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It’s time to ‘Help the Helpers’

Tired, exhausted and overwhelmed?

Across the country we are hearing from practitioners from across the social sector who are sharing that they are tired, exhausted and somewhat overwhelmed. Over the last 18 months, teachers, police officers, social workers, community volunteers, carers and of course parents have relentlessly kept going –caring and serving other people as best they can. It’s understandable that this has impacted on energy levels.  

Many of us of are feeling depleted, yet struggling to understand why this is so. After all, so many things in our lives are returning back to how they once were before the pandemic: our social calendars are refilling, children’s after school activities are back on and we can reconnect with distant family members. But whilst part of us welcomes the reopening of our communities, we are also seeing the return of the same expectations (if not more) that were placed upon us pre pandemic, whether that’s teachers being expected to achieve the same outcomes with children who might have slipped behind academically or those experiencing mental health concerns, or parents who are expected to be back in the office for work while juggling their children’s trips to the Covid testing center as cases rise again. For many, we need to acknowledge that life has been hard and continues to be so. Most of us don’t want to let people down, but we also might need to revise how much we can mentally and emotionally hold as human beings, especially if we are continuing to support others in their recovery.

Our diminished energy levels may be a result of compassion fatigue; when we are helping so many others through the complexity in their lives, our personal compassion slowly dwindles. This is particularly true if you feel that you are constantly giving to others yet that support is not reciprocated when you need it. As helping professionals we understand that our role is to help others, but that doesn’t mean we are immune to vulnerability, and there are times when support and care is needed. It’s hard for us to give to others that which we are not getting for ourselves.

Further to this Covid has significantly exposed complexity in the lives of those we support. Whilst we endeavor to maintain professional relationships, we also need to acknowledge that we are emotional human beings. When others go through trauma, we can sometimes be affected by secondary trauma, which can be experienced when an individual is closely exposed to people who have themselves been traumatised. The stress from this can negatively impact job performance which can lead to adverse outcomes not only for the first responders, but for those they seek to help.

It is also important to recognise that there may have been times over the last eighteen months when you have needed to implement decisions that go strongly against your moral judgement. An example would be clinicians not having been able to allow relatives to sit with loved ones in hospital in their final hours. These decisions play heavily in people’s minds and can lead to a form of ‘moral injury’, which can in turn lead to burnout.

At KCA we think its really important that we notice all of these dynamics at play, and that we act now to help the helpers. Through supporting our helpers to recover we can reduce long term sickness, reduce demand on employee assistance programs, but perhaps most importantly retain highly talented employees whose biggest challenge – right now – may be the emotional  fallout that comes from being empathic, caring human beings.

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It’s more than a change of ownership, it’s about social justice!

By Richard Holmes, Managing Director

Organisations rarely stay still – they are living things which constantly shift, change and adapt to their environment. Our organisation, Knowledge Change Action (KCA), is going through a period of significant change as it moves to becoming an employee-owned company. For us it’s more than just a legal change in ownership; it’s an opportunity for the organisation to live its values as a socially progressive business.

Moving to an Employee Owned Trust model ensures that a small, family-owned business rooted in Gloucestershire can stay in the community in which it was founded. Rather than selling to a larger business that might restructure jobs away from the community, it enables the team to continue to live in a place they love and actively contribute to the local economy.  Of course it also means the original owners don’t have to dodge awkward questions about the decisions the new owners have made, when they bump into each other down the pub on a Saturday night! That helps too! 

Aside from the business case about providing long term employment and preserving the workplace culture, the employee ownership offers something more fundamental that is rooted in social justice and addressing inequalities. It would be fair to say that many of the KCA team would have never imagined that one day they would have the opportunity to be a ‘co-owner’ of a successful organisation; yet that is exactly what is happening in the transfer to an Employee Owned Trust. Although the ownership is through shares held by the Trust, rather than an individual directly, employees benefit through the redistribution of profits when the organisation performs well. This financial benefit isn’t a key motivator for everyone, but it does show how everyone’s wellbeing  can be raised through an appropriate model that intentionally redistributes wealth.

