Let The Children Play!

In The Guardian today, there is an article in which the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, is calling for more adventure playgrounds across the country, especially in our ‘poorer’ neighbourhoods. She believes we need more play schemes across the country for the long summer holidays which she argues are having a profoundly negative effect on children’s physical and mental health. Most starkly, she cites a study in which “primary school children lost 80% of the fitness levels gained during term time. The poorest 25% experienced a drop in fitness levels 18 times greater than the richest 25%”. Sadly, this undoes some of the great work of schemes like ‘the daily mile’ in schools and has hugely negative consequences in terms of future health risks.

 

I would personally therefore welcome such a move – it is absolutely the case that increased active play and exercise improves a child’s physical, mental and social health. There is no doubt that more facilities, especially located closer to home would be better than having none at all….but I don’t really think it’s quite that simple (and for the record, I don’t think Anne Longfield thinks it is that simple either, she is a great champion for children across the UK). There is a danger, that by saying children need to play more, that it gets oversimplified by policy makers and could perhaps sound a little too Marie Antoinette! Yes our long summer breaks are becoming like ‘battery hen’ experiences for many children across the UK, but simply building them more parks is not going to change this, and I can give you few reasons why.  To understand why kids are spending more time indoors and on screens, we need to dig a little deeper into some pretty uncomfortable truths and wrestle with the complexity of them.

 

I have a friend, who is one of the kindest and best people I know. On top of his very heavy work schedule, he invests an enormous amount of time into young people, who are often living with really challenging circumstances. Every summer, he runs activities for them, right through the summer break and does extraordinary things. Ten years ago, when he applied for funding through a variety of grants (and let me tell you he is a seasoned wizard at winning bids for such things) he was getting £20k for a packed out summer programme. These days, he struggles to raise £4k. That leaves the situation in which he is having to ask families to contribute more for the care of their kids over the summer. What this leads to is a drop in numbers and more kids stuck in at home.

 

I have another friend, who runs a school in one of our most deprived communities. Throughout the summer break, her school opens up to ensure the kids from the locality do not go hungry and so that families can afford to eat. There have been emergency appeals from many food banks this year. Many working families are seriously struggling to provide both childcare, through the long summer breaks and food….there are some really tough choices to be made. Out of 50 young people on a local holiday scheme, that I know of, 19 of them were relying on daily food parcels, meaning they have no idea from one day to the next what they will be eating and actually no choice about it. When you are working two jobs and struggling to make ends meet, what else can you do with you kids? Just let them roam the streets?

 

I know a police officer who works on some of the toughest estates in the UK. He tells me that the war on drugs has utterly failed and the gangs are absolutely running the show. Cuts to the policing budget and massive stress levels in the force, as a result, are seeing whole neighbourhoods overrun with crime. The play parks in these places are totally unsafe. No parent in their right mind would let their child out to play in such an environment. It’s a bit different in leafy Surrey or middle class suburbiaville. Without police to build relationships with young people and keep the streets safe, simply building new parks or putting on play schemes will not be enough. Without children’s centres, youth centres and health facilities readily available (many of which have been closed or privatised and so less affordable to communities who need them most), there are less places to go.

 

If I’ve learnt anything over the last few years, it is that we have to stop coming up with schemes that we think are good for communities and simply delivering them. We have to really learn to listen to people’s stories and the complexities of their situations and from that place hear what it is that they want and need and then create real partnerships to bring about that change together. Hilary Cottam is all over this in her brilliant book ‘Radical Help’, which is a must read.

 

I love that Anne Longfield, Tanni Grey-Thompson and Sarah Woolaston see this whole issue as being so massively important. Play schemes and parks and cutting sugar (though all excellent) will simply not be enough in and of themselves to get kids out doors and playing in them. We need a a very holistic approach which starts with communities, hearing what their dreams are for their kids and hearing the hopes and desires of the kids themselves. Next we need to understanding what the steps will be to get there. Then we have to build that together. I would suggest a great place to steward this kind of resource would be through health and wellbeing partnerships, like the ones we have in Morecambe Bay. Cross public and voluntary sector partnerships, rooted and working well in their local communities. But I can also guarantee, that this idea will require the right kind of resource – appropriate funding of the required schemes, affordable access to facilities, work that pays a decent wage so families can afford to eat and taking the safety of our streets seriously. That is going to take both a reimagining of youth work/social provision and appropriate help and resource to a diminished and struggling police force. Bring on the parks, but first listen and make sure they can be used!

Share This:

Share

Population Health and the NHS 10 Year Plan

https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/publications/nhs-10-year-plan

 

This is an excellent blog from Sir Chris Ham and Richard Murray at the Kingsfund and highlights some important issues that deserve real consideration and debate. Get a cup of tea, reflect on it and then join the discussion. Here are my reflections on it.

