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Chief Executive's Blog

A Fresh Term Means Fresh Meals, A Welcomed Break for Some Pupils

4 September 2014

This week many schools will open their doors again and begin a new and exciting academic year taking in fresh batches of students all over the UK.  No doubt many parents will be teary-eyed watching their loved ones leave for their very first day of school, filled with pride watching them trot off in their oversized school uniforms.  Other parents, however, may see this time in a different light, feeling, instead, a much-needed financial relief.

Last month Ruki Sayid wrote a piece in The Mirror revealing that 1 in 8 children do not eat properly without the safety net of free school meals and breakfast clubs, leaving many children hungry over the holidays.

These grim findings can also be seen in a report from the food bank charity The Trussell Trust, who reported a 21% increase in demand for emergency supplies during August last year (another surge is predicted for 2014 as well).

Free school meals and breakfast clubs provide a much-needed lifeline to ensure proper nutrition for children and young people, thus greatly increasing their chances of improving their attainment.  They also save families around £400 a year, which is why I personally welcome the changes taking place this week that will ensure children up to the age of 7 all receive a free school meal.  In addition, The Liberal Democrats announced yesterday that their election manifesto will include a commitment to extending free school meals to all children in primary school.  More good news for parents.

However, during the school holidays when the safety net of free school meals has been taken away, it leaves parents with the impossible task of feeding their children without the financial means to do so.  Some parents and teachers have been campaigning for state-funded provision during these times but, until such support arrives, parents are left trying to meet this shortfall.

For some parents, this means sacrificing their own meals.  In an article on the subject of school holiday meals, Ros Wynne-Jones spoke to a mother who reported, “You can’t afford to take them out so you’re at home with the electricity and gas building up.  Most days I don’t eat in the evening at all”. 

The stress of the summer holidays can also be seen when monitoring our grant giving.  Demand for a Buttle grant remains fairly constant all year round, however, from the applications we receive, it is apparent that summer holidays put extra strain on families. 

One father worked as a school bus driver.  His modest income was barely enough to keep going but, during the holidays, not only did he no longer have any income, but he also had two extra mouths to feed.  Add to the fact that, until quite recently, the family were briefly homeless and were only just starting to settle into their new accommodation, which did not come equipped with furniture or basic appliances, and you have a family who are struggling against the odds.  Imagine trying to feed a family with very little income and no cooker to do so.  How does one produce healthy food out of thin air? 

Preparing your own meals is, of course, much cheaper (and healthier) than ordering takeaways or relying on ready meals but, if you do not have £280 spare to buy a cooker, how else are you expected to feed your family? 

Cookers play a vital role in any household and remain one of the most funded items we award (we provided over 2,500 in 2013 alone), which is why this month all the funds raised through our annual Big Bake will provide cookers for the young people who need them most.  We want to give more cookers so children can have healthy meals. 

If you are interested in taking part, please visit our website or click here for more information.  Your support could mean more fresh meals for children who would otherwise have to go without.

 

Moving Forwads on Domestic Violence: A New Focus on Children

8 May 2014

Last month the journalist Owen Jones wrote a piece in the Guardian where he argued that: "Britain is going backwards on violence against women". While I know Owen Jones is not to everyone's taste or politics, he makes a very important point.

He argues that the 'safety net' that has been a feature of our welfare system since the 1940s is being quietly dismantled with virtually no public debate because many of those that need this safety net most - like women affected by domestic violence - are almost entirely absent from any discussion in the media; an astonishing omission given that figures from Women's Aid suggest one in four women will suffer it in their lifetime.

While not all these women rely on the benefit system, the circumstances of many mean they do - for example, those that flee at short notice with only a suitcase of clothes; those that are the victims of financial as well as physical abuse, where debts have been run up in the victim's name or where they have been forced to leave the world of work - either directly by the partner; or through the shattering of confidence and self esteem that goes with abuse. These women and their situations are not being aired in the debate on welfare reform. Instead the focus is revolving around the more popular image of those who are on benefits being feckless and workshy.

But if there is little wider public debate on the issue of domestic violence, then the impact on the children in those families is one not even the social care sector has done much to address. Domestic violence projects have traditionally, and understandably, focused on the direct recipient of the abuse. However, living with and witnessing abuse is harmful to children and they therefore have their own support needs, separate from those of their parent.