Beyond this, we recognize that inequalities are not just about money, but also about power, purpose and influence. So, whilst we are passionate about providing services that meet our commissioners’ needs and improve people’s lives, our trust’s founding document ensures that the decisions that KCA takes should always benefit the whole staff group and not a subset of them or some distant shareholders who sit outside the company’s work and ethos. This in itself re-organises the classical model of business, but we’re keen to explore how we take this redistribution further by looking afresh at our whole approach to decision-making and management.

We are at a point where many socially driven organisations are re-orientating their strategies towards growing community power or putting ‘service users’ (an uncomfortable title) at the heart of decision making. In these efforts to encourage inclusion, many practitioners do an incredible job to ensure they do ‘with’ rather than ‘to’ people, not imposing an agenda on them but truly being in service. However, even when frontline work is person-centred and community driven, if there a strong sense of hierarchy at play within the organisation, there sits an uncomfortable question about the extent to which power and control can be fully redistributed and whether inequalities are unintentionally being reinforced through the existing structures in place. Our hope is that through changing the ownership of KCA, the team feels that there is shared control of our collective destiny, that their voice and experience is vital in the organisation’s future success, and that we can continue to ‘walk the walk’ by working together not through an organisational structure of command-and-control, but simply as a group of people who respect and value each other’s experience, ideas and wisdom.

In the weeks and months ahead, we intend to share our experiences of becoming an Employee Owned Trust, so you can learn with us, as we make our mistakes and celebrate successes together.

Thanks for your support.  

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Join our team

If you are…

  • Organised and love working with people in a dynamic training and consultancy organisation.
  • thrive working in an environment where everyone is committed to developing and sustaining relationships
  • confident about using technology to make make life easier for others.

… we would like to hear from you!

We are seeking an Administrator with the energy and enthusiasm to support our team and partners who are committed to sharing knowledge of neuroscience to build stronger, more compassionate and resilient individuals, communities and organisations.   

Our small, experienced team, managed from our Head Office in Dursley, Gloucestershire, has a considerable track record in running effective training programmes, rooted in the science-based theory of attachment, trauma and resilience.

At KCA, relationships are key to everything we do – whether that is the relationships between our colleagues that  ensure that we feel supported, enthused and committed to our work, the relationships with our commissioners that allow us to understand and respond effectively to their needs, or supporting practitioners, through our training and consultancy, to develop effective connected relationships.

What’s on offer

  • A full-time post of 32 hours a week over 4 days (KCA is committed to a 4-day working week for all of its employees)
  • £20,000 per annum
  • The opportunity to work within an Employee Ownership Trust and potential for profit share
  • An office base in the beautiful town of Dursley in Gloucestershire.
  • Flexible working will be considered.
  • The closing date for applications is:  Thursday 9th September 2021
  • Should you have any queries or wish to have an informal discussion about the roles then please contact Rachel, Jude or Lydia at contact@kca.training
  • Visit website for further information: https://kca.training

Applicants are required to send a CV and covering letter detailing how they meet the person specification. Please send email applications to contact@kca.training

The full job description can be found below.

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Joining Knowledge Change Action – “it’s OK to be as I am”

By Barry Golten

As I enter my 5th week as new boy Trainer Consultant at KCA it seemed a good juncture to sit down, take a breath and look over my shoulder to reflect on the journey so far. I came to KCA after eighteen years managing front-line services in a youth homelessness charity. Like a lot of people, 2020 had been a nightmare for me. The perfect storm of global pandemic, combined with service demand  at an all time high and my mothers deteriorating Alzheimer’s left me in a frazzled state and in serious need of a change. 

