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.

How to go off the scale on the Tory happy-ometer

When, where, why and how much were you last really happy? It’s important, because the government plans to spend £2m on measuring our happiness.

For me, it was 2pm last Saturday in a checkout queue in Sainsbury’s, Ringwood, Hampshire. The standout moment of happiness was thanks to my youngest sister, who has Fragile X syndrome, and the charity Camphill. As for how happy I was (forgive the veering into Tom Cruise-esque sofa-jumping territory), it was a pure, punch-the-air-feelgood that catapulted my stomach upwards and made me want to hug my fellow shoppers.

While I avoid supermarkets on Saturdays – they are the next rung down on the ladder of hell from a weekend family trip to Ikea – I would join that checkout queue every week if it made me as happy as I was a few days ago.

So, happiness policy wonks, here’s one way to spread the love.

It’s Saturday and I’m visiting my 21-year-old sister, Raana, at the Camphill Lantern Community in Ringwood which she moved to in September from a Camphill college in Wadhurst, East Sussex. The Lantern is an adult community for the learning disabled which aims to foster greater independence in those who live and work there. Supported by staff and volunteers, Raana enjoys life in a shared house, is proud of her work in the shop and of her new skills in the bakery, has joined a local gym and is planning her Christmas shopping in Bournemouth.

Saturday is her shopping day so we’re at the supermarket. I’m impressed that my crowd-hating sister ducks and dives through bodies and baskets like a retail pro while I’m all at sea in an unfamiliar store. My sister’s enthusiasm and confidence hint at what is to follow…

We queue and, as her shopping is scanned, I remember she needs to top up her phone card and buy stamps. From ordering in restaurants to buying train tickets, communication with strangers has always been tricky so, like the rest of my family, I’ve become used to speaking up for her. We usually encourage her to make a stab at speaking for herself but, with the queue snaking behind us, for practical as well as historical reasons, I launch into support-mode autopilot: “And can we have…”

But suddenly my sister pierces the air with: “Can I have some stamps please?’ and I’m left gawping while an unprecedented exchange takes place:

Checkout girl: “Of course – what sort?”
Me (eyes wide as you’d like the checkout aisle to be): “…….!”
My sister: “Book of 12, first class please.”
Checkout girl: “Anything else?”
Me: “RAANA!?”
My sister (nonchalant, in control, ignoring my beaming face): “Yes, a top up on my phone card please.”
Checkout girl: “That’s it?”
My sister: “Yes, I’m paying on a card.”
Me: (grinning, restraining a high five, elbowing Tom off Oprah’s sofa): “RAANA! YOU’VE DONE YOUR OWN SHOPPING!”
Checkout girl and my sister look at me. I feel silly, but very happy.

My sister was clear, confident, polite and – and here’s the thing – her behaviour would have appeared to most people to be entirely unremarkable. She fitted in.

It’s the little things in life that matter – running errands might not be your idea of achievement, but for my sister, making a shopping list or paying for something herself reflects her growing independence. She is benefitting from the holistic approach to social care and education that she has enjoyed since the age of 16, when we first came across the Camphill movement.

Me with Raana at a Camphill event earlier this year

“You’ve not replied to emails this week,” I say later. “I’m very busy!” she replies, indignantly. Raana is sometimes too busy working, learning and socialising to contact us – this is a sign of independence and security because when stressed, she bombards us with texts (my sister is phone-phobic, but I hope one day to have a telephone conversation with her). For the first time, she shares some common ground with her mainstream peers – the “too busy to phone home” line is not dissimilar to the one I’ve peddled since I was her age.

But the spending squeeze threatens to undermine the support provided by organisations like Camphill because the councils which fund those who live there will be reluctant to keep footing the bill. Local government bureaucracy and money wrangles along with government cuts to councils are huge threats to disability organisations.

Raana at her 21st birthday with her niece, Maya.

Cuts have to be made, but the axe is falling on those who need it most.

To return to the happiness survey, the correlation between happiness and strong welfare and social support is well-documented. For example, as social policy professor Alan Walker notes, ‘social quality’ is key to measuring happiness; he defines social quality as how much people are able to participate in society under conditions that enhance their individual potential and wellbeing. Social quality is commonly used in European social policy and, says Walker, the essential foundations of social happiness include health care, housing, employment-related benefits and additional forms of social assistance.

Money alone won’t ever make you happy, but taking it away from social support, and from those who need it most, not only adversely affects their well-being, but that of others around them. And what’s more, the support my sister and her peers receive today unlocks their potential, enabling them to play their part in society tomorrow.

