Women in Croxteth, Liverpool, discuss the impact of cuts on communities, part of the research for the new book, Austerity Bites
Do you know what austerity really means?
Here’s a definition from the Collins Dictionary, as quoted in Mary O’Hara’s commanding new book on the subject, Austerity Bites: “…difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce the budget deficit, especially by reducing public expenditure: a period of austerity/austerity measures.”
But that literal definition, and the words of politicians using the rhetoric of austerity to mask the harsh impact of public spending cuts, conveys nothing of the human cost of the unprecedented reform of the welfare state.
Austerity Bites redresses that imbalance. I don’t usually do reviews on this site, but this timely book demands attention.
Reading this book means you join the award-winning journalist O’Hara in her “journey to the sharp end of cuts in the UK”. Based on a 12-month trip around the country meeting diverse people affected by cuts as reforms were introduced in 2012 and 2013, O’Hara gives a platform to untold stories of hardship.
O’Hara’s book suggests, “austerity” has become an acceptable rhetoric, one that glosses over the harsh impact of welfare reform – as in “cuts hurt but in the age of austerity, what else can we do?” The creeping normalisation of food poverty and food banks, as explored in this book, is shameful.
While an intricate explanation is given of the political and economic context, it is the lives of those whose voices are rarely given a platform – the homeless, the disabled, the young among them – that are the focus here.
Crisscrossing the country, the picture is one of political classes living in a “bubble” untouched by the harsh reality of life on the front line of Austerity UK; a massive chasm between the people suffering from the impact of cuts and abolition of vital benefits and the people making the decisions to abolish that support.
People talk of “breaking point”, “existing not living”, their “desperate situation”; the book does much to explode the myth of benefit Britain. A fairly comprehensive catalogue of unfairness is chronicled in Austerity Bites – the disabled, for example, are shown to be bearing the brunt of cuts, the vulnerable are made more vulnerable and the poorer become poorer.
As one man, Dec, who O’Hara meets on a Luton estate tells the author: “Do I deserve better? Do other people deserve better? I think they do.”
Unsettling, but vital, reading, this book lays bare the real, true story of austerity.
More than one million people with learning disabilities are eligible to vote – so why are they ignored by politicians?
My interview with Gary Bourlet in today’s Guardian explains how the veteran disability campaigner wants to give people like himself, with learning disabilities, a greater voice and presence so they feature in places other than “secret footage on Panorama”, referring to Winterbourne View, where the abuse of patients with learning disabilities was exposed by the BBC in 2011. To this end, he has set up People First England, to encourage adults with learning disabilities, rather than care professionals, to participate in politics and appear on TV and radio discussing stories that affect them.
“We want people speaking for themselves about issues that concern them, rather than the professionals,” he says. “We want greater powers to be seen, to vote, to be included, have the same opportunities in social life, education and employment as everyone else.” Bourlet, 55, has launched the user-led charity with disability rights activist Kaliya Franklin.
Fresh questions are being asked about the government’s beleaguered post-Winterbourne drive to improve care for learning disabled people. An investigation is underway into “bullying accusations” at a special school run by a charity whose chief executive is trying to reinvigorate the flagging £2.86m government improvement scheme.
Bill Mumford, chief executive of MacIntyre which runs Womaston School and Children’s Home in Wales, offered to stand down as director of the Winterbourne improvement programme after allegations of mistreatment at Womaston. The government programme launched after the abuse of learning disabled patients at the Winterbourne View privately run unit in south Gloucestershire, abuse that was exposed by BBC’s Panorama in 2011. It aims to move individuals out of institutional, large-scale, long-stay units and into community-based accommodation.
Concerns about the behaviour of some staff towards children at MacIntyre’s specialist residential service were reported by a member of staff to the school principal in March and police and social services are investigating the claims. The school, home to students aged aged 10-19 with autism, complex behavioural needs and learning disabilities, will close in July with the young people moved to alternative placements. Staff have been suspended, other staff drafted in and, says MacIntyre in a statement, “the alleged behaviours are not occurring in the service now”.
The investigation into Womaston is expected to last several months and there are no more details about what the allegations involve. A BBC online story refers to “physical abuse”, a statement from MacIntyre describes “concerns” about the “behaviour of some other staff members” while a personal statement from Mumford mentions “a small group of my staff…suspended following accusations of bullying”.