A 2002 amendment to the Children Act which says that witnessing domestic abuse can now be considered "significant harm" for the purposes of children's services, suggests that services are moving in this direction. However, recent investigations by both Lord Laming and Eileen Munro into child protection have found that children living with domestic violence are still not given the priority they need.

Most recently City Bridge Trust's research, in partnership with NSPCC and Refuge, found that professionals are often inclined to assume that children's needs can be met by addressing the mother's needs and that not enough attention is given to addressing children's needs in their own right.

Recent research commissioned by Scottish Women's Aid has found that suddenly and/or frequently moving home has a dramatic impact on children. They have high levels of anxiety; trouble sustaining friendships that were previously a significant source of support; have missed long periods of school; and worry about leaving behind personal belongings and all that was familiar to them.

For many years the issue of domestic abuse has been the one which Buttle UK sees the most in the 15,000 applications we receive each year for our Small Grants programme. Here we provide items such as cookers, fridges, washing machines, children's beds and bedding for women and their families who have been affected by violent and abusive relationships. So we are acutely aware of how important financial support is at a crucial point in a family's recovery, and how it is a key part of the holistic package of support needed to enable families to recover from the trauma they have experienced. But as Owen Jones points out, this support - as far as it comes from statutory sources - is under threat.

Against this backdrop, I am absolutely delighted that Buttle UK has just launched a new partnership with the City of London Corporation's charity, City Bridge Trust. The funding will allow us to provide financial support across Greater London, over the next three years, directly to these families.

The aim of the partnership is to provide children of affected families with financial support to recover from the trauma and upheaval they have experienced caused by domestic abuse, and at the point where a family is making the difficult transition to independent accommodation for the first time. We know this is a point at which families are particularly vulnerable to returning to an abusive partner.

There is much we hope to learn and share as a result of this exciting project, which we hope will be a definite step forwards for both women and children affected by domestic abuse.

 

How can we sleep at night when some children in the UK don’t even have a bed?

10 April 2014

Two weeks ago Nottinghamshire County Council announced that they will be closing their local Welfare Assistance Fund as of the end of March, and money budgeted for it in 2014/15 will instead, their formal statement says, be used to fund their Benefits Team, which ‘offers advice and support to the most vulnerable by helping them to access all eligible benefits’.  According to Patrick Bulter from the Guardian who spoke about the proposed closure with Paul McKay, service director for the council, in November last year: “support for victims of domestic violence will be provided through other council services. But otherwise, if the scheme ends, the poor and destitute will simply be "signposted" to other entities such as "community loan banks". The council notes that welfare charities such as foodbanks may see an increase in demand”.

More authorities are likely to follow this same route, as the DWP have announced that they will no longer provide central funding from April 2015 to support such schemes.  This move effectively ends a commitment to provide one off, discretionary payments to families and individuals that dates back to the foundation of the welfare state in the 1940s.

The concept of the welfare state providing a safety net for the most vulnerable in the UK is therefore being eroded.  Although previous governments have grappled with the issue of how to provide one off payments, and keep the cost down, there has always been an acknowledgement of the need for it.  As Sir Peter Barclay commented when Chair of the Conservative Government’s Social Security Advisory Committee in 1989: “At the centre of the cluster of problems faced by those living on benefit is the need, periodically, for access to meet large expenses for which the weekly benefit cannot and is not designed to provide.” I remember well when I started my career in social work how we spent a lot of time with individuals and families ensuring they could access this type of benefit and it was possible to do so and protect their dignity, rights and status. I question if this is still possible to do today.

With one or two notable exceptions, there is very little discussion in the media of this shift in the premise of the welfare state.  It seems that everyone is assuming the argument on whether the state should provide this type of support has either been won, or it is not worth debating because nobody cares. 

Patrick Butler is one of a few, lone voices. His analysis is: “The government offloaded crisis loan responsibilities onto councils (with only a fraction of the funding); now Nottinghamshire is preparing to offload those duties onto local charities and high-interest credit companies. Let food banks and Wonga take the strain, seems to be the idea, because the destitute are someone else's problem”.

