Social exclusion” is one of those oft-used phrases beloved of politicians, charity PRs and media that seems to have lost the power to evoke its miserable reality.
Feeling ostracised from communities, however, is a dismal fact of how many people, whether alone or in families, live out their existence. The damage that results to people who live with it and to wider society is immense, with corrosive tentacles that reach out far into the future.
At Community Care Live, one of the plenary sessions (on 15 May, see panel, below) will look at how far we’ve gone in alleviating social exclusion and new ideas for ways of scaling the mountain still left to climb after 10 years of Labour government.
“Social exclusion often extends to a whole community,” says Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of The Children’s Society, one of the session’s speakers. “Our call to the social exclusion taskforce is to look at how we continue to exclude children from the community – because you know, if you look at the practice, every child doesn’t matter.”
A central plank of his message is that it’s perfectly possible to run a universal service that reaches out to everyone with a need, and that crucially also includes the most socially excluded, rather than keeping them separate and away from the mainstream – that is, wealthier, healthier, better educated and more functional families. This is the principle informing the way the charity has chosen to run its 13 children’s centres.
“The causes of social exclusion are numerous and cannot be viewed or targeted in isolation,” he notes. “One thing I’ll be saying is, when we look at poverty, employment cannot be viewed as the whole solution.”
Given the government’s recent decision to require single parents on benefit to seek work once their youngest child reaches 12, this is likely to provide an interesting debate, particularly as half of all children in low income households do in fact have someone in their family already in work.
The other piping hot potato Reitemeier wants the conference to tackle is the issue of how government should aim to engage with socially excluded people. Should this be on a voluntary basis – his preference – or should people be compelled to do parenting classes, drug rehab, anger management workshops, numeracy and literacy programmes, job search seminars and the like?
The route he’d prefer – that of offering sustained encouragement and support, and incentives rather than threats – ultimately requires service providers to develop a relationship of trust with clients. But after years of being let down, messed around and faced with a multiplicity of people all wanting to “do them good” in various unconnected ways, many of these clients have lost faith in providers’ ability to see them as individuals and tailor services to their evolving needs.
Offering continuity in order to develop a degree of real trust is the only means by which service providers will build long-term, effective and informed consent among the most socially excluded people they’re trying to help, he says.
The needs of excluded older people often tend to be overlooked in favour of those of children. Charity Counsel and Care has produced Delivering a Sure Start to Later Life, a report exploring new ways of delivering neighbourhood services to older people.
Recommendations in the report, says plenary speaker Carole Barnard, policy and communications manager at Counsel and Care, are based on three areas: using children’s centres to deliver older people’s services looking at sheltered housing as a possible focal point for whole-community services delivery and seeing how Neighbourhood Watch schemes could help reduce fear of crime by promoting intergenerational projects where older people and teenagers work together.
“We all know that social care is underfunded councils struggle to provide it and so they focus it on those with critical needs, rather than those who have lower level needs – though this of course can lead to them having critical needs earlier than they otherwise might do,” says Barnard.
Her organisation is proposing that services for those deemed non-critical are delivered through existing centres, but in a more creative manner that plugs older people into community activity.
“For example, having talked to some providers, we have found that there are places where extra care or sheltered housing is used as a hub for the rest of the community: that could be GP visits, hobby clubs, coffee mornings, physical activity sessions,” she says. “All of these are very positive in bringing other people from the rest of the community in, rather than older people going into sheltered housing and never coming out or being seen again.”
Counsel and Care also looked at how service providers might make use of older people’s professional and life skills in becoming befrienders and advocates for their peers. Recognising an older person’s value to their community could extend to local authorities establishing and then supporting volunteer programmes whereby older people offer their time to families at children’s centres. To this end she notes that the country’s first ever “intergenerational centre” has just been announced in the south London borough of Merton, with funding of £1.5m from the London Development Agency.
The centre, says the press release, “will provide a range of programmes aimed at breaking down barriers between different groups in the communityit will offer IT facilities and training for young and old, a programme of reading sessions, arts, crafts and drama sessions and a variety of sports and games. The explicit intention is to work across generations to increase mutual understanding and social cohesion, and to develop a greater sense of community spirit and reduce crime”.
Due to open in mid-2009, there’s no way of knowing yet how teenagers will take to doing Boxercise classes with their grandparents, but as a way of helping older people participate more in the lifeblood of their surrounding community, the Merton centre will provide fascinating learning for local authorities around the UK.
Whole family approach
Ensuring that all services work together to take a whole family approach must be the next major step in restructuring how people receive services, says Naomi Eisenstadt, director of the social exclusion task force, and the third speaker at the plenary.
“The focus of our report Think Family acknowledges that the government has made huge strides in children’s services, but for the most socially excluded families, their difficulties are complex and affect adults as well,” she says. “If services don’t look at the whole family and tailor their delivery, then we won’t get the result we want.”
It’s the “joins” between services that she wants to smooth out, and the successful applicants for the government-funded Think Family pathfinder projects (between 12 and 15 nationwide to be announced soon) have been chosen to test out ways to achieve this.
Think Family is founded on four key principles. First, there must be no wrong “door”. “Any door that you access to any service must open other doors to joined-up services,” she says.
Second, providers must cultivate a highly honed consciousness of the fact that whenever a child or an adult accesses a service, they may be part of a family with additional needs. Building on whatever family strengths do exist is also crucial, as is providing tailored support, as part of the government’s personalisation agenda.
“For some people it will be a radical change in the way they work,” Eisenstedt acknowledges. But she’s not pretending that the social exclusion task force currently has all the answers to the issues that will arise once these principles are put into practice – that’s what the pathfinders are explicitly set up for.
“We will be evaluating and we want a dynamic programme where people say we tried this and this worked and this didn’t,” she says.
• What are your ideas on social exclusion? Is it an overused expression? Go to www.communitycare.co.uk/carespace to discuss the issue