The Financial Times: Voluntary Sector is propping up vital services

It is 5.30pm on a Thursday and at Grove Road primary school assembly hall, parents, infants and teachers are bopping to the Latin rhythms of a Zumba fitness class.

The school’s leafy environs in Tring, Hertfordshire are a far cry from Syrian refugee camps or typhoon-hit coastal villages in the Philippines but this parental support programme is funded by Save the Children, a charity better known for its disaster relief efforts way beyond Britain’s shores.

Like many third sector bodies stepping in to fill the gaps created by constricted public services, Save the Children is increasing its work in Britain following concerns that austerity will bring 400,000 more UK children into poverty.

Two years ago, a report by the charity titled “It shouldn’t happen here” argued that a lack of jobs, stagnating wages, increased living costs and government spending cuts were putting “enormous pressure” on families up and down the country. Food banks run by volunteers are supporting benefits claimants suffering under changes to the welfare system and the British Red Cross is helping pensioners left stranded by cuts to social care budgets. Similarly, Save the Children’s newly created UK emergency response team will provide cookers, fridges and cots to waterlogged households in Somerset.

Charity leaders are all too aware of their changing role in straitened times.

“We are propping up vital services which you could argue should be part of the welfare safety net,” says Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the ACEVO umbrella body for charity chief executives. “That net is being cut and we’re trying to pick up the pieces at a time when it’s incredibly hard for charities to raise money.”

Sir Stephen also warns of a regressive hardening in approaches towards those in need.

“There are Victorian attitudes emerging about the deserving and undeserving poor and I see that in the political discourse,” he says. “I also see worrying signs of the state financially withdrawing from work that they would have readily accepted as their role a decade ago.”

At Grove Road primary, the families enjoying Zumba and playing “feelings charades” to understand their emotions do not appear to be among the country’s most deprived but Save the Children insists that it only funds such projects in areas where more than half the children are eligible for free school meals.

The charity’s “Families and Schools Together (Fast)” programme aims to drive up educational attainment by developing better relations between pupils, their parents and their teachers. It originates from the US, where organisers are paid to run the weekly classes and the country’s Department of Education is funding a five-year trial of the scheme in all Philadelphia’s school districts. By contrast, the teachers and community representatives running Fast projects in the UK are all volunteers. Save the Children is due to spend £4.3m this year to train staff and fund the activities in nearly 400 schools.

There’s an emerging crisis because of the growing gap between state provision and what is actually needed- Sue Collins, British Red Cross

Even though school budgets have been ringfenced against coalition cuts, the charity’s contributions are still welcomed by Sharon Sanderson, Grove Road’s headteacher. “Five years ago, there was a wealth of funding options for parental engagement . . . which since the recession are now no longer available”, she says. “Fast has been a way of bringing some of that back.”

But in other sectors, resources are even tighter. Nicola Hughes, senior researcher at the Institute for Government think-tank, says charities are increasingly providing the safety net for vulnerable people who are not meeting necessary thresholds for state care, or being bounced between different statutory services.

“Charities are in a sense co-ordinators for these groups and I think they could argue that they are saving the government quite a lot of money by helping to join support up and direct people away from really high-cost services like A&E,” Ms Hughes says.

This is no surprise to Sue Collins, head of health and social care at the British Red Cross, who is running programmes for stricken pensioners who turn up at hospital emergency departments following £2.7bn cuts to social care budgets. While the majority of these projects are paid for by local authorities, the charity says it is spending a “considerable amount” of its own donated income supporting this work, as well as supplying unpaid volunteers to staff the programmes.

“Clearly there’s an emerging crisis because of the growing gap between state provision and what is actually needed,” Ms Collins says. “Who is going to fill that?

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