Interview: Matthew Reed Chief executive, Children's Society

07 December 2012

'We tell stories of children born today in the image of God'

 

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 getting worse.

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 happen.

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 children.

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 someone's hair.

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 assertive way.

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 practice.

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 theology.

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 ironic.

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 joke. 

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 tight.

The Revd Matthew Reed was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. www.childrenssociety.org.uk

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