Update from ‘First Step’ CEO

The Upminster and Cranham Residents’ Association has for many years supported local charity First Step, through the Bulletin, our website and, on occasions, through donations from the money we have raised from residents subscriptions. They are currently having financial difficulties and their CEO, Mark Halls, has released an update on the present situation, which we have published in full.

‘Dear Families, Friends & Supporters,

Firstly, right at the beginning of this update, I must make absolutely clear that notwithstanding the article that many of you will have seen in the Romford Recorder this week, First Step’s Family Support – our core service, is completely unaffected. We are continuing to offer support to families of children with special needs and or disabilities. But more on that later.

This is the longest update I have ever written to you, so you may need to choose a time when you can settle down for 10 or 15 minutes with a notebook, pen, cuppa and piece of cake, to read through this and absorb much information.

During lockdown, most staff have been furloughed to keep costs to a minimum, but Debbie Bennett our Early Years Leader has worked full time supporting our families through virtual means, emails, Zoom meetings, WhatsApp and of course many telephone conversations. In total, since the start of the pandemic, Debbie has had in excess of 2700 interactions with our families. It has been heartening to receive messages back from our families telling us how valuable this contact has been and to take an extract from one message – you will appreciate that names have been removed for confidentiality reasons.

Thank you for all the effort & hard work put into First Step. Thank you & your staff for making ******’s time at First Step an enjoyable one & for helping me with ways to help *****, that I otherwise would never have known about.

The service you offer is truly amazing & life changing & I can’t thank you enough for all the support & most importantly the confidence you have given me as a mum in how to approach things differently at times to help *****. You have taught me new skills & ways of learning that have been really useful.

It’s a sad but true fact which has been widely reported in the media that families of children and young people with special needs and/or disabilities have felt utterly abandoned during the pandemic, as all the support around them has evaporated leaving them to manage alone 24/7.

When we last met with our supporters on the 11th March 2020, we mapped out the year ahead, and whilst we were seeing a potential funding gap towards the end of the year, we were confident that we could press ahead and with the help of our amazing supporters we would navigate our way through.

Over the past 5 months, often whilst working alone in the building, I have wondered how I could have underestimated the impact and turbulence that Covid-19 would bring, but I guess that I am not alone in that.

As you can appreciate, under government guidance we have had to cancel all of our fundraising events and community fundraising, which has drastically reduced our income, but as always, we have been heartened by so many who have been in touch with words of concern and support, and also those who have continued to raise much needed funds for First Step through creative fundraising means whether that be making and selling Bird Tables, Table Top Sales, holding virtual Quizzes or selling preserves.

Many of you may have seen that Tim Clarke from Clarkes Carpets, one of our Fundraising Patrons, has committed to give 1% of his turnover to charity until the end of the year, and half of that is coming to First Step, which has already yielded £5,246.66 to the end of July. Rotary Havering East, Rotary Hornchurch and Upminster, the Havering 41 Club have all made generous donations, and Upminster & District Probus Club, another long term supporter has also been in touch, along with many more groups and Churches.

One of our Corporate Supporters, Grove and Dean have for the past 4 years organised the Havering STEP2IT 5K run in Raphael Park. Unfortunately, it could not go ahead this year as a consequence of the Covid-19 lockdown restriction. However, Grove and Dean’s creative marketing team have morphed the event into the STEP2IT – Your Virtual Challenge. Business teams, individuals or families will take on a fun challenge and donate £5 to First Step. This exciting event has already raised £745 of the £5K target, and we attach details so you can forward to your friends and networks or even take part yourself. Further details can be found here: www.grove-dean.co.uk/step-2-it

Of course, we value every donation large or small from individual giving, committed monthly giving by standing order, cash boxes, and collection tins in shops all of which are the bedrock of our fundraising income. But despite all that generosity there has still been a significant reduction in our income that is likely to be the case for some months to come.

You are all aware that Havering chose to remove the final £120,000 per year back in March 2017, as a part of their own cost savings. It was that income that largely funded First Step’s Educational Services which are Pre-school and PACC. Since then, for the past 3½ years, Trustees have been filling the gap left by this funding by drawing on our reserves, but that is a finite resource and could not continue indefinitely.

As you will also be aware, we have firm plans, to open a Social Enterprise which is a Mainstream Full Day Care Nursery, and the surpluses from this would have potentially filled the funding gap. The 9 months that it took for Havering to grant the written changes to the lease after we had agreed the terms back in April 2019, delayed the whole process, and then the sudden onset of the pandemic, has put the whole programme back for many months.

In the early stages of lockdown, I produced many Budget Scenarios, seeking to be prudent but optimistic. Trustees reviewed these plans in May 20, and it was clear that with the Covid-19 lockdown reduced fundraising income, we would need to rationalise services to enable the Charity to continue to operate its core services which is Family Supports.

We entered into a consultation process with all staff, some of whom’s roles were at immediate risk due to the potential ending of Educational Services, and others that may be needing to consider reduced hours owing to the reduction of workload and income.

Simultaneously, we made contact with the Leader of the Council, Cllr Damien White, to request that we met, and that was reported in the Romford Recorder on the 15th May. We met in a Zoom meeting, on the 9th June, together with Cllr White, Cllr Benham – Cabinet Member with responsibility for Children, Andrew Blake-Herbert – CEO of Havering, Robert South – The Director of Children’s Services, and Trevor Cook the Assistant Director of Education. The primary purpose of the meeting was to ask them how they would manage the cohort of around 35 children that each year attend First Step’s Educational Services, some of who also attend mainstream settings where we also provide support to the staff in these settings.

