By Jane Craven, founder and chairperson of the Whiterock Children’s Centre, Belfast
Whiterock is number one on the indices of multiple deprivations, we have a post-conflict legacy leading to many physical and mental health issues, we have traditional inter-generational unemployment. All and any of the other short-term projects, inadequately measured, have not addressed these major issues. I say give us a chance.
Child poverty will not disappear without a significant change in axis. Has any part of Government the courage to really tackle this? Has any part of Government the courage to use those community activists and providers, those on the street, to design and implement effective strategies? I hope so because if we do not do this we will create a fractured, bitter, undervalued society.
In 1988, we provided the first in-house Further Education College childcare. We now have an amazing childcare and family support facility and 30 plus professionally qualified staff. This is an exceptional resource. Can we provide a service to meet the requirements, to improve the quality of life of those in most need in our area? No.
What has gone wrong? There is no coherent, cohesive children policy and strategy. There is no recognition or understanding of the functioning and the needs of the community childcare infrastructure, built on the social economy model at the behest of Government. This results in initiatives which are cumbersome, over bureaucratised and therefore designed to fail.
There is no one-stop-shop for exchange of knowledge and information on children policy and issues. There are too many initiatives, all short term, underfunded and insufficiently monitored and measured. There is no real intention to reduce child poverty levels. Where is the Government’s statutory obligation to care for children? We have one initiative after another to address some of the problems of poor families, poor working families and poor children. SureStart. BrightStart. What will the next one be? VirtualStart? SureStart was never financed as it was in England. SureStart was implemented in Northern Ireland without reference to the existing, Government generated, social economy, professional, community located childcare providers.
Instead, a new layer of bureaucracy was created, absorbing unnecessarily some of the already reduced budget. What exactly was the point in that? BrightStart is the latest initiative. This initiative is almost unusable by community childcare providers. In fact, I am aware of one centre which is choosing not to participate in this initiative. Why?
Because it threatens the already fragile financial status of these social economy enterprises. Because it was designed without consultation with community providers. Why should we have to implement an initiative which is underfunded? It is a case of Government wanting to look as if it is taking action. Those who find it impossible to participate will be blamed. It will be our fault.
This initiative seems to me to be, not about providing a service to children and families, to improve the quality of life of children, but to be seen to be doing something ‘good’. That is not good enough. I am now tired of trying to implement Government-designed strategies to address inequality and exclusion. Belfast Areas of Need in the 70s and 80s, Making Belfast Work in the 80s and 90s, Targeting Social Need in the 90s, SureStart in the 2000s, and so on.
There has been a plethora of such initiatives, none adequately funded, monitored or measured, except in terms of making sure we accounted for every last penny we spent. The value and the effectiveness of the work was of less significance than an auditing and accounting exercise. So much money has been wasted, much energy has been devoted to making Government look good.
I say enough. This is what we require:
• Children to be central to all Government decision making. The creation of a children’s department with a minister and budget.
• Government to publish targets for the eradication of child poverty and a timetable for public update on an achievement of the target.
• A pilot of universal childcare to be run in the Whiterock area over a period of three to five years to measure the impact of the provision on child poverty and other social issues.
• A pilot of the ‘free school day’ to be measured over a period of three to five years to measure the impact of the provision on child poverty and other social issues.
• Further Government funded research to complement the earlier piece, ‘Universal Childcare in Northern Ireland’, launched at NICVA in December 2014, the focus of which was economic impact. Make this project one of active research in the Whiterock area over a period of three to five years to measure those other impacts.