Community Links

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Deep Value Assessment: How ongoing, participatory employability assessments could improve outcomes for jobseekers

October 23rd, 2014

Today we publish our new report, Deep Value Assessment, which sets out how assessment of jobseekers’ needs and abilities could be improved.

The report comes as new employment figures show that unemployment is at just 6%, its lowest level since before the financial crash. Youth unemployment has also fallen substantially. But the same employment figures show that most of this decrease in unemployment is due to people moving into economic inactivity, and not into work. These statistics highlight how as the unemployment rate falls, it is increasingly difficult to get the remaining unemployed people – many of whom face the largest barriers to the labour market – into work. This echoes the message from recent Work Programme statistics which show the programme is still failing to deliver for the people with the most entrenched barriers to work.

There are many reasons why employment support services are struggling to deliver for this group, but problems with assessing the type of support they need are definitely an important one. Good assessment is crucial to any public service, and an essential part of tackling the problem of long-term unemployment is ensuring that employment support services – both Jobcentre Plus and contracted providers – have a solid understanding of jobseekers’ needs and abilities.

Many recent proposals call for a more efficient ‘segmentation tool’ as a way to improve support for people facing the most barriers to employment. Such a tool would identify early those jobseekers that were going to be the most challenging to get into work, and split them off into more intensive support. If a day-one segmentation tool could be made to work it would no doubt address some of the immediate problems in the employment support sector, such as creaming and parking. We originally undertook our research – which involved qualitative fieldwork with 40 jobseekers and several other stakeholders – by attempting to understand more about how such a tool might work.

A new approach to employability assessments

Ultimately, however, our research suggests that such a ‘segmentation’ tool may not be the best way forward in the longer term. Instead, a different approach is needed:

  • Firstly, assessment should be an ongoing process. To get an accurate, in-depth picture of a jobseeker’s situation requires continually updating the assessment. It’s essential that advisors have the time and resources to build Deep Value relationships, use them to continually assess needs and abilities, and tailor support accordingly.
  • Secondly, assessment should be more participatory, emphasising jobseekers’ own perspectives. Jobseekers understand their own needs and abilities better than anyone. They should be enabled to actively contribute to their assessment and thus shape their support offer. A more participatory assessment would also encourage employment support to include a consideration of jobseekers’ strengths and abilities, instead of just addressing their barriers and needs.

Now is an excellent time for the employment support sector to think about how assessment could be done differently. Discussions are underway for how ‘Work Programme 2’ should be commissioned, but with a few years left on existing contracts, there is time to start piloting different ways of doing assessment. These will need to be built into its design from the start, as this will have implications for how contracts are made and how providers are expected to work together.

The roll-out of Universal Credit is going to change both who receives employment support and how people interact with these services. Claimants will no longer be on a straightforward linear path from ‘signing on’ as unemployed to eventually moving into work. Instead claimants may have different periods of un- or under-employment within one claim, interspersed by periods of being in work. Ongoing and participatory ways of understanding their changing needs and strengths will be crucial, and reduce inefficiencies and waste by allowing employment support to be tailored to claimants’ increasingly varying situations. More work need to be don to understand how best ongoing and participatory assessment can fit within the new system.

Our report highlights four areas where the principles of a Deep Value approach to assessment can be put into practice now. The processes and tools of assessment need to be less ‘tick-box’ and more collaborative and engaging – and it needs to be possible to regularly update them. Partnerships need to be strengthened to ensure that different providers are able to share information about jobseekers’ strengths, abilities and barriers. Frontline staff need additional training to be able to undertake ongoing, participatory assessment. Employment coaches and advisors need to be enabled to build Deep Value relationships between jobseekers and their advisors.

Deep Value assessment done right would benefit all jobseekers, but in particular it would help those who the current employment support system is failing. Deep Value Assessment is about making sure that we can get, and act on, a proper understanding of jobseekers’ needs and strengths, and ultimately provide quality employment support for all..

Beating Cancer in the Community: early action to save lives

October 16th, 2014

This Guest Post by Community Links Health Coordinator Zoraida Colorado details our community Breast Cancer screening project.This week a new Screening Centre was opened at East Village on the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park. This is an edited version of Zoraida’s speech at the opening event.

When we started our calling service four years ago, take up in Newham was 56% compared to London average of 62%. To tackle this problem, we created our telephone reminder project. We put together a team of outreach workers who could speak many languages.

They telephoned women about a week before their appointment date to confirm that they have received their invitation letter. If they hadn’t then we give them details of their appointment. For those who were not able to attend, we will reschedule for a convenient time. Some women had no intention of going as they felt perfectly well, embarrassed or scared of the result. In those cases we spent time talking through the importance of screening and how it could save their lives. We reassured them that the screening unit is a women-only area and although the test is uncomfortable, it is definitely worth doing.