 

Improving population health and closing the health inequlaity gap are the two most important things for the NHS to focus on, if we are to have a heath and care service that works for everyone and is sustainable long into the future. It is not an easy nettle to grasp and is full of complexity, which is highlighted in this paper, but fundamentally, if we do not see a cultural shift, and ownership of these issues across the public sector, with population (and environmental) health written into every policy combined with a collaborative social movement for change, we will still be talking about this in another 15 years.

 

The reorganisations of the last few decades have been exhausting at so many levels and have not achieved what we have needed them to. It is indeed vital that we learn from these lessons and commit to at least a 10 year focus on improving population health, tackling health inequalities and integrating services, ensuring that we embed a culture of joy, kindness and excellence as we do so. We have reached a pivotal moment and we must break through our silos and see things tip towards a new commitment to improve the population’s health, together.

 

The funding question will not go away and it is really important that we are honest and open about what is actually going to be possible within the new funding agreement for the NHS and what will not be, especially if there is not a substantial investment into Social Care. Much of what we mean by prevention in Population Health relies heavily on other public sector partners, like Public Health, Education and the Police and the reality of their funding decline will make the transformation we need to see, especially in young people’s mental health very difficult, especially as the new deal for the NHS is not what it needs to be. For many Integrated Care Systems, the savings still required are so colossal that doing the simulataneous transformational work of population health and tackling the widening health inequality gap is a very hard task. It is a huge ask of finance directors to meet the constant demands of the regulators whilst also trying to be brave and shift resource towards more long term gains that do not meet the short termism of yearly budget requirements. The increase in demand due to more frailty and complex health issues, eye watering cuts to local government budgets (with profound knock-on effects to social care and public health), a target driven environment and low staff morale is making this all very difficult. It is not impossible but it is going to need realism and pragmatism about what can be achieved, by when. The choices being made about the funding of our public services are ideologically driven, and we need to ensure that feedback about the reality of austerity leads to necessary changes, so that we can have truly evidenced based policies.

 

Here in Morecambe Bay, we have recently launched the ‘Poverty Truth Commission’, one of several around the country. Many leaders from across our region sat with tears streaming down our faces as we heard story after story about the reality of poverty and destitution for people in our area. We heard from one young man, Daniel about how the closing of the youth centre on his estate and his local high school (both the only places where he knew he belonged and was safe), left him and many of his friends vulnerable to gangs. Moved, again and again through private rented housing, in order to provide for his siblings, he ended up selling drugs and guns, simply to put food on the table, ending up street homeless, with serious addiction problems himself. Many of us wondered how often we think about the short and long term consequences of the cuts being made and what kind of risk assessment is done in these situations. In her very powerful book, ‘Radical Help’, Hilary Cottam writes of need to put relationship back into the heart of our public service care provision, as we grapple with the joint issues of funding constraints and human need.

 

The points raised about improving productivity are important. Where we can be more efficient, we must continue to be so. Let’s pause to recognise, though, just how much has been achieved already. Culturally, we must learn to celebrate the positives and recognise the great work already being done in this area, which will inspire more of the same. The sharing of best practice and creating environments where we can learn from one another is absolutely key. This will most effectively happen through collaboration not competition. So, yes – integration must be a priority, but it comes with a health warning – if we don’t get culture right from the start, everything else will ultimately fail.

 

A Population Health approach is the only game in town. Wigan have achieved some really wonderful things, but there are some important things to understand about the context of Wigan that have made it more possible there. Firstly, there is clear political unity. The idea of population health is owned across all spheres and levels of government, and “safe seats” have led to a political continuity that has made long term planning far more successful. The ongoing politicisation of health and social care in other contexts makes this kind of transformation much more difficult. Secondly, there is a real humility in style of leadership that has been willing to a) openly share the complex issues and choices being faced, with the people of Wigan and b) deeply listen to the communities and therefore find a way through the problems together with a profound sense of joint ownership. It is this two-edged sword of necessary culture change and brave leadership with a social movement that makes it possible to cut into new ground together. We must be brave in talking to people in our local communities about the choices ahead of us and understand the importance of agreeing together who is going to take responsibility for the various pieces of th jigsaw which need to occur.

