Recently in Public Service Provision Category

pink calculator & spectacles caseSonia Sotomayor is the lawyer and judge who has been nominated by President Barack Obama to fill the vacancy on the bench of the American Supreme Court. This week Judge Sotomayor has been grilled at a senate hearing about her suitability for the post. She is also Hispanic and a woman. This it seems gives rise to fears by interrogating Senators that her judgements may differ from those made previously.

Social Inclusion & Diversity

The hearings on whether Sonia Sotomayor should become an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court have been both predictable and in some ways depressing: her eleven inquisitors include just two women and the dialogue has reflected this.

Obama's broad church
On the other hand President Obama, in nominating Judge Sotomayor, has demonstrated again (as he has with other appointments, such as that of Hillary Rodham Clinton to the post of Secretary of State) that he intends his administration to be a broad church, inclusive of the talents of people of many sorts.

It's interesting that Sonia Sotomayor was able, in sworn evidence, to affirm that the President did not ask her personal views on matters such as abortion and gun control - issues which persistently appear in every hearing for appointments to the Supreme Court. Nor, apparently, do Sotomayor and Obama agree about the relevance or otherwise of 'empathy' in legal judgement (she says she puts it aside; he sees it as relevant).

The obstacles of gender and ethnicity - and class?
It looks increasingly likely that Judge Sotomayor's appointment will be confirmed. After the usual party political jostling, significant Republicans on the panel have indicated they will not oppose her nomination.

But why, and how, do these people think it appropriate to suggest that Sonia Sotomayor's gender and ethnicity are critical issues which might mitigate in the future against fair and transparent interpretation of the law?

Sotomayor's personal background is not unlike that of Obama; her early life, living in public housing in the Bronx, was uncompromisingly unprivileged. Perhaps social class also plays an unacknowledged part here. The Republicans amongst the Senators grilling her are not of the Grand Old Party (GOP) for nothing.

Privileged white men
But surely even they can see that the Supreme Court has thus far been an enclave of privileged white men? In its entire history it has been administered by 111 justices, only two of them so far women (the majority of the population), and none Hispanic (the fastest growing ethnic group in the USA).

Perhaps the Supreme Court has always adhered to interpretation of the law, with no fear or favour (though frightening statistics on what sorts of criminals are not excused judicial slaughter, for instance, might suggest otherwise).

But as far as I can tell, not many of these white, male, privileged nominations for the Supreme Court have been quizzed for days and days about whether their personal demographic provenance will endanger justice for all US citizens.

Politics and competencies
Assurances of propriety and competence are essential before any Supreme Court justice is appointed. Party political posturing is inescapably part of the game.

It's a ritual of Supreme Court nomination that questions have to be asked about every imaginable variable, and that Senators at the hearing go to extraordinary lengths not to set procedural precedence which they may later find uncomfortable.

Striking failures of insight
But, glaring omissions of insight about how and by what sorts of people the US law and constitution have been determined in the past.....?

Small wonder during her inquisition that Judge Sotomayor has stuck unservingly to the position simply that: "The task of a judge is not to make law. It is to apply the law."

I'm not a US citizen, but I am a citizen of a country which, like the US, seeks, in however flawed a way, to achieve fairness and equality. That fundamental - and perhaps intended? - apparent omission of insight on the part of Sonia Sotomayor's inquisitors I find downright bizarre.

Read more about Social Inclusion & Diversity and Political Process & Democracy.

Mums & prams High Infant Mortality Rates (IMR) are a distressing measure, but they tell us a lot about the nation's health. In the UK today the risk of infant death is about one in two hundred live births. But still seven times as many babies die in some working class Northern towns as do in the wealthiest parts of the South East. The Sure Start programme, alongside the Government's IMR health inequalities initiative, shows promise in addressing these massive inequalities; but the next step must be to strengthen Sure Start's interdisciplinary framework.

Fundamental issues such as human health and well-being are rarely a challenge for only one part of public sector services.

The really big problems almost always straddle a wide range of service provision, which can add substantially to the difficulties of resolving them - no one service provider alone 'owns' the issue, and it is often unclear who should head up programmes to address the problem.

Differentials in life expectancy
A classic example of this is the challenge in the UK of reducing the gap between the life expectancy of richer and poorer people, to achieve the goal of everyone who possibly can enjoying a long and healthy life.

The better the start in life, the more likely a person is to have a good outcome also in the future. For this reason there has been much emphasis in recent years on Infant Mortality Rates, which are generally agreed to be amongst the most sensitive overall indicators of a nation's health.

