Monday, 16 August 2010

Awareness raising bad. Very bad. - Anita Kerwin-Nye, The Communication Trust

Well, at least according to government. Many Trust members in receipt of Children and Young People’s Grant funding have received letters restricting any spend on communications, awareness and marketing activity, even if that was the point of the original grant. This is in line with wider government activity restricting communications spending and outlined guidance from the Treasury released weeks after the election, (please e-mail to request a copy).

Of course there was a need to reign in communications spending – all governments spend an inordinate amount on untested and unevidenced marketing and campaigns and it genuinely pleasing to see the government restricting itself in this field (especially as recent experience showed how some government communications consultants daily fees are the equivalent of a consultant SLT for a week!)

But the guidance to voluntary organisations is a bit irritating and somewhat patronising. To say that we need ‘to make the most of very £1’ and to ‘prioritise funding to frontline staff’ is like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs (never really understood that phrase – can an expert in idiom and allegory please explain it to me!)

Many third sector bodies running communications activity also run frontline services. We know the reality that money spent on marketing and awareness raising is one less SLT or specialist teacher so we do not do it lightly.

So why do it at all?

First and foremost to get information to parents, children and young people and those that work with them. The single biggest complaint during the Bercow Review of speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) was that parents did not have the information that they needed when they needed it. This both delayed the help that they got – in a field where early intervention is crucial – and increased their sense of isolation. This was particularly true for parents of children with specific language impairment where the lack of awareness of the condition was heartbreaking as doctors told parents their 4 year old son with no speech would ‘grow out of it’.

Studies consistently show that voluntary sector organisations are often the first port of call for parents (or the first positive source of information) and Talking Point (the speech and language information services that will be the Powerhouse behind the national year) already gets 20,000 hits a year. Member helpline services get thousands of calls a year from desperate families and the marketing of member frontline services is really just another way of ensuring that families can learn about the help that is available from both voluntary and public sector.

The information includes how to better access local provision and how many Trust members provide services that help parents and families better understand what is available to them and how to make their way through the maze of services.

Secondly in an era when government is rightly focusing on the local national voluntary organisations in particular can help local staff share their good practice and learn more about what others are doing. This sharing of what works helps save money – reducing the need for the wheel to be invented again and again. A recent Trust workshop between teachers and SLTs left participants with improved skills and a range of additional techniques that they did not have to invent themselves.

Both the Trust and our members constantly review both the need for communications and awareness raising. We analyse the best ways to get to parents and balance on line and print materials with support for frontline staff who work directly with hard to reach families. We balance well placed national media articles with local services that put experts directly in contact with families at shopping centres, children’s centres and schools. We can track how our awareness raising has started to improve earlier access to services and reduced the isolation of families but we are never complacent. We know the value we need to squeeze from the £1.

Lastly communications activity allows the Trust and our members to keep families and those that work with them up to date on government policy. As Cameron sets out the call for real people to inform government policy and to take forward ‘big society’ with personal responsibility this is surely an essential part of our work. The Trust’s networks reach nearly all of the million families of children with SLCN and communications activity gives them a voice to responds to policy changes and funding decisions that affect them. They can and will tell the government when they have got it right and they will be a powerful voice when they think the government has got it wrong. Now what government would not want to fund that?

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