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.

Half of all children spot signs of neglect in their peers

Full story on Action for Children’s shocking new research in a piece I did for today’s Society Guardian. Makes you think twice about the shabbily-dressed boy at school who no one wanted to play with or the scrawny girl who got bullied in the playground. There’s a fine line between creating a vigilant society and encouraging the scaremongering finger-pointers, but today’s new report raises some important concerns ahead of the spending review that’s likely to decimate funding for child welfare.

Caught in a trap: why the disabled can’t leave their care homes

From my Society Guardian feature this morning:
Anna McNaughton fell in love with the West Sussex seaside town of Worthing when she moved there two years ago. It’s a stone’s throw from Brighton, around an hour by train from London, and its bars, cafes and restaurants are edged by a tree-lined promenade. Having had a room in a shared house since moving, the 23-year-old wants her own space.

Some interesting comments posted about this article by Guardian readers are here.

Shades, strut and soul; a universal arts experience

Rapper Dean Rodney has a soulful strut, a powerful pair of lungs and a learning disability. Dark shades, smooth black suit, definitely supercool. I’ll be at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank tonight to see his band, the Fish Police, a fired-up trio that fuses hip hop with funk and punk and lists Japanese anime and fast food among its eclectic inspirations.

Fish Police met when musician and lyricist Charles Stuart trained two learning disabled youngsters, Dean (now Fish Police singer, rapper, bass and lyrics) and Matthew Howe (the trio’s equally cool rhythm guitarist) as part of a youth band based at disability arts organisation Heart n Soul.

Next month the Fish Police will be releasing their debut album, Cheeseburger Man (Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man for the McDonald’s generation?), performing at the Lincoln Center in New York and at Liverpool’s DaDa Fest, the UK’s largest disability and deaf arts festival. Their music is a fresh and freestyling antidote to the conveyor-belt fodder jostling for space in today’s uninspiringly plastic charts.

I came across Heart n Soul over a year ago when I heard about one of its artists, soul singer Lizzie Emeh. Lizzie broke new ground by becoming what’s thought to be the first learning disabled solo artist to release an album to the general public. Loud and Proud was three years in the making and produced with the support of Heart n Soul, 33 years after Lizzie’s parents were told never she would never walk or talk following complications at birth.

In 1984, musician Mark Williams (now Heart n Soul’s director) wanted to explore how music and art could make a difference in communities. He began running creative sessions in east London for a group of people with learning disabilities who went to the local day centre, The Mulberry Centre. Eventually The Mulberry Crew, as they came to be known, moved into a bigger arts complex in Deptford and became Heart n Soul, with the aim of working towards professional productions – not simply, as was then the norm, undergoing art therapy.

The charity now runs a hugely popular club night for people with learning disabilities, the Beautiful Octopus club, and has a consultancy arm to advise other organisations on setting up cultural events for those with special needs. It also employs people with a learning disability and markets arts events to the learning disabled.

The Fish Police, Lizzie Emeh and their other talented peers are also regulars at Heart n Soul’s summer arts festival which is based on the Beautiful Octopus club night. The event isn’t on most people’s summer festival radars, but it should be. Along with live music, the event a couple of months ago boasted a comedy stage, improv and open mic sessions, face painting, a massage tent, a chill out zone designed by the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, cinema room, dance floor and VJs and DJs. Performance art is notoriously hard to pull off, but the trio of artists performing as Live Heart did so with panache, demonstrating why the Tate Modern recently invited them to perform. K:DNA showed off their inspired blend of funk, reggae and classical music while the Riki Jodelko Band were an amazingly tight soul-pop outfit, astounding when they covered Bill Withers’ Lovely Day and Bob Marley’s Could You Be Loved.

Best of all, I loved the inclusive nature of the event. The Beautiful Octopus invites everyone to have a good time, regardless of ability or special need. When you enter the world of Heart n Soul’s festivals or club nights, when you immerse yourself in the melee of fancy dress, fairy wings and face paints, when someone in a clown outfit tumbles head over heels into a perfect cartwheel right in front of you, whether they have a learning disability or not is irrelevant – what’s important is that they’re having fun. And it’s infectious.

Frankly, in this environment (compared to other events I’ve blogged about) it’s impossible not to roll with the good times. I’m working on my cartwheel for next summer…for tonight, the shades and soulful strut will have to do.

* The Beautiful Octopus Club is at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, tonight (Friday 8 Oct) 7pm-12am. Entry is free.

Is the state uncool again; can big society work?