Out of the blue a friend sent me the advert for the KCA job. I knew within seconds that I would be applying. My background as a counsellor had led me to spending years in my own organisation training and supporting colleagues in psychologically informed working and reflective practice. The stressful experience of the pandemic reinforced in my mind that my service delivery days were numbered. 

Drawing on my own support network I slaved over the application process and was overjoyed when I heard that I had an interview. My stomach did a few somersaults when I saw the question for the presentation was about using ideas about Trauma, Attachment and Resilience to help staff through the pandemic. That was me – I had needed some of that. Within seconds of the zoom interview starting I felt at home with Sus, Kate and Sal. It felt more like a conversation between colleagues. The ninety minutes flew by until I was knocked sideways by the final question. Tell us what your team would say about you on a really good day and a really bad one. I felt a tear behind my eyes as I told them that a good day would see my standing up in a training session bristling with the too and fro of the sharing of ideas I was passionate about. The voice of my friend and interview coach was in my ear telling me to “be myself” as I shared that my colleagues had seen too many bad days over the last year. The days when I was barricaded in my office and I jumped when the door knocked. 

When the phone rang later that day and Sus offered me the job, I don’t think my joy was contained. I spent the rest of the day calling friends and jumping up and down. After the joy followed the reality that I would have to work the two months notice period before leaving. This doesn’t sound much looking back but at the time it felt like two years. I realise now that this is because I was experiencing a form of toxic stress. My resources were depleted. Each hill seemed like a mountain. Every problem seemed like a disaster. I kept on – well supported by my manager – just putting one foot in front of the other – knowing that there would be an end. 

Luckily I was able to take a week between the two jobs to visit my son and grandchildren in France. I hadn’t had a whole week off for nine months – not allowing myself to leave my team in crisis. When I started at KCA – I was very worried that I wasn’t ready and needed more time to recover from my recent experience. By the end of my first week I was able to tell my friends what a wonderful organisation I was now working for and how happy I was. The KCA team did a number of things which helped me to settle my nerves – or as I now see it – regulate my nervous system. 

The first thing was the time everyone in the team took to meet me – get to know me as a person as well as a colleague and to reassure me that it’s OK to be as I am – that is – with my imperfections and vulnerabilities. That we all have unpredictable life challenges and that if they come up – the team will work together to support each other. Although to be honest it will take me some time to fully believe this – it was great to hear on my first week.

Another thing which stuck in my mind was being told that KCA has a mission of helping people relate better with each other and that this included how colleagues relate. This helped me a lot to feel like I was in the right place. My induction was made much easier by not being on my own with it. The fact that KCA arranged for me and Anisha to start on the same day and that we instantly hit it off well enough to provide mutual support through the process has been just what I needed. 

The things which really settled me on top of things already mentioned was Sally’s reminder that the worst thing that can happen is someone doesnt get trained on that day. This really made me aware of the impact of coming from a job where each day vulnerable young people will have nowhere to stay or will remain in risky conditions if my team didn’t perform little miracles. This high stakes responsibility allowed me to drift into a hyper-vigilant state which was understandable but not helpful for anyone – including myself. 

So now as I go into month two I am starting to unwind into the world of Five to Thrive and Mending Hurts. My brain is relaxed enough to start taking in the relationship between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex without flipping my lip. As I assess my own resilience factors and engage my vagus nerve I start to make links and see patterns. It’s not that I’m not terrified of my first few months of training delivery – but I am seeing that as tolerable stress which I am doing all the right things to manage. 

Thanks to everyone for welcoming me into the KCA family. I hope I am able to live up to the faith you have put in me and one day to become the safe pair of hands I became in my former roles. 

Unsentimental compassion: Our gift to our children, our need throughout life

In her KCA blog on 7 February, Sally Poskett commented that

“… we are blessed with a workforce of people driven by authentic, unsentimental compassion who are willing, in the face of increased levels of toxic stress in our communities, to work doggedly to bring about transformation.”