Infant Mortality Rates (IMR) are usually stated as numbers of deaths per 1000 live births. The figures are often broken down into rates for the first four weeks of life (neonatal rate) and then for the rest of the first year of a child's life (post-neonatal rate), i.e. from the end of week four till first birthday.

Infant Mortality Rates in Britain
The national statistics show that even since the 1970s, in the UK IMRs have fallen by about 60%. In 1978 the neonatal (first four weeks) rate was 8.7 deaths per 1000 live births, and the post-neonatal rate, up to a child's first birthday, was 4.5.

By 1988 the rates were 4.9 and 4.1 respectively, and in 1997 they were 3.9 and 2.0.

In 2007 the UK neonatal mortality rate was 3.3 per 1000 live births, and the post-neonatal rate was 1.5 - in other words, a child born in the UK in 2007 had a probability of dying before his or her first birthday of just about one half of one percent. (You can see international comparisons here.)

Regional differences
Sadly, these national statistics include both good and bad news. The good news is that decent housing, income and environments can support people in long and healthy lives.

The bad news is that the opposite conditions can be lethal. There are parts of the North of England, for instance, where IMR is about twice that national average, and up to seven times that of the very best outcomes.

Specifically, high IMR and low life expectancy often go hand-in hand in the Spearhead areas; the 70 local authority areas with the worst health and deprivation indicators, and for which a programme of public service interventions has been developed.

High risk factors in health inequality
The target does not however take into account all dimensions of health inequalities in infant mortality. The statistics show e.g. that in 2002–04, the infant mortality rate of babies of mothers:
* born in Pakistan (10.2 per 1,000 live births) was double the overall IMR;
* born in the Caribbean (8.3 per 1,000 live births) was 63% higher than the national average;
* aged under 20 years (7.9 per 1,000 live births) was 60% higher than for older mothers aged 20–39;
* where the birth was registered by the mother alone (6.7 per 1,000 live births), was 36% higher than among all births inside marriage or outside marriage or jointly registered by both parents.

Improving life chances
Obviously, these significant inequalities are just not acceptable. The Government therefore introduced a Public Service Agreement (PSA ) Target in 2007 with the express objective of reducing the IMR gap, so that more babies will live to have long and healthy lives. (Healthy babies also have better long-term prospects, sometimes dramatically so.)

The deal is that the UK Treasury provides the money, and the public sector delivers the agreed outcome, to a clear timescale and against clearly measured outcomes.

Particular emphasis has therefore been placed in terms of health inequalities on achieving a ten percent reduction (between 2003 and 2010) in the IMR deficit between people in routine and manual (R&M) jobs, and the general population.

Practical steps forward
The practical ways in which the Health Inequalities Infant Mortality PSA Target Review (February 2007) can be achieved are focused on two things: sensible day-to-day actions and provisions, and interdisciplinary co-operation. In the words of the NHS summary of the Implementation plan for reducing health inequalities in infant mortality:

'The plan describes how commissioners and service providers can develop local services to help reduce health inequalities in infant mortality through:

* promoting joined-up delivery of the target with Maternity Matters and Teenage Parents Next Steps. This includes
* improving access to maternity care;
* improving services for black and minority ethnic (BME) groups;
* encouraging ownership of the target through effective performance management;
* raising awareness of health inequalities in infant mortality and child health;
* gathering and reporting routine data, including specific maternity and paediatric activity;
* undertaking joint strategic needs assessment to identify local priorities around health inequalities in maternity and infant mortality;
* giving priority to evidence-based interventions that will help ensure delivery of the target.

It emphasises the importance of partnership working; outlines the role of government departments, strategic health authorities (SHAs), primary care trusts (PCTs), local authorities and Sure Start Children’s Centres.'

Specific, realisable targets for practical action and delivery
Progress may be slow, but none of this is rocket science.

Large-scale studies have demonstrated that just a few health messages about avoiding early years risk can have a big impact. Indeed, the Review of Health Inequalities has been able to quantify four measures, and suggest another one, which would have appreciable impact on the ‘10% reduction in IMR gap’ target. These were:

* reduce prevalence of obesity in the R&M group by 23%, to current general population levels – 2.8% gap reduction
* reduce smoking in pregnancy from 23% to 15% in R&M group – 2% gap reduction
* reduce R&M group sudden unexpected deaths in infancy by persuading 1 in 10 women in this group to avoid sharing a bed with their baby, or letting it sleep prone (on its front) – 1.4% gap reduction
* achieve teenage pregnancy target – 1% gap reduction
* also, early booking and improved teenage pregnancy services – not possible as yet to quantify probable gap reduction, but positive impact on gap anticipated.