The lukewarm dust has barely settled on David Cameron’s big society speech at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham yesterday, but two of the city’s academics have this morning posted a (bite-sized! Readable!) debate on the pros and cons to the new approach.

I appreciate that many of us are suffering from BSFS (Big Society Fatigue Syndrome) and some of us might – whisper it – simply wonder what all the fuss is about (a recent Ipsos Mori poll suggests 55% of people had never heard of the big society), but the academics’ debate is an interesting quick read for those confused by the often woolly and rarely defined idea of big society

Angus McCabe, senior research fellow at the University’s Institute of Applied Social Studies, argues that big society might simply be a recycled New Labour concept and that public trust in politics won’t be restored if the approach is seen as services delivery on the cheap.

Helen Sullivan, Professor of Government and Society, offers a definition of big society as something that might plug the gap in public finances while boosting civic organising, voluntary action and private sector intervention, clearing a path to a diminished state. The danger of the state no longer being in fashion, she says, is that the voluntary sector will not automatically expand to fill the gap.

In conjunction with think tank Demos, the university’s just launched a policy commission on the future of local public services in the context of the big society; fingers crossed that this places some much-needed meat on the bones of the big society rhetoric.

The tale of Lion Face: how businesses could help society

The story of Lion Face puts the big into big society. Seven years ago, the 20-year-old gang member from the barrios of Aragua, Venezuela, mugged a security guard from the nearby Santa Teresa rum distillery and stole his gun. When Santa Teresa’s security boss caught him a week later, Lion Face was given a daring ultimatum by the company’s wealthy owner, Alberto Vollmer.

In a move worthy of modern folklore, Vollmer said Lion Face could work for him for three months without pay, or be handed over to the police. It was a risky proposition, but a week later, Lion Face came back – accompanied by around 20 fellow gang members who also wanted to work. Vollmer agreed and Project Alcatraz, as it’s now called, was born (the name reflects the idea that people’s worst prison is themselves and the challenge is to escape from themselves).

The project aims to reduce delinquency and unemployment and involves gang members in an intensive (and mildly eccentric) three-month work-study programme that include rugby training and community service. On completion, participants choose between a formal job – in the Café Alcatraz programme, for example, they learn how coffee is produced and packaged- or further education, perhaps via the on-site housing construction workshop.

Santa Teresa, a 200-year-old family run company, is some 4,500 miles from Westminster, but given the current debate about the private sector’s role in big society – and if big society includes encouraging something other than statutory services to tackle social problems – the tale of Lion Face is a salutary one.

A rugby match at Project Alcatraz

Since 2003, five gangs have completed the project and been disarmed. Local crime has fallen by 40% and last year Project Alcatraz won best social inclusion project at the Beyond Sport Summit to celebrate sport-led social change in London. Professor James Austin of Harvard Business School’s Social Enterprise Initiative has said of the management of Santa Teresa that “its viability and profitability are dependent not only on its ability to produce a superior product, but also to generate social value for its surrounding community”.

And that’s not all, several years ago Vollmer negotiated with squatters who wanted to take over land on his sprawling estate; the result was the creation of Camino Real, a 60-acre 100-house community built by the squatters themselves and funded with government housing agency mortgages.

While most large UK businesses have corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes that include employee volunteering schemes and donations to local schools or community projects, the ethos and scale of what’s going on at Santa Teresa is closer to the now extinct philanthropic traditions of Quaker companies (think Cadbury, Rowntree, Frys). Vollmer’s philosophy is quite simply that healthy communities lead to healthier profits. As Vollmer himself has said: “If you have growth and well being in the company but not in the community, then you are dead meat.”

Santa Teresa invests about 2% of its profits in social projects and attracts money from other sources including charitable donors. No mean feat given the years of political and social upheaval under President Hugo Chavez’s divisive regime that has pitted poor against rich.

It’s crude to suggest that Project Alcatraz can be replicated elsewhere; the schemes are as much a product of Venezula’s unique political, social and economic context as they are the result of the single-minded determination and social awareness of Santa Teresa’s owner. The best social businesses owe as much to their visionary and determined leaders as to their watertight business strategies and savvy investors, but the Lion Face story shows what is possible when business puts its money where its manpower is.

On a smaller scale, as discussions at a Tory conference fringe meeting today should reveal, there is some evidence that US-style Business Improvement Districts (BIDS) might help plug the gap left by public sector cuts. BIDS are defined areas within which businesses vote to invest collectively in local improvements (and therefore boost their trading environment). The public-private partnership between the local authority and business are funded by a levy on the business rate charged by the council.