During the call, we also spoke to women about self-examination and the signs and symptoms they need to look for between invitations. Women have responded positively to our calls and the service has been very successful with an increase in take up of 15%.

During these four years, we have built great relationships with every GP practice in Newham, with the Breast Screening Team at Bart’s Hospital and with our commissioners. We have witnessed some excellent improvements and we are very excited to see the screening moving into the wonderful new building part of the Sir Ludwig Guttmann Health and Wellbeing Centre, which has been developed at the former site of the Olympics Medical Centre for the London 2012 Games. This new unit will serve around 180,000 women in north and east London.

Over those last four years, most importantly we have saved lives, not only within our calling project but also in our other early detection projects which run in schools, sixth forms and in the wider community. We work with students from St Angela’s, we are training these young women to know about the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, to know how to self examine and to understand the importance of the screening programme. They will go on to share these life saving messages with other students as well as their family and friends.

All our projects have something in common and are very special. We use creative ways to reach those people that the usual health messages don’t reach. We listen to what people have to say and try to find a way to breakdown the barriers that prevent people from taking up these services.

One in eight women get breast cancer, if we are going to survive this we must catch it early and one of the most important things that we must do is come to screening!

Child poverty in east London, the maps the statistics and the human impact.

October 15th, 2014

The Campaign to End Child Poverty has today published new figures showing that London contains 14 out of the top 20 local authorities with the highest rates of child poverty across the UK. The three boroughs with the worst record on child poverty are in the heart of east London where Community Links operates.

Our headquarters are in Newham – a borough which often features in league tables measuring poverty, ill-health and social exclusion, and today’s figures showing that Newham remains among the top areas for child poverty in the UK, despite being so close to so much wealth, are truly devastating. We know that Newham residents in the main work very hard, often on more than one job, but for very low rates of pay. More than 50% of the workforce here earns below the London Living wage and over 20% are illegally employed on less than the minimum wage.

But by focussing on the figures it’s too easy to lose sight of the human effect of poverty. Our own research into welfare reform earlier this year showed how multiple cuts combine to become unmanageable for families. The end result is to leave them less, rather than more, able to cope, find work and support themselves; many reported cutting back on essentials such as food and fuel. Parents felt particularly vulnerable and spoke of the pressure put on their dwindling finances by the cost of clothes, food, and transport. In some cases, parents go without food to allow their children to eat.

Today’s statistics are yet another reminder that life remains really tough for many people in our borough.

As well as dealing with the consequences of family poverty through our debt advice and money management services Community Links is addressing the causes – supporting people to find training, sustainable work or set-up their own enterprises. Additionally our research and policy team are working to change the circumstances which leave east London’s Children growing-up in poverty; we will be continuing to use our understanding of life on the ground to lobby the government to make sure that future welfare reforms focus on improving the lives of the poorest people: encouraging their strengths rather than controlling their weaknesses.

 

 

Conservative Party Conference: The view from the library next door

September 30th, 2014

Birmingham Library Conservative ConferenceI’m writing this blog from the brand new Library of Birmingham, a £180 million project which is central to the regeneration of Birmingham. Happily, the library is right next door to the ICC venue of this year’s Conservative Party conference, and it’s the perfect place to reflect on the announcements being made.

Interlocking circles cover the entire façade of the library, making it quite a stunning building. People’s interpretations of these interlocking rings vary somewhat: for some their steel construction harks back to Birmingham’s industrial past, for others they are symbolic of the interdependent spaces inside the library itself. For me – with my head firmly in party conference season – they remind me of the theme of Ed Miliband’s speech last week: that we should work “together” and make sure no one is left on their own. Alone, any one of the rings would be fairly unremarkable, but together they create something much greater than the sum of the circular parts.

Next door to the library, the Conservative Party are setting out their own vision of how to “secure a better future” for Britain. As was widely predicted, many of the biggest announcements concern social security – an area that we at Community Links have spent much time thinking about.

Here are some initial reactions to the main announcements.

Probably the most headline-grabbing announcement so far is Chancellor George Osborne’s promised two-year freeze on tax credits and working-age benefits, excluding maternity pay and disability benefits. The expected savings of £3bn are part of a wider promised £25bn of further cuts. The Chancellor described this as a “serious contribution to bringing down the deficit”.

One problem with this announcement is the approach which it embodies: “one-size-fits all” everyone’s benefits are to be frozen, no matter what their circumstances. Community Links research into the cumulative impact of welfare reforms in east London shows the devastating impact this has had on local people, eroding their resilience. The Chancellor’s two-year freeze on benefits will increase the pressure on people who are already struggling to make ends meet. In fact, as the policy is expected to hit 10 million households, 5 million of whom are in work, it is likely to push many more people into difficult financial situations. Further squeeze on the incomes of people who are already struggling introduces stress and chaos into people’s lives and could be counterproductive to getting people into work.

