Small successes

    Gary Craig is professor of social justice at the
    University of Hull. He is leading the national evaluation of the
    Local Network Fund and undertakes a wide range of research on race
    and ethnicity, children and young people, community development and
    empowerment, and poverty and inequality.

    In recent months there have been debates about the proposed cuts
    to the Children’s Fund and to local Connexions partnerships. Yet in
    the midst of this, the achievements of the Local Network Fund for
    Children and Young People (LNF) – originally born as a companion to
    the Children’s Fund – have been overlooked. The first evaluation
    report of the LNF was published1 in March and raises important
    issues about the government’s strategy for combating childhood
    poverty.

    The LNF is a five-year programme of small grants, which total
    £150m. It was proposed in the government’s cross-cutting
    reviewon young people and was a response to the Social Exclusion
    Unit’s report on young people.

    It takes a preventive approach to poverty among children and young
    people (aged 0-19) by funding groups best able to provide local
    solutions to child poverty. The LNF gives grants to small,
    grassroots organisations in the poorest communities that work with
    children and young people who are most in need and who have trouble
    having access to services, and helping them express their
    views.

    The idea of tackling poverty by giving people money is often viewed
    as heretical, yet this is exactly what the LNF does. Grants of
    between £250 and £7,000 are available, usually for one
    year or less. Organisations are encouraged to develop new projects
    and activities and are required to have child protection policies
    in place.

    The LNF was rolled out in three waves up until April 2003 and now
    covers every English local authority area. Each community LNF has
    an annual budget of a few hundred thousand pounds, and is managed
    by a local agency, usually a Community Foundation, Council of
    Voluntary Service or Rural Community Council. Grants can be made
    under four themes:

    • Aspirations and experiences.
    • Economic disadvantage.
    • Isolation and access.
    • Children and young people’s voices.

    The evaluation has found concerns about whether funds are going
    to smaller, less experienced groups (which represent children,
    young people and their communities) as intended, or are they going
    to the “usual suspects”?

    The evaluation found that at the beginning most grants went to
    well-established groups and that very few applicants had never
    previously applied for any grants. However, there is evidence this
    is changing. This is important if the LNF is to achieve its goal of
    building local, sustainable capacity.

    Involvement of children
    Every LNF has an outreach worker whose job it is to drum up grant
    applications. There was some concern among LNFs that this outreach
    work might be seen as promoting child protection within small
    organisations at the expense of encouraging applications. Yet in
    reality, both goals have to be achieved since every group applying
    has to have a child protection policy. Indeed, one respondent said
    that this requirement might come to be seen as the “jewel in the
    crown” of the LNF, since it raised the degree of awareness of child
    protection issues at local community level.

    The requirement for a child protection policy presented a barrier
    only to the least well-established groups. Here outreach may be
    critical in providing appropriate help. Most of the early
    applicants had a child protection policy in place already, while
    about one-fifth of applicants developed a child protection policy
    as a result of approaching the LNF. Groups with a child protection
    policy seemed more likely to have children and young people
    involved in the running of their organisations.

    Some of the four themes outlined above were seen as softer than the
    others, particularly those concerned with the aspirations and
    experiences of children and young people.

    Initially, many groups ticked all four boxes in their application
    forms to describe their goals but there is now a requirement to
    indicate the most important goal alone. Since then, more groups
    have opted for the softer goals. We found far fewer applicants
    concerned with promoting children and young people’s voices.

    This may change as the LNF beds in. Certainly encouraging children
    and young people’s participation is an important aim of the LNF and
    the evaluation will look at whether such participation is
    sustained.

    However, groups led by children and young people were a minority of
    those receiving funding. LNFs have acknowledged that more work is
    needed to encourage greater children’s involvement, along with more
    effectively reaching out to other marginalised groups such as
    ethnic minorities and disabled children’s groups.