Buttle UK is the largest charity to provide grants directly to children, young people and their families, and so one of those charities expected to take the strain.  This is gravely worrying because I know our resources cannot come anywhere close to meeting the need.  So it is the other option, high interest credit, where most people will turn.  Or they will go without.

Every week Buttle receives applications from hundreds of families across the UK who at a crisis point, where the concept of a safety net really matters and where that one off payment for a ‘large expense’ can make a huge difference to their financial stability.  Last year one of the most commonly granted items we provided were children’s beds (23% of the 11,932 grants made in 2013).  The applications for these grants tell us that there are thousands of children sleeping on the floor, or sharing beds with siblings or parents.  These stories feel like something from George Orwell’s ‘Road to Wigan Pier’ in the 1930s, rather than 21st century Britain.

The debate on poverty in the UK today seems as polarised as the one Orwell describes in ‘Road to Wigan Pier’, with prejudices that are just as “visceral”.  The response to Channel 4’s Benefit Street recently demonstrated this very clearly.  But whatever your views on the reality of poverty in the UK, or the role of the welfare state, for any child today to have to sleep on the floor, or share a bed, is unacceptable. In his survey of poverty Orwell asks the question – ‘is it right that people live in these conditions?’  While the world that Orwell lived in was very different from today, surely within our own context the answer now, as then, must be ‘no’.

And whether the state will meet this need or not in the future, Buttle UK will do everything it can to ensure as many children as possible have a bed of their own to sleep in at night.

 

How do we stop young care leavers believing they will fail?  We can start by telling them that we want to see them succeed. 

12 June 2013

There are around 70,000 children in the UK care system, and their failure to succeed academically is well reported.  Only 15% get more than 5 A*-C grades at GCSE level and just 7% get as far as higher education.

On Tuesday 4 June, Buttle UK held its fifth annual Quality Mark for Care Leavers conference, and it struck me that perhaps one of the greatest challenges that a young person coming out of our much maligned care system faces is not that they have experienced terrible trauma in their lives – but that enough people around them believe  they nevertheless have the capacity and potential to succeed.  This point was powerfully expressed by care leavers speaking at the conference who had succeeded in further and higher education.  

What matters is the fact that individual people in colleges and universities believe in care leavers, and their ability to succeed in education. For many care leavers the issue is the lack of parental care and the support that they have missed.  While this can never be replaced by those of us who provide services for these children, we must recognise this fact is at the heart of all we do for them.  These services must be built on relationships that show respect and trust.  It was clear from these young people’s experiences that this is still largely missing. 

Fiona McFarlane, a care leaver who studied history at Nottingham Trent University and who spoke at the conference, told us: “More needs to be done to make children in care and care leavers realise that higher education is an option for them – you don’t need to have the highest grades, but the belief that you can be whoever you want to be and to reach your goals in life. This is why events aimed at raising aspiration levels for looked after children, and care leavers are so important.”  Or, as Luke Rodgers, a social entrepreneur from a care background, put it so succinctly: “Just tell us you want to see us succeed”.

When care leaver Scott King showed us a film that expressed sincere and moving thanks to those who believed in him at the further education college where he returned as a mature student, there was hardly a dry eye among the 150 conference delegates.  Scott spoke of how he hadn’t left care; it had left him and that before this he had been ‘thrown away’ many times.  Scott is now, among many other things, a freelance trainer, chair of the Children’s Minister’s care leavers group and will be starting a Social Work degree in September.  I am sure that those who did finally show belief in Scott will feel they have been repaid many times over.

It is also often the poor outcomes of care leavers, and the care system itself, that we focus on when debating the issue of looked after children and care leavers.  Care leaver and graduate of Bath University, Rebecca Munson, has conducted research demonstrating that we often fail to recognise the success that care leavers have had. By celebrating this, rather than always focusing on failure, others will feel more confident to achieve the same.  Rebecca’s study showed how vital personal drive and motivation was, for the care leavers she interviewed as part of her dissertation, to succeed in education.  This reflects the findings of Buttle UK’s own ‘By Degrees’ Research back in 2001, which started us on the course that established the Quality Mark.

Then, as now, I believe that it should not just be down to those individuals to succeed despite the challenges they face – we must recognise what support will make this a possibility so that they don’t need to depend so heavily on self motivation. 

