From my piece on the Guardian’s new voluntary sector network: With the voluntary sector facing a potential funding drop of £4.5bn in the next year, the contribution that trustees make to an organisation’s performance has never been more important.
Jo Sharp, 38, from Croydon, south London, is a parent support advisor with the charity School-Home Support (SHS). Jo works in an infant school, a junior and a secondary, all in south Croydon. Here she explains why her role is vital and describes its challenges its rewards.
I became a parent support advisor because…I’d provided support to my neighbours, it became apparent to me that there were many families and children who weren’t receiving the help they were entitled to. I enjoy the range and diversity of the work as well as the fact that I reach out to families directly and provide a holistic service to them.
My aim is…to develop a supportive environment for the families and children. For me, the relationship is often the work and I feel it is a great privilege to be allowed into people’s lives and share in their experiences.
The first child I helped support was…suffering from extreme anxiety over going to school and his attendance was below 50% as a result.
Teachers knew there was an issue with this child because…he’d attend maybe two or three days a week and leave early. He appeared withdrawn and lacked confidence.
The first thing I did was…meet his family to look at possible reasons for his anxiety. His parents were extremely worried and had tried to support him in the best way they could. Despite this, the child would often lock himself away in his room rather than face questions about school. His parents and I agreed that I would meet with him in school rather than at home.
The reaction I got from him was… we spent a long time discussing his experiences at school and his feelings regarding his own self esteem and confidence. Because he had started school in year eight, he’d missed out on the bonding with his peers in year seven. This had a big impact on how he felt he fitted in, and he’d started to put himself second to everyone else in his quest to ‘be liked’. He’d also started to develop much faster than some of his peers so felt he stood out too much. All this had left him feeling increasingly anxious about coming to school until he just couldn’t face anymore. Over the weeks we looked at ways of improving his assertiveness and developing a positive image of himself. He was allowed a reduced timetable at school, gradually building up to full days.
I knew we’d started to get somewhere when…he became more active at the weekends and started playing football and socialising more with others. Prior to this he found it difficult to leave the safety of his house for prolonged periods.
The hardest thing was…keeping up the momentum. It would only take a slight knock for him to feel anxious, however by maintaining close contact with him and his family and being there to support him when he was feeling anxious, the anxiety became less severe.
The most rewarding thing was…to find that he’d not missed one day of school and that he’d really turned his life around! His attendance is 100% and he participates in activities outside of school, his teachers have said he’s much more positive in school and appears to enjoy his time there. His family has also expressed their delight at having their son back!
To do this job you need to be…patient! Change doesn’t happen overnight. The rewards are fantastic when you see first hand how the support you have played a part in has had positive effects on families and young people. I believe that you need to be able to connect emotionally with the families, having empathy and compassion whilst also being able to look at the bigger picture and think logically about what support can be provided. A good understanding of local services and outside agencies is key.
The biggest problem facing the sort of young children I help support is…a lack of understanding. Sometimes it is very practical support that is required and at other times it is more emotional, but either way I feel that young people often feel misunderstood because we as adults actually lack a perspective on their world.
If I could have a word in education secretary Michael Gove’s ear I’d…ask that more focus be placed on supporting families and children in and outside of school. It works!
The best thing a child I’ve helped support has said to me is…thank you!
By Andrew Purvis
I am currently CEO of youth charity Fairbridge, I have 20 rewarding years experience working in the private sector behind me, but it might surprise you to learn that I was ‘neet’ (not in employment, education or training) once – just like the million young people being tagged with that acronym today.
My experience was actually a good one, I had four months off following my first job after university, and it was a very productive time in my life. I gained skills which I then found useful in the job I moved into. Being neet wasn’t a problem for me, it was a situation I knew would be temporary and that I had the wherewithal to get myself out of. But I did not come from three generations of unemployment; I had not been the victim of domestic violence; I hadn’t been in care or excluded from school and I was lucky enough to have two loving parents to support me.
It’s this chasm of difference between the opposite ends of the neet spectrum that worries me in the wake of the comprehensive spending review. While schools funding has been ring fenced, complementary provision like that provided by Fairbridge is vulnerable. Benefits for the jobless and homeless are going to be reduced so for those million young people not in education, employment or training, difficult times are about to get even tougher. But not to worry, the government is using a payment by results approach to get lots of them back into work – so that’s okay, isn’t it?