The incident has sparked fresh criticism of the Winterbourne programme run jointly by the Local Government Association and NHS England. It aimed to move everyone out of such assessment and treatment units by 1 June 2014 but after little progress (3,250 people with learning disabilities and autism are still in private or NHS-run settings like Winterbourne View), its previous heads left and Mumford took over in January, on secondment from MacIntyre. New NHS figures show only 256 out of 2,615 in-patitents with learning disabilities or autism have dates for transfer into community settings and more are being admitted to NHS settings than moved out.
Mumford has issued a personal statement “re the investigation at MacIntyre and my continuing role in support of the Winterbourne prog” (that’s a statement taken from Twitter). In it, he accepts concerns that while he is charged with a national role to improve the care and support of learning disabled people, employees of the organisation he presides over were carrying out exactly kind of behaviour he’s trying to stamp out. He also addresses the fact the drive has been less than successful.
He says in his statement (the square brackets are mine): “It is a very real concern to me and the [Winterbourne improvement programme] partners that the trauma experienced by individuals and families at Winterbourne View and elsewhere should not be exacerbated by the thought that the person responsible for the programme [is] being tainted with serious problems in his own organisation. Indeed it is the unacceptable stories of individuals and families that motivate and challenge us all to step up and do better. Therefore my second decision was to contact the Joint Improvement Partners, including personal phone calls to the representatives of people with learning disabilities and families, to inform them of the situation and offered to voluntarily step down. This couldn’t come at a worse time for the programme partners as it is well know[n] that complexity of achieving the original concordat commitments has been a struggle.”
The MacIntyre chief executive adds that the charity took immediate action: “There has been no cover up, no prior issues of this nature have been raised before and the families and placing local authorities and alerting member of staff are all completely satisfied with MacIntyre’s actions to date. Therefore MacIntyre is dealing with a very serious situation exactly as they should – it is an example of how things should happen and maybe this is an important lesson for the programme to share.”
While the investigation by Powys social services and police continues, Mumford says he is “not only restricted about what I can say but actually what I know. However as soon as it is completed I will share what we have learnt regardless of how painful that might be.”
Discussion (so far mainly on social media) involves support for Mumford and the Winterbourne programme’s aims as well as criticism about why a statement was only made public this morning and why there was not more immediate public transparency after the claims were lodged with the relevant authorities.
*This post was updated this evening in an attempt to clarify “bullying accusations” and add figures and links relating to the number of in-patients with learning disabilities.
Hazrat Bilal from Narshingdi, Bangladesh, has been blind since birth, but it was only in 2008 at the age of 33, with support from Bangladeshi charity Action for Blind Children, that he was officially registered as permanently disabled. That led to more support from services for the visually impaired; Hazrat got to know other people with sight problems and began to gain confidence.
The 39-year-old now runs his own grocery shop and has helped form a self-help group. It was only after help from the local charity, a partner of international charity Sightsavers, that his life was transformed but if more international development and aid plans were disability-inclusive, there would be many more stories like Hazrat’s.
One billion people all over the world – 15 per cent of the population – have a disability, according to the World Health Organisation. Of that total, 80 per cent live in developing countries.
The report’s recommendations echoes some of the actions outlined in international charity Sightsavers’ Put Us in the Picture campaign. Launched last year, the campaign calls on policymakers and politicians to include disabled people in international aid and development plans, highlighting the links between disability and poverty.
Specifically, the campaign says the government must ensure people with disabilities participate in, and benefit from, international development programmes and must talk, listen to and work with people with disabilities and their families. It also argues that DFID staff should be trained to include people with disabilities in their work.
You can support the Put Us in the Picture campaign here or follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #InThePicture
Research from Goldsmiths University recently suggested that wealthier people are more musical. While it’s obvious that higher income families find it easier to stump for private piano lessons and expensive instruments, music has a place in boosting inclusion and there are some great community-based projects that not only make music more accessible, but aim for social impact in the process.