Since Sally wrote this, toxic stress has certainly not reduced in our communities, and I share her sense of awe and gratitude towards the people who continue to provide services to children and families facing all the challenges of life in the UK in the twenty-first century: people who day by day expose themselves to the ravages of toxic stress, knowing that their own capacity to absorb and transform this toxicity will protect vulnerable children and families from future harm and promote recovery from past harm.

What is toxic stress in the community?

Let us take a scenario. Here is a 13-year-old child who lives at home with a younger brother who is at primary school, a two-year-old sister, a mother who works in a nursery (also attended by the two-year-old), and a stepfather who drives a lorry. They live in a rented two-bedroom flat, and they have been given notice to leave as the landlord is selling up. At the same time the owners of the nursery have lost some sources of funding and are recognising that their business may be hitting insolvency.

The 13-year-old attends a local comprehensive school which has recently become an academy, with substantial changes in the senior leadership team. The school has instituted a new behaviour policy in line with recent Government guidance on behaviour and discipline. Staff are struggling to adjust to these changes, and there has been a rise in staff absence for sickness and also a rise in turnover of staff at all levels.

Everyone in this scenario is in a state of stress. It may seem exaggerated, yet the chances are high that the equivalent or worse is happening in a community near you.

When we are able to regulate stress it does us no harm, and can be a source of energy and motivation. But when stress is at a level we cannot regulate, it becomes toxic. Toxic stress puts our brains and nervous systems into survival mode. Reactions speed up and we lose the ability to self-regulate, to stop and think before we act, to share our thoughts and feelings with others or to care for their well-being. Toxic stress leads to chaos in the community, as Bessel van der Kolk, Alexander McFarlane and Lars Weisaeth noted as long ago as 1996 in their ground-breaking book ‘Traumatic Stress: the effects of overwhelming experience on mind, body and society’.

What is unsentimental compassion?

Neuroscience in recent years has been adding astonishing dimensions to our understanding of the importance of human connectedness, with authors such as Louis Cozolino and Daniel Siegel making the research accessible for us to apply to our own communities and work settings. They make it clear that being able to connect to other mature humans is a fundamental need for developing and maintaining healthy brain function. In this context we suggest, following and expanding on the work of John Gottman on Emotion Coaching, that compassion and reason can be seen as the key attributes of a mature human.

Developmentally, compassion begins with our innate physical capacity to attune to others, mirroring the stressed state of their nervous system. Then we develop the ability to process and make sense of this incoming information so that it is clear to us that the stress originates in the other person and not in us, and we begin to have empathy. And finally as we continue towards maturity we develop the capacity to set all this attunement and empathy in the context of a caring relationship, and we experience compassion.

The other axis of the power of relationship is reason. This begins as we acquire from other mature and compassionate individuals the ability to self-regulate when our nervous system is affected by stress. This settling of the nervous system enables us to think about what is happening. Then we develop the ability to communicate about these experiences, so that we, having been helped and guided by mature people are in turn able to help and guide others. And finally we develop mature reasoning capacity in which we can set such experiences into a wider context of meaning and purpose.
It is only when we can exercise both high compassion and high rationality that we can safeguard our children and young people and make decisions that protect and do no harm.

What happens to compassion and reason when stress is at toxic levels?

Toxic stress is biologically linked to intense fear, and fear disturbs our balance, destroying the capacity for unsentimental compassion. Relationships, the core of healthy development and function, then change.

Sometimes we lose the ability to self-regulate when attuned with the stressed person. Then our capacity to reason is disrupted although we still experience compassion. This compassionate unreason manifests itself as sentimentality at best and as panic or paralysis at worst. So, for example, our stressed 13-year-old reacts to being corrected by losing control and the stressed teacher panics. Instead of being able to connect to the child and enable them to calm down, the frightened teacher summons help, setting in motion a potentially unstoppable train of events.

