“Safeguarding vulnerable adults and children is everyone’s business”.  Today it was mine.

Said Lord Laming in his report of the Inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie in 2003  Since then, I have carried that mission, wholly and completely.  I committed myself to that principle, and have shared it with countless organisations, professionals, and practitioners whilst delivering child protection and safeguarding consultancy, policy development and implementation, and training ever since. It was an excellent and thorough report that shaped mine and a generation’s work. 

That was almost 20 years ago.  Not enough has changed.  Mistakes and oversights remain a feature of the landscape.  Family-facing, management and leadership capacity is stretched to the limit within a climate of increasing demand.  Yet we must continue to be vigilant, observant, demanding, and assertive when working with children and families, or coming into contact with them through any of life’s various activities.  It still is, and so it should be, everyone’s role and responsibility.  And within that principle we should all have equal power and place.

Theory and policy is one thing.  Practice is the most important.  This is the frequent pattern and trend of inquiries or reviews when things don’t work as they should in this field.  It is taking appropriate and timely action that makes the biggest difference. 

Today was one of those days when I stepped up.  I had developed a concern and I made a personal report of the concern of a child, having taken what now feels like too long to do so.  Watching and observing from a distance I had witnessed an extended period of unhealthy household behaviours through a lens of distant sceptical analysis.  Being fully aware of the details of rising intervention thresholds and increasing caseloads and pressures on services, I was more than a little deterred from taking the action that I instinctively knew to be right and proper.  That cannot be right – it doesn’t help any of our resilient agency.  I hope that we all can work together better to encourage more of such dialogues, particularly around the fundamental basic right of children to be cared for and for them to thrive through their formative years.

Today I reported my concern about the welfare and possible neglect of that child.  The process (of course) was careful, right and appropriate.  I was supported to share my concerns, and to describe them specifically, accurately, and objectively.  All information shared was confirmed.  The next steps were outlined, and the important consents agreed.  I was thanked for playing my part in sharing information, that would in turn be given to the relevant children’s services.  The phone call ended.  Then I cried, sat alone in the private room I used to make the call.  I wondered why?  It felt like one of the most important things I had done for quite some time.  Because it was.  It was also a difficult thing to do, even though I have done it before.  An action that felt full of judgment, accusation, assumption, and raw emotions.  Sentiments I recognise were around anger, and a sense of injustice, helplessness, and despair.  All things that can get in the way of anyone, no matter how confident and experienced, taking the time to make a referral their business and to realise Laming’s mission.

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Welcome to PRIDE but remember it isn’t just a party, it’s a protest rally.

Come on in.  All are welcome.  It is great to see how all things LGBTTTQQIAA are so much more recognised, varied and included (these days).  But it takes a whole lot more than a rainbow lanyard to fully appreciate what is happening here. 

I never in my wildest dreams thought the world would catch up as much as it has in my lifetime.  Thank goodness it has, in part.  Thank you to everyone who played a part in making that happen for me and for everyone else.  The pioneers, the campaigners, the advocates, the politicians and the lawmakers, too many to mention all of them.  I have special regard for the ones that stand out for me: Sir Ian McKellen, Peter Tatchell, and Boy George.  And for the other real people who have lived their lives, died for basic human rights, put themselves at risk, and helped society to leave fear and prejudice at the door, and recognise, value and protect individual liberty and love. 

The fearless, courageous, direct-acting, visionary and politically astute, and confrontational Peter Tatchell, deserves an extended mention.  He has been countering head-on the constructed narrative, hypocrisy and collusion of general society and of those in power.  He is someone who has literally diced with serious injury and death.  A man clearly ahead of his time.  He is a “performance artist”, said Stephen Fry.  Which for me are perfect accolades.   I would dream of such epitaphs.  Aren’t all great people ahead of their time?  It’s those that follow convention that disappear into history.  Tatchell has challenged my thinking very many times.  Sometimes I have been shocked by his actions and I haven’t always approved and appreciated them.  I do now, on reflection.  In ‘Hating Peter Tatchell’, his life story of controversial human rights campaigning was told – his provocative acts of civil disobedience had rocked the establishment, revolutionised attitudes to homosexuality and exposed tyrants in the fight for equality.  The Executive Producers were Elton John and David Furnish.  Crikey, in that film, even the Archbishop of Canterbury (George Carey) conceded his “assessment of Peter, now, is that he has been a figure for good, and for equality, here is a man with deep conviction, he’s rocked the boat, and there is a sense in which there is a parallel to Jesus Christ.  Jesus was prepared to stand up against the powerful people in society and represent the smaller people [dreadful phrase] where some of us might question his tactics, no one can doubt he’s on the right side of history”.  An appraisal coming from the recent establishment like that, was truly mind blowing to me.  Late, but welcome, nonetheless.  Especially when I remember Carey frozen to the spot, confused about what to do, allowing his security guards to tackle Tatchell when he stormed his pulpit at Easter 1998.  Something for which Tatchell was fined a measly £18.60.