Take the Sage Gateshead, which is halfway through a four-year cultural exchange scheme with a Brazilian government programme called Santa Marcelina Cultura (Santa Marcelina Cultura manages São Paulo state government’s music education and cultural inclusion project – Projeto Guri). The project aims to improve arts education and boost social inclusion in both Sao Paulo and the North East.
The scheme is funded by the British Council’s transform arts and creativity programme. The Sage’s musicians and teachers have travelled to Sao Paulo to find out how music, learning and social inclusion are combined in Brazil, while a Brazilian team came to the North East last year. Below, two participants – one from each country – explain the benefits of their innovative musical scheme:
Kathryn Davidson, 29, from Fenham, Newcastle, folk strand leader, learning and participation, Sage Gateshead “We’re about to enter the second leg of the second year of the project. Each visit is around two weeks long and involves observing practice, learning from each other, sharing ideas around social pedagogy and music education, and teaching. The two weeks are incredibly intense and informative.
For me, the first leg in 2012 was about getting to know Guri and what they do and weighing that up next to what we do. There are many differences but also many similarities in our own teaching styles but there is always the underlying theme that everyone deserves high quality music education. I was very proud when the Guri team came to Gateshead, I was proud to ‘show off’ the Learning and Participation department. The second trip to Sao Paulo was where I really began to understand my role and understand how the music that I teach and that I love is relevant.
We had a ceilidh for over 200 Guri young people and in the run up, the Guri staff reflected that they don’t use much, if any, Brazilian folk music. Much of it disappeared when the Portuguese invaded, and the post Portuguese music is often full of religion. What some people said is that seeing how British folk music can be used to teach rhythm, pulse, work in choirs, to teach intervals, to be a story for no other reason than to sing a good story, will make them investigate further their own traditions.
The ceilidh was my most favourite moment of both my times in Sao Paulo. My Brazilian colleague Paulo and I co-led this ceilidh even though he has never ‘called’ ceilidh dancing before and I speak minimal Portuguese! We had a ceilidh band made up of Sage Gateshead musicians and we had guest spots from some of the youth groups that we’d been working with… a wind band of young Brazilian musicians on saxophone and horns playing traditional Northumbrian music. Over a cold beer afterwards we all reflected that our own traditions are so close that they are normal, they’re ordinary. Placing the ordinary in an extraordinary context allows it to be fresh again.
The main challenges are in the circumstances that the young people who come to Guri live in. The Guri social team, who are absolutely outstanding, work with each and every young person to enable them to get the best from their learning, to fully engage with the programme. Sometimes that means holding their place for them for a few weeks whilst they have time to deal with the outside world. Sometimes it can take the social team visiting their home and working with their family, and sometimes it can be as simple as making sure they’ve had a good meal in their stomachs so that they can concentrate.
Often these young people will travel three hours to Saturday rehearsals, their transport is paid for and they receive meals and snacks to sustain them. Sao Paulo is a wonderful city but like all cities it is full of contrast, of huge wealth and incomprehensible poverty.
My own personal learning was huge, from trusting the music that I am passionate about to my confidence in my own teaching. Lots of the wider learning is still on-going, ‘what is a democratic music education?’ has become the research question. Both Sage Gateshead and Guri Santa Marcelina promote social inclusion and help people from different background to mix. How many Brazilian teenagers get the chance to work with a group of musicians from the North of England?
How many teenagers from Gateshead get the chance to work with musicians from Brazil? But it’s more than social inclusion, it’s about the promotion of social mobility and the belief that if you seize the opportunities offered to you, and you work hard, then there is no reason that you can’t succeed. If we can instill that within music education, be that in the formal classroom or in an out of school club, then that learning stays with the young person and seeps in to their self belief in English or Maths and they believe that if they set their mind to it and work hard they can accomplish anything.”
Santa Marcelina student – Daniele de Almeida, 17
“I am currently enrolled as a music student at Guri Santa Marcelina (GuriSM) education programme and member of GuriSM Youth Choir, an auditioned choir in the institution. The Sage Gateshead team was invited to work with GuriSM Youth Choir in October last year.
The exchange project between GuriSM and Sage Gateshead is focused on “what is a democratic and inclusive music education?” and also involves many diverse activities like workshops, seminars and performances. A real highlight for me was when we held and took part in a Ceilidh dance. There were so many people and so many English tunes. I really felt as if I was over here in a traditional English Ceilidh.
