My parents were - and still are - Children's Society
supporters, and it stayed with me once I left home. It's a
great privilege to be here - and a profound responsibility to make
sure that we continue the tenacious work of our predecessors to
transform the lives of disadvantaged children in the UK.
It's an outrage that the situations facing many children
in the UK are as entrenched and life-limiting as many children
experience in the global South. And this is currently
I've worked in social justice in one way or another for
many years now, most recently in international
development. I applied for this post to draw on my faith and a
thirst for social justice. Previously, I was CEO at the Cystic
Fibrosis Trust, and before that a director at Christian Aid.
No shocks or surprises since I started in May.
I am delighted to find a fantastic and dedicated staff and
volunteer team, who are passionate about making life better, for
good, for children. They constantly go the extra mile to make it
I was in parish ministry for nine years before
that: four in Birkenhead as a curate, and five in Marlow
as a team vicar. I've always worked with young people.
It wasn't a plan to stop being a priest - I'm
still working as a priest now, just in a different context. I
finished a fixed term as a team vicar and was considering a term in
secular ministry. At the time, Christian Aid was recruiting. I
thought I could have a go, and I've just taken to charity
management. But it's not a permanent departure. I preach
occasionally in our parish church, and I preach out and about in
the UK for the Children's Society.
Since it was
founded, the Children's Society has worked with the Church
not just to tackle the effects of poverty and neglect, but to
address its causes.
In every age we led the way to innovate ways of doing
this, which have often then been adopted by others. Our
founder, Edward Rudolf, in 1881 started the concept of family-sized
children's homes rather than workhouses or large
establishments. Family-sized houses then were bigger than
today, because families were bigger; but the idea was to give
children as normal an experience as possible.
We've also tried to be genuinely child-centric.
The current concept of the Children's Centre, adopted by the last
government, was based on our own family centres initially, which
were a direct approach to supporting families with young
The key thing for us is listening consistently to the
experience of young people, and basing our work round
that. Children often have solutions and good ideas about their
holistic well-being themselves.
Today, the Society works on more than 80 programmes in
the UK, but it is still focused on children who live with
poverty and neglect, and have nowhere else to turn. We give a voice
to children in care, support children who are refugees from
violence, and run a network of centres for children who have run
away from home.
Christingle is important to us, not just for
the money it raises -although that is very important - but for
raising awareness in the churches of the issues faced by so many
children in the UK today.
The service is still a much loved and important part of
Christmas for many families. This year, we think there
will be more Christingle services than ever.
The Christingle image of light in the darkness
- Jesus coming into the world and bringing light, hope, vision,
vitality - makes it a very important reminder of the light of
Christ in our midst. Christmas is about a child born in difficult
circumstances, in a refugee family. We tell stories of children
born today in the image of God, with God smiling at them and
wishing them well, and the challenge for us is to ensure that the
light of love that is God's does shine upon them. The importance of
that goes way beyond the fundraising.
And then there's the most important strategic issue,
which I've left till last: the challenge to get through
the service without eating all the sweets, or setting fire to
I've joined the Children's Society at a time when life
is getting even more difficult for a large number of children in
the UK. We're seeing much higher levels of poverty, and
declining prospects for many children. I've got a tenacious focus
on permanently changing the lives of as many of the most
disadvantaged children in the UK as we can.
And we have a profound belief that childhood is a unique
life-stage in its own right. That's what makes our work
very urgent, and injects a pace and urgency into the work, although
it's a self-evident fact that there is a cycle of poverty and
neglect, and it will reappear if not dealt with in a focused and
We run children's centres on behalf of local authorities
in the most deprived parts of the UK, to try to improve
things. Also, we look at the structural issues, like the new
Universal Credit to be introduced in 2013, and how free school
meals will be allocated. They are worth £400 to a poor family, per
child, per year. That can make a big difference, but the Government
hasn't yet decided how this will work.
We've been working with children who run away from
home. We find it shocking that, every day, 30 teenagers
run away from residential care - which costs £200,000 per child per
year. Many of them end up sleeping rough, and extremely
vulnerable. We campaign to ensure children in local-authority
care are properly looked after.
Public attitudes towards young people aren't always very
helpful. Police, other professionals, and the public need
to see young people on the streets, first and foremost, as needing
protection and safety. Too often we hear of exploited teenage
girls' not being helped by professionals or the public, and this
adds to the abuse they are experiencing.
One of the key lessons from international
studies is that the huge disparity in wealth and
opportunity in the UK impoverishes the life- experiences of
everyone, not just the poorest.
We're also becoming very expert in dealing with
unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. They have often had
traumatic experiences. We give them direct support, help them meet
each other, and prepare them for education. In some places, we
offer the statutory care, but support them to a higher degree than
the local authority expects. These are some of the most vulnerable
people in our society, and we try to make these children have the
very best experience of what's left of their childhood.
The advocacy we do in public-policy work is done from
practical experience. So, for example, there are
significant issues faced by disabled children round the changes in
Universal Credit, and we're working with the Department for Work
and Pensions. Practice and policy are two sides of the same coin.
We don't speak about issues that we don't have experience of in our
Unusually, I thought at quite a young age that I would
be a priest, but I was wisely advised to do something
else first. I veered towards science at school, and so read
engineering and management at university, before reading
Beyond doubt, the most important choice I made was to
attend my friend's wedding, where I met Jennifer, my
wife. I was the deacon. She was the bridesmaid.
There are many things that I would handle differently if
given a second chance, but I tend to focus more on
learning the lessons for the future. My regrets are nearly all
about not enough time spent with my children, which is rather
I've no aspiration to be remembered at all in 100
years' time, but, sadly, I think the Children's Society
will still be needed for many years to come.
Hilbre Island in the Dee Estuary is my favourite
place. I served my curacy on the Wirral, and often walked
out there at low tide with Jennifer and our dog. God lives there,
as do some seals.
What honestly makes me angry is social
injustice, denial, or resignation that social injustice
is endemic in UK society, and the inertia to do much about it.
And Churches talking about trivia.
I'm happiest when I am with my family, sharing a great
I don't pray
formally as much as I could, but when I do it is
inevitably for other people.
Edward Rudolf was a very inspirational, visionary
person. He failed to accept that poverty was something
that had to be lived with. He managed to find new ways of engaging
with children, and setting new paradigms for the way they were
cared for. If locked in a church, I'd love to sit down and listen
to him talk directly, and ask how he managed to bring those
changes at a time when things were difficult and finances were
The Revd Matthew Reed was talking to Terence Handley