Sally McNamee and Mick Wilkinson examine how a small grants scheme has increased opportunities for disadvantaged children and young people and look at how it will fit in with children’s trusts
The Local Network Fund was launched in May 2001 to provide grants of between £250 and £7,000 to small grassroots organisations in the poorest communities that work with children and young people who are most in need. Originally a five-year programme of grants totalling £150m, it has since been extended until 2008.
The money is distributed through 55 local funds in every local authority area in England and the scheme is delivered through the voluntary sector, using the skills of local people to identify and respond to the issues. In each area it is managed by a local agency, usually (but not always) a community foundation. Applications to the fund are screened by panels of local people with knowledge of the area including, where possible, representation from children and young people.
The fund, aimed at children and young people from birth to 19, makes grants under four themes: aspirations, economic disadvantage, isolation and access, and children’s and young people’s voices.
Within these there are four broad aims to:
Assessed against these aims the fund has helped to tackle lack of opportunity for many children, young people and their families. It is clear that many disadvantaged children and young people have become empowered and engaged through the fund and that the capacity of some groups has increased. It has enabled small grassroots organisations to start new projects and tap into additional funding. In a real sense its contribution represents a degree of sustainable development. The fund has also raised the profile and use of systematic child protection procedures in local groups and neighbourhoods.
The fund is also cost-effective, in the sense that economic models suggest that even those projects making only a small impact can yield social benefits. For example, if grants are shown to have contributed to preventing antisocial behaviour in only a few young people – and evidence shows this has been the case – the financial benefits over the long term are self-evident. On this basis, the fund can be seen as an effective use of government money.
Our evaluation paints a positive picture of the fund’s achievements, but there were caveats. The fund has been broadly successful in meeting many of its objectives but less successful with engaging hard-to-reach groups.
Although the grants address all four themes of the fund, those of “children’s voice” and “economic disadvantage” remain under-represented in applications. Groups led by children and young people were a minority of those receiving funding. The funds acknowledged that more work was needed to encourage children’s involvement. However, tackling economic disadvantage and encouraging children’s participation are generally regarded as long-term objectives and therefore the normal one-year funding regime may be limiting. The emphasis on innovation, when taken with the focus on one-year funding, meant that organisations were wasting time devising new approaches to obtain the money.
There remain some groups, such as those representing ethnic minorities, people with special needs and people in rural areas, who have yet to benefit as much as they might do. More creative targeting would reach these groups.
Overall, the fund has become an important local source of money and one valued by smaller organisations and those working for deprived children and young people in areas with limited opportunities. It has offered, through a universal scheme offering modest and manageable grants, opportunities for children and young people and their parents, carers and communities.
Perceptions about child poverty have shifted in recent years. It is now recognised as multi-faceted and acknowledged as more than simply income poverty. As a programme, the fund might not make a huge difference in financial terms, but it does make a difference to the broadly “environmental” aspects of child poverty. Respondents to our evaluation indicated their belief that its establishment and its way of working were clear indications of the government’s commitment to addressing childhood poverty.
The government’s agenda, as set out in the document Every Child Matters: Change for Children, perceives a significant role for the voluntary sector in the delivery of government strategies for children and young people.
However, it seems that the funding programme remains vulnerable and may disappear after 2008 or become absorbed into children’s trusts. There are dangers in this, not least in the possible marginalisation of the voluntary sector through these arrangements. Splitting the fund between 150 children’s trusts could lead to losses of economies of scale, more rationing and greater difficulties in targeting hard-to-reach people.
These considerations suggest that the place for the Local Network Fund should be related to children’s trusts – with funding routed through them, but they should also be slightly at arm’s length from them.
This would bring the benefits of close alignment to other mainstream activities related to children’s services in a local area. It would also provide an example of good partnership working between statutory and voluntary sectors, and a clear route for children’s trusts to reach deeply into local communities and to the children and young people within them, in a way that is accessible and acceptable to those communities.
This would be important in ensuring that the important and distinct role of the voluntary and community sectors is recognised in the development of children’s trusts.
Sally McNamee and Mick Wilkinson are researchers in the Centre for Social Justice at the University of Hull. Between them they undertake a broad range of research in the fields of children and young people, community development and empowerment, social inclusion and social justice.
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This article summarises the main findings from the national evaluation of the Local Network Fund, commissioned by the then Children and Young People’s Unit. The fund is a small grants scheme managed through the Department for Education and Skills which provides support for children and young people in poverty. The scheme has benefited thousands of disadvantaged children and young people and their carers.
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