During the exchange I have found the most challenging moments the discussions around democratic and inclusive music education, particularly around the questions of what it is and how to promote it? It is a very emotive subject and you can explore it very deeply. It was also the first times students had participated in discussions about education in Guri Santa Marcelina. The size of both projects (Guri Santa Marcelina and Sage Gateshead) means the subject and the work that goes on is much more complex than I thought. However, this complexity drives both institutions to look for solutions and not give up.
Projects like this foster the contact among people of different backgrounds. With such contact I believe the horizons broaden; and this encourages inclusion to take place.
I believe that this sort of music exchange between great partners brings about knowledge of culture from different places. I think collectively it can better inform citizens than if you are trying to do it by yourself. It is much more than just entertainment!
One of the moments that sticks in my head is that one day Ed Milner, head of music learning at Sage Gateshead, was on the bus with all of us students and we asked him what he had enjoyed the most. He answered “You all!”
It has been an amazing, life-changing experience.”
Did you know Big Ben isn’t the name of the clock or the tower at the Houses of Parliament, but refers to the great bell inside the building?
How about the fact that the word “parliament” comes from the French, “parler”, meaning “to talk” (and yes, politicians could do with less rhetoric and more action).
These were just two facts my eight-year-old daughter pounced on during a recent family-friendly project at the Houses of Parliament.
This week is Parliament Week, a country-wide series of events that aim to engage people with parliamentary democracy. While the Houses of Parliament is one of the most instantly recognisable buildings in the world and children know its name, what goes on inside it is usually either a mystery or rather dull (unless, my daughter points out, you’re talking about Guy Fawkes).
Our recent visit was part of this year’s Big Draw event, although it reflects the ethos of Parliament Week. It involved an art workshop led by artist Rachel Gadsden to create four new works. Gadsden (who I’ve written about before here and here) is known for disability awareness raising work.
Gadsden’s ground-breaking project – the first time that the public has had the opportunity to contribute to artworks that will form part of the parliament art collection – is sponsored the Speaker’s Art Fund. The scheme involves the artist combining her own art with pieces created by the public in a series of workshops in Westminster Hall. The aims is to create new contemporary images based on mosaics of the UK’s four patron saints, St George, St David, St Andrew and St Patrick, which are in parliament’s central lobby.
Out visit included a “family-friendly” guided tour about the history, architecture and artwork in the Houses of Lords and Commons. The tour, according to my eight-year-old reviewer was “interesting but a bit too long” (I’d have to agree, despite the engaging anecdotes, an hour and 15 minutes with one stop to sit down can be difficult for most primary school pupils).
However, she “liked the information, like hearing that alarm bells sound in some buildings around parliament to call the MPs to vote”. She was loved some of the Tudor portraits after studying the period at school and was intrigued by the Queen’s robing room. Looking around the Commons and Lords has made some rather woolly concepts a little more accessible and real; she spotted the Commons on television recently, commenting that she had stood in the same room as the MPs.
After the tour, we joined workshop members creating everything from pencil drawings to mosaics based on the art they’d seen in parliament. As Gadsden says, “the subject matter is not set in stone and this is above all an ‘imaginative’ project, and participants contributed a range of drawings to which include interpretations, but also creations which express their personal identities.” Now the workshops are completed – participants’ original drawings were photocopied and included within the saints paintings that Gadsden is creating – the artist is working on the pieces and the public and MPs will have the chance to view them next year.
Gadsden, who has the eye disorder retinoschisis and lost the sight in her left eye this year, explains that her work is “underpinned by the notion of disability, viewed from a positive perspective.” As she says, “I just take every day at a time and concentrate on my inner vision rather than what I see with my eye”.
Gadsden has always championed the belief that disability is not regarded as a barrier to success; in 2007 she became the first contemporary artist in residence at Hampton Court Palace and was commissioned for London 2012 by Unlimited, the arts and disability programme launched for the four-year arts programme, the Cultural Olympiad.