I’m sure the £2m plan to measure the nation’s happiness will include complex statistical science and a multitude of boxes to tick but I quite like this rather more simple equation:
Vulnerable person + resources x specialised support = happiness

Wonder women and why we need them

For me, it was an eclectic yet potent combination of Wonder Woman, Kate Adie, Blue Peter’s Janet Ellis and Margot Fonteyn. Although I’ve yet to perform an arabesque while reporting from the frontline and deflecting bullets armed with nothing but golden bracelets and a roll of sticky backed plastic, I did at least pick some interesting female role models when I was growing up.

While it’s unfair to say that today’s girls and young women only dream of becoming reality tv stars, pop singers or footballers’ arm candy, it’s usually the case that the most successful women in the public eye tend to be very famous, very rich and very thin.

Campaigners at Pink Stinks are doing much to champion real, strong female role models who are “inspirational, important, ground-breaking and motivating” and today a new drive is launched to ensure that younger generations also have a range of professional female figures to look up to.

The business group everywoman has created the Modern Muse drive to inspire and engage the female business leaders and entrepreneurs of tomorrow by showcasing successful women in business. Although the majority are women in business and the private sector, there are – admirably – several powerful female role models from the public sector such as former Nurse of the Year Grace Vanterpool and Gill Evans, one of the country’s most senior policewomen.

Karen Gill, co-founder everywoman says: “Younger women today tend to have a strong focus on celebrity role models and we want them to be exposed to a much broader canvas, to women who have built businesses or are working in major organisations, whose lives are equally glamorous in very many ways.”

Modern Muse project aims to reach a million young women and girls over the next three years, to inspire and motivate them to look at business careers and entrepreneurship. The project will showcase stories of real women “whose experiences encompass ambition, passion, success and failure; showing that business is fulfilling and can also be fun and rewarding”. Many of the Muses will speak at community events and in schools, with the aim of nurturing female talent and encouraging women to start, own, run and grow companies.

Grace Vanterpool says: “Some of the role models that young women aspire to can be linked to their cultural or ethnic background and parental influences. Many young women in African Caribbean community aspire to become professional ‘divas’ and mothers – we seem to be less focused on getting involved in business. This may be due to the fact that there are not many successful business women who could become mentors to women from the African Caribbean community, and also to promote the benefits of setting and running a business.”

Vanterpool got involved with Modern Muse she wants her experience to inspire other women “to be the best that they can become”. She recalls, for example, that among the most patronising comments she’s had over the years are those that downplay her role. “Comments such as I am “only a nurse “, brought on by the perception that doctors who are predominantly male are usually the ones seen in senior leadership roles like mine.”

Metropolitan Police Detective Inspector Gill Evans says her motto is “it is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.” She adds: “I feel passionate about inspiring the next generation of young women and girls to succeed whether it be in business or the public sector. I recall a number of times that I just needed to talk or run an idea past someone but couldn’t for fear of being seen as weak. I think that it is important that we continue to encourage young women and girls at every opportunity that they can reach their goals/aspiration regardless of their career choice.”

Modern Muse is launched with the publication of a book and a photographic exhibition by Mary McCartney. The book and exhibition focus on 100 inspirational female entrepreneurs and business women, personifying the ‘Modern Muse’.

Guardian Public Service awards; reaching the unreachable and support for prisoners’ families

My pieces this morning on two of the winners of the Guardian’s Public Service Awards held last night; Elmore Community Services and its fantastic work to reach the ‘unreachable’ with complex needs and the amazing support provided by Prisoners Abroad’s for the families of those incarcerated overseas.

How can you feel at home with bars on your windows?

Gemma Eadsforth

Gemma Eadsforth, 25, was in care from 15 to 18. Now a married mother of one, she lives in the North West and has been a LILAC (Leading Improvements for Looked After Children) assessor since January. LILAC is project funded by the Big Lottery Fund and hosted by the charity A National Voice which ensures looked-after children and young people are involved in decisions about their care and in the practices of the services that look after them. Here, Gemma explains how those who have experience of care assess how well services involve their looked after young people, deliver participation and LILAC standards of care.

The aims of LILAC (Leading Improvements for Looked After Children) are to make sure that young people are receiving the right care that they deserve and that they’re listened to by the professionals. We want to make sure that the service is listening to the young people’s views about what they want to change in the care system and be able to chase that up so the young people feel like what they say matters and the young people have a better experience.