We launched the Quality Mark in 2006.  It is awarded to institutions that can demonstrate that they are developing a robust institution-wide approach to supporting students coming to university from a care background.  It encourages a review of current practice as well as the development of new services to improve and monitor the impact of support.

I am very proud that an independent report into the impact of the Quality Mark in higher education, launched at the conference on Tuesday, shows that since we introduced the scheme there has been a dramatic improvement in awareness of the barriers that care leavers face at higher and further education institutions with support structures now being put in place for them. In 2005, only one university in the UK had a comprehensive policy on care leavers, and the number of students coming into higher education from a care background was extremely low.  Today, the number of HEIs holding the Buttle UK Quality Mark has risen to 88 (56%).

The new research, undertaken by York Consulting on our behalf, and funded by the KPMG Foundation, also shows how many students expressed appreciation of the support they have received at these institutions with just less than a third (30%) saying they would not have been able to continue at university without it. Seven out of ten (69%) students surveyed rated the overall support from their university as ‘good’ or ‘very good’.  The financial support that the institutions are now providing was particularly important, but equally, so was personal support.

However, the report also shows that barriers and gaps in the provision for care leavers persist and that it is often the Quality Mark that is keeping the issue of care leavers on the agenda, within the higher education sector in particular.  I am concerned that this is not a sustainable situation.  It has always been our vision that the Quality Mark would one day become fully embedded into the practices of the further and higher education sectors. 

This research suggests we are still a long way from this and so we need to ensure that the ownership of the issue is transferred to the sector sooner.  This is now the key task on my ‘to do’ list for the Quality Mark.  If we want to create the kind of change where care leavers routinely achieve the success we expect for all children, then it must be that the whole education sector feels they have a stake in the agenda, not just organisations like Buttle UK.

Then, perhaps, all care leavers will one day have someone telling them: “We want to see you succeed.”

 

The Poor Relations?  Why as a society we owe more to the grandparents, siblings and other relatives that take on the care of vulnerable children

15 April 2013

Informal kinship carers have to date been a largely ‘hidden population’ who take on a huge burden from the state in providing care, often at very little notice, for children who would otherwise end up in the care system. I know, after a career spent in delivering services to children and their carers, that the care provided by these relatives - including grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters - and friends can be a very positive solution in which children feel cared for and secure. Nevertheless, these informal kinship carers and the children they look after, remain an overlooked group who experience high levels of poverty and disadvantage with little or no statutory support.

Today, Buttle UK and the University of Bristol are launching the second report of a two-part research study, which provides the most comprehensive picture to date of the children’s perspective of living in informal kinship care and the views of their carers. The findings are illuminating and demonstrate clearly the true cost of informal kinship care and the unacceptably huge challenges that this group face, despite stepping in to provide a loving and secure home for these children.

The majority of the placements in our study arose out of parental drug and alcohol misuse, and most children had suffered neglect and maltreatment. Remarkably however, our research shows these children are now doing well, with a strong attachment to their carers and good levels of academic attainment. It is particularly striking that in the main these children are faring significantly than those placed within the formal care system, which costs the state between £23,500 and £56,000 for each child per year.

However, this comes at a cost.  Our research shows that it is often as a consequence of taking on the children that kinship carers are plunged into poverty.  These carers have to change their life plans, lose their freedom, and if they’re young, the chance to train for a job. Moreover, they lose friends, marriages, and can become socially isolated. Nearly three-quarters have high rates of long-term health problems and as many as two-thirds are clinically depressed.

I feel the carers own sense of injustice, that they are saving the state money in preventing children from going into care but taking all the burden, financially and emotionally, themselves.  Not only that, but as our research shows, they are actually being turned away from Children’s Services, who refuse to support them or the child. Instead, they are left to struggle on their own, living on very low incomes with little or no support from other family members or friends.   As one carer in our study said: ‘Successive governments have never ever wanted to acknowledge this underclass of caring that is going on. I can't tell you how hard it's been...and the eternal phrase ‘But this is a private arrangement’. 

This is a group who our report found took pride in managing their finances well and making a little go a long way.  Many had to give up good jobs to look after grandchildren or siblings, and those that were retired were living on their pensions alone. Well over half (68%) had used savings, taken out loans or borrowed money from friends to buy essential items like clothes, bedding and beds.  So rather than take advantage of their strong sense of family values, I would rather see us help them with the huge responsibility they have taken on, and prevent them having to live with extra debt and financial hardship.   