A related policy is the proposed reduction of the benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000. The stated aim of the benefit cap is to increase work incentives – and indeed, as working households are exempted from the cap, it does indeed impose large financial pressure for people to get into work. But this policy doesn’t properly take into account the varied reasons why the vast majority of people want to work – financial incentives are just one part alongside people’s desire to develop personal skills, to feel valued by society, and to be good role-models to their children. Furthermore, our report Tipping the Balance showed how people affected by the cap, although keen to work, often didn’t get the support they need. We and many other organisations are seeing how transitional support via Discretionary Housing Payments is not being used effectively to help people to overcome their personal barriers to employment. A further, dramatic reduction in the incomes of people affected by the benefit cap won’t address these issues.

These policies are presented against the backdrop of a rising cost of living and the fastest rise in house prices, for decades. Taken together freezing benefits and reducing the cap within this context seem likely to hinder peoples opportunity to progress – rather than support them into sustainable work.

Moving on to Iain Duncan Smith’s announcements, the news is more mixed. The stated ambition of completing the roll-out of Universal Credit by 2015/16 is welcome: as I’ve argued previously the current state of incomplete welfare reform is leaving too many people in a damaging no-man’s land, and UC could, if implemented properly address some of these problems. One other proposal from the Secretary of State is to send Jobcentre Plus coaches into schools to work with children as young as age 15. This is one of those policies where the impact will depend completely upon how it is delivered. If the advisors support young people in a way that focuses on, and encourages, their strengths the policy could could help tackle youth unemployment. But if support is punitive and antagonistic – as far too much support from the jobcentre currently is – the impact could be disastrous – turning already disengaged young people further away from available support.

Alongside this announcement was the news that young people’s benefits will be further restricted after six months of any claim, it remains unclear whether this includes cutting housing benefit for under 25-year olds. However such a policy – which may push many young people into homelessness – would not do anything to help young people into work.

The final big announcement from Iain Duncan Smith’s speech is a commitment to trial paying some people’s benefits via payment cards. People who “have fallen into a damaging spiral – drug or alcohol addiction, even problem debt” would receive their benefits via these cards, and would only be able to spend on certain items. This policy seems to go completely against the grain of the coalition’s welfare reforms. IDS and Lord Freud frequently emphasise that Universal Credit is all about getting people ready for the world of work: monthly payments, digital applications and strengthened conditionality are supposedly ensuring that people on benefits are – in IDS’s words – “in work to find work”. But paying benefits on pre-paid cards and controlling expenditure goes completely against this sentiment. That’s quite apart from the wider ethical and practical problems of such a scheme.

While writing this blog, I’ve been trying to think about how it links back to the metaphor of the circles with which I began. It’s clear that the focus of the Conservative-led Government is on the individual circles, rather than how they fit together. Conservative Party ideology is keen to make sure that each individual circle is working on its own; some policy announcements – earlier support for young people and rolling out Universal Credit to smooth out some work disincentives in the system – will help to ensure this is the case. But the more brutal cuts to benefits are likely to further push people into chaos rather than supporting people into work, and the idea of paying benefits via a card is morally dangerous.

Many of the policy details of how some of the announcements will work remain to be clarified – such as what will be included the allowance that young people will receive after six months, or how the benefits payment card will work. It’s crucial that when they are clarifying these points to put before the electorate next May, the Conservatives remember that we need a system which focuses on encouraging people’s strengths, rather than controlling their weaknesses.

Community Links – Employment, Training and Enterprise: celebrating success

September 25th, 2014


In this guest post we meet our Employment and Training Links
“success story of the month” Leonora Hayes.

Leonora  was a client on our Jobshop Community Outreach Project and was supported into work by Community Links Advisor Eugenie Coles.

Leonora was made redundant after 14 years in the leisure industry; she began looking for part time work to fit around her two children’s school hours. Initial contact was through the Children Centre based at their school

Community Links operate an outreach service in community settings and it was here Leonora first encountered her advisor Eugenie Coles. She says. “Eugenie’s desk was right at the entrance of the children centre so it was hard to miss her; I had nothing to lose and extra help was very much appreciated”.

Eugenie helped Leonora to restructure her CV, and kept her in touch with suitable job opportunities via email or text, but as well as the practical support Leonora reflects on the quality of the relationship, “I really appreciated her willingness to help, her nonstop support and her constant reassurance that I could achieve anything if I put my mind to it … I stay in touch with Eugenie as her continuous support still helps if I hit a low patch and I’ve also been able to share my success with Eugenie after all her encouragement and hard work paid off”.

After they join-up, the Jobshop Community Outreach Project takes all of its candidates through a programme of employability skills and confidence building, if needed a range of other specialist support can also be organised.