I was in care from the age of 15 to 18. My experience was positive but some people have different experiences where they don’t feel like their voice is being heard.

I got involved in LILAC because I wanted to make sure that the young people who are coming into the care system or are already in the care system understand what their rights are and their voices are heard by their social workers or carers.

The simple things to me from my experience was when we wanted to have some sweets or chocolate we had to ask a member of staff to open the cupboard as they had locked it because we all used to eat it in one day, well not everyone but some people did. But if you were in your own home you wouldn’t have to ask and you wouldn’t have locks on cupboards. They say ‘treat it as your own home, make yourself at home’, but how can you when you have bars on your window or locks on doors? It made me feel like it was a secure unit, that it wasn’t home, that I wasn’t trusted and sometimes like it was a punishment for something I hadn’t done.

Some young people don’t like talking to their social workers or carers about what they want to change or anything that is going on with them that they are not happy with as they haven’t had the experience that they have of being in care, so the main reason I got involved in doing this was because I’ve had the experience of being in care and can relate what they are going through so, I feel like I would be the one who they could talk to.

By being involved in LILAC you get to see what is going on in different local authorities and how they run things. Also get to meet young people who are either care leavers or still in care. The main rewarding thing about being in LILAC is real achievement for me and my team to show that not every young person who is/been in care is a bad person or not able to achieve anything because they have been in care as the media only cover the negative never the positive.

In a recent assessment I was impressed by the facilities that were available but disappointed by the lack of involvement that young people had.

We have seven standards to assess on. The main things to have in a care setting are to make sure young people are listened to, to have a voice and be heard. Being corporate parents, would you treat your own children like this?

Every time we do an assessment we always do feedback to let them know how they did or what they need to do and offer our support if they need it. Because we assess on the seven standards they need to get all seven before they get the full LILAC stamp to say that they have been ‘LILAC-ed’ so when the inpection body Ofsted comes round, they can say that young assessors have been here and done assessment on our local authority and we have passed their standards.

If I had one wish for the government to improve things for children in care I’d ask them to try and remove the stigma about being in care. Make it more positive so young people don’t feel like they’re to blame for being taken into care.

Is social enterprise a magic wand?

See the Guardian’s new social enterprise network for my piece on social enterprise as a magic wand: The challenge facing social enterprise, warned Peter Holbrook, chief executive of umbrella group the Social Enterprise Coalition, before the election, “is to be vigilant to ensure that the discourse on social enterprise is not distorted by the next government’s ambitions and policies around it.”

Nothing can bring back Mel, but her experience is making a difference

Ian Leech and his daughter Mel

By Ian Leech

Following a summer of ‘common ailments’, in the August of 2007 my eldest daughter Melissa was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

It was at that moment our relationship with the NHS began. Melissa was a student at Aston in Birmingham, she was living university life to the full and if there is such a place as heaven, it seemed Melissa was already there.

However, the day after her 20th birthday her world, and ours, changed in an instant, with the news that she had lymphatic cancer.

Like the staff that cared for Mel, we were thrust into the role of carers, the difference was, they were professionals, and they’d had training. There isn’t anything in life that can prepare you for the role we suddenly found ourselves plunged into, no parenting manual or course to attend, you rely on pure instinct, love, and the hope that the decisions you are making are the right ones.

We watched and waited, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week for nine months. We watched for any sudden rise in Mel’s temperature, a signal that she may have contracted an infection and the knowledge that a trip to A&E would be imminent. We waited for consultants to arrive with the latest news and would try to remain calm if it wasn’t what we wanted to hear. We waited for calls for results following x rays and scans. We watched the hard work put in by nurses and other staff and grew to appreciate the role of everyone, from the consultants to healthcare assistants and even the lady who came round with the tea trolley.

Mel’s care during her time in hospital was very good, but there was room for improvement, minor tweaks rather than wholesale changes.

Having patient access to the internet is something all hospitals should have. It kept Mel in touch with her friends and family and also allowed her to get support and relevant up to date information from the Lymphoma Association’s website.

Late teens to mid twenties is a difficult age range to nurse, Melissa wasn’t a child, but there was a loss of independence and an age regression that certainly brought about a strong reliance on us as parents. She needed us and fortunately, at both Burton and Nottingham hospitals we were allowed to stay with her for as long as she wanted. Another hospital we attended wasn’t so accommodating.

Our issues with Mel’s care mainly focused around communication and this lack of consistency between hospitals.

