Developing Children’s Zones: a new report.

A few months back I met with Abigail Wood, Chris Wellings and Hollie Warren from Save the Children, after they heard about our trip to New York and in particular Harlem Children’s Zone. They were interesting in hearing about our experience, insights, observations and how we are intending to apply our learning from Harlem as we look to develop a cradle to career pipeline of support for children and young people in our part of the world.

There are, of course, amazing lessons to be drawn from HCZ and Geoffrey Canada’s leadership. It has been interesting to see how the much-lauded ‘Promise Neighbourhoods’ promised by Barack Obama have fared-the only reports I have read suggest they have often floundered for lack of local infrastructure and personnel. To a degree though, perhaps we shouldn’t be overly surprised at this-simply because a model is replicated in the same country, doesn’t mean it’s the same context.

Suffice to say, the difference between a children’s zone in Harlem and London would require a far greater amount of reflection. There is always a risk with any inspiring or groundbreaking initiative, that we seek to import it without adequate reflection on context, partnership, resource and leadership. It’s why I also think the jury is out on the debate about scalability: how uniform and easily repeatable can a highly effective approach be? And what then are the tools that allow this endeavour to succeed?

Whilst it’s a shame not to have been acknowledged in Save the Children’s recent report then, it’s a very exciting piece of work which highlights the prospect of English Children’s Zones-and what they might look like. For the most part, the report acts as an excellent introduction to the model and is certainly a document I have shared with our team, supporters and others who are interested in what we’re developing. It’s downloadable here, and on Save the Children’s website.

There is always a challenge and a question to be posed about to what degree one can codify the elements of a model or change them-and still allow the model to retain adequate consistency and identity with the original. Certainly the report’s helpful description of a ‘doubly holistic approach’ (meaning working with children both over a long period and across all areas) aligns with its Harlem origins, as does the attempt to wrestle meaningfully with data.

However, there was one critical oversight in Save the Children’s report-a perhaps predictable assumption made in importing the children’s zone concept from the US to the UK.

It is easy to forget that the emergence of Harlem Children’s Zone, formerly Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, came out of a period of reflection and change initiated by Geoffrey Canada and his senior leadership team. Rheedlen was an organisation not hugely dissimilar to The Winch in terms of its culture and decision-making approach, although it was much larger: it was a community organisation that responded to need wherever it saw it, rather than in a focused and strategic way.

It’s well worth having a look at the website of The Bridgespan Group, the consultancy who supported a great deal of change at Rheedlen. Read alongside ‘Whatever It Takes’, the story of HCZ as written by journalist Paul Tough, it becomes clear that Rheedlen never started off with a desire to build a charitable behemoth with an annual turnover of $85m per annum. In fact, to begin with there was no intention to establish schools, but to work in partnership with existing ones.

Canada discovered that for an array of reasons, Harlem schools didn’t want to let him in. And to cut a long story short, as schools were central-although not exclusively so-to delivering impact, the decision was made to establish Promise Academies, the initially controversial charters that those going through the full HCZ pipeline became students at. Canada states that his preference would have been to partner meaningfully with existing educational establishments-but they weren’t interested.

I mention this because part of HCZ’s power-its capacity, culture, flexibility and ability to leverage funding, relationships, resources and sponsorship-was the exclusive privilege of a nonprofit organisation as opposed to a form of local or regional government. This isn’t to say that partnering with government agencies wasn’t ultimately central to success-in fact it very much was-but that Canada and his team played a central, relational, infrastructure role in developing a pipeline and filling in the gaps.

There is, hence, an understandable assumption that English Children’s Zones would be coordinated, delivered and funded by the state (StC’s report focuses on schools). That would potentially be fantastic-and an interesting approach to pilot. However, HCZ’s impact wasn’t primarily about its administration and organisation, but about the strengths listed above and of course its place within the community: a position of trust, of longevity, a place where people would come voluntarily, not because they’d been referred.

I am excited to see how the children’s zone conversation in London and the UK more widely evolves. It has enormous potential, and there are many exciting and excited voices in the debate. However, I hope that as we move forward we use this report and the buzz around it in the right way: to grow the local as well as having the policy conversation, to foster a culture of children’s zones, not just a portfolio of them.

It’s often said that ‘small is beautiful’. At The Winch it’s beginning to feel more fitting to say that ‘small is powerful’. It’s in these ‘small’ contexts-where we know our communities, the assets and needs and opportunities within them-that we are building a children’s zone model that is far more powerful and effective than today’s policy nod or tomorrow’s fundraising idea. And most of all, it’s an approach consistent with our promise to children and young people.

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