helping to make this happen.  Women have been hit particularly hard in this recession, so we need to do all we can to ensure they can work (especially as so many families depend on their vital contribution; the days of pin money are long gone and in many cases women are now the main breadwinners).

And why should we prevent women – who have studied and trained, and then built up a career – from working and making such a valuable contribution? We know the negative effects poverty has on children, families and society. Back in March, we complained that the Budget had done nothing to help parents with the spiralling cost of childcare, that George Osborne had missed a real opportunity to return the childcare element to its previous level and so help parents remain in sustainable employment.

So the sector has now asked the Mayor to step in, and step up to this economic challenge.  We want to see his true colours; and if he can show his central Government colleagues a thing or two about how to lead.  We know he can stick his neck out when things matter to him: he is keen on an estuary airport; he got very excited by Anish Kapoor’s embattled Orbit, the 120 metre public art sculpture at the Olympic Village; and he went head to head with Mr. Cameron on the Euro.

So Mr. Boris Mayor, please shake those famous tousled locks of yours and start with the following:

  • Lobby the Government to bring maximum childcare tax credits for low income families back to 80% [HMRC Child and Working Tax Credit Statistics April 2011]
  • Promote family friendly practice and childcare vouchers amongst all London employers
  • Include the Early Years in your current education inquiry

In his own words:

The strength of a city lies in its people – from the famous, the infamous to the heroically obscure. From an earlier Mayor of London, Dick Whittington to the tireless volunteers working to turn around London’s next generation. All whose endeavours have built the place we call home, I salute.

Boris Johnson.

Now do something that will help build a London fit for the next generation. Take an interest in childcare.

Getting down to business: survival tactics for any good social enterprise

It’s always interesting to meet television journalists up close and personal – and that’s exactly what I did on Wednesday, when LEYF Chair of Trustees, Tim Willis and I went to an Acevo Leaders to Leaders lunch.  Robert Peston, Business Editor at BBC was the speaking guest, and I had booked the lunch some time ago, as I had got used to using the Peston daily bulletin to keep me appraised of the unfolding economic drama back in 2008, and I was keen to hear his latest economic analysis, along with his take on the way out of the mess.

Once there, it very quickly became clear how Peston lives and breathes business economics. It was like being locked in a room with an Early Years obsessive!  He pontificated on the 20 years of unprecedented recorded growth, the lending and borrowing boom and its abrupt end in 2007/08, the shrinking bank balance then replaced by a huge growth in the public sector balance sheet.  He described this as the biggest event in his career, one that catapulted him into the limelight; a place he seems eminently comfortable in.

I was very keen to hear his economic predictions.  He started by telling us a lot of what we all know too well: Economics is not a good science and we have to look to history for some guidance; and globalisation creates global problems, but we have national governments, so it is hard to find a balanced way to either respond or influence. In effect there is no quick way out of this.

He continued to predict a less optimistic growth rate than Mr Osborne‘s anticipated 2-3%, suggesting reality is more likely to be nearer 1%.  He reminded us that debt is still 180% ratio to disposable income, whilst the big cost of the bank bailout debt equated to £5000 for every person on the planet.  The most horrible fact was that despite all the cuts, repayment is making little more than a tiny chink in the debt. The reality of economics is that we won’t know if Osborne is doing the right thing until it’s too late.

So his survival tactics were:

  • Read his blog (but only after you read mine first!)
  • Know your own market
  • Know your industry in astonishing detail
  • Find ways to mitigate inflation, the increase in food and utility costs and unemployment
  • Teach people about managing their money as surprisingly few people understand how money works (a fact borne out by a conversation with the Finance Team at LEYF who noticed the same)

The lunch concluded with Preston advising us to re-think our approach; getting smarter and more efficient, whilst supporting the private sector to develop more jobs.
So that means we continue pushing staff to grow occupancy and collect fees on time, we increase the introduction to finance that our CRLD team has introduced for our apprentices, and we take more apprentices to help them into work.  We will also push for a project with A4E to support parents in managing their money and limit the risk of debt.