Once she had completed the Jobshop Community Outreach Project Leonora found part time work:

“My proudest moment was when I started to work part time and, to add the icing on the cake, I started my own business while continuing to work in a local supermarket.”

Leonora’s business, Happy Hayes, is a small online boutique creating unique hand-crafted items and accessories made from vintage, up-cycled and locally sourced fabrics. The enterprise aims to be as green as possible keeping a very low carbon footprint. Happy Hayes was shortlisted for a “Green Business Award” at the Barking & Dagenham Business Awards 2014

Unfortunately for Leonora her part-time employment at the supermarket ended when all temporary staff contracts were cancelled, but she continued to grow her own business and again with Eugenie’s help and contacts found new job as a Midday Assistant in her children’s Primary School. Leonora says “It’s a miracle, Eugenie has been my guardian angel working with me, sometimes when I am about to give up I get an unexpected phone call from her which I truly appreciate and I am very grateful from the bottom of my heart”.

In a tough employment climate Leonora has been supported by the Jobshop Outreach project not only in terms of Employability skills and training, but also the constant reassurance and encouragement – providing support when it was needed.

Leonora said: “The Jobshop Community Outreach Project is a fantastic service for those seeking help with employment. A very supportive project with an excellent member of staff, providing a brilliant service at a time when things are uncertain (such as being made newly redundant). Eugenie provided not only a service to help seek employment but always went out of her way to boost my self esteem and confidence, and by finding work for someone who had not had an interview for many years. Eugenie is a great morale booster and did a brilliant job keeping in touch even when I secured employment and set up my own business. I believe that without her I wouldn’t have been able to achieve all”.

Like many of her clients Eugenie is delighted to see Leonora succeed and move on after a setback she says “I am so proud of Leonora, seeing her flourish and succeed, being able to share her success and to know that she has been shortlisted for a ‘Green Business’ Award for her own enterprise.”

Leonora has this week been awarded gift tokens by Community Links Director of Employment and Training, Jonny Boux (pictured above) to celebrate her “success of the month” Leonora’s story is one of many successes that the Community Links Employment and Training team deliver every day. Community Links’ nationally recognised support services operate across east London helping people find and keep jobs. In the last year, we supported over 3,000 unemployed people – over one third went on to find sustainable jobs, many more have gone onto further training and voluntary work.
Our employment and training projects support a whole range of people – some are for specific groups, like young people, single parents or older people with health issues, whilst others are open to anyone – they all share the same approach:

  • We think about the individual – we design our support precisely for each person we work with and offer that person one-to-one support
  • We plan for the long-term – it’s not just about helping people get into work but also helping them stay there
  • We take a ground-up approach – our services are shaped with service user and employers. As an organisation with a range of projects and programmes we can find, assess and allocate just the right support – no matter what a person’s barriers to work might be.
  • Our Deep Value relationships meet individual’s specific needs. By looking at all aspects of their lives, having an eye on long-term ambitions and goals we can provide sustainable support.

Find out more about our Employment, Training and Enterprise projects:
Download our publication “Think Future. Think Work

 

Out of the Ordinary: Changing Places or Changing People?

September 23rd, 2014

Today we publish a new book Out of the Ordinary: Learning the lessons about doing things differently to grow strong neighbourhoods below is a short extract setting out the context.  The complete book is available here

 

12-150 Ex Lamport Ironstone's Avonside 0-6-0ST 2068/33 'Robert' on static display at Stratford

Our Early Action Task Force has worked with the Welsh government on the development of their Future Generations Bill. In the course of this work we have spoken to young people in North Wales. Over and over again their stories have begun “we live in an area that used to have coal mines…”. Inquire a little further and you discover that the speaker doesn’t remember the mine – it closed before they were born – but the local story has never moved on.

Begin a similar conversation in east London and you will seldom hear young people say “this is an area that used to have docks” or “we once had an enormous railway goods yard”, although, of course, dock work was once as significant in Newham as mining in Wales. The east London economy has changed and thrown up a new set of openings and opportunities for the rising generation. The change hasn’t always been positive. Half the workforce in Newham is paid below the London Living Wage and more than one in five less than the minimum wage, but the story has moved on and continues to move on rapidly and relentlessly.

One in every five of our community leaves each year. Many, perhaps for good reasons, they have trained hard and secured stable employment. They can plan for the future and are ready to settle. They move out of the borough, usually further east towards Redbridge, Havering and Essex, as generations of migrants have done before them.

Others move for the opposite reason. Their financial circumstances are uncertain, possibly short-term contracts on very low wages, possibly periods of unemployment, their accommodation is inevitably affected. They can’t put down roots and they move from short-term let to short-term let sometimes in Newham, sometimes beyond.

