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!

Like animals? Fancy working in an abattoir?

Enter, if you will, the parallel universe of the traditional local authority careers advisor, where nothing bears much relation to a young person’s dreams or talents.

In this spooky alternative reality, I have followed the 1985 suggestion of my school-based careers advisor, ditched my “unrealistic” dream of becoming a journalist and am now a teacher.

Mr Saba Salman, meanwhile, didn’t become a documentary filmmaker but stuck to the advice of his careers advisor and became – ta daa! – a careers advisor! And among my friends I count an abattoir worker (she wanted to be a vet but the computer said ‘no’), a prison officer (she’s actually a showbiz journalist) and a lawyer (she said she was shy but liked languages and writing – she’s now a European social policy consultant).

This parallel universe is, of course, based on events some two decades ago, but it’s incredible that so many people still recall the terrible advice they had – and it’s coloured their image of the entire profession.

My nice but singularly insipid adviser informed me that journalism was “a bit difficult” to get into and refused to organise work experience at my local paper on the grounds that I’d be turned away from such a competitive profession. Credit to her that instead of finishing me off completely by yelling “HEY LOSER! YOU’RE ONLY 13 AND YOU’VE YOUR WHOLE LIFE AHEAD OF YOU BUT – BEHOLD – I CRAP ON YOUR DREAMS!”, she comforted me with the affirmation that I was “a good all rounder” who would be suited to teaching.

Now I take my hat off to teachers; I know some inspiring ones working in challenging schools, and it was my brilliant English teacher who supported my interest in writing. But I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do – and teaching wasn’t it.

Mr Saba Salman had a similar experience. After explaining that he liked reading, writing and photography, he was inexplicably told to work in careers advice. Meanwhile my pet-friendly friend punched her likes (people, animals) into a computer programme during her advice session and was told to work in a slaughter house…and so the stories go on.

Was there a massive yet unreported national shortage of teachers, careers advisors, prison officers and abattoir staff in the mid-80s? Were well-meaning careers advisors attempting to rebalance the economy? Or was the service just plain rubbish?

I ignored the patronsing old boot who misadvised me, concluding that it was she who was difficult, not my chosen career. But how many of my peers took the advice along with an unsuitable career path after someone rode roughshod over their dreams?

The careers advice has changed since I was at school. Known as Connexions, what it does well is to target the young and vulnerable with information on careers and personal issues. But its shortfalls were documented in a report from the CfBT Educational Trust last year and Connexions offices face massive job losses as a result of public spending cuts.

So it was with interest that I noted the recent news that the government is to take careers advice responsibility away from councils and launch its first all-age careers service building on Next Step and Connexions. The all-age service launches in 2012 and aims to offer seamless and universal careers advice.

Connexions will disappear. Councils will still advise vulnerable young people, but with what funding and under what auspices is unknown- and that might impact on the disadvantaged.

However, the Department of Innovation, Business and Skills acknowledges that careers guidance is at the heart of increasing social mobility. The pledge that schools will be under a legal duty to secure independent, impartial careers guidance for students is interesting, as is the option for a kite mark for the best career guidance and a register of providers meeting the highest standards.

The new service should include a strong online presence as young people are increasingly looking to the internet for advice. The online youth support charity YouthNet, for example, runs a rich, web-based careers advice resource The Site with a valuable ‘ask the experts’ option.

And the service could help older workers. Research published today by the Employers Forum on Age (EFA) and Cranfield School of Management describes the stagnation in the careers of many over 50s. With the fixed retirement age being abolished in 2011, and the state pension age rising for both men and women to 66 in 2020, many people might look for a career change later in their life.

Of course unless the job market picks up, the recipients of this world-class careers advice won’t actually have anywhere to actually launch their careers – but let’s not quibble about that for now.

And finally, Mrs West Sussex County Council Careers Advisor c1985, it is to you I dedicate this blogpost (a form of journalism no less). Because it is with no thanks to you that I am here today. Cheers.