It was a useful lunch and one which reaffirmed the need to develop, implement and insist on business practices designed to reduce reckless financial behaviour at every level; if left unchecked, this simply puts everything and everyone at risk of disaster.

At LEYF, our core business is delivering daycare for 1500 children each year in our 21 community nurseries; but our core business approach must be working to secure these; and financial rigour is right at the very heart of it.

Child poverty: will this new strategy finally make progress stick?

This weekend, I spent some time helping my sister (also in Early Years!) go through her old teaching resources in readiness to move them into a new space.  Amongst the many gems we unearthed was a copy of Nursery World from May 2002.

Leafing through this random issue, I was reminded of Bill Murray in that classic film, Groundhog Day, as I discovered quite how shockingly familiar the stories in there really were: Liz Robert’s editorial was all about the delays to getting CRB checks done and the implication for nursery businesses; there was a report called Bitter Sweet which was raising concern about obesity in children;  Coram had just been funded to examine quality in childcare from a European perspective, Care work: Current Understandings and Future Directions;  the Daycare Trust was sharing the key messages from its report Raising Expectations – Delivering Childcare for All , which identified low morale among childcare staff  because of low pay and their inability to increase their salaries due to difficult access to good quality qualifications.  There was also a quote from Stephen Burke, then director of the Daycare Trust on the national childcare strategy which was as pertinent today as in 2002.

We need a rejuvenated national childcare strategy.  Without a radical rethink and substantial investment the Government won’t be able to fulfil its ambitions not just to deliver childcare for all but to end child poverty.  The pace pf change is too slow and in some cases is invisible to parents”.

Stephen Burke, Nursery World, 2002 (23rd May, p5)

This week Nursery World reported on the Doing Better for Families report, produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which compared family well-being in 30 countries.  The report noted that child poverty in the UK fell from 17.4% to 10.5% between 1995 and 2005, more than in any other country.  However, the report also confirmed that progress on reducing child poverty had stalled and was at risk of rising.

So is there an easy solution to avoiding opening our copies of Nursery World in May 2020, only to discover that in ten years not much has changed once again?  We are not short of reports and research about what seems to be needed; still we seem unable, paralysed even, to implement what needs to happen if we are to see changes made that will not only last a long time, but also and more significantly make a real difference to children, families, their communities and our society as a whole.

Let’s focus on child poverty for a moment:  why can’t we write on one side of an A4 page what Early Years policy decisions and services caused the drop in child poverty?  Were Early Years policies irrelevant, with the drop in child poverty simply down to other more critical factors such as an economic shift and different fiscal policies?  Do we not have the wherewithal to work some of this out and at least try and summarise what is needed to reduce child poverty once and for all?  If not, we will only continue to shoot in the dark; wasting money, failing children and spending our time kidding ourselves that everything is fine and that the emperor really is wearing a suit of gold.  As a civilised country, we cannot allow child poverty to continue to be such a disgraceful blot on our landscape; beautiful in so many other ways.

Last week, I looked at the organisation Action for Happinesswhich warned us that consumerism and individualisation will not make us happy. Neither will keeping high levels of child poverty.  The link between wellbeing and inequality was also highlighted in a most interesting book called The State of Happiness by the Young Foundation (N, Bacon, M. Brophy, N, Mguni, G. Mulgan and A. Shandro, 2010).  In the last chapter, they ask whether public policy can shape people’s wellbeing and resilience, with the following conclusion:

There is as yet no straightforward menu of policies to improve wellbeing.  Advances in behavioural economies and psychology have improved understanding of this territory.  But specific policy knowledge is limited.  There are many promising ideas and approaches but little certainty that a particular set of actions will deliver particular results.”

The State of Happiness, 2010 (p86)

This could be the same issue facing child poverty: maybe we don’t know enough to solve the problem immediately.  So, what options do we have?  Remain complacent and accepting or respond to Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, who told this week’s Nursery World that…

…rather than having a top down approach to delivering support for children in the Early Years , we need to work in partnership , not with local government, but with those in the voluntary and charitable sector.”