The artist adds: “I hope that my artistic practice stands as an example of the importance of the right of freedom of expression: addressing issues relating to disability and, by doing so, contributing to the process of bringing about cultural change. So this commission has given me the opportunity to not only collaborate with the public at large to create the new ‘Saints’ paintings…but also to give a new younger audience the opportunity to visit parliament for the first time, and to have the chance to see the House of Lords and Commons and learn about the procedure of parliament as part of the overall process…it is vital for young people to have the opportunity to understand parliament”.
Given the current debate about increasing social mobility and aspiration, part of the solution is not only making “authority” more accessible – encouraging young people and people with disabilities to visit the, for example, the government’s seat of power, – but inviting people, once they set foot inside, to take part in something as creative and inclusive as an arts workshop.
* Rachel Gadsden tweets at @rachelgadsden
* Information about parliament’s education service is here, including its latest plans to create a dedicated education centre for children and young people.
* Social care provider Dimensions is hosting an accessible Question Time event this week, which I’m involved in, more details here
The fate of children in care in Scotland has recently his the headlines; care leavers need more support, say experts, if their life chances are to improve. And today Michael Gove has criticised the care home system in England. But what if some vulnerable children could be prevented from going into care in the first place? In a joint guest post, Daniel* and the support worker who helped him describe how a Scottish community-based alternative to custody and secure care helped him turn his life around.
Daniel*, 21, describes how he was supported by the charity Includem:
“I don’t even know if I would be alive had it not been for Includem. I was drinking all the time and taking drugs, valium, cannabis, ecstasy. I was fighting a lot with my mum and other people and ‘doing turns’ – theft, breaking and entering offences – to get money to spend on food and clothes. Things started to go wrong when I left primary school and when I was about 12.
I had a bad relationship with my mum – we argued all the time – and I was constantly getting thrown out of the house. I had nowhere to go so ended up on the streets. I was always in front of children’s panels and going into temporary care and then home again.
I wasn’t happy and could see that this [drinking and taking drugs] wasn’t the right thing to do but it was what was happening in my life at the time. I felt guilty about what I was doing. I wanted things to change but didn’t now how to make changes. I wanted things to be normal and to have a normal family life.
A social worker referred me to Includem; I worked with a few project workers until I clicked with my project worker who became the person who I felt I could work with. We spoke about goals and how to get there and how I was worthy of a better life.
My worker helped me when things were really bad at home; I could call the helpline at any time and Includem would come out and talk to me and my mum and make it ok for me to stay at home. They would meet with me at times when no one else would be able to – at the weekend, when I needed them I would contact the helpline and they would be there.
Includem helped me stay at home and they helped me get into training and never gave up on me. I respected them and they respected me. I felt hopeful that things could be different. They helped with all sorts of things – planning how to spend money on food and clothes to helping with how to deal with bad situations at home and how to get training to help to get a job.
They were there through everything – even during the night – when I lived at home, when I was homeless and then moving into my own place. They made me think that I was worthwhile.
Before I would just go out and steal things to sell so that I could buy new clothes. I learnt how to save money and how to spend it on food so that I would last. They taught me how to deal with situations with my mum – how to walk away from violent situations and how to stay calm.
Things changed for me because my worker listened and respected me so I trusted and listened to my worker. I got on with her and established a relationship – I started to feel hopeful that things could change. Includem listened and didn’t give up on me, even at the start when I didn’t want to work with them.
Now I live with my daughter and girlfriend and I have my own home. I try hard to be a good dad that my daughter can be proud of – I want her to feel loved and cared for and safe. I want a routine for my family and my daughter and I am trying to find a job.”
Karen McCulloch, Includem project worker, on how she supported Daniel:
“Daniel was referred to Includem at the age of 15 due to his drug and alcohol misuse, anger, aggression, and difficult family relationships. He was a persistent high tariff offender and was facing homelessness due to a chaotic relationship with his mother.
When we meet a young person for the first time we listen to what they have to say and let them know what we can offer. We talk through their lives and identify the areas that aren’t working the way they should and start to look at how these could get better. We identity goals and talk to them about A Better Life – a unique toolkit that we use. We let them know we will meet them on a frequent basis and that we will plan normal social activities where we can meet and talk.
We let them know we put them first and they can trust us – that we want the best for them. Often this is a first for young people who haven’t had proper care in their lives or someone to talk to and look out for them.