So – what can we do to help these ‘hidden’ kinship carers? There is no doubt that urgent action is needed. For this reason, Buttle UK is calling for a national allowance for kinship carers. We believe that giving informal kinship carers adequate financial provision to bring up the children they care for would be an equitable solution – and would probably enable more relatives to take on this role. Some may say that this is wildly unrealistic in the current climate. To them I say that, surely, if the welfare state is there for anyone surely it is for people like these?

 

The overlooked change in the Government’s
welfare reforms

2 April 2013

Yesterday marked a milestone in welfare reform. Changes taking effect from 1st April and throughout the rest of the year will directly affect the lives of the families we support. The coverage, particularly in the last few days, has focused on the “bedroom tax”, the changes to who pays council tax and the Universal Credit. But there is an important change that has sparked considerably less public comment. Yesterday, the discretionary social fund – that provides for some of the poorest, most vulnerable members of our communities at times of
stress and distress – has quietly passed away.

The DWP has now downed tools and will take no more applications for Crisis Loans for Living Expenses (awarded when someone has insufficient resources to prevent serious risk to their health and safety)or Community Care Grants (awarded to help vulnerable individuals and families live independently in the community). Instead, it has divided three fifths of the funding for these schemes between 152 English local authorities and the Scottish and Welsh governments and asked them to meet those needs locally, in the best way they see fit.

The job is not an easy one. As veteran grant makers we know that making decisions about who to help, in what way and to what extent are incredibly tough when your budget is tight and the level of need among your applicants is higher than you can ever hope to meet. Even the most innovative and imaginative programme designs cannot get around the fact that these new localized schemes have been allotted funding well below what was available to their predecessors at the DWP to carry out the same job. 

At the same time, logic tells us that demand on these local welfare schemes is going to be high. As other welfare reforms put increasing pressures on family budgets, demanding more of them in rent and council tax payments and leaving less to live on, more people are likely to find themselves in need of “exceptional” support on top of their small weekly income.

As it stands today, its unclear how this new local patchwork of provision for those at their most vulnerable will pan out. Will the new schemes prove accessible, responsive, flexible? How will the principles set down in guidance work out in practice? How will they balance high demand and limited budgets? Will they ultimately prove to be better at the job than the old, much maligned but heavily relied upon discretionary social
fund? And most importantly, will it improve or worsen the experiences and wellbeing of those in need?

As a charity making grants to families in need our work inevitably butts up against that of the social fund everyday. Families refused Community Care Grants and Crisis Loans or given insufficient awards to meet their needs often come to us for support and tell us their stories. The sheer number of applications we receive acts as a good weathervane to tell us how well the “ultimate safety net” is doing. That puts us in a good position to start answering some of these questions and - where things go wrong - help local authorities to put them right. In the months to come we will be keeping a close eye on how local welfare provision is doing, and we will make sure the voices of the families we support are heard.

In the meantime, I want to use this blog to take a closer look at how welfare reform combined with a struggling economy is already affecting the vulnerable families we support and to tell just a few of the thousands of stories we hear every year.

 

How to get things done in tough times – the abiding inspiration of Frank Buttle

11 February 2013

Today marks the day – 60 years ago - when the founder of Buttle UK, the Reverend Frank Buttle, died.  In that same year the first meeting of Trustees took place and began the work of realising the vision and legacy of this remarkable man: to ‘launch into life’ 1000 children a year from poverty.  He spent most of his life accumulating a fortune, specifically to make this idea a reality. His target was £1m, an enormous sum in his time, and of which he was only £80k short when he died.

60 years later, and continuing to give grants to many thousands of children and young people, everyone at Buttle UK still strives each day to deliver on Frank's ambitions.  As we are all too aware the need that Frank Buttle saw back in the 1920’s and 30’s has not disappeared, far from it. One in three children live in poverty in the UK today and it still blights their health, wellbeing and life chances, just as it did in Frank Buttle’s day.  And there is every reason to believe that our funding will be in greater need in the coming years.  Although we have been able to give out more funding since the start of the recession (giving around £3m each year in grants compared to £2.6m in 2006/07) new external income is hard to find, and the alternative is to spend more of the capital of the endowment Frank created, as well as the income.  