Mel was nervous of needles and I used to sit with her and let my hand be squeezed when blood was taken or canulas attached. However after being transferred to another local hospital for her chemotherapy, we found this practice wasn’t allowed and she had to deal with this trauma alone. It was at this same hospital where they refused to use her Hickman line (intravenous catheter) because the nurse wasn’t trained, this was after she’d been told needles would be a thing of the past after having the line inserted.

No news meant bad news. If a scan or test had worked, we seemed to be told immediately, whereas we always had to wait for bad news. This meant unnecessary worry. A simple phone call to explain that something hadn’t gone to plan but they were working on other options, would have alleviated the stress of not knowing.

On the whole though, Mel’s treatment and level of care in hospital was very good and this was helped by the wonderful rapport she built with her consultants at Nottingham and Burton. They knew Mel was a football fan and they used that as a common interest to build a patient/doctor confidence. It made Melissa feel special and that she was being treated as a person, not just a patient with a disease.

Our experience has led to me going into hospitals to talk to staff about our nine month insight into hospital life. The feedback from health professionals has been excellent. I also give the same service to bereavement groups. Nothing I can do will ever bring Melissa back, but it’s nice to know that even though she’s no longer with us, her experience is being used to make a difference to people’s lives.

To find out more, visit the website Mad4Mel.
For information about lymphoma visit the Lymphoma Association website.

When ‘thank you’ are the best words you can hear

Jo Sharp, parent support advisor

Jo Sharp, 38, from Croydon, south London, is a parent support advisor with the charity School-Home Support (SHS). Jo works in an infant school, a junior and a secondary, all in south Croydon. Here she explains why her role is vital and describes its challenges its rewards.

I became a parent support advisor because…I’d provided support to my neighbours, it became apparent to me that there were many families and children who weren’t receiving the help they were entitled to. I enjoy the range and diversity of the work as well as the fact that I reach out to families directly and provide a holistic service to them.

My aim is…to develop a supportive environment for the families and children. For me, the relationship is often the work and I feel it is a great privilege to be allowed into people’s lives and share in their experiences.

The first child I helped support was…suffering from extreme anxiety over going to school and his attendance was below 50% as a result.

Teachers knew there was an issue with this child because…he’d attend maybe two or three days a week and leave early. He appeared withdrawn and lacked confidence.

The first thing I did was…meet his family to look at possible reasons for his anxiety. His parents were extremely worried and had tried to support him in the best way they could. Despite this, the child would often lock himself away in his room rather than face questions about school. His parents and I agreed that I would meet with him in school rather than at home.

The reaction I got from him was… we spent a long time discussing his experiences at school and his feelings regarding his own self esteem and confidence. Because he had started school in year eight, he’d missed out on the bonding with his peers in year seven. This had a big impact on how he felt he fitted in, and he’d started to put himself second to everyone else in his quest to ‘be liked’. He’d also started to develop much faster than some of his peers so felt he stood out too much. All this had left him feeling increasingly anxious about coming to school until he just couldn’t face anymore. Over the weeks we looked at ways of improving his assertiveness and developing a positive image of himself. He was allowed a reduced timetable at school, gradually building up to full days.

I knew we’d started to get somewhere when…he became more active at the weekends and started playing football and socialising more with others. Prior to this he found it difficult to leave the safety of his house for prolonged periods.

The hardest thing was…keeping up the momentum. It would only take a slight knock for him to feel anxious, however by maintaining close contact with him and his family and being there to support him when he was feeling anxious, the anxiety became less severe.

The most rewarding thing was…to find that he’d not missed one day of school and that he’d really turned his life around! His attendance is 100% and he participates in activities outside of school, his teachers have said he’s much more positive in school and appears to enjoy his time there. His family has also expressed their delight at having their son back!

To do this job you need to be…patient! Change doesn’t happen overnight. The rewards are fantastic when you see first hand how the support you have played a part in has had positive effects on families and young people. I believe that you need to be able to connect emotionally with the families, having empathy and compassion whilst also being able to look at the bigger picture and think logically about what support can be provided. A good understanding of local services and outside agencies is key.

The biggest problem facing the sort of young children I help support is…a lack of understanding. Sometimes it is very practical support that is required and at other times it is more emotional, but either way I feel that young people often feel misunderstood because we as adults actually lack a perspective on their world.

If I could have a word in education secretary Michael Gove’s ear I’d…ask that more focus be placed on supporting families and children in and outside of school. It works!

The best thing a child I’ve helped support has said to me is…thank you!