Sandi – the networking nan

Sandi Hughes

By Sandi Hughes

Sandi Hughes, 67, describes herself as “a nan with a kick” who not only DJs in her hometown of Liverpool, but is on a mission to get more older people online. Here she describes being what she calls a “digi-elder”:

I’m a digi-elder, I use the Internet and am open to new technology – but it doesn’t always go right, like the time I got ‘lost’ on YouTube.

I was in a friend’s kitchen, there were six of us chatting, and my friend told me to get on his computer and find some tunes for us to listen to. I opened YouTube and typed in ‘Missy Elliott’ and everyone made comments on how great the bass sounded and wanted more. When the song finished, I highlighted her next song, and then the next one, and on the next one she sounded a bit different. I clicked on the next one – and realised it wasn’t Missy Elliot singing the song, so I clicked on the next one and each time I clicked on a Missy Elliott song these different girls were singing and the words were getting changed and the visuals were getting more and more raunchy, and my friend said “why are you playing that type of music?” and “what are you listening to – GET IT OFF!” he shouted.

The more I tried to get another Missy Elliott song, the more unclothed the girls were getting and the melody and ambience sounded more like an adult film. My friend shouts “I DON’T WANT THAT FILTH ON MY COMPUTER”, and leans over and flicks the power switch off, creating a blank screen and bringing silence into the kitchen.

As tech-friendly as I think I am, why didn’t I think of doing that?

I first bought myself a Mac when I was 62, to invest in the skills I had learned while using analogue equipment for a video production course. I concentrated on iMovie and iPhoto software which were simple to follow and easy to use. I have yet to play games on my Mac though – my grandson who is 20 has given me his old Nintendo games console…it’s still in my cupboard!

I was DJing for a project called Giants in the Hood which a group of artists from Helsinki held during Liverpool’s 2010 Biennial. I loved it, and had so much fun mixing vinyl and CDs and choosing tunes that kept people dancing for almost two hours. I was aware of how surprised people were at me being able to do this at 67.

Using technology, remembering which button to press can be a problem but regular practice helps. You could say that our memories have always been in analogue, but now our memories have to become digital, so we can remember everything more accurately all the time, because of the way it is fed and kept into computers.

Elders need tailor-made courses on how to get involved and connected to the Internet, support to improve their skills and protection against things like scams, identity theft and fraud.

So many things are digital now; the gas man gets me writing my name with a piece of metal onto a metal box with a plastic screen on it. “It’s called a digital signature,” he tells me. There’s mobile phones, laptops, games, video and stills cameras, Facebook, digital television, online banking – you can pay bills on the internet now, without the need to handle money – you can do your shopping in most places on the net now.

We need to be able to stay connected to our younger generation, with social networking you can keep in touch with your kids, grandkids, mates on Facebook, Twitter, Skype.

With the Internet you can access and share the sense of wonder when you just push a button and enter a place instantly that could be the other side of the world. A lot of us have a passionate desire to always want to know more, and technology and the Internet does this for me. It fulfills my need to push my creative boundaries, offers easy access to information, education, creativity and is a platform for games. It’s hard to loose stuff in a computer.

N u learn nu kwik n e z spellings of sertan wrds specialy in mob fonz n fcbk.

Politicians should pay attention to digital inclusion issues among elders because of the potential that technology and the Internet has to improve life. They could make a real commitment to listening to, valuing and investing in the elders, socially disadvantaged families, and physically challenged people who can’t access it.

There’s a big gulf between those who are ready and have access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not. There are confident users of it and those who are not – but the gap will close when my generation dies, because newer generations will be born into it. Reminds me a bit of the confusion when money changed over to decimal currency in the sixties!

Internet access should be a human right. I’d like to see free broadband for pensioners, or at least a subsidised package. It’s the future – but not as we all know it, so you need to get to know it!

Saba Salman on social affairs