 

We know that 40% of our health depends on the every day choices we make as individuals, for example around what we eat or how much exercise we take. However, it is not as lovely and simple as this. There is far less choice available for our most deprived communities. Supermarkets do not stack the same amount of healthy food in their shops in our more deprived areas. Children have little choice over the adverse experiences they go through, how much sugar is in their breakfast cereal nor what is pushed at them through targeted advertising. The number of junk food outlets is far higher in areas of greater deprivation (see Greg Fell’s excellent analysis of Sheffield). So, when we talk about choice, especially in the context of poverty and education, we need to take a reality check and not simply point the finger of responsibility. This is where a people’s charter can be really powerful. Those in leadership play their part in taking care of the needs of the population and bringing in appropriate governance and a fair distribution of resource, whilst citizens commit to playing their part in staying healthy and well, and learning about conditions which they live with, so they can play an active role in being as well as possible, dependent on their circumstance.

 

Given the lessons from Wigan, or from global cities, like Manchester, and Amsterdam and what they are beginning to achieve around population health, there is a powerful argument, not only for combined health and social care budgets, but also for increased devolution of budgets. If we see what has been achieved in the Black Forest of Germany, with a very holistic transformation of services, including the connecting of communities through far improved transport links, we begin to reimagine what might be possible at a larger scale. Devolved budgets though must be a fair deal and not an opportunity for central government to make further cuts and then leave the blame in the locality. Devolution, if it is to work well, must come with new and fair legislation around taxation and proportionate allocation of resources.

 

All of this is only possible with the right workforce. I completely agree that we need both short-term and long-term strategies. I am not yet confident that enough work is being done at a predictive analytical level to really work out what kind of workforce we will require, if we shift to a fully integrated, population health model. This is the kind of workforce we must then build and it will by its very nature, be much more community and relationally focussed. This will allow us to build culture from the ground up and create the kind of working environments that are healthy and well, enjoyable to work in and therefore with a high retention level of staff. Perhaps our short term solutions need to be less reactionary and more proactive in building towards the future we need. Perhaps there are also more short term international opportunities and partnerships to be built whilst we plan for our reimagined future.

 

In making all of this happen, I think we need a little caution in too much over-comparrison with the American insurance-based systems. The ICS development we see there is based on a very different model and can look very appealing, because it overlooks too readily the 50million Americans who cannot afford a decent level of care. Yes, there are some impressive things to learn and some very data savvy things we can apply into our systems, but the fundamental differences between our ideologies and practices must cause us to pause and think about what is transferable and what we can do diffferently to ensure that everything we do works to close the health inequality gap, rather than widen it. This is where our greatest test will be. It is too easy when creating new agreements with the public to work with those who are already highly motivated to change. In so doing, we might actually make things worse, rather than better in terms of inequality. It is going to take determined effort and brave focus to ensure this doesn’t happen.

 

In short (!) I am very grateful for this paper and the issues it highlights. It deserves real contemplative reflection and a commitment by all to embrace this future together. We cannot achieve population health and the tackling of health inequalities alone, but together, we can.

Share This:

Share

Heathrow and Health

Tweet If MPs are serious about the health of the population (and it seems they are, given recent promises of increased funding for the NHS), then when they vote later today about whether or not Heathrow airport should get a third runway and therefore a programme of expansion, they should ask them selves the following [Continue Reading …]

Share

Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste

Tweet So, the NHS is in another winter crisis. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a crisis  as: 1 A time of intense difficulty or danger. ‘the current economic crisis’ Mass noun ‘the monarchy was in crisis’ 1.1 A time when a difficult or important decision must be made. As modifier ‘the situation has reached crisis point’ [Continue Reading …]

Share

Inconsistent and Incongruent Messages

Tweet The King’s Fund have just released an excellent video to help explain how the NHS works and some of the complex things going on in it at the moment. It doesn’t shy away from making it crystal clear who is in charge of the money, nor the difficulties we’re facing in staffing and resource [Continue Reading …]

Share

What Lies Beneath?

Tweet Do you sometimes wonder what is really going on? As the furore around the planned 5-day strikes by junior doctors unfolds, with all the clamour and the noise, the positioning, the power plays, the arguments and the counter-arguments, I wonder where is the truth amidst the madness? How have we reached a stage in [Continue Reading …]

Share

Making a Key Distinction in the NHS

Tweet There are two different narratives that are shaping the debate around the NHS at present. They are different stories, but they are becoming dangerously intertwined. I want to highlight the two stories and make a clear distinction between the two.   The first story is that there are some ways in which the NHS [Continue Reading …]

Share

Commissioning the 3rd Sector for the NHS

Tweet Amidst the current ‘efficiency savings’, or cuts by any other name, in the NHS, the voluntary or 3rd sector, including the faith communities are an absolutely vital partner in health and social care. Here in Morecambe Bay, we are seeing incredible work done by this sector. Genuinely, the safety net created across this Bay [Continue Reading …]

Share