Michael Gove, Nursery World, 2011 (5th May, pg 4)

It’s a fair point and one we need to act upon.  The sector must come together and agree what we need to do if we are to play a real part in helping reduce child poverty.  There are enough reports out there we can refer to – including the Department for Education’s own, launched in April by Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP – along with their recent investment in a strategic partner, charged with bringing the sector together to solve problems and celebrate successes.

From my side, I will be speaking at a national policy conference this Wednesday, so welcome any comments or questions you’d like me to raise on the day.  To get you thinking, just ask yourself:  do you really want to be reading Nursery World in 2020 about the challenges we still face in getting to grips once and for all with child poverty?

Is happiness the greatest gift we can give our children?

This weekend the TV presenters continually referred to the joy and happiness created by the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.  Images of laughing people enjoying street parties, smiling at cameras and looking the epitome of happy, connected and positive citizens dominated our TVs.

Why then do we need Action for Happiness, a new organisation set up by Professor Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan and Dr. Anthony Seldon to challenge the level of unhappiness in the UK, which despite our material comfort is much higher than 50 years ago?  They want us to focus on what really makes us happy: healthy relationships and meaningful activities, such as lifelong learning and doing things for others; they want us to reject the dominant culture of materialism and self-obsessed individualism.

I suspect Action for Happiness likes Royal Wedding street parties, however sadly infrequent they may be to make much difference in the long term.  What they appear to be more concerned with is the more enduring negative impact of our predilection for regular reality programmes, such as The Only Way isEssex, which although parody materialism and self- obsession also retain a sneaking admiration for both.  This particular programme amounts to one hour each week of amusing but vacuous discussion about the key challenges in life: seemingly hair extensions, nails, Botox and men telling women to be serious and “none of your lipstick and nails talk”.  It does not take long to realise that Action for Happiness has its work cut out.

Many years ago (1993), Professor Richard Layard gave the Annual Margaret Horn Lecture here at LEYF on the economic value of happiness.  As always, it was a thought-provoking lecture, at the end of which I tentatively asked whether we should measure the happiness of children, which to me is the real acid test of a happy society.  Some years later, in 2009, Professor Layard produced a report called A Good Childhood, commissioned by the Children’s Society and penned together with Judy Dunn. They noted that children in the UK enjoy good health and can look forward to long lives; they have foreign holidays and a wealth of consumer goods; 90% of children over 11 have their own mobile phone, whilst 80% of 5-16 year olds have their own television.  However, despite the level of material goods available to them, children were on the whole more stressed, more violent and less happy than their peers of the seventies or eighties.  They concluded that children did not thrive in a  consumer culture that promotes ‘excessive individualism’, and in effect children would only truly succeed in a society where people care for each other, promoting each other’s good as well as their own.

When David Cameron became Conservative leader in 2005, he said gauging people’s feelings was one of the central political issues of our time; his mantra was happiness, happiness, happiness.  In fact, this is now to be examined as part of the annual Office for National Statistics nationwide Integrated Household Survey.

But what will it tell us about happiness?  Will materialism be an issue in this age of austerity? Will self obsession be the type commonly associated with depression and despair?  Or will we find an increased level of happiness as people begin to rely more on each other and their own abilities and get a kick out of that?  Either way, happiness is squarely on the agenda – and probably a more important issue for the UK right now than a referendum on AV, especially for children.

So what do we know: the UK was last in the UNESCO Well Being report; A Good Childhood told us that our children are miserable and we need to think about them more.  We have a Social Mobility strategy to address key issues such as increasing child poverty, a widening gap between rich and poor, expensive childcare and Children Centres under threat.  Do we need to hear any more?  Probably not.

What we do need is to finally put children at the heart of Government policies.  The decisions we make today have to be the basis for creating happiness, not for us but for all of our children.  We don’t need any more reports or strategies; we just need to put the child’s voice at the centre and then amplify it, until it rings in our ears and we are forced to listen properly and finally act accordingly.  Nelson Mandela summed it up perfectly when he said:

There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

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No half measures when it comes to social impact

There is much talk at the moment about the importance of measurement, including a reference to it in many of the speeches I listened to during the TUC march through London against public spending cuts on Saturday (itself a very uplifting and peaceful process which took me back to the marches of the 80s).  The fact is there has always been talk of how we measure the difference we can make, only over the years it was sunk in a pond full of targets.

