Don’t sign contracts, opt for collectivity

With the role of voluntary bodies under debate, Scottish agency Quarriers has shown the kind of work the sector can and should be doing.

In 2002 it started a family resource centre in the Ruchazie area of Easterhouse in Glasgow. Supported by the council, it runs from a purpose-built building.

Centre workers have related closely with a small number of parents experiencing difficulties with their children. In addition, a women’s group meets regularly, playtime is a facility for parents and children to attend together, a dads’ group provides social activities and a focus on parenting, and a nursery caters for small children.

Researchers from Stirling University have recently published an evaluation of its effectiveness. It gives particular attention to 10 families with 15 children in all, some referred by the social work department.

Each of the families had benefited from the project. Misuse of drugs had fallen, tempers had been better controlled, selfesteem was on the up. By the close of the evaluation, only two children were on the child protection list while one child in care had returned home.

The researchers concluded that the centre’s users felt it had been crucial in improving their lives.

On another measure, 30 people who used the centre expressed satisfaction at meeting other parents. Twenty-five of them considered it helped them manage their children better while 13 had  been enabled to deal with practical matters such as negotiating with housing authorities.

The centre’s success derives firstly from its neighbourhood focus. Residents can just walk in. Through its nursery, it serves a large number of families and there is no stigma attached to entering the building. Most families live close by and so can be there in a few minutes while it is not necessary to make an appointment to see staff.

Second, it has what I call “collectivity”. You are not just an individual at this centre.

The evaluation stated: “While the input of centre staff was crucial, so too was the experience of meeting other service users. The importance of learning how to get on with other people and benefit from what they could offer was built into the service.” When people feel part of the team they become helpers as well as the helped.

Third, the staff are highly skilled. Statutory social workers are adept at being able to analyse, monitor and evaluate. The centre workers not only possessed these skills but spent social time with users, chatting with each other and going on family outings together. As the evaluation stated, they related at two levels, the professional and the social.

These two levels are sometimes in tension. The friendly centre worker may have to tell a user that certain behaviour is not acceptable. In one case, it was concluded that the parents could not cope. The great skill of the staff was to balance these levels. Mostly they succeeded so that users who appreciated the workers’ openness and warmth came to see advice and warnings as an acceptable part of their role.

The centre is a success and the staff have written a practice guide to assist others. It is an example of a voluntary body being both preventive and creative.

I hope voluntary bodies go further and back local projects where residents are not just involved participants but are fully in control. By this, I mean that they make up the management committee which makes the policy decisions, which selects the staff, decides how money is spent, and what the local agenda should be.

National voluntary organisations are at a crossroads. They can respond to New Labour’s plan that they become semiquangos which take contracts to reduce the roles and services of elected  local authorities. Or, more radically, they can devise ways of financing and empowering local people to build the kind of neighbourhoods they want.

holman small Bob Holman is a writer and community worker associated with the Easterhouse area of Glasgow

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