We gave Daniel intensive support in managing his anger, including practical support on issues such as how to remove himself from volatile situations. Daniel’s relationship with his mother was difficult, and Includem worked with her to set clear and consistent boundaries within the home.
Daniel and his mother used Includem’s 24 hour helpline, not only at times of crisis but for advice and support. Includem supported Daniel for whilst he was on an electronic tag, a period in secure care for his own safety, and voluntary transitional support into adulthood. Throughout this time, Includem supported and liaised with Daniel’s mother to maintain their relationship.
Daniel didn’t gel with his first project worker so we changed workers to someone that Daniel clicked with. Our model is relationship based therefore we are flexible and will try different workers with different young people for the right relationship to be established.
My first visit to meet Daniel was on a Friday night when Daniel was out with his care home – Daniel had none of his own clothes so I went to his home and picked these up and took them to him. We visited him throughout the weekend and supported him. We talked about ways to change things – and assured Daniel that his life could change with the right support and direction. We put a plan in place that we would work through together in order to meet outcomes.
We started to see real changes. We taught Daniel to listen to his “inner speak” – the voice within that said he deserved a better life and that he could make it happen. When he started to realise that he did deserve better, and how to achieve it, things started to change.
Daniel used the 24/7 helpline regularly as a support – he would phone if he had been thrown out of the house or was in trouble. He would call if he was arguing with his mother – on one occasion an Includem worker would be speaking to Daniel on the phone in one room, another would be speaking to his mother on the phone in another room and a worker would be driving to the house to help calm the situation face to face.
Daniel would forget basic things such as when to eat as sometimes he was living between people’s houses – we would remind him that this was essential and give him practical support on what to eat and how to budget his money. We would plan our contact visits with him around when he would receive money and would take him to the supermarket and show him how to spend the money wisely and make it last.
Daniel moved into his own home under a mainstream tenancy at 19 (he is now 21), and is in a settled relationship and doing well. He has created his own family – he and his girlfriend have a baby, and there is no social work involvement with the family at all. Daniel has accrued no court charges or pending court charges for fouryears. He’s very keen to get a job. His partner is looking to start college and his main aim is to build on his progress and continue to provide a happy and loving environment for his child and partner.
We have a “scaffold of support” in place – a team of three – a project worker, an assistant project worker and a mentor – assigned to each young person so that they can build links and relationships with more than one person. Every service we provide is unique for that young person – we fit our service to them, not the other way round.
Among our successful outcomes is the fact that 90% of young people we worked with in a project with Strathclyde police reduced their violent offending. And with 72% of referrals from the Clackmannanshire area, Includem prevented family or community placement breakdown.
The biggest challenge is usually at the outset when young people are wary of accepting help and opening up about issues. Another challenge is actually meeting up with young people on planned visits at the start– often they don’t turn up for planned meetings and we have to go looking for them.
You learn to be creative in situations like this – finding solutions to challenges such as this and others – and speaking to colleagues for advice and ideas in order to make contact. We constantly refer to our A Better Life toolkit for support and advice.
Includem operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We accept any referrals via social work departments, courts and police. We never turn any vulnerable young person away – no matter what their situation is and how chaotic it may be.
‘Stickability’ is a word we have coined – it’s a key part of our service and is at the heart of what we do – we are persistent, we won’t give up on a young person and we will stick with them at all times during the support we give them.”
Late night on the estate, London. Two hooded and capped teen boys hang out, waiting for a couple of teen girls. Nervously the girls approach. Tiana used to go out with Stigz, but she’s not sure about this new guy he’s brought along. She thought they were going out to a party, but the boys lead them to this new guy’s place. His parents are out. Tiana fights her instincts to run. The door shuts. The boys start to grab them. The girls resist but they won’t stop. Everything happens so fast…
Thankfully these events are just part of an awareness-raising film for Oii My Size, a youth-led project targeting teens. The Oii My Size project. For those not down with the kids, “my size” means “my kind of girl”. The project is based on a colourful website full of videos and pictures to help teens understand what makes relations between teen boys and girls appropriate and respectful.