So, I am pleased to now hear ‘why we need to know if we make a difference’; the only trouble this time around is that much of what is being said is poppycock, and expressed by people who have been on a course – or worse still, now think they are the experts!  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially since in the wrong hands measurement will be misused and become either a financial measurement of success or a target in a commission. In fact measurement used wisely is neither of those things.

We have already seen how confusion over the concept of measuring impact has led many children centres to collect data that has often been neither appropriate, relevant nor actually helped tell the story of the real difference their centre was genuinely making.  In such cases, those concerned simply failed to understand the distinction between input, outputs, outcomes and impact.

Nowadays, we also hear a lot about payment by results which essentially means that a proportion of the payment, from central or local government to providers, is dependent on achieving specified results – for example, a reduction in reconvictions among young offenders.  Elsewhere, Graham Allen and his team have introduced us to the concept of creating funds to develop services using Social Impact Bonds (SIB).  SIBs are designed to secure upfront investment from non-government sources, such as charitable foundations and private individuals, and could offer a real chance to invest in early intervention services.  Investors will then receive their returns from the government once the specified, measured outcomes have been achieved; what’s more, such defined improvements to the service ultimately lead to savings from the public purse.

At LEYF we have spent the last year finding a way of measuring our social return on investment. Social return on investment (SROI) is an approach that aims to capture the social and environmental benefits of a service. The process involves talking with stakeholders to identify what social value means to them; finding appropriate indicators of change taking place and comparing the financial value of the social change created to the financial cost of producing these changes. An SROI ratio is a comparison between the value being generated by the impact of an intervention, and the investment required to achieve that impact.

In our case, we essentially wanted to know what everyone was getting from choosing to use, work or train in a LEYF nursery; it was a laborious but interesting process. The data gathered was used to track the progress of the children, staff members and our apprentices, measuring the outcomes, whether we made a difference and by what amount, before finally benchmarking this against meaningful proxies such as a national average for similar services.  It has involved talking to many, many people – including seeking their opinion on the very measures to adopt.  What we learned from this was that achieving meaningful measurement is far from simple if you want to produce helpful and relevant results.

Over the past few months, I have been talking with and presenting to local authority commissioners about how they might most effectively invest their limited funds in supporting childcare. They struck me as people who genuinely want to get a good service for their clients but are stymied by lack of funds, European rules, lack of direction from their ‘betters’ and uncertainties as to which service will provide the best option. Measurement seems to be the final straw for them, as they try and find solutions to many of the most intractable social ills.

However, there is a wealth of information available and lots of ideas of different ways to commission for better outcomes. We know about the best length of a contract (minimum 5 years), the importance of forming relationships with commissioners, keeping monitoring sharp, focused and helpful, sorting TUPE, dealing with the legal team and the many other issues commissioners and providers have to iron out.  Surely then, this must be the perfect time to pull all these ideas into a coherent whole and move forward?

What’s needed now is a consortia or network based on the principle of Early Intervention; it would bring together providers, commissioners and investors to explore how we might firstly devise a financial vehicle to invest and fund new initiatives and secondly develop a set of plans, ideas and tools to help us measure the results.  Without such a three-way conversation, such a co-ordinated and collaborative approach, we will continue to talk about this complicated, abstract concept in our own little silos with little progress, much confusion and some awful policy decisions the only outcomes.  In the meantime, we will be inundated with toolkits, which will be neatly placed on a shelf and forgotten about.

Right now, what we really need is to be as connected to others as possible.  If nothing else, for starters this would bring the conversation about measurement, outcomes, social investment, payment by results and social return out of the darkness and into the light. Perhaps it is something our new strategic partners at the DfE can develop?

As always, please send me your comments below and continue this conversation with friends and colleagues via email and your favourite social networks.  Where the future of this debate is concerned, I look forward to your personal inputs..!

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Big society grants: plus ça change…

I have learned that if I am to truly avoid all contact with the world of work, then I need to go abroad without a phone or internet access.  To this end, I recently spent a lovely few days immersed in the renaissance art of Florence.