Getting it right
The scope for getting this right in very simple ways is therefore enormous. Whilst guidance at national level, such as the Department of Health's Child Health Promotion Plan (June 2008) is essential to provide a framework, much of the responsibility for success has to lie with the authorities 'on the ground', who have to co-ordinate the action.

In reality, only at the local level is it possible to get practitioners to work together well, to ensure that all those - including so-called 'hard to reach' minority ethnic familes, travellers and e.g. very young parents or parents with mental health problems - who would benefit from services, advice or support, in fact receive them. Although programmes such as the Family Nurse Partnership (a joint Department of Health / Department for Children, Schools and Families project whereby specially trained midwives and health vsitors work closely with vulnerable, first time, young parents) are starting to reach those with most disadvantage, in some places still this doesn't always happen.

It is disappointing therefore to read claims in this month's Regeneration and Renewal that the PSA Inequality target will be missed, despite the many billions of pounds (£9bn in 2007-8) which have been invested in Sure Start services to deliver early years provision.

An expected move
This probably why the Government is launching a public consultation on proposals to give Sure Start Children's Centres a specific statutory legal basis, as part of the forthcoming Education and Skills Bill.

Such a move was indicated as a possibility when The Children's Plan (the ten year programme for Every Child Matters) was introduced in December 2007. It would establish Sure Start Children's Centres as 'a legally recognised part of the universal infrastructure for children's services, so their provision becomes a long term statutory commitment and part of the established landscape of early years provision'.

The best way forward
This is a much better idea than the alternatives proffered in some quarters - more Health Visitors as a stand-alone, for instance. (What about the GPs / family doctors? How do they fit in?)

A review of progress has shown (as my own consultancy work also indicates) that the PSA infant mortality target was not known or understood by practitioners (NHS, local government and Sure Start staff etc) despite individual examples of leadership and good practice.

Reaching out
And nor, in my experience, do practitioners and policy makers automatically know that impact has to be measured across the whole relevant population of infants, not just those who attend particular service provision, be this Health Visitor clinics, Sure Start or whatever.

About 80% of early years formal care is actually undertaken by small private concerns, child minders and so forth, a 'group' which, whilst of course the subject of statutory regulation and monitoring, it is particularly difficult to bring together in any meaningful way. But what happens in small relatively isolated provision will have a big impact on children's future lives.

The PSA IMR Review has therefore identified the criticality of making the 10% gap reduction target part of everyday business – integrating into commissioning plans and provider contracts; taking responsibility and engaging communities; matching resources to needs; and focusing on what can be done.

Multi-disciplinary and future-facing
The challenges of equipping professionals to work together across disciplines are complex; not every practitioner would say, if asked, that they actually want to be so equipped and so far out of their comfort zone. But these challenges must be met, as is beginning to happen, with skills audits by NIACE which indicate the centrality in Sure Start provision of effective multi-agency leadership and partnership development.

The National Audit Office reports that, whilst most Sure Start Children's Centre managers understand they must approach the work in a multi-disciplinary way, this is not always so for local authorities, who 'had not all developed effective partnerships with health and employment services'.

The onus is now particularly on local government and NHS providers. If it takes more legislation to ensure they all collaborate properly with Sure Start Children's Centres (and vice versa), so be it. It's children's futures which are at stake.

Read also: Early Intervention In The Early Years

See also: 'Changes for the better?' - The Every Child Matters policy, published in 2003, was a landmark proposal for child social service reform. Five years on, Ruth Winchester asks the professionals how things have developed, and what progress has been made (The Guardian, 22 October 2008)

Crowds Today is World Population Day. On this day in 1968, world leaders proclaimed that individuals have a basic human right to determine the number and timing of their children. Forty years later, population issues remain a real challenge even in Britain, where greater cohesion is still needed for policy in action.

Inevitably much of the focus since then has been on women, and especially maternal health and education.

There can be no doubt at all that a failure of health care during pregnancy and birth takes a terrible toll on lives, both maternal and infant. Multiple unplanned pregnancies are a leading cause of premature death and tragic disability for many women and their children, especially in very poor countries.

