All posts by Saba Salman

Saba Salman is a social affairs journalist and commissioning editor who writes regularly for The Guardian. Saba is a trustee of the charity Sibs, which supports siblings of disabled children and adults, and an RSA fellow. She is a former Evening Standard local government and social affairs correspondent.

The Social Issue on the Guardian’s radar

Less than a week since its launch and The Social Issue gets onto the radar of the Guardian’s Society Daily blog; Patrick Butler, the paper’s editor of society, health and education policy was clearly blown away with the irresistible combination of Shaks Ghosh and Groucho Marx (Shaks wrote the guest blog, Groucho provided the SocialSpeak quote).

Thanks to everyone who’s commented on the blog so far, either on the site or via email – the feedback’s been helpful and, as a result, there are a few gentle tweaks and subtle additions here and there. Spot the difference.

What about a little cultural equality?

I always thought going to see a West End musical on a Saturday night would be intolerable. Turns out it simply exposed the intolerance of other people.

I recently took my 21-year-old sister, who happens to have a learning disability, to see the sort of shiny dance-a-thon that I’ve always avoided because of the incumbent hen groups and coach parties (intolerant? Me?). But it was her birthday and I was game, especially as her idol, ex-Hear’Say singer Noel Sullivan, was in the lead role.

The evening got off to a great start. We had a drink in a Soho bar, an old haunt that I’d never thought I’d be able to take her to, thanks to her dislike of noisy crowds. But we got there before it was busy, she leafed through her show programme, happy and excited.

En route to the theatre, I could feel my sister’s excitement mounting (something about how she shot through Piccadilly, wielding her rolled up programme like a crowd-dispersal baton, muttering “out the way!” to anyone in her path).

Her happiness was infectious. We took our seats a couple of rows from the stage. The lights went down. The curtain came up. Our problems began.

Her gentle thigh slapping became more enthusiastic, as did the clapping, whooping, jiving and singing (pitch and word-perfect, by the way) through each of the 20 musical numbers. The culmination involved vigorous hip wiggling to the “Greased Lightning” medley; legs akimbo, arms outstretched, index finger sweeping the stage horizon, left to right.

There she was – my wonderfully ecstatic sister, wearing her Grease t-shirt and an expression of unbridled joy.

There I was, squirming uncomfortably somewhere between the rock of seeing my sister so happy and the hard place of being with someone so outrageously flouting the Unwritten Rules of Acceptable Behaviour.

Where are the coach loads and fancy-dressed brides-to-be when you need them? Other than clapping, not one other blasted person stood up to show they were even having a mildly good time.

I suggested “just bopping” while sitting down. Bopping? The repression I felt physically was so intense, it had even sent my vocabulary hurtling back to Enid Blyton’s England! I suggested “not dancing” – a ludicrous option, met with an astonished “why?”. The stage was full of dancers and singers, music boomed out across the auditorium, why shouldn’t she show she was enjoying herself?

As the performance continued, we suffered much staring, several irritated glances and a handful of few tuts until finally a miserable-faced mother and daughter duo in front of us turned round and exhaled a violent “SHHHHHHHH!”, motioning angrily for my sister to sit down.

“What exactly would you like me to do?” I hissed through clenched teeth.

By the time the woman sitting next to me put her hand on mine, I was ready to recite the universal declaration of human rights; instead she restored my faith in humanity.

“She’s special, let her be,” she whispered. Unable to reply thanks to the lump that had suddenly taken up residence in my throat, I heard her say she had a granddaughter with Aspergers and, anyway, most people probably wanted to do what my sister was doing but were too uptight.

While I was fuming at the reactions of what was ultimately a tiny minority, the wise soul next to me made me accept that the “situation” was not in fact a “situation” but simply a bloody good night out for my sister.

So what to do?

One well-meaning friend who I talked to afterwards suggested a designated area in the auditorium for people with special needs “so they can enjoy the show and no one else will be disturbed”. Hey! Great idea! Why hasn’t someone else thought of segregation? Hang on – they did, what was it called now..oh yes – apartheid!

What we need is cultural equality, as promoted by organisations such as Arts and Disability Ireland which advocate the engagement of people with disabilities as audience members. There’s some good work around promoting disability access at outdoor events and several organisations lobby on such issues but there seems less around the actual inclusion of people with disabilities into mainstream audiences.

Anyone know of any schemes along these lines?

By the way, to the miserable mother and daughter combo, should I ever have the misfortune to clap eyes on either of you sorry people again, I’d (a) perform a citizens arrest for crimes against happiness and (b) present you with two complimentary tickets to a special musical that I reckon you’d love. Want me to arrange for you to meet the cast?