On my return came the announcement that the Department of Education had allocated £60m of hard earned tax payers’ money to over 100 so-called voluntary and community organisations. The serenity of the Botticellis soon evaporated into a sort of Sir Henry Taylor level of gall and indignation – as his saying ‘where there are large powers with little ambition, nature may be said to have fallen short of her purposes’ came rapidly to mind.

Why was I feeling so cross? Principally because the purpose of the grants was to enable organisations to play a more significant role in reforming and delivering services for children, young people, parents and families – and with a particular emphasis on early intervention and tackling the needs of the most disadvantaged groups. What weasel words.  Is this not another way of wasting our time and effort, whilst looking at ways of cutting funds for children services.  Funding the usual suspects is hardly an innovative way forward.

Maybe I am being unfair, but in these difficult times – where organisations like mine are losing significant contracts to provide for children in need and run children centre services – it’s hard to stomach sums of over £100k plus being allocated to endless support organisations, many of which should be partnered up and formed into single entities.  According to the department, the aim of these grants is to free organisations up from dependency on grants… well there is little need to become sustainable if all the central costs are funded by tax payers.  What is the point of the Transition Funds? Was this not designed to support such organisations become sustainable? In my book, that’s £160m of money that could be better spent providing real services to children and their families.

I was also baffled and bemused by the other big decision (worth £1m over two years), which saw the strategic lead partnership for the early years and childcare sector allocated to a group of organisations, none of which are either specifically early years or childcare. I suppose what galled me more was how this would pay for at least 65 full daycare places with family support in my organisation for vulnerable children in high need. Instead, this is something we currently have to raise our own funds for, since such children not yet on the Child Protection list no longer constitute high priority. So much for applying the principles of early intervention…

The allocation of all this money is supposed to develop a vigorous and responsive sector, freed up from the dependency on grants and better equipped to operate within a payment by results environment; it is meant to make such organisations commissioning ready and look at innovative approaches to lever private investment. What strikes me is there is quite a tension and I will be intrigued to understand how organisations funded by the department can offer independence, challenge and innovation. Let’s only hope Jonathan Swift’s comment that ‘power is no blessing in itself, except when it is used to protect the innocent’ remains high in all our minds.

Down on the farm, cultivating an organic approach to Big Society

Alongside the delight of being Chief Executive of LEYF, I am also chair of Paddington Farm Trust.  Established as a charity 20 years ago and now operating as a social enterprise, the Trust provides farm holidays and educational activities for people living in poor urban areas (people more typically disadvantaged by poor physical health, mental illness, economic pressures or simply life circumstances).  The farm itself is based in Somerset and was donated to a group of far-seeing community activists from Paddington at the end of the reign of the GLC; Big Society already successfully at work back in the 1980s.

So this weekend, my fellow trustees and I worked on the annual strategy; and most importantly focused on how we can make up the shortfall from losing our grant which previously made up 12% of our income.  On top of that, we are equally unsure how many of our regular visiting groups (themselves supported by their local authorities) will cease to visit.

Whilst a holiday may well be seen as a luxury in these austere times, supporting the fragile wellbeing of lonely, elderly poor people, those coping with mental or ill health and those recovering from drug and alcohol dependency (not to mention children of all ages from ugly concrete inner city estate) is critical.  Many of these people are already suffering the consequences of a lack of early intervention and have seen their lives unravel by circumstances out of their control.  Few of us are ever more than a few small steps away from disaster; we all try to organise our lives to avoid it, but some have no margin in the face of such overwhelming obstacles.  Last year’s Marmot Report confirmed the five key indicators which could help predict future health: life expectancy, disability-free life expectancy, child development at five, young people out of work and households on means-tested benefits. The report examined local authority data and found inequalities in all areas, leading the government to announce a desire to improve the health of the vulnerable. Quite right; so don’t limit their chance of having a holiday with such huge benefits, from better health to learning new skills.