Birmingham, for example, has three BIDs which collectively generate around £2m of private sector investment into city centre public areas each year. Birmingham’s BIDs certainly seem successful, winning national plaudits for their nighttime economy and the cleanliness of the city centre streets. Crime figures in the Broad Street BID area, for example, have been dented since the launch of the scheme, from 1,300 incidents in 2005-6 to 995 in 2008-9 and public satisfaction is high.

However, not all BIDs are proving entirely successful, as Edinburgh has found to its peril. Business organisations might be reluctant to participate thanks to the same economic malaise that is leading their statutory sector counterparts to consider retreating from service delivery.

And, given it’s taken five years to get 100 BIDs up and running around the country, how long it will take for the city centre programmes to make large-scale improvements (more to the point, will it be only a handful of BIDs that go beyond the realm of cleaning pavements, erecting floral displays and installing Christmas lights?). Also, as I remember from reporting about West End BIDS 15 years ago when the schemes were being chewed over by a clutch of the capital’s boroughs, there’s a worry about displacement. If improvements stop at the BID boundary isn’t there a danger of creating a two-tier city centre with a clean core and sweeping (literally, in many cases) the problems to the edge of the BID area?

As the public sector cuts back on delivery and all eyes dart desperately towards the twin panaceas of social enterprise and the voluntary sector to adopt its mantle, businesses and business-led partnerships should wake up to the vested interests they have in their local communities. Maybe that’s something to be championed by the new breed of City mayors recently proposed by Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles?

The UK has enough Lion Faces. Now what we need are a few more Vollmers.

* A fringe event ‘What role can Business Improvement Districts play in the recovery?’ takes place at 5.45pm today at The Mailbox centre, organised by Birmingham CIty Centre Partnership. Speakers include Bob Neill MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Broad Street BID’s Gary Taylor.

How to ease the care crisis; let granny have a wii (because online octogenarians are very big society)

A suggestion of boiled cabbage, laced with a faint, medicinal whiff. Magnolia-coloured walls lined with chairs turned towards a television set. And staring at the screen is a sea of blank, wizened faces attached to bodies waiting to die; ah the great British care home.

Just think, if the old dears are lucky, someone might even switch on the telly.

Unless, that is, this is the sort of care home that runs adult learning programmes for the elderly (check out the You Tube film) organised by social enterprise Learning for the Fourth Age (l4a).

At the Aigburth care home in Leicestershire, for example, here is an OAP enthusiastically playing tennis on the Wii, egged on by fellow residents, there is a 90-year-old emailing her great-grandson and everywhere is an attitude that sticks two fingers up at the stereotypical view of old people: “When you get to your 90s you feel you want to keep up with things.. it makes you feel you’re up with the world.”

Now I’m not usually one for Oprah-style outbursts, but even I found it difficult to watch the clip without smashing the air with a ‘You go girl!’ as the web-savyy pensioner tapped out her email.

As well as getting residents online, the care homes involved in l4a schemes run music, foreign language, flower-arranging and art sessions – basically any form of learning that people take an interest in. Because sessions are staffed by volunteers and local young people, the byproduct is community cohesion and intergenerational contact.

The experience of care home residents such as those in Leicester isn’t just a nice story. It could be another piece of the jigsaw when it comes to the crisis in care for the elderly.

Life expectancy is rising and by 2026, the number of people aged 85 and over will double and the number of people aged 100 and over will quadruple. In some 20 years’ time, around 1.7 million more adults will need some sort of care or support. Just last week the global dementia bill was said to be £388bn, according to the World Alzheimers Report. While I’m certainly not suggesting that getting ocotgenarians online will solve the crisis in care or provide the answer to one of modern society’s most pressing health problems, but surely anything that improves quality of life and cuts down healthcare bills is worth exploring further?

Programmes such as those in Leicester, says NIACE (the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education) transforms people. They are more interactive with each other, with the staff and with their families and are on fewer sleeping pills and anti-depressants; a reduction of 50% at one home that’s running adult learning scheme programmes.

Staff also reap rewards. As well as the fact residents are more motivated, they interact with them on a friend rather than carer-patient level. Anecdotally, absenteeism is rare and turnover low.

On the business side, money is saved because there’s less reliance on sleeping pills and anti-depressants – imagine the savings if this was replicated in every care setting in the country.