Or toxic stress may destroy both the capacity for compassion and for reason, and the cold unreason that results is evident all around us wherever people show disconnection from others and unpredictably changeable responses based solely on self-interest and survival. This disconnection can be seen in services for children in which the adults feel vulnerable and afraid. It can be seen in policy-makers and leaders who produce reports and guidance based on narratives of fear. The help the teacher summons will be guided by a behaviour policy that may have no link with the needs of children for connection and co-regulation.

And finally, toxic stress and the intense fear it produces can destroy compassion while leaving people with the capacity for survival-based thinking and cold calculation. Again this cold reason is all too obvious in the world around us, resulting in services that resort to coercion and oppression in the name of order and safety, and leadership and guidance that can seem to imply that children and young people are the enemy to be subdued rather than our own vulnerable young. Our 13-year-old may find themselves increasingly adrift in such a coercive environment, and what began as behaviour showing the need for caring co-regulation becomes a young person excluded from school.

Unsentimental compassion and community resilience

If we are to support and maintain the health and well-being of our children and young people, then it is clear we must support the health and well-being of those who live and work with them. If our children are to receive the gift they need of unsentimental compassion from the adults around them, then those adults must in turn recognise themselves, and be recognised by all of us, as having the same need for unsentimental compassion.

The challenge, then, is to widen our own capacity for compassion and reason. Can we find compassion not only for the vulnerable child who has just been excluded from school, but also for the harassed teacher who disconnected from them, panicked and summoned help? Can we find compassion not only for the teacher, but also for the overwhelmed senior leaders who have disconnected from the child and from the teacher and from the parents, and produced and implemented a behaviour policy that excludes the most vulnerable? Can we find compassion for the parents whose own toxic stress has had such an impact on the ability of their child to self-regulate and manage the social demands of school? And finally, can we use our reasoning power to make sense of this whole story in a way that might reduce the overall burden of toxic stress and lead to a better outcome for everyone?

Resilient communities enable adults to maintain the delicate balance between compassion and reason that lies at the heart of well-being and health for our children and young people. We all have a part to play in promoting and sustaining this community resilience.

‘What is this life if, full of care/ We have no time to stand and stare’

By Felicia Wood, Training Director, KCA

Having been lucky enough to be on my travels in far-off climes recently, the idea of connection has had me thinking. Attachment and relationships are all about connection and it seems that we are living in a cyber world that is increasingly encouraging us to do this remotely. Take the ubiquitous mobile phones which may be seen being used for little talking, but much scrolling, texting, emailing, TV watching… I could go on. There is increased questioning about the effect this has on the interpersonal skills of individuals and communities, but it has recently struck me with some force that our addiction to social media is preventing other kinds of connections too.

Take the man who bothered to clamber up a very steep, long, rocky jungle path to reach the top of a waterfall and a spectacular view. He climbed alone in sweltering 35°C heat. Four other people (myself included) were at the top. He ignored everyone, walked to the edge of the waterfall, took a photo with his phone, turned 180°, took another photo and began his climb back down. He wasn’t up there for more than a minute. I don’t think at any point he looked at another human being or stopped to let his eyes consider the breathtaking display that nature had provided. I am sure, however, that the small photo on his phone will be shown as proof of him bearing witness to that beauty.

But I don’t think this man witnessed anything of the sort. He undertook a purposeful, tiring journey and, at the end game, missed the whole point of it. There was no connection with the environment around him. He was in a bubble of futuristic possibility which would enable him to enjoy his phone’s version of a beautiful view at some other point in time rather than living in the moment and seeing what was in front of him. Truly, a missed opportunity.

When I have the opportunity to talk to audiences about attachment and connections between people, I often use the phrase, ‘listen with your eyes’. I would argue that any connection takes a commitment to using our senses, not through a media device or electronic gadget, but in the old-fashioned, freestyle manner that involves a willingness to be aware of how our bodies are responding to an environment and, potentially, others within it. But in order to connect with others effectively, we first need to be able to connect with ourselves. It seems to me that for all the magic that media can provide, finding the time to sit and enjoy a moment wholeheartedly as an individual, unsullied by other distractions, is a gift that we would all benefit from indulging in. So I return home with a few photos, it’s true, but with also a promise to find and enjoy those unsullied, gadget-free moments much more often.