Back at LEYF, we have always taken a group of up to twelve children to the farm for five days without their parents. The holidays have been universally successful, and the benefits to children and their parent(s) huge. We have never had to come back early and the trust between parents, children and staff has been wonderful; a very clear example of Big Society in action.  Recently, however, we have found it harder to get parents to agree to the ‘risk’ of allowing their children to go on such a break.  Caught between guilt and anxiety, they have reluctantly rejected the offer – not least worried they will be seen as bad parents if anything goes wrong.  Is it any wonder?  Today’s parents are constantly scrutinised by the press, the government and statutory agencies – and so many have lost their self-confidence to do what feels right for them and their children.  In addition, they are operating within an invidious horribleness (again perpetrated by mainstream media), that adults who work with children are closet paedophiles who, given half the chance, would harm their sons or daughters. The shocking truth is that actually children are at much greater risk of harm from within their own family.  What we really need is to put more faith in the fortitude of warm, trusting individual relationships as the basis for more positive human relationships in general.

I left the farm more determined than ever.  And then listening to Radio 4 on my way back, an interview with Francis Maude MP challenged him with the findings of a survey in the Independent on Sunday, proclaiming that while 67% of people had heard of the Big Society, 41% thought it was a cover up for cuts to public sector services.  Is this right?

I had just been on the farm with a bunch of volunteers like Steve, who is designing and building an outdoor classroom from trees in our coppice, which in turn were planted by volunteers from BTCV.  None of them needed encouragement to give their time so generously; they already wanted to give something back to society.

Despite its social enterprise business model, the farm is under pressure because we simply don’t know if we can rely on some of our regular customer groups. LEYF is also facing cuts in contracts for children in need, leaving us nearly one million pounds short this year. But will these cuts affect our attitude to Big Society – or will it simply make us more enterprising and determined; angry and more relentless in our fight for what we believe to be human rights?  It’s hard to say right now, but while I am surrounded by people who are altruistic and unselfish, my spirit remains uplifted and I will continue to find ways to overcome the inhibiting attitudes and self-fulfilling prophecies of the doom and gloom brigade.

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Ready to grasp the nettle of our ‘hands-free’ future?

What would Lord Shaftsbury, Mary Carpenter or Dr Barnardo make of the ongoing political battle of what to cut and what to save?  What would they make of the government’s sudden hands-off approach, as the local authority squeals how their hands are tied and the rest of the sector stands by frustrated, trying to work out their own place or possible options in this brave/scary (delete as appropriate) new world?

Many charity and voluntary sector organisations are being criticised for keeping far too quiet whilst they try to save themselves.  Forget that approach, have some spirit and pluck; we might as well go down fighting under government opprobrium and local authority cuts.

At LEYF, we are nothing if not hands on.  And like most social entrepreneurs (fundamentally optimistic), we are disturbed to see how rapidly the original intention and real potential to develop and extend this big society seems to be evaporating before our very eyes.  Whilst the designated carer or white knight (aka third sector) of this new world paradoxically faces cuts in the region of 40%, we find ourselves no less immune – needing to magic one million pounds worth of ‘efficiencies’ out of the mutual-inspired hat. And with a good chunk of this due to a drastic reduction in places for children in need, I can only say ‘poor souls’… whilst echoes of the Victorian hymn ‘Suffer Little Children‘ reverberate around the back streets of Westminster and other similarly challenged London boroughs.

However, our philanthropic forefathers (and mothers, naturally) were not ones to roll over in a fiscal crisis, and neither must we. Our task now is to lead and balance criticism of the cuts with a practical and pragmatic set of solutions that can be woven into a clear and coherent philosophy.

But what does this mean; what can and in fact must we actually do..?  First of all, we need to decide what we want.  If early intervention is the mantra, what should it look like?  If Graham Allen wants bankers to invest by developing social impact bonds, what does this impact need to look like to convince them?  If we are to become truly persuasive and achieve our goals, we need to rethink the short-sighted nature of our current response – which at best is all about Children’s Centres (as if they were in every case the embodiment of perfection) and at worst saving individual settings without a sense of responsibility for the bigger picture.

And let us remember the crucial role of professional childcare at the heart of the debate, especially for those children from poor and disadvantaged families.  Let us certainly not forget all we have learned from the huge range of research carried out over the past 10 years – such as the fact that attending high quality preschool has a positive impact on the development of every child, and is even more essential when making a difference to the outcomes of the most dispossessed amongst them.