Access to family planning
UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, says active use of family planning in developing countries has increased from 10-12% in the 1960s to over 60% today. But despite these improvements, a World Bank report just released says that 35 countries - 31 of them in sub-Saharan Africa - still have very high fertility rates and grim mortality rates from unsafe deliveries or abortions.

According to this World Bank report, women in developing countries experience 51 million unintended pregnancies each year because of lack of access to effective contraception That is a great deal of heartache, even apart from the enormous issues it raises for global ecosystems.

Not just a a 'Third World' issue
But this is not a problem only for people in the poorest developing countries.

Most of us are aware that people in the 'developed' countries use hugely more energy and other resources than do those in poor countries. Even with our much lower fertility rates we are currently much more of a threat to global sustainability than are people in Africa.

Blighted lives in the Western world too
"Promoting girls’ and women’s education is just as important in reducing birth rates in the long run as promoting contraception and family planning," says Sadia Chowdhury, a co-author of the World Bank report.

That is also true even in places such as today's Britain. Teenage pregnancy - and unintended pregnancy overall - remains a serious issue for many families in the U.K. even now.

There is an essential synergy between prospects for women in education and employment, and elective motherhood. Each benefits from the other. And each also brings benefit for the children who are born, including better prospects even for their very survival.

IMR inequalities relate to social class
Currently differences in infant UK infant death rates can be huge, and can often be attributed to occupational and class differentials. In 2002-4 a baby born in Birmingham was eight times more likely to die before its first birthday than one in Surrey, with rates of 12.4 and 2.2 infant deaths per thousand live births respectively. (Bradford is another very high-risk area, and set up its own enquiry to see how to improve.)

This is not an easy matter to discuss politically, but it could not be more important, even in Britain, one of the wealthiest nations in the world.

Improving family health
One main health objectives of the British Government is to improve infant mortality rates (IMR: the number of babies who die before their first birthday, against each one thousand born), so that the infants of poorer parents have better outcomes, like those of more advantaged parents.

The target for England is a 10% reduction in the relative gap (i.e. percentage difference) in infant mortality rates between “routine and manual” socio-economic groups and England as a whole from the baseline year of 1998 (the average of 1997-99) to the target year 2010 (the average of 2009-2011).

Life outcomes and expectation
To focus this up: for each baby in the UK who dies before his or her first birthday, there will be about ten who survive with enduring disability, and often with diminished life expectancy.

At present, often through lack of knowledge, or sometimes difficulties in accessing appropriate care, this distressing outcome is much more likely to affect families where women are poorly educated, than those where women have a good education and good jobs or careers.

Preventable tragedy
It does not have to be like this.

The Government is absolutely right to tackle this difficult matter, but effective action requires co-ordinated delivery by all who provide care and support for parents and children. There must be no room for professional maternity care in-fighting, such as is reported by Sir Ian Kennedy, chair of the Healthcare Commission to exist between obstetricians and midwives.

Children's Centres as a way forward?
The national transition from Sure Start to the encompassing provision of Children's Centres, underpinned by the fundamental philosophy of the Every Child Matters initiative, is now underway.

To date there has been little discussion about how family planning support needs to be built into this really important development.

Professional obligation
This may be a tricky issue, but it's one where the professionals could, if they chose, much help the Government to help all of us.

When are we going to hear those who provide early years and family support saying, loud and clear, that 'every child a wanted child' is a basic requirement for everyone in Britain as well as elsewhere?

A not-to-be repeated opportunity?
The need for effective family planning in parts of the developing world remains desperate, and must be met.

But that doesn't excuse skirting the issue here at home, just at a point when new and joined up services focusing directly on families and children are being created, with the aim of eradicating child poverty and increasing wellbeing for everyone.

And given the political sensitivities, surely it's the practitioners - in health, education, welfare and the rest - who have to lead the way?

Read more articles about Public Service Provision.

British Sociological Association (BSA) logo The British Sociological Association, founded in 1951, promotes the work of sociologists and social scientists as practitioners and scholars, in the UK and, through links, much further afield. Sociology offers an analysis which helps surprisingly large numbers of us make sense of what happens in our ever-changing world.

I recently re-joined the British Sociological Association, of which I was an Executive Committee member when I worked in further and higher education, much earlier in my career.

It's fascinating to see how things have evolved since that time, back in the 1980s.

Battles now won
Then we were battling to 'save' the Personal, Social and Health curriculum, which Sir Keith Joseph, then Secretary of State for Education under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was keen to remove or at the very least side-line. History in schools was to stop at 1945, the end of the Second World War and before the arrival in 1948 of the National Health Service (NHS) and Welfare State; Section 11 legislation made it almost professional suicide to teach about HIV / AIDS; the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) had to be renamed the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) lest anyone should think that social research was scientific - in retrospect a far cry attitudinally from current demands for 'evidence-based' policy at the highest levels.