Both groups are replaced by vulnerable people from across the world and the cycle begins again. This perpetual churn means that Newham features continuously in the various league tables measuring poverty, ill-health and social exclusion. Its easy then to look at Community Links and conclude that, if this is still one of the poorest areas in the UK, we have been busy doing nothing these last 30 years or so. That is to confuse the people and the place. Lives have been changed but, for the most part, the territory has not.

Passenger and cargo ships no longer berth at the docks, yet east London is still one of a small number of places in the UK that attract new waves of people who are likely to be disproportionately poor and, initially at least, ill-equipped to flourish. Few of our new arrivals have qualifications which are recognised in the UK. The 2014 Newham Household Panel Survey showed that 36% of the population here have no recognised qualifications – double the London average.

This does not mean Newham residents aren’t “hard working families playing by the rules”. On the contrary, many work very hard, often on more than one job, but for very low rates of pay. More than 50% of the workforce here earns below the London Living wage and over 20% are illegally employed on less than the minimum wage. The fact that social indices in an area remain stubbornly static does not necessarily indicate that social programmes have failed. It might do, but it equally might not. We need to invest more in longitudinal studies that follow the person, rather than remain on the patch, if we want to better understand the value of neighbourhood-based work in communities like east London.

Canning TownMassive physical regeneration may break this cycle of “getting on and getting out”. It is a measure of the scale of the current changes here that the Olympic Park, Westfield shopping centre and surrounding developments, although famous internationally, are actually responsible for only about 20% of the current investment in physical regeneration in east London. This large-scale investment and development makes us hopeful. It shapes perceptions and ambitions and throws up the opportunities that are so evidently absent in north Wales – but it is not inevitably and automatically a good thing: The Canary Wharf development on the Isle of Dogs has been a very big part of the east London story over the last 30 years. Yet changes in the physical landscape are not a reliable proxy for changing people’s lives. The promised “trickle down” from Canary Wharf never reached the ground but at this relatively early stage we think that the Olympic developments, and certainly Westfield, are creating jobs, homes and opportunities which offer real potential for social as well as physical regeneration. At the very least they help to change the story and so lift aspirations. No young person here would describe Stratford as “the place that used to have the biggest railway goods yard in Britain”.

Parts of this area, which less than a generation ago was one of the poorest regions in Western Europe, now has some of the highest land values in the world; of course, they are not occupied by the same families. Poverty hasn’t been eliminated or even reduced. It has been relocated.

The large housing estate opposite the Community Links centre on Barking Road is being redeveloped now. This will be the third time that the estate has been knocked down and rebuilt since the slum clearance programme in the 1950s and early 1960s. Previous programmes, particularly the tower block phase, which Community Links campaigned so vigorously around in the 1980s, entrenched the poverty here and exacerbated the social exclusion.

On both the Canning Town Estate and the Isle of Dogs massive public investment in buildings, albeit in very different kinds of building, has largely failed to secure material improvement in people’s lives. Yet there are still few social programmes running alongside the enormous physical regeneration. This is no longer just about poor incomers – it is equally as important to link the new better-off families who have moved to the Olympic Park with their neighbours if the legacy is to be achieved for all.

No single agency is able to do all the above. That’s why the building of partnerships across the sectors has always been important to Community Links and is one of our three key strategic priorities for 2013 to 2016.

This is an extract from the Community Links publication Revisiting Out of the Ordinary: Learning the lessons about doing things differently to grow strong neighbourhoods;   the book is the second in a series began in 2010 outlining our approach to local social regeneration. Using case studies and data, and drawing on the 37 years of experience of Community Links’ staff, service users and partners, Out of the Ordinary demonstrates the positive impact and extraordinary things that ordinary people can make possible. This second volume explores how Community Links has adapted to the significant external changes, both local and national, in the four years since 2010. The book is available here .

A reflection on corporate volunteering

September 11th, 2014
http://www.pinterest.com/communitylinksw/volunteers-week-2014/
Volunteers from London City Airport transforming the garden at Community Links Asta neighbourhood Hub

I believe in volunteering, I believe in supporting in it, and I try to engage in volunteering where possible. This “where possible” is an important detail; in a common complaint many seem to empathise with, days and weeks tend to run away with themselves in the midst of work and desperate attempts to exercise enough, read the stack of books that hasn’t been touched since January, keep up with family demands, and still manage to relax enough to make the week manageable. The voluntary donation of time can be hard to achieve when the malaise of seemingly more pressing activities dominates the week, and months can easily slide past without time being put aside for voluntary work.

Despite experiencing and recognising these difficulties, the concept of days of obligatory volunteering insisted on by your company as part of your day job, initially led me to feel some reservation and feelings of doubt. Is volunteering still valid if you’re ‘made to do it’ and if it’s expected as ‘part of your job’ or ‘commitment to the company’? I also had been exposed to critical positions on Corporate Social Responsibility as a concept, and I suppose I’m a bit naturally cynical about why a company might choose to do one thing or be associated with one charity brand over another.