2017 – The Year of the Dad?

By Jonathan Rallings, Non-Executive Director, KCA

Few people would have failed to notice that, 50 years on from the sexual revolution, this decade is beginning to see considerable changes in notions of gender. The generation currently emerging into adulthood appears to have a much more fluid sense of gender expectations than ever before ‒ with terms such as ‘genderless’, ‘cis-gender’ or ‘pan gender’ now commonly used by increasing numbers of young people raised to deconstruct traditional notions of gender imposed by society. Gay marriage has passed into law, transgender communities are more openly campaigning for rights, and women continue to break new ground in terms of opportunities – whether it be outnumbering males in university or increasing female participation at all levels of society (albeit with still a degree of progress to be made before this is fully representative).

Yet despite a more tolerant and progressive climate, there still seems to be one area in which traditional gender roles assert themselves as strongly as ever ‒ that of parenthood. It seems that no matter how equal a partnership may be in its early stages, once children enter the picture, then many revert to a much more traditional model of man as provider and woman as carer.

In the past much of this lack of progress has been put down to a male-dominated society. But in the 2010s this theory no longer holds as much weight. For one thing, women have far greater autonomy in the workplace than previous generations – indeed recently it was reported that women in their twenties have now not only closed the gender pay gap, but overtaken the earnings of young men providing more impetus for them to become the ‘breadwinner’ after having children. At the same time the appetite of young men to play a bigger role in their children’s lives is clearly growing in the UK – the amount of time the average father spends with their child has risen sevenfold since the 1970s, whilst the number of fathers who act as primary caregiver has quadrupled in just 25 years, albeit from low initial levels.

But still so often fathers report feeling out of place looking after their children in public, from having to field patronising comments like ‘it’s so nice to see a man looking after a child’, to more worryingly being viewed with suspicion, usually by women, as a potential threat to their own or other children. Similarly, as the workplace has become more flexible, many men are now facing their own form of discrimination through being refused part-time hours or flexible working by ‘old-school’ male bosses who would not dare to impose such restrictions on their female staff for fear of discrimination. Perhaps a particular gap is that there is a still a dearth of literature and support available for dads during pregnancy and in the early years when compared to what is targeted at mothers. At KCA we have found, for instance, that our Five to Thrive approach seems to receive particularly good feedback from dads who welcome some basic principles of how they can parent effectively and learn what they can do both to enhance their child’s development and play a role in reducing the stress of their partner who often takes the role of the ‘primary’ caregiver.

Perhaps these are all reasons why the issue of fathers has been rapidly rising towards the top of the political agenda in the last few years as policy increasingly looks out of step with the wants and needs of families in our age. Although David Cameron’s Life Chances Strategy, which had promised to prioritise fatherhood, has now been abandoned, it is known that Whitehall has spent much time in the last year looking at the issue. It would be a surprise if Theresa May’s government did not include at least some of this learning within its forthcoming Social Justice Green Paper. Elsewhere the Women and Equalities Committee recently announced a new inquiry looking at whether fathers are being treated equally in the workplace. Whilst at the same time a new coalition – the Fathers Development Foundation – is set to shortly bring together interested parties from across the sector to help provide a measured voice advocating for fathers and fatherhood. Dads are becoming a hot topic in Westminster!

It’s clear that there is much work that can be done to better support fathers. More and better information and guidance for one – particularly that which gives dads the tools to understand how they can develop their own bespoke role as parent, rather than prescriptive materials which try to mould them into ‘mini-mums’. But to achieve cultural change we also need to create an environment which facilitates a more equal approach to parenting. Perhaps one initial step towards this might be to include ‘Paternity’ as a protected characteristic in the Equalities Act 2010 alongside ‘Pregnancy and Maternity’? This would help set a tone for public services and employers alike to consider their practice towards fathers to ensure they are not discriminated against.

