Taking on the leadership of any organisation is a big responsibility. When that organisation is the UK's largest children's charity and has been part of British society for nearly 150 years, the sense of duty is all the greater.
Today as I start my new role as the chief executive of Barnardo's, the charity's purpose remains to transform the lives of the UK's most vulnerable children. Our vision is to realise Thomas Barnardo's dream of a world where no child is turned away from the help that they need.
Unfortunately, even in the twenty first century, childhood still remains an enormous lottery. Those of us lucky enough to be born into families with reasonable economic circumstances, who experience stable relationships and are raised with consistent parenting have the best opportunity to prosper. Sadly, many others, whether born to parents mired in poverty or who have experienced problematic relationships where parenting is at best inconsistent and at worst abusive, all too often go on to struggle.
The reality is that although the world changes over time, the basic needs of children do not. Whilst Barnardo's may no longer run children's homes, the on-going age of austerity sees government continuing to cut spending whilst the numbers of families experiencing deprivation increases, meaning more and more children will need our help. And through my career working in the education and justice system I've seen that the earlier you intervene with a child, the bigger a difference you are able to make to their life. It's not rocket science.
The optimum time for brain development is within the first few years of a child's life, and the parent has an essential part to play in this development process. Barnardo's has long recognised the importance of making the most of this narrow window of opportunity, which is why around a third of our 900 plus services are focussed on 'family support'. Through these services, Barnardo's reaches many of the most vulnerable families in the UK, teaching parents the basic building blocks to use when interacting with their child.
We must recognise that for some parents, the first years of their child's life can be a bewildering time. This can particularly be the case for those who didn't have the most stable start in life themselves and who may not have had the experience of being read to or played with by their own parents to inform their parenting techniques. They may be isolated from their own family, may not be able to read, or may work shifts preventing them from attending ante-natal support classes.
Which is why I'm so encouraged by Barnardo's bold decision to adopt the 'five to thrive' model across each and every one of our early years services.
The approach encourages parents to understand and implement five key building blocks when raising their children: respond, cuddle, relax, play and talk. This may sound obvious too but these key activities are crucial to a child's stability later on in life.
As training in this approach is rolled-out for Barnardo's staff, what makes this venture even more exciting is the support that we are receiving for it through an important new partnership with the retailer John Lewis. I'm delighted that these two great British brands are coming together to reach out and help make a real difference to the lives of some of the youngest and most vulnerable members of our communities.
This focus on early intervention is not to detract from the important work that Barnardo's also does with older children and young people. Some of the groups we've identified who particularly need our support include children who have experienced sexual exploitation, those who are growing up with a parent in prison, and young people who have just reached adulthood and are about to leave care to take their first steps into the world. It doesn't have to end how it began and we will continue to be there for those who need us the most.
However, I believe it's imperative that as a society we focus on early intervention before problems become entrenched. If we make the investment to support parents to implement the basic principles of care with their young children, ultimately this could save the tax-payer huge amounts of money on extensive and costly measures later on. Early intervention is about being effective, about showing care for our communities and it's about giving the best opportunity to our most vulnerable children to avoid the very real threat of permanent and damaging social exclusion. And if it saves money too, it's a no brainer.
As I start my new role I am looking forward to going around the country and meeting the men and women who work and volunteer so tirelessly for Barnardo's. From my time as a classroom teacher through to grappling with the challenges of youth crime in London, I know how important is to stick in there when the going gets tough, and I am humbled by the dedication to the cause that I've already seen from Barnardo's colleagues. They do what it takes to make a difference because they believe in children, and I intend to join them in fighting to transform the lives of the most vulnerable in the years ahead.
Barnardo's has been supporting children who struggle the most for nearly 150 years, and we will continue to be here for as long as they need us.