However, in the six months that I have been working with corporate volunteers, my perspective has changed dramatically. Firstly, given the previously mentioned competing range of clamouring demands on time that one experiences in the 9-5 existence, the provision of two days’ worth of time for voluntary activities is not to be disregarded. Secondly, a day’s exposure to volunteering activities can also be a great starting point for engaging in further voluntary activity.

Most importantly, I have realised that whether a voluntary activity is actively sought out by an individual or offered to them by the organization for whom they work, the attitude they come with is their own. Among the hundreds of volunteers I have met, I have repeatedly encountered enthusiasm, dedication and the genuine desire to make a difference, and I have seen people take to a range of tasks from the strenuous to the downright messy with fervour and impressively good grace and humour.

Corporate volunteers engage in a range of activities with Community Links, from gardening and constructing fences and play equipment at our Community Hubs to interview and employability skills training with young people, from literacy sessions with local children to mentoring entrepreneurs in their business journeys.

Beyond simply measuring volunteering in terms of allocated time, there are a number of ways to assess the impact of these voluntary activities. Often the measure is practical, as the impact that a team of volunteers working on and outdoors project or site is visually demonstrable. Similarly, the impact of volunteering on the volunteers themselves can also be measured through the assessment of the feedback they provide after participating in one of our projects. However, what is harder to quantify, but in my opinion of overwhelming importance, is the impact that volunteering can have on extending a person’s personal understanding.

The UK – and particularly east London – is at once extremely diverse and desperately unequal. Perhaps no place other than this part of the capital shows both the cultural richness and economic disparity of the nation so clearly – between Canary Wharf and Canning Town it can be hard to draw comparisons. It is dangerously easy to exist in one of the dimensions of this part of the city without often straying into others. After several months working in Canning Town, a five minute tube journey to Canary Wharf can make you feel like you are in another world. Volunteering can offer us a chance to gain a new perspective, and allows a temporary window onto a contrasting reality to be opened. My experience working with corporate volunteers has shown this in a powerful way; even volunteers who are from or who know Newham have commented on how much they have learnt about the realities of the borough as a result of volunteering with Community Links.

And this is the best bit. After spending time volunteering with Community Links, many people have contacted me asking to be involved in subsequent events and activities in a personal capacity. As a charity we’ve got a big vision and there’s a lot to do – we need an army of partners, supporters and volunteers to help us.

In conclusion, be it a result of personal impulse, organizational engineering or even peer related pressure, almost all of us could and should volunteer more. Similarly, we all need to ensure that we regularly open our eyes to worlds which are not our own. I celebrate organizations and individuals who are willing to give their time and energy to voluntary work, and those who are open to learning about the actions, lives and activities of others.

If you’re inspired by volunteering, why not  find out out how you could get involved at Community Links.

An edited version of this blog post was first published by Third Sector

Play Streets – playing out and reclaiming childhood.

August 28th, 2014

Playing out in Tower RoadBack in July The Arts Council announced its investment plan for 2015-2018 and within that announcement it became clear that the English National Opera was the highest profile loser as its grant was slashed a third to £12.4 million from £17.2 million. This is a grant that the ENO use “to develop new audiences for opera through English Language performances which are affordable and accessible to everyone, alongside providing access and pathways for British singers and artists”.

Access to high quality arts is very important for all and especially those living in the neighbourhoods that we at Community Links operate in throughout east London, – though I doubt that even if a performance which is “affordable” is within the reach of many of the families that use our free open access play provision or the raft of other free opportunities taking place in our Neighbourhood Hubs.

It got me thinking about how I could spend a grant of £12.4million and achieve similar aims.

With such a large amount of funding I would want to reach the greatest number of people possible, therefore dividing the grant amount by the 326 boroughs that make up all the districts in England, gives each borough a total of £38,036.So the equivalent of one post with employers costs factored in and a very small amount of project costs.

What single post could be funded in every single council and district up and down the land that would have the a big impact in bringing people together and like the English National Opera provide new experiences and opportunities for a diverse group of people?

It’s a challenge to say the least but I have an idea.

What if every council had within its staff a Play Street Activator? A person that could be responsible for promoting the concept of play streets, spreading the idea among communities on a local level, working with groups of people who want to come together and start a regular community activity in their neighbourhood, a play street in their road.
This person could help local people to navigate the bureaucracy of local authorities to make it happen (it already happens in many areas, so is possible it there is will) The Play Street Activator could provide support to local groups to get their own community-led play street off the ground and ultimately contributing to developing community resilience.

Play streets are not a new concept, in fact in 1938 legislation was enacted in parliament to allow for them and they became a regular part of urban life, reaching a peak in the 1950’s with over 700 taking place in England and Wales.

But sadly by the 1980’s and the growing domination of cars on our roads and streets they had almost completely died out.