Ultimately, though, it is only through mothers and fathers seeing the benefits of equality and working together that real advances will be achieved. When asked to show cultural change as being possible most policy makers point to drink-driving, wearing seat-belts, or the smoking ban as concrete examples. I would proffer that the proportion of men now present at the birth of their child constitutes a positive revolution for those of us raised just a few decades before on the stereotype of men sitting anxiously in hospital waiting rooms. Now it’s time for both parents to demand a society which values fathers retaining that presence right throughout childhood.

A Day of Contrasts

By Sally Poskett, Business Development Director, KCA

Last Wednesday I travelled with a colleague to Uxbridge to speak at the Hillingdon Designated Teachers Forum. Organised by Hillingdon’s Virtual School for Looked After Children the agenda was to explore effective and appropriate use of Pupil Premium money. KCA had been invited to share information about our work on attachment awareness in schools.

On the way there, I receive an email from our Training Director, Felicia Wood, that included this link.

The news item was that a secondary school in Brent was looking to recruit a ‘Director of Discipline’. The advert for this position included three questions:

Do you like order and discipline?

Do you believe in children being obedient every time?

Do you believe that allowing children to make excuses is unkind?’

As I read on my heart sank. Images started popping into my head: Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda; disturbing images of 6-foot-tall, 3-foot-wide men in combat fatigues sanctioned to abuse children in American boot camps.

With these thoughts bubbling away, I delivered my 10-minute presentation on why attachment awareness in schools is so important and how current findings from neuroscience about the neurophysiology of relationships are helping us to find new ways to think about how we respond to behaviour and close the attainment gap.

The second presentation was from Jake Curtis, the Director of Programmes and Operations at Jamie’s Farm. This wonderful charity offers a unique combination of ‘farming, family and therapy’ that aims ‘to re-engage children with educational life, and enable them to fulfil their potential both in school and the wider social setting.’ Listening to Jake’s presentation it was clear that, whilst the team at Jamie’s Farm know that the activity and the environment they provide are important factors, the key to their success is their workforce. Jake described the team at Jamie’s Farm as ‘nurturing, warm and authentic adults’. As I listened on I could have added into that ‘assertive, confident, passionate, committed…’.

The next presentation was from a primary school assistant headteacher, who I won’t name to ensure the anonymity of the young person at the centre of the case study he shared. The case study was about how he, the school staff team and other professionals around a young person in care had worked together to prevent exclusion and respond to a recent placement breakdown. He described how he, as a school leader, had given his colleagues the support they needed to stay resilient so that they could respond to the trauma-based needs presented by the young person. He explained that they had located the effort of the team around the child on supporting the new foster carer to establish herself as the young person’s primary attachment figure. He celebrated that the adults around this young person had been able to bring her back to a secure base and that she was now expected to do very well in the next round of SATs.

I was left in no doubt that the narrative this young person was being given the opportunity to build was:

You are a bright, strong, lovable person. There are things that have happened in your life that are very painful and would not in an ideal world happen to any child, but we can’t change those things. We can, however, determine that you will not be excluded from school and that all the adults around you are pulling together to do all we can to ensure you can get the very best out of school and your new foster placement. It is not OK for you to lash out at people or disrupt other people’s time in school, so the adults are going to ensure that this doesn’t happen and, all the while, will keep you and everyone in the school community safe.’

We are facing an emotional well-being and mental health crisis in this country that is hitting our young people hardest. We do not yet fully understand how and if this is exacerbated by digital media, the politics of envy, the experience of relative deprivation and the widening gap between the richest and poorest.