Well no, it’s not. Having a neat, neet acronym is helpful shorthand and has undoubtedly brought attention to the problems of youth disengagement but the label is now confusing the issue and I want us to stop using it. Being badged ‘neet’ isn’t nice but it’s not the stigmatisation I have a problem with. It’s the fact that by putting the same label on a million young people, we’re preventing help reaching those who need it most.
A recent government report by the Audit Commission segmented the million neets and identified 380,000 young people, who were classed as being ‘sustained neet’. They have the biggest problems, are the biggest cost to society and are in greatest need of investment. By grouping all these young people together, it is easier for those who are commissioning services NOT to focus on these sustained neet. The term now creates great confusion over where support should be targeted. It is a real concern that much of the recent investment in reducing the neet figures, has gone to the top end – those closest to the job market like I was all those years ago – rather than the sharp end where it is genuinely needed.
As the economy recovers, those closest to the job market will move on to a job or education and the commissioners can put a tick in the box marked ‘reduced neet figures’ and go home thinking job done, ignoring the fact that the sustained neets are still there, without any targeted support. The label hides the fact that we need to start putting resource where it is needed most and where it will have the most impact.
Fairbridge runs courses across its 15 centres which focus on the skills these sustained neets will need to get back into employment, often in conjunction with corporate supporters. In London our Employ Me course gives young people, most of whom have never been in a workplace, basic skills to start them on the road to employment. From workplace behaviour to discovering what types of jobs are out there, they need to start from scratch which is what we help them to do. Without this support they will remain unable to take the even the first steps towards employment.
If we could make real inroads into that 380,000 sustained neets then many of our communities would be happier, safer and we would see a corresponding reduced burden on the coffers of the Ministry of Justice, Home Office, Department of Education and – because mental health is such an issue with our youth – the Department of Health.
To do that we need to commit to properly targeted interventions and this requires sophisticated commissioning of solutions. Let’s drop the neet label and let’s stop using money inefficiently by lumping together large groups of the population who have vastly differing needs. Only when we start being honest about where the real problems lie, can we start solving them.
Fairbridge is holding a parliamentary event today to raise awareness of its work among new MPs.
By Shaks Ghosh
“A hard road, leading to a better future, is how Chancellor George Osborne spoke of the journey ahead of us in yesterday’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR).
All I know for certain is that it’s already been a bumpy ride for charities, many more of which, it’s now been estimated, receive public money than previously thought. The Third Sector Research Centre believes that some 35% of organisations (rather than between a fifth and a quarter) get statutory funding and of those, 23,000, or 14%, regard it as their most vital source of income.
In the youth sector alone, the magazine Children & Young People Now, has found that of more than 130 charities, 82% are already being forced to cut youth projects because of funding shortages.
And, even with the very welcome one-year, £100 million transition fund announced yesterday to help voluntary sector groups adjust to new public spending budgets, it is going to get tougher. Think tank New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) warned on Monday that these government funded charities are approaching a “maelstrom”. It expects the sector’s income to drop by between £3.2bn and £5.1bn.
So that’s just some of the bad news. But there is good news too as we peer into the gaping chasm of what Shadow Chancellor, Alan Johnson, has called “the deepest cuts to public spending in living memory”.
Along with the transition fund, there’s £470 million over the next four years to build the capacity of the voluntary sector to deliver the Big Society.
I don’t know what this expanded delivery role will actually mean, the devil will be in the detail, but the CSR adds that it will “look to set proportions of specific services that should be delivered by non-state providers including voluntary groups.”
Could this support amount to enough of a lifeline? Possibly, but only if we are really bold and act now! During the economic down-turn last year, the Charity Commission found that only 32% of charities surveyed had taken steps to limit the impact of the recession, with just 14% reducing costs.
An ostrich mentality isn’t going to help. And I don’t say that lightly. I’ve felt that pain. As a charity chief executive, I’ve had to lose staff on occasions when the funding didn’t materialise.