The scenario described above is, however, based on a true story and reflects the reality of life for many teen girls. From serious assault like this, to sharing naked pictures of them (sexting) and being spoken to disrespectfully, life can be a minefield for girls when it comes to teen boys. A recent study by the NSPCC reported up to 40 per cent of young people had been involved in sexting, mainly under pressure from other schoolchildren while a conference in Manchester run by the area’s Safeguarding Children Board heard reports from schools that sexting had become a “daily problem” affecting girls as young as 11 years old.
No one knows this better than the group of 12 teen girls who have shaped Oii My Size.
The girls, aged 16, from Pimlico, London, met to socialise until becoming involved in a Peabody Staying Safe campaign. The girls had previously worked with youth arts company Dream Arts to produce a warning video about staying safe around boys and jumped at the chance to spread the message about safe relationships and the dangers of sexting (sending indecent images to an under-18 is illegal). The video, which starred the girls themselves, is now on the Oii My Size site.
All of the girls had some kind of personal experience with the topic – whether affected directly, like the events in the video, or having friends who had to move schools due to sexting, or being exposed to abuse such as a Blackberry Messenger “slags list” – where girls are publicly named and shamed.
The girls were supported by Peabody, Dream Arts and youth-led media social enterprise Mediorite, which I volunteer with. Peabody worked with the girls under its Staying Safe campaign, Dream Arts supported them to work together and provided them with a specialist support worker for two hours each week after school.
As well as tackling issues such as sexting , Oii My Size focuses on disrespectful chat-up lines (or “churpz”) and when to say no in teen relationships. The magazine-style website also has light-hearted videos of teen boys trying out their best (read:worst) churpz on the unimpressed girls, like “Do you work at Subway? Cos you got me on a foot-long” and invites users to “rate my churpz”. This cleverly avoids preaching by demonstrating that the disrespectful churpz just make girls feel embarrassed, intimidated and degraded. In other words –boys- they do not work.
The website also contains a video of Althia Legal-Miller, a doctoral research student at King’s College, London, and an expert in female adolescence and violence. She explains the dangers of sexting, promoting the key message of “trust your instincts” to teenage girls in relationships.
The girls behind the project say they “have chosen this topic as we have realized that we feel intimidated and disrespected due to our gender.” Team member Shanice George explains that “hopefully the website will educate young girls and boys that sexting is illegal, cos we didn’t even know it was illegal until we started the project, and if we didn’t know how were other people to know? Also we wanted to educate boys on how they talk to girls… and we are now working with a domestic violence woman from Peabody and we would like to make girls aware about domestic violence too.”
Lucy Ferguson from Mediorite adds that the girls felt the topic “was a real, urgent issue that just wasn’t being tackled at school, and that no one was tackling it…The project was a success because the girls really challenged themselves to think about the audience.”
The girls not only gained new skills from the project but also won a Silver Arts Award, an Open College Network accreditation in project management via Peabody and a Nominet internet safety award. The website got 2000 hits in 24 hours the day after they won the award, and has been promoted at school assemblies by the girls to over 3000 people.
The project’s audience will undoubtedly grow, as Lucy Ferguson explains: “Most youth groups don’t really explore what someone who doesn’t know them is going to think of their project, they don’t think about how to sell and engage the audience, but these girls really got that. So ‘rate my churpz’ – as a traffic-driver is a really sophisticated idea. It shows they understood the need to engage boys too, and draw people in with a sense of humour, and then engage them with the harder content. Most youth groups are completely unforgiving to the audience. This was a much more sophisticated approach.”
It’s not the first pairing of the Beatles and Shakespeare, and nor is it unique for making the work of the bard more accessible, both in the theatre and in print. But it is among the most unusual and inspiring.
Students at Gosden House special educational needs school near Guildford will today perform an interactive version of Twelfth Night, influenced by and including music from the album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. An inclusive performance for a young audience with complex learning difficulties, it aims to transform the audience into members of the Lonely Hearts Club Band, with a Shakespearean twist.
The show marks 10 years of an arts education partnership between the school and the educational arm of Shakespeare’s Globe – the first production a decade ago was Romeo and Juliet.
For the last few weeks, Globe Education education staff have visited the school to work with students and teachers and prepare for today’s show (the 10 year anniversary coincides with the retirement of Godsen headteacher and Beatles fan Jon David).