All this we addressed, through the Executives of the BSA and other professional associations, via FACTASS, The Forum of Academic and Teaching Associations in the Social Sciences, of which I was Convenor. Now there is no need for FACTASS. We managed to hang on in there, and it's unlikely that any mainstream politician in any modern democratic country would want to see it otherwise; the PSHE curriculum and entitlement of children to understand their world is, along with positive resolution of the GCSEs-for-all debate, now established.

But the fundamental emphases of the BSA on social equity; on understanding the interactive social constructions which give meaning to our daily lives, continue, developed and debated by people who have now spent a lifetime exploring how human societies and communities work and are understood by the people in them.

The 'classics' - gender, 'race' and ethnicity, age and life transitions, and social class - remain (alongside matters such as health and medicine, work and employment, and so forth) the fundamental building blocks of sociological analysis, keeping us constantly aware that big and sometimes invisible forces shape our day-to-day experience, even to the extent that they often determine our actual life expectancy.

New social analysis too
And beyond that, there is a new and critical emphasis on our physical world, on sustainability and green issues and how societies and communities will find themselves responding to the challenges we all face.

It may be too soon to say that Human Geographers and Sociologists have found completely common ground, but it looks as though a convergence may slowly be developing, after a decade or more when the gathering of empirical data on population change and socio-economic impacts was sometimes perceived to be enough to take governmental programmes and political policy forward.

Contextualising for the future
There is now a recognition that 'social research' must inform, e.g., environmental as well as community, health and education policies. (I was recently a co-author of the Defra Science Advisory Council report on Social Research in Defra - a fascinating and I hope very fruitful experience.)

The BSA, I note, has a growing Section (interest) Group on Sociologists Outside Academia (SOAg). I intend to sign up for it.

See more articles on Social Science , and
History Lessons Need More Than 'Hitler And Henry'
Social Geographers Take The Lead In Social Policy

Meandering route 328a 113x99.jpg Evidence-based policy is central to much contemporary governmental thinking. But how the different phases of policy delivery can best engage 'real people' is not always clear. This is true whether the intended policy concerns health, the knowledge economy, or even global sustainability. There is still much to be done in understanding human agency and interaction in policy development and delivery.

In many aspects of public policy, from health through life-long learning and the economy to global sustainability, it is not simply the science or knowledge base which is important. Of equal, or sometimes greater, importance is an understanding of how to apply the established evidence which informs policy.

Phases in public policy development
There are, or should be, a number of phases in developing public policy.

The first phase is to derive as much consensus as possible about the necessary evidence base (both scientific and contextual) and the second is to consider how this 'translates' - an exercise which is currently being taken forward overtly by the government in relation to scientific knowledge, industry and business.

Securing public agreement or at least encouraging constructive and informed public debate is another phase which must run alongside these first two phases.

This 'third' phase is at risk when the established modes of policy development continue.

Public debate
The government has now gone some way to seek proper public debate on issues around science, technology, health and so forth. It is not as yet clear however that the corollary of this emphasis has been absorbed by the wider knowledge-related industries or even by some whose task is to deliver policy for real.

We all know that fundamental research and the intricacies of, say, applied medical knowledge are critical for the future. What is less well understood is that there remain huge gaps in our understandings of how such knowledge becomes operational in the real world.

People are what makes things happen. How they do so, in the contexts of such enormous challenges as global warming, the diseases of contemporary societies and the rapidly changing communities we all live in, has yet to be made clear.

Making things happen depends on people
Despite all our problems, many of us in the western world live in the best conditions human beings have ever known. Ensuring this continues and is shared even more widely is very largely a task for policy makers informed by a social rather than natural scientific knowledge base.

Fundamental science certainly needs to remain at the centre of knowledge creation; but, whether in health, industry or the environment, it must be matched by an equally well researched knowledge of the social world, if there is to be any real hope of public policies to sustain all our futures.

Study bookshelves (small) 90x111.jpg Not all academics are happy to see their students referred to as 'customers'. They have a point. The role of college lecturers is to ensure that their students gain the knowledge and skills required to take them further in their chosen fields. The 'student as customer' model is incomplete, if only because teaching staff inevitably know more about the chosen field than do learners. Along with the actual knowledge required, there may be scope to look afresh at the skills base students need - and at the implications of that for the 'consumer' status of students.