How to avoid today’s children becoming tomorrow’s ‘NEETs’

Shaks Ghosh
Shaks Ghosh, chief executive, Private Equity Foundation
“Gob-smacking” is how Labour MP Frank Field, chair of the government’s Review on Poverty and Life Chances, referred last week to findings that, from their first day at school, children from families on the lowest incomes were already lagging behind their richer peers. Ahead of presenting evidence to the Prime Minister, Field said he would be concentrating attention on what happens during a child’s first five years that so impacts on their life-time opportunities.

But such statistics should come as no surprise, certainly not to those attending our annual conference today, Intervening Before its Too Late.  Earlier this year, Ex Curricula, a report by Demos, funded by the Private Equity Foundation (PEF), found that over one in 10 five-year-olds are at severe risk of disengaging from education when they begin school.  These so called ‘nursery NEETs’ (not in education, employment or training) don’t have the behavioural skills they need to learn.

Demos advocated that the focus of resource and policy for dealing with the NEET issue should be turned on its head.  It looked at “identifying the earliest possible point of intervention to prevent disengagement”.

This isn’t about branding babies but about dealing with risk factors as soon as they arise.

It makes sense. Vast sums are spent on dealing with the consequences of disengagement (this generation of NEET 16-18 year olds will cost society an estimated £35 billion over their lifetime).  And over the last decade, NEET numbers have remained shockingly steady at around 16-17% of 16-24 year olds.

However, although Field has said (with provisos) that “later interventions do look much less cost-effective”, I would argue that the right, evidence based charity interventions continue to stack up financially and that it’s imperative that we don’t stop at age six.

Take, for example, the social safety net that charities can provide in primary schools, charities like The Place2Be and School-Home Support which, by tackling serious emotional and family issues, remove disadvantaged children’s barriers to learning, leaving teachers to teach. They also bridge the critical journey to secondary school when, unsupported, the vulnerable can so often disappear into a black hole. As previously highlighted on The Social Issue, a review of SHS has found that for every pound spent on it, £21.14 is saved across the whole of society.

But what about engaging teenagers before they walk out of the school gate and become ever harder to reach? It’s at 14 that young people really show their propensity to become NEET and that targeted and yes, cost-effective help can turn around young lives.

Skill Force, a charity that works with 14-16 year olds is a case in point; 60% of its students who are entitled to free school meals go on to further education, compared to 6% nationally. Exclusions are reduced from a predicted 30% to less than 7%. The organisation, which has helped around 35,000 young people since it launched a decade ago, estimates that it saves the public purse some £40 million a year by reducing the number of young people likely to become NEET. That is why PEF supports its good work.

Skill Force staff, drawn mainly from the armed forces, provide outstanding role models and deliver an alternative in-school curriculum which draws together vocational qualifications, community volunteering and life skills both in the classroom and through outdoor activities. Amongst other things, students work towards the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and the Young Lifesavers Award, studying their alternative curriculum for a day a week for up to two years.

A recent Skill Force rock climbing activity, encouraging team work and mutual support

Karl’s just one Skill Force beneficiary: “I never used to bother with going to school on Mondays – I used to take it as a day off. School really bored me. But then Skill Force was every Monday and I saw it as a good, positive start to the week. I started to enjoy what we were learning.” Fellow student Ryan adds: “What I have achieved has surprised everyone at college because they thought that I would have been kicked out by now”.

Would just one chance, pre-six, have been enough to help Karl and Ryan?  It’s impossible to tell.  So while I commend Field’s consideration of the welfare of the very young, I would welcome a wider shift of emphasis to prevention rather than just early intervention if we’re to avoid the children of today becoming the NEET statistics of tomorrow.

How to save society £21 for every £1 spent

Campaign film from charity School Home Support from Divert on Vimeo.

The school term has barely begun, but some things are for certain; new shoes are already scuffed, fresh friendships are being formed and, on average, up to eight children in every classroom are living in poverty.

George, for example, was persistently late for his primary school in the north east of England and was also collected late – usually by different people. After a fire at his council flat, he and his lone parent mother had been allocated a new home but could not afford to furnish it so had moved in with relatives. George had trouble concentrating in class and suffered from nightmares.

Things changed after support from an independent, school-based welfare worker who wrote to George’s mother about the school’s concerns. The worker, from charity School Home Support (SHS), applied for money from the organisation’s support welfare fund for a double bed, so that they could at least sleep in the new flat. George and his mother moved in, a bit of stability entered their lives and the worker is still supporting them to furnish their new home.

As George’s case proves, there are complex reasons why children end up truants, troublemakers or bullies, why they are always late or why they fail to do their homework. Although it is dangerous to suggest poverty alone is to blame, most experts agree that it is the root of many behavioural problems.

