Children’s Centres: A Way Forward


This has been an interesting week or so for the sector…

Firstly, Graham Allen MP (who spoke with such conviction about Early Intervention at our annual Margaret Horn Lecture in November) finally launched his much anticipated report at the Gherkin.

It was a room full of bankers and Early Year’s people – and I was most amused to realise that I knew quite a few of the bankers. We have been working with bankers for some time, in the hope of developing a social investment plan to extend our training programmes for young apprentices. However, the event did remind me of a wedding – the groom’s family in one corner and the bride’s in the other, with no one sure how to bridge the gap and mumblings as to whether this partnership would last (a comment also made by Graham Allen himself who recognised the challenge of developing social impact bonds).

The deputy Prime Minister, looking quite boyish, confirmed the commitment of the coalition Government to Early Years and social mobility, whilst assuring us of the need for investment in a fairer society. My only real concern here is the use of the phrase ‘school readiness’. While I know that every child has to be ready and able to succeed at school, I do hope that we also want to give children a happy childhood, because that is what so many of them are really missing.

Elsewhere this week, ACEVO invited Sarah Teather, Minister for Children and Families, to breakfast.  Here she presided over the launch of a very special taskforce – including yours truly, amongst several other experts from across the sector.  Our task it transpired is to support the Minister in converting the government’s objectives into a coherent vision for Early Years.  Sarah Tether appears keen on the principle of co-production, a concept very familiar to us in social enterprise.  However, like most modern jargon, it’s a clumsy expression that obscures good intentions, namely to work alongside people and get their views as part of a process of contribution and mutuality.  It’s a great approach for people like me who enjoy talking and networking with colleagues.

On my return to my own lovely team, I was able to reassure them that charities such as the Children’s Society, Action for Children and Spurgeons all struggle as we do – with complex contracts and barriers to commissioning.  In the spirit of the Big Society, it seems that sharing, connecting and linking together is the future, one of which I particularly approve.

On this very subject, last week we put our own head above the parapet and urged everyone else to do the same – with the hope of ensuring that if Children’s Centres were to close, the right ones would be chosen for the right reasons, and those that were needed would remain. The response has been heartening, particularly from parents and those professionals who really believe in finding the means of supporting children from poor and vulnerable families. Sadly, there are still too many people working in the world of children and families who have remained ominously silent.

Nonetheless, it would appear that our long-held belief that Children’s Centres should be intergenerational is finally gaining support. We are now working with Gulbekian and the lovely Beth Johnson Foundation to start testing our model.  We hope that once we begin to articulate a specific and successful approach, more people will believe as we do, that this is the way forward for us all.  This certainly fits with the notion of Big Society, and so has the backing of many senior Government ministers and Lords of the Realm.

We must remember that an intergenerational approach is more about attitude than the simple idea of having a building where older and younger people have services; to be truly intergenerational means to engage and form relationships across the generations, which in itself is not just about the very old and the very young but every generation in-between.

With this in mind, I invite you all to devour, discuss and share our ‘Ten Steps to a Sustainable, Intergenerational Children Centre’, part of our broader review of recent research relating to the current situation, ‘Children’s Centres: A Way Forward’.  As always, I welcome comments, challenges – and more ideas!

Instead of shimmering with the particular energy of disaffection (Alexander Pope), let’s take last week’s call to arms and convert this critical debate into positive action.

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