Politicians and policymakers take note; public finances are in a parlous state but if your granny has a wii, you might have to spend fewer pennies.

* Age UK recently launched a digital manifesto for older people with the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, the digital media institution. It demands an end to digital illiteracy among the elderly by 2020. The manifesto argues that because the Internet is the public’s primary source of information, being able to surf, blog, or take part in community TV broadcasts not only empowers people but helps breaks the isolation that older people often experience.

Despite the fact that more pensioners have Internet access at home than ever before – almost 40% now compared to 11% 10 years ago – campaigners say it’s vital that older people are not left behind.

FACT says the issue is one of social justice that as it promotes localism and active citizenship.

Sounds like big society to me.

Today’s new Society Guardian housing pullout

If you want a bite-sized glimpse of social housing setting out its stall ahead of the spending review, scroll down to the end of this post to see the Society Guardian pullout that I commissioned and which is published today. It echoes many of the issues being aired at the National Housing Federation annual conference that started in Birmingham today.

By a marvellous quirk of publishing fate, it can even be read by social housing’s alleged fat cats without fear of criticism as it had to go to press well before housing minister Grant Shapps officially put them in the austerity spotlight. Even more quaintly, not only is it a Shapps-free zone, but it’s also not yet online – hence the old school PDF format I’ve resorted to here.

Click on page 1 for a description by ex-Inside Housing editor Kate Murray of how the rising demand for homes, predicted budget, reduction in housebuilding and a plethora of other regime changes has left the affordable housing sector facing an unprecedented challenges.

Check p2-3 for a feature by housing specialist Chloe Stothart on how social landlords are making it easier for their tenants to find employment. There are also features by Mark Gould and Anita Pati on how associations are working in partnership on training their tenants and how other organisations have launched neighbourhood contracts to improve their areas or schemes to boost the inclusion of marginalised tenants.

The last page is worth a read, given the announcement today of the expansion in personal budgets – the scheme that allows patients more control over their care. The feature focuses on the work of landlord Look Ahead on the personalisation agenda, boosting choice for vulnerable tenants so they’re regarded as “customers” with real choice.

So even if you’re rattled by the telephone number pay cheques of social housing’s highest earners, there’s still much to be admired in the sector, not least, as I’ve stated in the pullout’s intro, its far-reaching social and economic impact.

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Who knows how to set up a peer mentoring project?

Moktar Alatas
Kicking off a regular interview slot, 18-year-old Moktar Alatas explains how he’s launching a local peer mentoring project, aspire2inspire (a2i) to encourage disaffected teens into work and training. He is driven by the experience of his brother, who is currently serving a prison sentence for a minor offence. Moktar lives in Ladbroke Grove, in the west London borough of Kensington and Chelsea which boasts some of the capital’s most affluent streets as well as pockets of deprivation. He was involved in a youth-led documentary in his area run by the Octavia Foundation, a charity set up by social landlord Octavia Housing.

My name is Moktar Alatas.

I’m a first year law student at Brunel University.

I’m trying to set up a project to inspire hope and instill confidence into disengaged young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, mainly by drawing these young people back into the world of work and education.

I started doing this a month ago, even though the idea has been around for much longer.

I want to do this because I feel that the area that I live in needs something that can realistically go about challenging the barriers that many of us deal with. As a young person myself I know how hard getting employment can be, I would say however that my brother’s experience in going to prison, has truly been the inspiration behind the project.

My aim is to transform the lives of many of the young people in my area who feel that there isn’t any hope for them. I believe that if I can give these young people financial independence, then many of the social ills that are poverty driven, such as drugs, crime, will be eliminated. The idea is to conduct ‘social surgeries’. Young a2i members go out into the community, targeting ‘hard to reach’ areas, and talking to their fellow young people with the aim of bringing them into our offices with the incentive of getting a employment/training. Next, a series of steps, including one-to-one meeting to identify and overcome any barriers that that young person may have. Finally, we work with that young person to find suitable placement.

So far in just a month we’ve managed to get over 50 people on our books, conducted numerous CV workshops, helped three people into paid internships, and helped another young homeless person into housing.

I hope to raise funding for it through the work that we do. By this I mean that rather than a charity, I want a2i to function like an actual employment agency. This, I believe will better fit into the premise of big society.

The hardest thing so far has been trying to provide the service with an imaginary budget.

The most rewarding thing will be to prevent people from going to prison, and instead into employment and training.

I’d love to hear from you if you could help me with any ideas that you have on how to go about organising, fund raising and delivering the service.

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?