Our social business model at LEYF gives a great many parents access to such quality daycare for their children, providing both with the range of opportunities they need to step up and make a difference to their own life chances.  Let’s see more of this: we need to help parents believe in self-efficacy, with more consistent and effective dialogue between parents and professionals to help give them greater confidence in supporting their own children; we need to create a more family centred approach to safe guarding; instead of closing libraries and stopping funds for reading recovery (another gross irony in 2011, the National Year of Communication), we need to fund services that will encourage parents to read to their children, since this is undeniably another critical factor in the educational success of young children.

Elsewhere, let’s examine improvements to commissioning; apply the Total Place model and use carrot and stick to induce cross borough collaboration.  And if you’re lost in translation, start by reading pages 8 and 69 of the Graham Allen Report ‘Early Intervention: The Next Steps‘; it will help us mull over the many options.  Remember the wise words of Winston Churchill, and let’s make sure that ‘out of intense complexities intense simplicities emerge’.

Whatever your individual circumstance or priorities right now, we must find a way of weaving a simple but effective message, stating how together we can mitigate any further risks to the futures of those children we care for.  As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, ‘It is today we must create the world of the future.’  So whatever we do, let’s do it with a real purpose and enthusiasm; and as always, with the child at the heart.

A Call to Arms: Save Our Children’s Centres

We are already halfway through January, having returned from a long break to the order and pattern that work gives us. We have cheerily greeted everyone with a Happy New Year, but will it be?

As an optimistic person, I try to see challenges as opportunities, although at times this takes a huge leap of imagination and positive energy.  This is especially true now, with the doom and gloom harbingers out in force.  Of course, the press itself is less than helpful, setting the seeds for dissatisfaction and disorder; but in doing so, the more important issues all too easily risk being crowded out by a sense of general dismay.

But where to begin?  Without a doubt, saving Children’s Centres… Already this month, I have received impassioned telephone calls and frustrated emails from people about their local authorities not only halving Children’s Centres, but with limited consultation and no apparent plan.

I visited a small Centre in West London myself this week, only to then hear they were to be closed.  This particular school-based site had the complete support of both parents and head-teacher, and the team itself was coherent and robust about the benefits to local families.  They were equally realistic about the need to shift some ways of working and extend their services out.  Cuts aside, I simply cannot believe that local authorities are unable to afford an investment of £100k per annum in their multi-million pound budget (surely little more than the salary for one over-inflated management post).

Elsewhere, I attended the inaugural Home Start Lecture, where Professor Michael Marmot spoke about health inequalities and the investment needed to secure a more Fair Society, Healthy Lives for children. I asked the panel’s designated Cabinet Minister, Francis Maude, why in the light of all the evidence for preventative and community based services, Children Centres were closing. He simply fudged the issue by reasserting the Government position, namely how they were champions of Children Centres, but it was down to local authorities to make the decisions.

I thought of a recent book I read called Nudge and wondered how we might get the Government to give a nudge.  It’s true, we don’t want another micro-managing government (our last experience of this was unhelpful enough), but now baby and bathwater come to mind. In the meantime, Children Centres are closing and the consequences will come back to haunt us.  Will we ever learn?

Our colleauges over at 4Children made a great start last year with their Shout Out campaign, but I personally believe the time has come for us to finally wake up and actually do something about this emerging catastrophe for children and families, especially across the capital. We need to mobilise ourselves and take action as a determined network of passionate and committed Children Centre professionals.

It’s true that some Children’s Centres are better than others and some will have to go.  But that doesn’t mean reduced budgets cannot be resolved in a way that is planned, purposeful and sensitive to local communities.  Slash and burn is too random (and lazy) an approach.  As the picture of cuts continues to take shape, it seems incumbent on us to hatch a much-needed plan for survival, sustainability and reshaping; and one finally based around an intergenerational model.  We need to snatch the Children’s Centre baton and lead the process ourselves.

The time for talk may well be over, but please do comment and tweet us!  This is more than a nudge; this is a call to arms.