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

February 9th 2011

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.