Let’s stave off a tsunami of social disaster

November 21st 2010

Our 4th Annual Margaret Horn Lecture last Thursday evening went off with a bang. We were oversubscribed which raised the thorny question of health and safety and how many people can be fitted in a room.  Fortunately, the LEYF staff were all willing to stand in the aisles – capacity for which was also limited!

Our choice of speaker in Graham Allen MP was prompted by our belief that we have to do something active to get it right for children. In the words of Marge Piercy, we really believe that children are everyone’s business; they are our heirs and our future. And I would like to think this fairly reflects the beliefs of Margaret Horn herself. So Graham certainly drew the crowds; and as a satisfied parent of our own Bessborough community nursery, he was a great advert for parent loyalty!

Whilst Graham’s understated style belied some of his message, he did warn that a tsunami of social disaster was waiting to befall us if we didn’t act now – in the face of a growing underclass, both excluded from society and with no reason to engage in this new big society. He then pleased me endlessly by reaffirming the importance of intergenerational approaches to everything we do – something I have advocated for a very long time and which should be the central philosophy of all Children’s Centres.

The audience, among which a good number of local authorities, were remarkably sanguine as the lecture unravelled the possible implication of the cuts – many of which seem unnecessarily savage and don’t align either with government suggested financial targets, nor the idea of a Big Society.  It’s something that surprised many of us – not least a certain Polly Toynbee, who was aghast at the apparent mood of submission so ripe in the air. In all fairness, mind you, local authority officers are effectively gagged while they await their own fate.

Graham Allen thinks that one way we can address the costs of early intervention is by getting banks ,venture capitalists and philanthropists – yes, all in the same sentence – to create social impact bonds.  He tells us bonds could be anything we want them to be (although he rejected my call that they be James). In fact, only last year Dame Clare Tickell gave us our lecture, during which she reflected on the Action for Children and New Economics Foundation report Backing the Future which costed out social bonds. Let’s see if Graham Allen can get that money out of the banks; maybe we could give them some positive PR in return and charge accordingly.

For some time now, we have been told that measuring impact is critical in all this; to clearly show everyone what social return they will get on their investment, whether its from the fees they pay or donations. For our part, earlier this year we employed a company called PVC to help us measure what we do.  Karim Javeri gave a summary of progress so far, noting that what has been most interesting was the value to parents of simply attending nursery.

One final thread to com out of the debate was that of the new jargon in certain circles: scaling up and replication. At LEYF we have been investigating if our own approach might be socially franchised across the country, giving local authorities a model they can put to good use when it comes to early intervention, especially in poor neighbourhoods. Maybe now Chris White MP has managed to get the Social Enterprise Bill through the House of Commons, we will have more chance.

As I stated from day one, this blog exists fundamentally to provoke a response. So let’s prove the critics wrong. Let’s show that actually we do still have sufficient passion to challenge stupid ideas; we do have enough energy to keep rejecting limited policies and ineffective decisions. Let’s make sure this new Coalition understands what is really needed if we are to carry on putting the child at the centre. After all the future is in their hands.