What my last few years at a venture philanthropy fund have taught me is the importance for charities to concentrate on their ‘back office’ as much as their compassion.
It won’t be for everyone, as charities are driven by much more complex ‘bottom lines’ than pure profit and there will be a learning curve, but there’s much to gain from partnership with business. The Private Equity Foundation (PEF) has organised some 15,000 hours of pro bono support for its portfolio charities so I’ve seen first-hand how powerful it can be. In some cases, we’ve worked with charities which have managed the move away from substantial government funding to more sustainable models, while others have achieved huge growth in impact.
Which leads me to better measurement and evaluation. Only the demonstration of effectiveness will ensure support, as government tenders and pays for more services by results and funders choose between a deluge of ‘asks’.
It’s not measurement for measurement’s sake; evaluation can also help create a virtuous circle as organisations scrutinise the data to see where they can improve outcomes. It will become a vital tool, in what’s likely to become a ‘race for quality’ and more foundations should be prepared to pay for it.
Funding from the public and philanthropists cannot plug the hole left by government cuts. But, I believe that business does have a huge contribution to make in safeguarding the sector and I will be doing everything humanly possible to bring more of its money and skills to charities in the coming years.
“People assume because we’re young and because we have suffered with a mental health problem, what we say is irrelevant,” says 19-year-old Edinburgh student Sarah-Jane Dougan. Dougan and Leeds-based Caroline Holroyd, 21, are members of Very Important Kids (VIK), a panel of campaigners advising mental health charity YoungMinds on its aims.
Both women have experienced mental health issues, including depression, for which they have undergone counselling and therapy. VIK aims to help shape health services; it recently worked with the Royal College of Psychiatrists, for example. Dougan and Holroyd’s brand of user involvement reflects health secretary Andrew Lansley’s patient-led vision for the NHS. Here they explain why politicians and policymakers should listen to them.
We got involved with VIK because… it was a chance to use our negative experience with mental health, and get something positive out of it. I’m sure a lot of service users have opinions on how their service can be improved or change, and they know what worked and what didn’t, and also what needs to be done. As part of VIK we have the opportunity to influence these things, and get the ball rolling to bring change (Sarah Dougan/SD).
Patients must influence services because… We’re the experts; real life experience is what has informed our opinions (Caroline Holroyd/CH).
Young people in particular must influence services because…we are the future, the next generation. We’re the ones who will be using these services in years to come (CH). Having a good service for young people will mean that they are less likely to have to use adult services when they are older. Prevention is better than treatment (SD)!
The biggest challenge has been…making people realise that young people with mental health problems can have a valuable input. People seem to assume that because we are young, and because we have suffered with a mental health problem, what we say is irrelevant (SD).
Consultation today is…rare, but improving. Sometimes I feel when services ask for young people’s participation it is simply a tokenistic gesture – lip service (CH).
The key to real patient involvement is…engaging with people from all areas of society and making sure it is easy for them to get involved (CH). It’s about listening and actually hearing what the patient has to say rather than the organization simply making a bunch of decisions and then asking if it’s ok (SD).
Mental ill-health among the young…isn’t always openly discussed even within families where one or more of them has a mental health problem. Mental illness in itself is an issue that is kept under wraps because of the prevailing stigma, lack of education and the many myths surrounding it, sometimes perpetuated by the media (people with mental illness as serial killers, and so on) (CH). It’s an issue that people would rather admit wasn’t happening (SD).
The biggest problem with the mental health system is…the waiting times for receiving treatment, particularly talking therapies. People can be waiting months and even then not end up receiving the correct treatment for their condition. On the whole treatment can be very hit and miss, and support isn’t always sustained meaning people can be suffering in silence (CH). People can’t access services when they need it. If you have anorexia for example, mental health services only seem to recognize it when your body weight is so low that you need to be hospitalized. This is relying on the patients physical health rather than their mental health (SD).
The biggest problem with psychiatric units is…they can feel like prisons; they can be very disempowering (CH). Patients are there to get help – not to be punished (SD)!
The biggest difference the government could make in mental health policy would be…to treat it with the same seriousness and urgency as physical health (SD).
