The bid to beat child poverty has stalled nationally, but at ground level the government has funded small-scale projects to enable local people to help with solutions. By Louise Tickle.
The government will miss its target to halve child poverty by 2010. In 2007-8, there were 2.9 million children living below the government’s chosen poverty line – households with incomes below 60% of the median before housing costs – the same figure as in 2006-7. Child poverty rose in the previous two years, so the level now is no lower than in 2002-3.
Children’s charities and the Treasury select committee have severely criticised the Labour government for decisions taken in the most recent Budget, which they say fails to invest in improving the lot of the poorest children as the recession really begins to bite.
This is the context in which the Department for Children, Schools and Families published its Child Poverty Bill last week. There are 57 councils that have received DCSF funding to run “innovation pilots” that address the particular reasons for child poverty in their areas.
Evidence collected from the comprehensive evaluation of the pilots will be used to inform the strategy to eradicate child poverty by 2020.
Public transport in Tower Hamlets
Gaining an understanding of the many and various interlinking reasons behind children continuing to live in poverty in Tower Hamlets has led to four broad strands of work to tackle it: identifying and then removing barriers to work; helping individuals find the right pathway back into work; breaking entrenched cycles of poverty; and reducing families’ experience of living in the way that poverty typically forces them to.
One example that shows the practical application of this last strand is the Oyster Card Club. Tower Hamlets discovered that the lack of confidence, poor language skills, unfamiliarity with the public transport system, and the cost for a family living in poverty of taking children on a round trip on the tube, means many people barely travel across the borough, never mind leave Tower Hamlets to explore the resources that London has to offer.
This means that they and their children’s horizons are severely restricted: from this, all sorts of educational, social and cultural disadvantages arise that stunt young people’s experience of the world as they grow up.
Through the confidence-raising work already being done in primary schools, parents were informed that Oyster Card Clubs were being set up to address the problem. It works like this: groups of parents come up with an idea for where they’d like to go (often through attending activities being put on for them in school as part of the council’s poverty reduction work) and then Tower Hamlets council issues them with enough credit on an Oyster card for entire families to make the round trip.
“Our outings are based on the No 15 bus route, because it stops outside the school. We go to lots of interesting places along it,” says Alison Jones, a parental engagement development worker employed by the charity School-Home Support at Marion Richardson Primary School. Parents are guided through the ways that buses, tubes and the DLR works, and accompanied to the venues they are visiting.
Meeting up at school with parents you already know, and then travelling as a group, takes away the fears of ending up alone and lost and without the language skills to get home safely, Jones explains. Parents then start to contemplate using the transport system independently. Children get to visit places they’d never otherwise experience, and learn that there is a world beyond their local borough.
“This year, we have been to the British Museum, ice skating, lots of things,” says Main Uddin, a father of 10 who is grasping this opportunity with both hands. “Before, when my first children were young, I never knew how to use transport, and like many people who never travelled, I was anxious.
“Now, we have 100 mums and 37 dads at this school alone, and we have done eight or nine trips this year!”
Kent Council and tax credits
Kent Council has focused on maximising parents’ take-up of their benefit and tax credit entitlements, as well as helping them to see the benefits of work.
The latter has involved detailed discussions and financial calculations carried out in partnership with JobCentre Plus staff, to demonstrate on an individual, case-by-case basis, how working even for a low salary can be worth the effort.
A network of 240 family liaison officers and parent support advisers have been employed to work in primary and secondary schools and children’s centres across the county to support parents through their worries and concerns regarding the impact of working on family life. All the options for childcare are also explored, giving parents more information than they might be able to access for themselves.
All this preparatory work is done in advance of parents starting to look for work, says Marisa White, head of extended services at Kent Council.
“The family liaison officer is able to take a more holistic approach to supporting that parent,” she says. “And those parents need to feel confident that they can go for a job and that their children will be well looked after.”
However, she notes that as people often go into low paid jobs such as retail and industry with hours that do not fit childcare requirements, “this is leading to us now working with those childcare providers to see how they might expand their days to fit those newly working parents’ commitments”.
White concedes it is a challenge to persuade Kent’s private providers to extend their hours, but observes that it is only if enough parents create the demand that these providers will feel it is financially worthwhile to do so.
Parent action in Tyneside
A group of parents who know what it’s like to live in poverty are about to become the drivers of change in North and South Tyneside. The two councils have just launched their joint innovation pilot with the intention to employ a cohort of 20 mums and dads as “community entrepreneurs” – and then back them to the hilt as they come up with ideas to counter the causes and effects of child poverty in their area.
Jill Baker, who is working with both North and South Tyneside councils on ensuring the recruitment process is open to all, says there are obstacles to overcome.
“How we recruit local people who haven’t worked before, say, and who may not be comfortable with formal application forms and interviews will be a major challenge,” she says.
A gentle approach is needed if the right people are not to be put off: “A very simple form on which people can express their interest is the first step,” she says.
An eight-week awareness raising course will then be run, (for no more than 16 hours a week because of benefit rules) to help interested individuals understand the scope of the community entrepreneur role, as well as to give them information on formal job application procedures. The 20 positions will then be openly advertised, at salaries between £16,000 and £18,000.
Crucially, the councils have gathered support from JobCentre Plus and other agencies to help successful candidates manage the transition to work: the partnership will offer detailed advice and help on financial planning, how to budget and childcare costs and availability. All these are barriers that people in poverty frequently cite as reasons for paid work “not being worth it”.
By early December, the entrepreneurs will be in post, and to ensure that their ideas on alleviating poverty come to fruition, each employee will be paired with a senior figure such as the director of children’s services who can make strategically timed phone calls to dissolve any bureaucratic blockages.
The intention is that the benefits will reach far beyond the families of the 20 entrepreneurs themselves: as experts in making the link between all public services in deprived areas, it’s hoped that each entrepreneur will work closely with between 10 and 20 families so that about 400 people’s lives are improved and their children’s outcomes significantly enhanced.
Published in the 18 June 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline ‘Groundforce’