Edward Snyder, Dean of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, is vexed about the notion of students as 'customers'. In an article published by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, he writes:

'Do we really want to tell them [students] that they are customers - and that they are always right - when we [post-graduate tutors] are in the last, best position to influence their overall academic, ethical and professional development?'

An important question
Prof Snyder asks an important question here - and it applies at least as much to pre-university and undergraduate students as it does to his very high fliers.

I recall one particularly demanding group of college students (all groups, as any teacher will tell you, have their own signature character and dynamic) who informed me very early on in their course that they didn't want to 'do' a given part of the syllabus because it was 'boring'.

My riposte - that they were on an externally prescribed and examined course, so were going to have to get on with it, and they could tell me their views again when they had completed that part of the syllabus - left some of them genuinely puzzled. It had never occurred to them that choices and judgements are best made on the basis of direct experience, not just hearsay or even less. For optimum results, you can't just pick'n'mix college education as you might your Saturday grocery shopping.

An extra dimension
The student - tutor interaction can never just be that of customer - salesperson; though it might sometimes be described as client - professional (for instance, when the learning is by overt mutual consent very focused and directed).

Usually, however, the learner - teacher relationship should be that of collaborator - facilitator, within a context of guidance and the tutor's expertise in the field being studied. This should ideally include encouragement by that tutor of efforts by the students to collaborate with each other (and, if possible, with more experienced practitioners) to explore the wider meanings and skills which lie behind the subject in question.

Beyond that, there may also, by mutual consent, be a role for tutors as their students' professional mentor and / or coach.

The challenge
There is a challenge here. It is relatively easy to evaluate 'customer satisfaction' and to respond to what one learns as a provider from such evaluation.

It is more difficult to measure the impact and future value of collaboration and skills development. But that is what adult students often require, just as much as younger learners.

The question is, how is this complex interactional 'contract' best negotiated between students and teachers, at a time when we are all encouraged from a very early age to see ourselves just as customers, selecting at whim what we will or will not 'consume'?

Read more articles about Education & Life-Long Learning.

Small child (small) 70x61.jpg Pre-school childcare is generally regarded as expensive. Even with government financial support, it stretches many household budgets. But there are now many more childcare places than hitherto. More places and higher costs, properly handled, may together be a longer-term sign of better status for women in the labour market.

The cost of pre-school childcare, we are constantly reminded, is ‘spiralling’ – highest, as ever, in London, and lowest in the north-west of England. The Daycare Trust tells us that the average cost of a full-time nursery place for under-twos is now (as of January 2007) £152 a week in England, and £131 in Wales. With individual average earnings at £447 a week, this is a hefty chunk out of some household budgets.

Early years support
Few would deny, however, that the government is doing its best to provide quality care for pre-school children. Welcoming recent developments, Alison Garnham, joint Chief Executive of the Daycare Trust called on the Government, as well as other political parties, to deliver the Ten Year Childcare Strategy:

At long last we have a government that is committed to making progress in childcare facilities in this country. When New Labour came to power they faced major challenges in delivering high quality and affordable childcare to all families and we welcome wholeheartedly the improvements that have been made under the Ten Year Strategy.'

Big changes from the past
Long gone is the grim time when finding childcare was an individual (mother)'s nightmare, relying only on a hunch and perhaps a local health visitor – who probably didn't ‘approve’ of working mums - in the exhausting search for someone reliable to care for one’s children whilst the money to feed them was earned.

In 2007, Sure Start is metamorphosing into Children’s Centres, and the tax credit system – to the daily tune of more than £2m for almost 400,000 families - helps many parents, as do tax-relief childcare vouchers (now up to age 12); and three- and four-year olds are entitled to 12.5 hours of free nursery education a week. In London, there is also a Childcare Affordability Programme which subsidises the cost of childcare by up to £30 for eligible parents.

Direct costs are up
Nonetheless, parents in the UK pay about 70% of the costs of childcare, compared to an average of about 30% for other European parents. (Where, of course, childcare patterns are sometimes very different.) And costs have risen more quickly than inflation – almost 6% in 2006, against inflation of less than half this.

Alongside this, there are reports that affordable childcare is difficult to find in many areas.

Not all bad news
I have three takes on this situation:

There is the individual problem for parents who find it hard to fund good childcare; there is the opportunity for business-minded child carers at last to earn a decent living; and there is a shift in the labour market which, longer-term, may well serve everyone well.