If we had five minutes with health secretary Andrew Lansley…we’d ask him what he thinks needs to change. If he has the same points as us – why hasn’t something been done about it before (SD)? I’d emphasise the importance of prioritising young people’s mental health services and how promoting emotional wellbeing and using early intervention techniques can prevent more severe mental problems which will ultimately put less pressure on the NHS (CH).
Full story on Action for Children’s shocking new research in a piece I did for today’s Society Guardian. Makes you think twice about the shabbily-dressed boy at school who no one wanted to play with or the scrawny girl who got bullied in the playground. There’s a fine line between creating a vigilant society and encouraging the scaremongering finger-pointers, but today’s new report raises some important concerns ahead of the spending review that’s likely to decimate funding for child welfare.
Rapper Dean Rodney has a soulful strut, a powerful pair of lungs and a learning disability. Dark shades, smooth black suit, definitely supercool. I’ll be at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank tonight to see his band, the Fish Police, a fired-up trio that fuses hip hop with funk and punk and lists Japanese anime and fast food among its eclectic inspirations.
Fish Police met when musician and lyricist Charles Stuart trained two learning disabled youngsters, Dean (now Fish Police singer, rapper, bass and lyrics) and Matthew Howe (the trio’s equally cool rhythm guitarist) as part of a youth band based at disability arts organisation Heart n Soul.
Next month the Fish Police will be releasing their debut album, Cheeseburger Man (Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man for the McDonald’s generation?), performing at the Lincoln Center in New York and at Liverpool’s DaDa Fest, the UK’s largest disability and deaf arts festival. Their music is a fresh and freestyling antidote to the conveyor-belt fodder jostling for space in today’s uninspiringly plastic charts.
I came across Heart n Soul over a year ago when I heard about one of its artists, soul singer Lizzie Emeh. Lizzie broke new ground by becoming what’s thought to be the first learning disabled solo artist to release an album to the general public. Loud and Proud was three years in the making and produced with the support of Heart n Soul, 33 years after Lizzie’s parents were told never she would never walk or talk following complications at birth.
In 1984, musician Mark Williams (now Heart n Soul’s director) wanted to explore how music and art could make a difference in communities. He began running creative sessions in east London for a group of people with learning disabilities who went to the local day centre, The Mulberry Centre. Eventually The Mulberry Crew, as they came to be known, moved into a bigger arts complex in Deptford and became Heart n Soul, with the aim of working towards professional productions – not simply, as was then the norm, undergoing art therapy.
The charity now runs a hugely popular club night for people with learning disabilities, the Beautiful Octopus club, and has a consultancy arm to advise other organisations on setting up cultural events for those with special needs. It also employs people with a learning disability and markets arts events to the learning disabled.
The Fish Police, Lizzie Emeh and their other talented peers are also regulars at Heart n Soul’s summer arts festival which is based on the Beautiful Octopus club night. The event isn’t on most people’s summer festival radars, but it should be. Along with live music, the event a couple of months ago boasted a comedy stage, improv and open mic sessions, face painting, a massage tent, a chill out zone designed by the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, cinema room, dance floor and VJs and DJs. Performance art is notoriously hard to pull off, but the trio of artists performing as Live Heart did so with panache, demonstrating why the Tate Modern recently invited them to perform. K:DNA showed off their inspired blend of funk, reggae and classical music while the Riki Jodelko Band were an amazingly tight soul-pop outfit, astounding when they covered Bill Withers’ Lovely Day and Bob Marley’s Could You Be Loved.
Best of all, I loved the inclusive nature of the event. The Beautiful Octopus invites everyone to have a good time, regardless of ability or special need. When you enter the world of Heart n Soul’s festivals or club nights, when you immerse yourself in the melee of fancy dress, fairy wings and face paints, when someone in a clown outfit tumbles head over heels into a perfect cartwheel right in front of you, whether they have a learning disability or not is irrelevant – what’s important is that they’re having fun. And it’s infectious.
Frankly, in this environment (compared to other events I’ve blogged about) it’s impossible not to roll with the good times. I’m working on my cartwheel for next summer…for tonight, the shades and soulful strut will have to do.
* The Beautiful Octopus Club is at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, tonight (Friday 8 Oct) 7pm-12am. Entry is free.