During the meeting Cllr White, asked how much it would cost to avert the closure of the service and he was advised £100,000 per year for 2 years, by which time the Social Enterprise was projected to pick up the funding requirement. Cllr White also advised that the matter would need to be discussed in Cabinet, but from the published Agenda and Minutes we can see no record that this has occurred. It was also agreed that we would prepare a discussion document that would cover what was discussed in the meeting, which has been provided.

We had not received any response even following a follow up email from us, the redundancy process was close to conclusion, and the Romford Recorder contacted us to see what the outcome of the earlier meeting had been and when they heard we had not had a response and they requested a comment from the Leader of the Council.

7 members of the Early Years Team would have been made redundant, but some have already been snapped up to work in schools, and the remainder are working their notice.

Earlier this week we held Zoom meetings with the affected families who had been hoping for a place in September, and we shared the information with them in most cases prior to the information being released by the Recorder. Although devastated, we received some lovely appreciative feedback, and many pledged to do everything they could to challenge this poorly thought through decision.

It beggars belief that any responsible Local Authority would contemplate the loss of a provision that has been independently judged as Outstanding for six consecutive inspections. The report praises everything that is done for the children and families, and to quote just one paragraph:

What is it like to attend this early years setting? The provision is outstanding
Leaders plan a highly engaging environment to meet the needs of children attending. The high ratio of staff to children contributes to the level of attention each child receives, and the meaningful interactions that take place. This helps children to feel happy and secure. Staff are exceptional. They show genuine care and compassion, and are thoroughly invested in each child. Children form very strong attachments with key persons. They smile and laugh with the adults who care for them. A real sense of joy runs through every aspect of the provision, such as the way families are welcomed, and how children develop the confidence to explore. Parents speak incredibly highly of managers and staff. They describe the support they receive as being ‘invaluable’, and consider the setting to be unique. Staff are very calm and positive role models. They gently encourage children to consider others. They use words and visual aids to help children to develop an understanding of boundaries. Staff understand that a child’s behaviour is an expression of their feelings, and that it is a method of communication for children. The curriculum is skilfully tailored to meet children’s needs. This setting excels in supporting all children to reach their full potential. The managers’ undeniable commitment, passion and determination to provide an exceptional provision for children to flourish in, is inspiring.
The link to the full Ofsted report is : https://reports.ofsted.gov.uk/provider/49/RP523943

We have meet with the remaining staff team, volunteers and parents, and will continue to make further opportunities for open discussion and dialogue with a Friends of First Step Zoom meeting hopefully next week.

Debbie is making arrangements to have regular 1-to-1 support sessions with families, and we are reviewing all the guidance to see if some of those meetings can be face to face rather than virtually.

We are devastated that First Step’s Educational Services has come to an end, not primarily as a result of Covid-19 but as a consequence of the short sighted decision of the Havering Executive to end the long term funding of First Step back in March 2017.

The bold decision of Trustees to support the running of Educational Services from reserves, so that families continued to be supported for as long as they could, takes nothing away from the London Borough of Havering’s abject failure to adequately provide for early intervention with Outstanding Early Years Education for these vulnerable children.

Their response to us and the Romford Recorder, having been aware of the situation for over 3 months that they will “work with the families to find other settings” shows just how poorly prepared Havering are to make a priority of these vulnerable children.

I have had many contacts personally and to the organisation via Social Media, sharing some of the actions that have been taken. Some have advised they are contacting the press, broadcasters, Councillors, MP’s, and even The Prime Minister. In my view this cannot harm as it is important for all to be aware of the strength of feeling from current and past parents.

Some have picked up on the First 1000 days of life report that Andrea Leadsom MP has been asked to lead on by the Prime Minister, and are taking the time to input into that. See – New focus on babies’ and children’s health link  .

As previously mentioned, some have already been busy in their own fundraising for First Step – long may it continue with many more people seriously engaging.
There are just a few things that I would also respectfully request that you consider.

  1. Please consider if you could make a regular monthly donation to First Step by standing order for £5, £10, £20 or more. It is noteworthy that if every family that First Step had supported over the years were to give just £5 per month, that would virtually fund the shortfall on Educational Services for a year. (£84,000)
  2. Actively talk to your friends and networks about the value of the work that is undertaken at First Step, and forward to them the link to the Breakfast Mum’s Video and encourage them to watch and forward onto their own networks.
  3. Think of any high net worth individuals that you personally know and could directly introduce First Step to, whether they are in business, sports, entertainment of holding high public office, and let me know.
  4. If you work for a business or corporate, make it your business to find out what their Corporate Social Responsibility Policy is or what Charitable Giving they undertake, and speak to the people concerned to gain an introduction for First Step.
  5. Set a personal Fundraising target for the coming academic or financial year and then put energy behind making that a reality. Remember that if 100 people took on to raise £1000 pounds in a year that would also fund the shortfall on Educational Services.
  6. If you can’t do any of the things mentioned above, you can still be a great ambassador and spokesperson for First Step, telling others that you come in contact with about what we do and the impact our work has on babies and young children and their families

Whilst we can’t do it for you, we will do everything we can to support you every step of the way, and you can email mark.halls@firststep.org.uk and Caroline.Hood@firststep.org.uk
as Caroline supports me in these areas and will try to ensure nothing slips through the net.

Gill Hare and Margaret Williams, our Joint Founders, appear to me, to have breathed a special kind of life and a self-propagating “heartbeat” into First Step that has been passed on year after year to those involved. Although over the years there may have been periods of time when the indigenous life was nearly extinguished, it has bounced back and even in times of great difficulty there is a determination and energy to continue to support our precious families and children with special needs and/or disabilities.

I look forward to meeting with you all in a Zoom meeting soon, and hear you plans and ideas for what you will do, great or small, so that we inspire each other to make a real difference into the lives and futures of families of children with special needs and disabilities.

Mark Halls

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.