“Don’t accept the world as it is.  Dream of what the world could be – and then help make it happen.” said Tatchell.  I happily and willingly accept that mission.  But to do so, one must have bravery and courage. 

Pride means different things to different people.  Do enjoy the party.  But don’t forget the battle scars collected along the way, nor the wars still raging, and those yet to come.  The liberties we enjoy here today still feel fragile and vulnerable and they are certainly not universal.  Things are changing politically and socially here and across the world, but people live under oppression even in countries where homosexuality is permissible.  Then there are over 70 countries of the world where it remains illegal, in some places it is punishable by death.  For me that all adds up to make PRIDE a bittersweet experience.  One not reconciled by shrink-wrapping corporate headquarters in rainbow flags, or by department store window-dressing, as well-meaning as that is.  None of it should be allowed to drown out the voices of those who know, who experience and feel the lived realities of identifying as LGBTTTQQIAA. 

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Run don’t walk!  Getting children to be more active.

I am reflecting on chairing a work webinar about supporting children’s healthy food and activity choices.  It finished moments ago.  The statistics from the NHS’ National Child Measuring Programme were shared and they are nothing short of startling.  There is a clear link with the pandemic.  It has made what was already a concerning picture even worse. 

Childhood obesity is a significant problem, we all know that.  We hear it often enough.  And children are soaking up the messages, the misinformation, the emotional anxiety and confusion, like sponges.  The rates in children have been fairly static since 2006.  For reception aged children (that’s those aged four and five years) around 23% were found to be obese or overweight.  Almost a quarter.  But since the pandemic they have increased to almost 28%.  That’s a five per cent jump upwards.  Those classed as obese have risen from 9.9% to 14.4%, and severely obese children have doubled and are now 4.7% from 2.4%.

What is even more depressing is things progressively worsen by the time children are in year six (aged 10 and 11 years).  By then the rates (2020-2021) are obese and overweight 40.9%, obese 25.5%, and severely obese 6.3%.  This data is staggering.  What was once atypical is now becoming the norm.  I wonder how long it will take for the norm to become the majority?    

The solutions are out there, we know that to solve the problem healthier food choices and physical movement are the answer.  The Holiday Activities and Food (HAF) programme is a wonderful way to achieve that for the most disadvantaged families. But I fear we are not all being bold and ambitious enough in changing the ways we all behave and structure the lives of our children and young people. This is a matter for HAF and all services for children and their parents.

Once a playworker, always a playworker I say.  And that indeed was one of my earliest jobs.  I learned then its potent power and how it could change lives.  I noticed how active learning is hugely impactful.  After all, it suits the learning style of so many of us.  But alas, too often the emphasis in schools is placed upon sitting down, making small marks on paper, walking not running, and tightly packed timetable crammed to bursting with ‘learning’ leaving creativity and activity on the cutting room floor. 

Can someone, somewhere please have the courage to reinvent this learning wheel?  I heard the other day a story of how a boy had been found to be unable to settle in class, no doubt wanting and needing to expend pent-up energy fuelled by whatever was happening in his life and psychology and physiology.  The response was to remove his opportunity for a breaktime.  I would have proposed a longer breaktime myself. 

I call for lots of running in corridors, for children to be seen and heard, for freer timetabling, for active and engaging learning, problem solving, outdoor time and learning, and breaktimes as rewards and solutions to needs (sometimes called punishments or detentions).  There should be better school food, that children will want to eat as they will be so ravenously hungry after all this activity.  It seems we need to change our language too.  I am not asking for much.  Pretty sure it would result in happier, healthier children to boot, and easily reverse that trend in those graphs and stats.  

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A perfect storm for families and childcare?

The cost-of-living crisis combines significant challenges for household budgets and for businesses finances alike.  Everyone is taking a new close look at all income and expenditure and making informed choices about essential and desirable actions to bring in revenues and to control the scope, scale, and timing of expenditure.  If they aren’t, then they should be. 

Ballooning inflation, escalating energy costs, growing labour costs, and their effects on the cost of goods and services all add up to changing costs for almost everything.

In the childcare sector we have been concerned with the squeeze on our income and outgoings for years.  We have been juggling the various changes in government funding programmes and their associated rates, whilst reconciling the rules and regulations for charges for non-funded commercial services.  This has all been alongside the ebbs and flows of parental demand and need, affected by their employment and economic circumstances.  And all of this has occurred during a period of significant national minimum wage inflation, pension requirements, Brexit, and of course a pandemic.  No wonder we are exhausted.

So what storm is brewing now you ask?  Recently, there have been no- or low-cost suggestions made to reduce the financial burden on families by relaxing health and safety rules.  Which for cars may mean removing annual MOT requirements, and for childcare providers allowing them to care for more children per adult worker.