However, neuroscientific findings are helping us to have greater understanding than ever about what people need to thrive and how the relationships between people are the key to turning the curve. The link to the advert that Felicia had sent me had filled me with anxiety. Listening to the other contributors at the forum reminded me that we are blessed with a workforce of people driven by authentic, unsentimental compassion who are willing, in the face of increased levels of toxic stress in our communities, to work doggedly to bring about transformation.

This day of contrast reconfirmed my belief that focusing effort on building and maintaining the resilience of that workforce is fundamental. And that if some pupil premium is used to support and develop the workforce so that they in turn are able to effectively help children and young people to develop self-regulation, then this will be money well spent.

When will the time be right to look at life chances?

By Jonathan Rallings, Non-Executive Director, KCA

As any follower of social policy will tell you, it is those times of the year when most people are winding down – Easter, Summer, Christmas – that you need to be most alert for change. For it is in those periods around a parliamentary recess where governments most often trigger unwanted policies or bury failures, hopeful that attention will be distracted or directed elsewhere. So it proved at the end of 2016 when, in the week before Christmas, work and pensions minister, Damian Hinds, admitted that David Cameron’s ambitious Life Chances Strategy, announced with great fanfare last January, had been quietly jettisoned by the government.

That Life Chances has been abandoned is perhaps less surprising than the fact that the government had adamantly stuck to its intent to publish, despite delaying the intended summer release due to the tumultuous political events which saw its principal proponent unseated as Prime Minister. But what will replace it? The present government is nearing two years in power and so far it has singularly failed to present any overarching vision for how it is going to address social mobility and poverty, which is rapidly becoming the political issue of our times. Some would say that this is inevitable in a period where Brexit is dominating the political discourse. Yet is this a valid excuse? Many, if not most, commentators believe the unexpected vote for Britain to leave the EU was at least in part caused by growing social inequality which politicians have not adequately managed during an era of globalisation.

Indeed Theresa May’s rhetoric in her leadership campaign messaging, and her maiden conference speech, has carried on Cameron’s alleged intent to create a more just society, now particularly focusing on improving life for those ‘Just About Managing’ (the latest rather distasteful label dreamt up by the political classes because it makes an easy acronym – ‘JAMS’). But so far the key material actions since the 2015 election seem to have been to downgrade the child poverty targets built into law by the last Labour administration in favour of more convoluted means of measurement, and an attempt to withdraw tax credits from millions of the most vulnerable families which was only narrowly averted after substantial political opposition.

Perhaps even more concerning for those of us in the children’s sector, though, is the inaction which is leading to potentially greater problems for the future. Even though the concept of early intervention now commands almost universal support among mainstream politicians, a report last year from the children’s sector projected that by 2020 early intervention funding is set to reduce by 71% in real terms over the course of the decade, even as we have invested in the Early Intervention Foundation to coordinate ‘what works’. A consultation on the future of children’s centres was announced in June 2015 and is still yet to materialise over 18 months later, even as reports come in of centres all over England closing, or coming under budget pressures. A clear national framework for consistent and useful parenting support at varying levels from basic advice to highly targeted approaches for those most in need still hasn’t materialised.

Additionally, though, inactivity means that present policy falls further behind the reality of people’s lives on the ground. Thus we still are not adequately addressing disturbing declines in children’s mental health, often linked to the internet, which are stopping growth. There is a growing need to help young people transitioning from education to employment even as careers advice has been stripped back and compulsory work experience abolished in schools. And as gender stereotypes continue to become increasingly meaningless to many young families, there is still far too little to support the active engagement of fathers through both public services and the workplace – leaving many frustrated, and mothers put upon. This is something it was understood Life Chances would be particularly tackling, even as the Women and Equalities Committee launches its own inquiry.

Mr Hinds has promised a Social Justice Green Paper this spring which it is understood will incorporate elements of the Life Chances work. Precisely which is at this stage unclear, but after such a long period of inactivity what is most important is to get the ball rolling with policy debate and discussion as soon as possible. Without it the life chances of the present generation of children may look very bleak indeed.