School-Home Support is one source of support. It offers school-based emotional and practical support through practitioners who help children and families in more than 240 primaries in 22 local authority areas across England. SHS staff are a non-timetabled resource, talking to parents at the school gates and visiting families at home with the aim of creating a link with school.

Scratch beneath the surface of an average classroom, according to SHS figures, and around seven children will have witnessed domestic violence, six will have been exposed to substance misuse and one child will be a carer for a family member. The idea is to nip problems in the bud before they appear and offer support beyond the classroom. SHS practitioners deal with issues such as parents who feel isolated because English is not their first language or families coping with substance misuse or mental health problems.

Last year the 26-year-old charity reached over 19,000 children and young people like George. It costs £5m to run a year, with funding from local authorities that have contracts with SHS, voluntary donations, support from venture philanthropy fund the Private Equity Foundation.

A recent evaluation of the social and economic impact of its work found that for every pound spent on SHS, £21.14 is saved across society in terms of reducing the cost of dealing with unemployment, crime, exclusion and the increased income as a result of higher educational attainment. A June 2007 report by consultancy New Philanthropy Capital compared the cost of SHS interventions with the cost of school exclusions and found that if all those in danger of exclusion had access to its services, then society would save £90m a year.

In the current climate, this sort of work is more relevant than ever; the knock-on impact of job losses can have profound effects on educational attainment. SHS staff point out that an event like the 1,700 jobs lost thanks to the closure of the Corus steel works on Teeside, for example, could effect families, relationships, dynamics and ultimately children’s behaviour and ability to perform, concentrate or attend school.

SHS has links to the whole family, it is well-placed to work with local authorities and other public sector agencies, supporting the coordination of services. Interestingly, it also puts paid to the myth that some people are ‘hard to reach’. In fact, it’s often the support services that are hard to find, because parents think they’re unapproachable or simply don’t know about them, and if they do, the onus is on the individual to make contact.

Let’s leave the last word to Angela, a mother-of-five from Hackney: “SHS were the only ones who never judged me as a parent. Carla, our SHS practitioner in school, never said ‘you’re no good.’ I’m not perfect but I do my best for my kids and I love them.”

How to be an Asian journalist

Here’s an unforgettable question that I was once asked, ridiculous and thought-provoking in equal measure: “So tell me, what made you want to be an Asian journalist?”

Tempted to claim that my options were limited by the fact that the corner shop didn’t have any vacancies, instead I told my newspaper executive interrogator that I became an Asian journalist because being a Swedish one would have been, well, a bit tricky.

He looked confused, then chastened and the subject wasn’t mentioned again. More than a decade on, the question still resonates.

Most obviously, it reveals the preconceptions, based on differences – be that difference in health, gender, colour, class, income or age – that one person can have about another.

Secondly – and this brings me to launching this blog – the question is a reminder about what journalism and writing can do; inform, provoke debate and offer something new to the reader. Not only will The Social Issue be a platform for stories, projects and ideas that inform and spark discussion, but it should challenge preconceptions. That might be because it features a project that’s solved a seemingly insurmountable problem, or because it features someone doing something extraordinary.

To return to that initial question, I thank my parents for the fact that I became an Asian journalist. They are Asian. Therefore I am Asian. Half my career goal was met by virtue of my being born. In my bid to be an Asian journalist, I only had a 50% chance of failure.

More seriously, my parents lived in an area with good state schools. I had access to higher education and post-graduate training before the crippling student fees system came in, and I began my job hunt at the tail end of the last recession in the 1990s.

Today’s young person is looking for training and qualifications when providers are oversubscribed and seeking work in an economically hostile environment. There are 562,000 young people unemployed, according to the Office for National Statistics. And the situation can be worse if you happen to be black or from an ethnic minority. Analysis from the IPPR earlier this year shows that 48% of black 16-24-year-olds are now unemployed along with 31% of young Asian people. The rate of unemployment among white young people stands at 20%.

To compound the problem, what will become of community-based projects to raise aspirations through positive role models for black and Asian young people when funding is so squeezed?

The Black Training and Enterprise Group recently launched a small grant programme to help local voluntary and community groups working with black boys and young men across England. The REACH Programme: Community Engagement Project is laudable but small scale, offering £500 grants to local groups that can host events which encourage and inspire young black males to succeed in education and work.

There are many innovative community-based training projects out there that inspire and encourage young people in their chosen careers – but how many of them are self-sustaining enough to survive in the funding desert?

One organisation that I’m a fan of and that I’m involved with as a trainer is Poached Creative. The east London social enterprise is a writing and design company, training the young and long-term unemployed in media and communication skills.

If you know of other successful projects along these lines – better still if you’re a young person who’s benefitted from them – drop me a line. Alternatively, if you want any tips on how to be an Asian journalist, I’m your woman.