In more recent times, communities have been taking parties to the streets more and more with Royal celebrations and small grants packages such as the London Borough of Newham’s, Lets Get the Party Started supporting such activity, to a point in 2013, following valuable work from London Play – the Government recognises the benefits of play streets on outcomes such as health.

But the outcomes achieved by play streets are much broader than just health, activated streets, safer streets with people outside, engaging with each other and getting to know their neighbours all contributes to community cohesion as neighbours work together to make the event happen and deliver it on the day.

Children are provided with space that they can explore , create, imagine and perform in, which for maybe the first time is super local to their own house and free, helping those on low incomes and completely accessible to all, some play street activity might even provide intergenerational opportunities. The other massive bonus of play streets is that they require very little financial resource and can be entirely sustainable with the will of the organisers and the local authority.

Investing in a play street activator might pay dividends in terms of outcomes, locally community members will be more connected, more able to come together to support each other and with networks, that all contributes to the idyll of the “myth of the golden age” where everyone left their street door open, children played on the pavements and mothers sat on doorstep shelling peas chatting to each other but ultimately keeping an eye on all the children and the neighbourhood itself.

Streets being thought of solely as routes for cars has been a recent construction, in 2007 a playday poll found that 71% of adults surveyed played in the street or neighbourhood as children compared to only 21% of current kids.

If we are not careful the idea that of the street as a playspace could be lost within a generation.

So if the £12.4 million paid for a Play Street activator post in each district, this one post could ensure that a millions of children in this country could begin to use the space outside their house as a playground and the children living around them new playmates. This one post could have a lasting positive impact on neighbourhoods nationwide as people come together, make something happen and teach children that living in a community is special; important and possible.

As stated earlier investing in the arts is important, as is Opera in English to make the arts accessible but what better than an activator in every community to help children reclaim the streets one afternoon a month led by their parents. A catalyst to help children reclaim a childhood with a level of independence and exploration, some of which might lead to an interest in performing – especially if the two became more closely aligned – a marriage between the arts council and a newly formed play council for the uk would be an ideal.

 

The Fourth Emergency Service? Early Action and Social Security

July 30th, 2014

When we think about crime we can’t help but think of criminals and crime-solvers. The public imagination is informed by stories that focus on reactions to the act of crime; whether it’s a series of devilish riddles solved by Sherlock Holmes, a criminal investigation by Columbo, or a police procedural undertaken by the officers of Sun Hill Police station.

We could therefore be forgiven for believing that the primary role of the police service is to solve crimes, rather than to prevent them. However as Sherlock Holmes once pointed out, sometimes “there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”. We appear to have forgotten the first and arguably most fundamental Peelian Principle: “the basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.

Similarly when we think of the fire and rescue service we think of fire engines rushing to a smouldering building, and fire-fighters desperately trying to put it out. When we think of our health we worry about unexpected illness; very few of us seek medical advice before a problem has already arisen. In this sense, using a metaphor the Task Force has often used, emergency services are the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff: supporting people when they are already in crisis.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and indeed in some cases it isn’t. Take Lancashire Constabulary, for example, who have just received £3 million in funding for its Early Action Response project. Or Manchester Fire and Rescue, who have been investing in preventative measures such as Community Safety Apprenticeships for a while now. These initiatives have, or will in the case of Lancashire Constabulary, not only save money, but ultimately ensure that problems are prevented from ever arising.

So what about social security?

Ask anyone about the purpose of the welfare state and they’ll most likely use the metaphor of the safety net; a last resort to save those who find themselves in crisis. Despite its origins as a system of mutual insurance, it is now viewed at best as an emergency service – or at worst as an emergency service that creates ‘dependency’ and traps people in poverty.

Undoubtedly helping those who find themselves in crisis is an important job: as a society we should ensure that these people are supported and enabled in such a way as to return to a general standard of wellbeing. Many benefits are already supposed to work in this way; for example, Jobseekers Allowance is there to help those who find themselves unemployed survive whilst they look for work.

However the social security system currently has three major problems. Firstly, it acts too late; for example most people must wait a year before they receive more intensive employment support, there is a nine month gap between first becoming ill at work and receiving any support, and there are many avoidable delays that are caused by incorrect or inefficient assessments.

Secondly the social security system fails to prevent poverty, both for those in and out of work. This is most stark for people who have been sanctioned, and poverty and destitution has clear links to poorer health outcomes (amongst others). Finally, its delivery can exacerbate already existing problems – whether through harsh eligibility tests for disability benefits or hostile treatment at the job centre. Both of these issues can have a detrimental effect on both physical and mental health.

Acting earlier for social security

Perhaps by looking at social security through an early action lens we can re-imagine it as something that stops problems from occurring in the first place, rather than a safety net that catches those who have fallen.

