Making our voices heard

John Pearce
Friday, July 19, 2019

The North East is a unique and wonderful place to live and work with so many positives ranging from the fantastic environment to the cost of living. As a region we have been thinking hard about what makes us different and how that should shape the way in which we work with children, young people and their families. The strengths of community, identity, creativity and passion cannot be underestimated and should shape our aspirations and ambitions for the future.

I have to confess at this stage I have only lived in the region for the last three years, so I'm technically still an outsider, but it certainly doesn't feel like that in my adopted home. I have been really struck by the natural resources that are evident in the region and also how little I understood it before I moved here. I think that lack of awareness, particularly from policy makers is something that has created a frustration for the region. To rectify this, we have started to make a conscious effort to have our voice heard and champion the region nationally as far as possible. We are geographically a long way from London but that can't be a barrier to being heard (and some of us are quite loud!).

A really tangible strand of this work has been to start developing a ‘regional narrative' to help us articulate better our priorities and importantly the context in which they are framed. We are challenged on a regular basis in relation to high and increasing levels of children in care, poor educational outcomes in the secondary sector, and poor health outcomes, along with other measures on which we are considered outliers.

Clearly these are all things we must focus on improving but that cannot be achieved without understanding context. As ADCS President, Rachel Dickinson, so clearly articulated in her excellent speech to the ADCS Annual Conference two weeks ago, the impact of poverty on the lives of our families is fundamental to increasing levels of need. Decisions made in Whitehall on welfare and education as well as a decade of austerity have had a hugely disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable children and families. We work hard to achieve the best for our children and families but a series of conflicting national policy initiatives have increasingly affected our ability to provide the very services they rely on and regions such as the North East have been hit hardest. As we move into even more uncertain times all the evidence suggests this will continue to be the case, so therefore we need different responses from government.

We must have system wide approaches to tackling the underlying causes that drive the inequalities we see on a day to day basis. The North East currently has the lowest economic growth of any region in England, lowest gross weekly earnings and the highest percentage of children living in low income families, all while funding for local authorities has fallen by 49.1% in real terms since 2010 (NAO, 2018). These are not excuses but are simply the realities of our context and unless these issues are tackled our services will only ever be mitigating the impact of national policy.

That is why it is essential we have a loud regional voice and help national government better target the resources that are still in the system. Let's focus on long term sustainable change rather than quick fixes funded by one off pots of money. Let's look at education through the lens of the issues that prevent children engaging with the curriculum and not solely focus on improving teaching and learning. Let's build a system that works with families in a strengths-based way and is flexible enough to respond to the inevitable bumps in the road, rather than fitting families into what works for our organisations.

There is huge potential in the North East and it is essential we work together regionally and nationally to realise that potential so our children and young people get the opportunities and future they deserve.

John Pearce is corporate director of children's, adults and health, South Tyneside Council. This blog first appeared on the ADCS website