    Organisational tensions
    The LNF had some organisational difficulties during its
    establishment that led to the central management of the scheme
    being withdrawn from the Community Foundation Network and taken
    into the Children’s and Young People’s Unit. This move does not
    appear to have created problems for most LNFs. The greater
    difficulty is managing the tension between the need for consistency
    and the need for programmes to be flexible and responsive to local
    conditions. This is a common tension for grant-giving programmes
    managed centrally but delivered locally.

    The LNF also uses a national call centre that handles all initial
    enquiries, and routes applicants to their local LNF. There was a
    marked difference of opinion here between applicants and local LNF
    staff. Successful applicants were overwhelmingly happy with the
    advice they had received from the call centre – unsuccessful
    applicants were, unsurprisingly, less happy. But staff at local
    LNFs were less convinced of the value of the call centre, arguing
    that they were best placed to respond sensitively to initial
    enquiries.

    The issue of sustainability will be particularly pertinent in the
    continuing evaluation. Most projects were applying for funding for
    a year or less although there was interest in second year funding.
    Many LNFs were concerned about the issue of sustainability.

    Similarly, most LNFs said that they had an effect in improving
    “poverty of well-being” but that they could only have a limited
    impact in terms of reducing economic poverty.

    Programme benefits
    Although it is relatively early in the life of the LNF, young
    people, parents and the wider community did identify some benefits
    of the programme. These included acquiring new skills, boosting
    morale and confidence, networking, increasing volunteering and
    participation. Respondents had modest expectations of the LNF’s
    ability to address poverty.

    One of the national respondents indicated that it might be
    legitimate to regard the LNF as a programme that might not make a
    huge difference in financial terms but its way of working and its
    establishment by the government were clear indications of a
    commitment to addressing childhood poverty.

    National and local respondents raised the relationship between the
    Children’s Fund and the LNF. Some LNFs had expected a closer
    relationship than has materialised.

    This first stage of the evaluation has raised key questions. These
    include the application process, the LNF system as a whole and the
    way resources are targeted. Issues around building capacity at
    local level, addressing poverty and defining and measuring impacts
    were also highlighted.

    – The final report will be produced in early 2005. This will also
    incorporate findings from the economic evaluation of the
    cost-effectiveness of the LNF, and analysis of the administrative
    data collected at national level.

    Key features of LNFs   

    • Widely available, relatively small grants. 
    • Encourages grant-makers to be close to local communities. 
    • “Light touch”central monitoring of the projects. 
    • Support for local groups in making applications. 
    • Public accountability about the way decisions and grants are
      made. 
    • Emphasis on making grants to schemes that promote inclusion and
      integration.

    Abstract

    This article summarises the main findings from the early stages
    of the national evaluation of the Local Network Fund, a small
    grants scheme managed through the DfES which provides support for
    children and young people in poverty. So far the scheme has had a
    variety of beneficial impacts on children, young people and their
    carers, as well as raising awareness of issues around child
    protection. Yet, despite its good outreach work in many areas, some
    marginalised groups have yet to benefit.

    References

    1 Department for Education
    and Skills, A Promising Start? March 2004, available from
    DfES publications price £4.95 or from

    www.dfes.gov.uk/research  
    The final evaluation report willbe published early next year

    Further information

    • A summary of this and other research with children and young
      people funded by the DfES can be accessed through www.dfes.gov.uk/research
    • The DfES has recently published a handbook for those working to
      involve children in policy, service planning, delivery and
      evaluation, Building a Culture of Participation, by P
      Kirby et al, 2004
    • The major national children’s agencies all undertake
      research and developmental work with children and young people. See
      www.ncb.org.uk, www.scf.org.uk, www.childsoc.org.uk, and www.nspcc.org.uk
    •  A useful recent addition to the literature is Hearing the
      Voices of Children
      , C Hallett and A Prout, Routledge,
      2003

    Contact details

    Gary Craig, professor of social justice, University of Hull,
    Hull, HU6 7RX E-mail: G.Craig@hull.ac.uk tel.01482
    465780, fax 01482 466088.

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