Parents’ stretched budgets
First, I have every sympathy with parents who struggle to make ends meet and find the costs of ‘quality’ childcare so difficult. Raising young families is always a challenge and it is crucial that every possible support is given to parents in their efforts to do this responsibly and well.

It’s very important from every perspective that parents – including, but not only, single parents - and their children receive all the help which can be mustered by their communities, employers, and the government.

Childcare entrepreneurs
Second, this situation is by no means bad news for those entrepreneurs – almost all of them women – who see a childcare market opportunity and grasp it.

Childcare providers, at least in Britain, has traditionally been appallingly badly paid. It is about time that this changed. These days many people are concerned about the quality of what they eat. If there is now a public debate also about the quality of care for their children, this can only be to the good.

The market will rise to the opportunity; but, just as with quality food, provision may not always be cheap. (Though expense is not always the issue: sometimes it’s actually organising the right thing which is the problem. Neither home-grown food nor local, small-scale quality childcare need be so very expensive.)

The labour market
Finally, if I were a feminist economist (assuming such persons consciously exist), I would be pleased about the current scenario.

It is likely that most of those who are pushing for higher wages in response to childcare costs will be women. By the logic of the market this demand will have to be addressed and to some extent met.

And a corollary, given only finite amounts of available money, may well be a market shift towards more equality of income between women and men. If women demand more pay, male employees (or indeed their managers / shareholding employers) will have to give way to a degree at least – especially as women are increasingly vital to the workforce, now often taking the field in terms of qualifications (sometimes gained whilst their little ones are receiving childcare) and skills.

Courage in transition
It’s a long, hard struggle, this childcare – equality scenario. But things overall are already better than they were, and the likelihood is that more pressure, higher expectations and political will together really can make a difference.

The Government’s Every Child Matters programme can of course be improved as experience in ‘how to do it’ is gained in communities and by decision-makers. Potential for improvements in childcare is however a positive, never a negative. The Government must keep its nerve.

The debates about affordability and quality in early years provision are welcome signs that every child does indeed ‘matter’, and that, slowly, the economy is adjusting to recognise just that.

Penny Lane entrance (small) 06.10.jpg Penny Lane in Liverpool is one of Liverpool's most famous streets. How sad then that the high hopes of this community have been dashed so many times, as they try to secure their dream of a Millennium Green and a Centre for visitors and locals alike. A decade waiting is quite long enough. Now there must be some action.

Penny Lane (street).jpg Ten years is not a long time in the life of a city, but it can be in the life of a community. In that time people can arrive and depart, have families or see their youngsters leave. Many things determine the likelihood of any of these events, not least changes in the tone and appearance of that community’s actual location.

These thoughts came to mind as I recently made a visit to Penny Lane, that part of Liverpool’s inner suburbs, not far from my own home, which has been immortalised by our most famous sons, the Beatles.

Does it have to take a decade?
Penny Lane Millennium Green signs.jpg Ten years ago local residents decided they would like a Millennium Green and a Centre for locals and the many visitors, on the Grove Mount site of fairly undeveloped land along Penny Lane. After much hard work they secured a promise of such an amenity as long as they were able to secure the land and produce a sensible business plan. As part of the celebratory activity following this promise, I took ‘before’ photographs of the area – which I had hoped would swiftly be superseded by the ‘after’ photos.

Three cameras and thousands of photographs later, I'm still waiting.

The City Council has made various vaguely encouraging noises over the years, but nothing of substance seems to be happening. The field still hosts very occasional children’s football matches, but is if anything is more derelict than before. It is strewn with litter and worse; and the building in the corner is in a serious state of collapse.

Community impact
Penny Lane Millennium Green building.jpg Unfortunately, much the same can be said of some people in the local community. Local youngsters (by no means a majority of them, but enough) use the field to hang out, disturbing and worrying other residents, whilst those who campaigned for the Millennium Green hand on grimly to their dream, never having imagined when they began that so much later still there would be no evidence of success.

Is this the way to treat people who give whatever they can of their time, imagination and enthusiasm in trying to improve their community?

People Power
Penny Lane cat.jpg Someone once said that a theme to which I consistently return is People Power. Too right, if what is meant by that is respecting and helping decent folk to maintain the areas in which they live. This, in my books, is a requirement on us all.

For now, the only satisfied ‘resident’ of the proposed Penny Lane Millennium Green is the cat who suns himself on the entrance pillars to this sorry, derelict site. I really hope that before long the powers that be will get a grip, and that, before the humans decide to give up completely, this happy little felix will have to relocate.