It is true that costs charged to parents for childcare are rising.  That, for childcare providers, is not necessarily a bad thing (as long as they are within the rules), if these charges are required to cover costs, provide quality, and support business sustainability.  Which they are.  It doesn’t fit well with any family taking that careful look at what money is coming in and what is going out and staring at the often-stark realities of balancing work and family life. But I wonder if these higher charges, may motivate more and more providers and families to take another look at the maze that is other support for childcare costs, things like Tax-Free Childcare (TFC) and Universal Credit (UC).  Because they are there and available to claim for up to £2-4000k a child on TFC and 85% of costs through UC.  And not enough providers are promoting it, and much lower than expected families are taking up TFC as reported in the House.  That might be one opportunity for us all to reconsider. 

Changes to adult to child ratios will not in my view have any effect upon family childcare bills but they could help the financial challenges of childcare providers.  But at what other costs?  How will quality be affected, and how will that manifest in Ofsted inspection judgements, and children’s learning outcomes?  What would an already stretched workforce, coping with the after-effects of the pandemic, and helping children and families to recover and dare I say it ‘catch up’ make of it?  How many will throw in the towel if given extra pressures?  Relaxing qualification requirements (either temporarily or in the longer-term) could also help bring more people in.  It isn’t that simple though.  Anyone running a business, or indeed visiting a café or a shop can see that everyone seems to be chasing a depleted workforce.  Competition in the job-market is fierce.  Let us all learn from experience, one well-intentioned but clumsy move was requiring GCSE level maths in the sector a few years ago.  Our warnings were correct, it reduced the number of people entering this wonderful sector.  So that would be a welcome U-turn. 

I have a warning.  The factors affecting demand and that tricky balancing act for families changing their requirements in response to the pandemic, and scrutinising their new arrangements, will fuel a groundswell of complaints from families.  They may become increasingly unhappy with the sufficiency of their local childcare market, the ways in which funded places are delivered and accessible, the tangle of process and rules surrounding various offers, and the charges levied by providers in addition.  Such dialogue will be economically driven, and increasingly politically motivated as we approach the next general election.  We are in for a period of intense debate, discussion and engagement in the childcare sector set against a backdrop of everyone wanting to do the right thing.  Local councils and providers will indeed want to do whatever they can, sometimes to their own detriment.  It would be better if we could some additional help where it is needed. 

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What’s your pandemic CV looking like?

There has been lots thought about and said over the past two extraordinary years.  I won’t repeat any of that here and now.  We have all had to take urgent and unexpected actions as well.  But I wonder have you taken the time to reflect upon all of that in measured terms? 

And by that I mean, have you sat down with your CV and looked at it again, to make sure you have included all the experiences and learning points that have emerged from leading and managing through a global pandemic?  What should you be celebrating and acknowledging, and what should you be telling yourself, your employer, or potential employers, about what you now bring to the table?

There will be many things we share in common, and some stark differences.  Here’s my reflection on the things I would like to squeeze into my CV.

First comes the live implementation of contingency planning.  We have had plans for years, but fortunately we have never had to use them.  The past two years has given hugely useful practical experience, not only involving pressing the ‘go’ button, but including regular reviews, changes and improvements. 

A major part of this contingency was of course having to design and deliver all sorts of communications to the team to lead them through uncertain times, and to identify what people needed and wanted.  Leading change through a lens of worst-case scenario is not great, but there was some satisfaction in being found to be right on occasion – when the unthinkable did indeed occur. 

The more stressful element was implementing a necessary but open and inclusive business review process.  This inevitably resulted in managing a redundancy programme.  My third as it happens.  It was probably the one that went best.  We all had a unifying common enemy in COVID-19 – which went along way to smoothing out some of the more traumatic effects. 

Keeping a weather eye on the external environment is a core leadership skill.  And in this case, it was the daily task of appraising, interpreting, and second-guessing the ever-changing government guidance and funding offers.  Sharing it in summary and reassuring form to support colleagues and clients alike through verbal and written briefings. 

It can be tempting to plough all one’s energy into helping and supporting others to the expense of self-care, especially when you are in the care sector.  But adopting and settling into new routines, environments and ways of working is an obvious process many have navigated. Being deliberate and conscious and determined with self-care has helped enormously, and helping others to do the same.

That has included adapting to and embracing new technologies in the form of Zoom, Teams, Eventbrite and the like and developing and honing onscreen delivery of everything.  One thing we are particularly proud of has been the way in which we have regularly brought all our clients and contacts together using such technology for their and our benefit.  It has meant the world to us (and them) in personal, business, and professional terms. 

We also designed many new products and services to be delivered in new ways.  I have noticed a marked improvement in tender (or bid or proposal) design and writing skills over the period and evidence by a remarkable success rate.  Some of that happened at just the crucial moment.  This has undoubtedly been helped by more desk time, and less rushing around appearing busy, and taking the long train or car journeys.  Indeed, this has resulted in the business surviving a rocky 2020, and bouncing back through an unpredictable 2021, and breaking the records we have set in over 20 years of business in the process.

For my revised CV, there are key themes around: planning, leading, communication, adapting, technology, self-care, product development, sales and marketing, client relationships, external environment, finance, and improvements.  I wonder what yours could look like?

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