Community Links and the Early Action Task Force will explore some of these ideas in a paper that will be published this autumn. We will show that the social security system should not be seen as the ‘fourth emergency service’, even though responding to emergencies in a timely and cohesive manner (‘running those ambulances’) is very important. Social security should be underpinned by earlier, more generous and universal support, both in terms of cash transfers and public services. In doing so it could not only yield a triple dividend (thriving lives, costing less, and enabling people to contribute more), but also ensure that every individual in our society feels more secure.

It is important to challenge the prevailing ethos that ‘cutting the benefits bill’ is a good idea. We need to return to and re-evaluate the underpinning principles of our social security system and see it as an investment: in individuals, in communities and, ultimately, in the whole of our society.

Joining Up Welfare

July 25th, 2014

 Policy Exchange’s new report “Joined Up Welfare” addresses the crucial question of how public services can support people into sustainable employment in a more flexible, holistic and joined up way. Those who are familiar with Community Links’ work will recognise this as an issue that we have frequently grappled with – through our work on Deep Value and early action approaches – and this question continues to be a focus of our ongoing research into the impacts of welfare reform and the quality of welfare to work support.

Policy Exchange’s report looks at the structural reasons why “the current welfare system does not deal with [jobseekers’] overlapping problems from the beginning of the process”. In particular it finds that “siloed” government budgets prevent a cross-cutting approach, that the absence of “single, clear, and central point of contact” for jobseekers means that a piecemeal approach remains; and that a lack of local information “stymies coordination”. These issues resonate with findings from our policy and research work: we’ve found “siloed” budgets can undermine a longer-term preventative approach, and we agree with the need for better join-up between benefits and employment support – a single point of contact would be a great improvement.

Based on this analysis, a central recommendation of Policy Exchange’s report is to split up the Jobcentre into its two constituent parts. The first would be a central hub administering benefits which could refer people into specialised provision from a range of voluntary and private sector providers while remaining a single point of contact for overarching issues. The second part – the employment support of the Jobcentre Plus currently provides – would be formed into a mutual which would be able to compete with said voluntary and private provision. This is similar to the model which has been attempted recently with probation – with limited success for former state providers who have struggled to find the financial backing to run stringent payment-by-results contracts.

The right of the Tory party has reportedly jumped on this as a chance to call for the closure of all job centres. But the idea of splitting up their role has found more widespread support. Labour MP David Lammy has welcomed the suggestion, saying that we need “radical reform of an institution that in its current form is not fit for purpose”. We know the value of diverse, specialised employment support provided by local partners with in-depth knowledge of local labour markets. Policy Exchange promotes this, though our experience of delivering the Work Programme shows how hard it can be to commission this support without forcing out smaller providers. We are also very aware of the negative view many claimants have towards Jobcentres, which is due, at least in part, to its dual role. People feel the fact that JCP staff are ‘holding the purse-strings’ on their benefits poses a barrier to real support to get into jobs. In the words of one man:

“[Jobcentre Plus] says it’s supposed to support you, but fundamentally it’s an administrative centre. They want you to go in, and they want a rubber stamp on what you are doing in order to give you money”. 

The jobcentre is only now undergoing the types of reforms which have led to more person-focused, tailored support in other sectors – health and social care for example. It continues to operate a largely top-down and – according to many people we work with – disempowering service, although recent changes such as the introduction of the Claimant Commitment could begin to change this. Policy Exchange’s report has provided a useful addition to calls – including recently from the Work and Pensions Select Committee - for an urgent rethinking of the role of the jobcentre. But it is the suggestion that the job centre should be transformed into a “Citizens’ Support Centre” which offers perhaps the greatest opportunity for transformative change. This would be a central hub covering a range of needs: not just the classic employment barriers but underlying issues of debt, mental health, housing, or anything else. It could address the problem that our research has found of people feeling passed from pillar to post between different forms of statutory and contracted support.

The suggestion made me wonder whether this model could then be taken beyond addressing “barriers for work” and extended to provide support for people who are already in jobs too – an idea that Policy Exchange moots but doesn’t commit to. Many people in work who want to progress into more interesting, stable or better-paid jobs may still face a range of complex issues which joined-up support could address. Under Universal Credit, people in work will be required to show they are looking to progress: alongside these increased requirements they should be offered additional support and it would be great if the “Citizen’s Support Centre” could proactively work with them in the same joined-up way as is does with the unemployed.  This could also reduce the stigma and exclusion that people feel when going to the Jobcentre, as well as helping the government deliver on its side of the ‘something for something’ bargain.

The report stops short of calling for JCP to move away from simply aiming to get people off benefits, towards a more positive, long-term focus on supporting thriving lives, sustainable careers and wellbeing. Such a shift would be needed to produce systemic change in the way people are treated and supported, but that megalith deserves more than one blog post’s thinking.