Wheelchair person reading  (small) 80x64.jpg Conferences involving public funds and public policy are still too often devised and conducted as though the vast majority of the population were white, male, able-bodied and middle class. The time has come to start measuring in some way the extent to which this limited approach offers the general public value for money.

This is the twenty first century. We in Britain live in a democratic and accountable society run, on the whole, by people who are serious about 'getting it right'.

How come, then, that I find myself so frequently incensed by the line-up and arrangements for public conferences on critical matters? The answer is simple: conferences about pressing civic matters are still very largely (not exclusively) organised and presented as if the entire planet were inhabited by able-bodied white, middle class, men.

Democratic underpinnings?
There are of course many excellent conference speakers and delegates who happen to be able-bodied, white and middle class; but theirs is not the only perspective or understanding which matters. It therefore follows that policy developed largely on the basis of this perspective will probably be weak or even downright unhelpful (and the evidence of this abounds.... just choose your own example.) So check out the next conference on any matter of general public concern:

Does it have significant diversity in its speakers and and their positions? For gender? For age? For ethnicity? For influence?

Is the agenda helpful in terms of recognising and giving weight to the diverse perspectives within its given community of interest? Do the topics listed for discussion demonstrate this clearly? Do they include specific consideration of possible future action on diversity within the theme being considered?

Is it accessible to everyone? Does it offer a significant number of places for sensible prices (say, the cost of two meals, perhaps £20)? Is it near a train station on a main line (especially if it's more than local in its remit)? Is the venue easy to navigate for those with mobility and related problems? Assuming the issues under consideration are not privileged in some specific way, will the end-point papers be published on a free, publicly accessible and openly advertised website?

Where's the action towards inclusion?
The Fawcett Society recently calculated that, at the present rate, it will still be four hundred years before men and women are equal in terms of their influence in the corridors of power.

This is simply not good enough. Not at all. Not now, let alone in several hundred years.

I have decided therefore to take one small step for diverse-person-kind, and begin work on a Conference Diversity Index, which will be developed to indicate, however, impressionistically, just how much value and weight might be placed on various publicly funded events about matters of public concern. More diversity of involvement and experience, more value.....

I know a few conferences coming up on Merseyside which may prove to be of interest; and no doubt you know of others.

This is my website version of the article 'Can I have a speaker that reflects the community? Too white, too male and too posh. It's time conferences had an injection of diversity', published in New Start magazine, 27 October 2006, p.11

All the evidence is that most people in the U.K. are living longer and more healthily. They often take up new activities and lead self-sufficient lives into their 80s and even 90s. Why then are some commentators viewing The Turner Report's proposals to increase the retirement age through the perspective of the past, not the future?

It's amazing how many very elderly people one sees during social visits over the festive season. Just in the course of the last few days I've in some way encountered half a dozen or more close family and friends who are over 85, and some of them over 90 - and all still holding their own nicely, thank you very much.

Looking back, I'm sure that years ago meeting anyone much over the age of 80 was really quite the exception - and it turns out this isn't just my memory playing tricks. The Guardian leader of 27 December tells us that average life expectancy has increased by two years in every decade for the past two centuries.

And then I read today that women even more than men use the internet to keep in touch - and men more than women use it to find out new things. But the most striking thing of all is that (in the U.S.A. at least) two thirds of both men and women are internet users.... and we all know that silver surfers - internet users aged 50+ - are increasing in numbers all the time, so that over a third of people aged up to 64 are now on-line, and many of these find it invaluable.

The future will be techno, but will it be work?
What are we to make of this? There seems to be ample evidence that age is not now necessarily an obstacle to learning to do things one wants to do, at least as long as the resources are there to do it. It's patently obvious that age itself is no longer the sole determinant of what people can do.

All of which leads me to ponder, along with many others, why there's so much fuss in some quarters about raising the retirement age as a general policy. (Always assuming that people who for some reason are unwell or whatever will, as before, be able to retire earlier.)

Judging the future by the standards of the past
If people want to carry on linking in with others, or learning and trying new things, why can't they do this at work as well as in their leisure time? Those who decry the new thinking on work and pensionable age (The Turner Report) are judging the future by the standards of the past.

Looking forward, many of us will be able to choose to maintain our health and activity for much longer than, say, most of our grandparents. And if part of this activity is earning money to maintain ourselves in the style to which older people are now becoming accustomed, that looks fair enough too.