These are certainly challenging times but Frank Buttle remains an inspiration.  This anniversary year is an opportunity to reflect on what all those that have been associated with the organisation over the years, have managed to achieve with his legacy.  However, for me personally, it is also an opportunity to revisit his story and remind myself of just what can be achieved, in preparation for challenges ahead.

Frank Buttle, a clergyman from 1906 to his death in 1953, was what you might call a social visionary.  He was an early pioneer of organised adoption for orphaned children, and the first campaigner against the practice of ‘baby farming’ (the taking in of babies to nurse for payment, and then adoption, often from unmarried mothers) but ultimately his focus changed and he recognised “the need for helping unmarried mothers.”  He saw this as a way of keeping children with their main carer.  This insight reflects Buttle UK’s own continued belief that intervening early, and therefore preventing the need for a child to experience care, is often the best option. 

For this reason, during the last year, we have put a great deal of energy into the work we do to support children from very disrupted backgrounds to access boarding school. Increasing numbers of key people in government, local authorities and the boarding sector itself are beginning to understand the value in this approach too.  I can therefore see that meaningfully expanding the practice in the future is a real possibility.

Frank was also, what today might be called, a social entrepreneur. Much of the fortune he built to launch Buttle UK came from investments he made in small securities, tithes and property which he financed through “returnable donations” – a concept which is now at the heart of much of the drive for new social investment products.  He could spot an opportunity, and exploit it.  One of the 850 securities he amassed was in Crow Catchpole (Holdings) Ltd, a tar distilling company which he bought for £9000 in the 1920s, and which in the early 1960’s the trustees sold for £500,000 – the company having become Tarmac in the meantime!

He was considered a miser, rarely spending money on himself as he amassed money to found the charity.  While I believe, just as Frank did, of the need to ‘speculate to accumulate’, we work hard to keep our operation lean.  We have invested in IT systems which has meant we can ensure our ‘emergency’ grant applications are processed quickly and effectively. We do this with the same staff complement as 10 years ago despite the volume of applications being processed increasingly significantly.

Frank Buttle’s ideal was that every case should be examined personally.  Despite receiving 15,000 applications a year we stick to this principle.  We have adapted our systems to do so, but we believe that retaining a ‘flexible, human approach’ in our grant giving is core to who we are, because we know it makes the investment we are making in a child or young person most effective.  Last year we evaluated a pilot grant programme that used highly personalised grants to support long term unemployed young people back into education and work.  The results have been very impressive with 46% of the young people supported in work 6 months after their grant was made. Our results are certainly better than the first published results of the Government’s Work Programme.

It is clear from the published accounts of his life that Frank was not afraid to upset people in his drive to deliver his vision.  The shabby figured cleric was referred to by some as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” as he prowled the City of London. The chairman of one of the companies in which he was the majority shareholder, and who he visited regularly in order to check on his investment, regarded him a “terrible old man”.   His example provides ample demonstration that you can’t always hope to be liked if you want to get things done.

Frank Buttle lived through the depression and the formation of the Welfare State. Today we are grappling with recession and how to help those in need when the benefits of the Welfare State are declining. Whatever your views on how to address the latter issue in particular, there is no doubt that times are going to be tough for a lot of families for a long time to come. As an organisation our funding is always focused on the needs of the child and not on considerations of whether the parents or carers are ‘strivers’ or ‘shirkers’. But however important our individual funding is for the children and young people that receive it, Buttle UK has always taken a longer term view. Over the years we have funded or commissioned studies on dyslexia, the impact of adoption, the training of social workers and more recently the experience of care leavers in higher education – which has led to our award winning Quality Mark. Our latest project looks at the experiences of children and their carers living in informal kinship care arrangements.  Something which Frank would have undoubtedly found interesting and important.

So, this year really does give us a timely opportunity to celebrate what Frank Buttle achieved in founding Buttle UK, the thousands of vulnerable children that have been supported through the funds he raised, and to galvanise ourselves for the challenges that lie ahead.  We hope that you will join us in a range of exciting activities and events over the year to celebrate 60 years.

Long may Frank’s vision, compassion, canniness and entrepreneurialism be our inspiration to give children and young people living in poverty a fighting chance.