The event is billed as an “eclectic mix of Shakespeare and Sgt Pepper” and students have been involved in creating five original songs while others will be playing music as part of a live band at the start and end of the play. The children themselves become Shakespeare’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
For Globe Education, the partnership has enabled practitioners to develop similar practices within the Southwark community where the theatre is based. The Globe is also involved in putting on relaxed performances which I’m a big fan of, and is training practitioners to work people on the autism spectrum.
For today, however, the focus is on Godsen’s talented students. To use the words of Lennon and McCartney in Sgt Pepper, “they’re guaranteed to raise a smile”.
Jenny Dimmock works in a pathology lab. She and her scientist colleagues handle between 3,000-4,000 blood samples a day. The 21-year-old is also an ambassador for younger students, speaking about her experiences at conferences, like how part of her job involves placing specimens on a robot. Handling the robot, however, as her workmates say, is probably the easiest part of her working life.
Jenny, who has Down’s syndrome, trained on the job with the Project Choice scheme at City Hospitals Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust before she won her paid post.
As colleagues point out, while she was learning about the intricacies of the path lab, she was also learning about everyday practicalities like getting to and from her job on time or how to interact in the workplace. This week, her achievements are recognised with an award to celebrate Adult Learners’ Week this week.
We are more used to hearing about the failings of the NHS when it comes to its treatment of people with a learning disability. Only today the NHS ombudsman outlined the catalogue of mistakes which contributed to the death of Tina Papalabropoulos, a young woman with physical and learning disabilities.
If attitudes are to change among organisations which fail the vulnerable, one way forward is to make them more inclusive as employers so they reflect individuals from all walks of life. It’s one thing to stick up a learning disability awareness sign to help staff recognise vulnerable patients – as I spotted in my local hospital (it’s a good start) – but it’s entirely another to have people with learning disabilities on your radar as potential work experience students, interns or trainees.
Public sector organisations especially are encouraged to be more inclusive and diverse through their board membership and recruitment policies, with the Equality Act binding organisations to develop a more diverse workforce and uphold equal rights. But people with learning disabilities are one of most overlooked groups in the labour market with most employers unaware of – or perhaps put off by – the kind of support that learning disabled employees might need.
As Mencap points out in its campaigning material, people with a learning disability are more excluded from the workplace than any other group of disabled people. According to Mencap, less than one in five people with a learning disability work (compared with one in two disabled people in general), but at least 65% of people with a learning disability want to work. Of those people with a learning disability that do work, most only work part time and are low paid. Just one in three people with a learning disability take part in education and/or training.
Project Choice in Sunderland shows what can happen when employers take a more inclusive approach to recruitment and training. The scheme aims to provide work-based learning and experience for young people with learning disabilities.
The project starts with 16-21-year olds doing half a day a week work experience for six weeks. Students have one to one sessions with a mentor to help develop an understanding of the world of work. Next is an unpaid internship for four days a week in a work place and one day in college. Students, who can have up to three placements in the year, again have a named mentor and progress to working independently. Learning is reinforced in the classroom and interns undertake a work qualification like a Foundation Learning Programme or NVQ.
The final part of the scheme is, hopefully, an apprenticeship, job – as Jenny has proved – or further learning.
Jenny started with work experience under Project Choice and did an internship in 2010 when she left school. She spent a year as an intern in three departments: on a clinical ward where, among other things, she used her sign language skills to communicate with deaf patients, then in the hospital pharmacy and in the laboratory. She learnt on the job but also had one day a week at college learning about things like employment health and safety. As she says, “I have had amazing times since starting my work experience and have fulfilled my ambition of getting a permanent job.”
Project Choice isn’t, of course, the only supported employment scheme of its kind but it’s a pathway to work and training in a sector not usually open to people with learning disabilities. It’s the kind of scheme that can change attitudes both within healthcare and in wider society. We just need more like it.
* New figures released for Adult Learners’ Week, which ends on Friday, showed that the proportion of young people aged 17 – 24 taking part in learning has fallen by seven percentage points in the last year. There has also been a fall of six percentage points in the proportion of unemployed people participating in learning. The survey for NIACE interviewed 5,253 adults, aged 17 and over, in the UK 13 February–3 March 2013.