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.
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.
“Gob-smacking” is how Labour MP Frank Field, chair of the government’s Review on Poverty and Life Chances, referred last week to findings that, from their first day at school, children from families on the lowest incomes were already lagging behind their richer peers. Ahead of presenting evidence to the Prime Minister, Field said he would be concentrating attention on what happens during a child’s first five years that so impacts on their life-time opportunities.
But such statistics should come as no surprise, certainly not to those attending our annual conference today, Intervening Before its Too Late. Earlier this year, Ex Curricula, a report by Demos, funded by the Private Equity Foundation (PEF), found that over one in 10 five-year-olds are at severe risk of disengaging from education when they begin school. These so called ‘nursery NEETs’ (not in education, employment or training) don’t have the behavioural skills they need to learn.
Demos advocated that the focus of resource and policy for dealing with the NEET issue should be turned on its head. It looked at “identifying the earliest possible point of intervention to prevent disengagement”.
This isn’t about branding babies but about dealing with risk factors as soon as they arise.
It makes sense. Vast sums are spent on dealing with the consequences of disengagement (this generation of NEET 16-18 year olds will cost society an estimated £35 billion over their lifetime). And over the last decade, NEET numbers have remained shockingly steady at around 16-17% of 16-24 year olds.
However, although Field has said (with provisos) that “later interventions do look much less cost-effective”, I would argue that the right, evidence based charity interventions continue to stack up financially and that it’s imperative that we don’t stop at age six.
Take, for example, the social safety net that charities can provide in primary schools, charities like The Place2Be and School-Home Support which, by tackling serious emotional and family issues, remove disadvantaged children’s barriers to learning, leaving teachers to teach. They also bridge the critical journey to secondary school when, unsupported, the vulnerable can so often disappear into a black hole. As previously highlighted on The Social Issue, a review of SHS has found that for every pound spent on it, £21.14 is saved across the whole of society.
But what about engaging teenagers before they walk out of the school gate and become ever harder to reach? It’s at 14 that young people really show their propensity to become NEET and that targeted and yes, cost-effective help can turn around young lives.
Skill Force, a charity that works with 14-16 year olds is a case in point; 60% of its students who are entitled to free school meals go on to further education, compared to 6% nationally. Exclusions are reduced from a predicted 30% to less than 7%. The organisation, which has helped around 35,000 young people since it launched a decade ago, estimates that it saves the public purse some £40 million a year by reducing the number of young people likely to become NEET. That is why PEF supports its good work.
Skill Force staff, drawn mainly from the armed forces, provide outstanding role models and deliver an alternative in-school curriculum which draws together vocational qualifications, community volunteering and life skills both in the classroom and through outdoor activities. Amongst other things, students work towards the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and the Young Lifesavers Award, studying their alternative curriculum for a day a week for up to two years.
Karl’s just one Skill Force beneficiary: “I never used to bother with going to school on Mondays – I used to take it as a day off. School really bored me. But then Skill Force was every Monday and I saw it as a good, positive start to the week. I started to enjoy what we were learning.” Fellow student Ryan adds: “What I have achieved has surprised everyone at college because they thought that I would have been kicked out by now”.
Would just one chance, pre-six, have been enough to help Karl and Ryan? It’s impossible to tell. So while I commend Field’s consideration of the welfare of the very young, I would welcome a wider shift of emphasis to prevention rather than just early intervention if we’re to avoid the children of today becoming the NEET statistics of tomorrow.
The school term has barely begun, but some things are for certain; new shoes are already scuffed, fresh friendships are being formed and, on average, up to eight children in every classroom are living in poverty.
George, for example, was persistently late for his primary school in the north east of England and was also collected late – usually by different people. After a fire at his council flat, he and his lone parent mother had been allocated a new home but could not afford to furnish it so had moved in with relatives. George had trouble concentrating in class and suffered from nightmares.
Things changed after support from an independent, school-based welfare worker who wrote to George’s mother about the school’s concerns. The worker, from charity School Home Support (SHS), applied for money from the organisation’s support welfare fund for a double bed, so that they could at least sleep in the new flat. George and his mother moved in, a bit of stability entered their lives and the worker is still supporting them to furnish their new home.
As George’s case proves, there are complex reasons why children end up truants, troublemakers or bullies, why they are always late or why they fail to do their homework. Although it is dangerous to suggest poverty alone is to blame, most experts agree that it is the root of many behavioural problems.
School-Home Support is one source of support. It offers school-based emotional and practical support through practitioners who help children and families in more than 240 primaries in 22 local authority areas across England. SHS staff are a non-timetabled resource, talking to parents at the school gates and visiting families at home with the aim of creating a link with school.
Scratch beneath the surface of an average classroom, according to SHS figures, and around seven children will have witnessed domestic violence, six will have been exposed to substance misuse and one child will be a carer for a family member. The idea is to nip problems in the bud before they appear and offer support beyond the classroom. SHS practitioners deal with issues such as parents who feel isolated because English is not their first language or families coping with substance misuse or mental health problems.
Last year the 26-year-old charity reached over 19,000 children and young people like George. It costs £5m to run a year, with funding from local authorities that have contracts with SHS, voluntary donations, support from venture philanthropy fund the Private Equity Foundation.
A recent evaluation of the social and economic impact of its work found that for every pound spent on SHS, £21.14 is saved across society in terms of reducing the cost of dealing with unemployment, crime, exclusion and the increased income as a result of higher educational attainment. A June 2007 report by consultancy New Philanthropy Capital compared the cost of SHS interventions with the cost of school exclusions and found that if all those in danger of exclusion had access to its services, then society would save £90m a year.
In the current climate, this sort of work is more relevant than ever; the knock-on impact of job losses can have profound effects on educational attainment. SHS staff point out that an event like the 1,700 jobs lost thanks to the closure of the Corus steel works on Teeside, for example, could effect families, relationships, dynamics and ultimately children’s behaviour and ability to perform, concentrate or attend school.
SHS has links to the whole family, it is well-placed to work with local authorities and other public sector agencies, supporting the coordination of services. Interestingly, it also puts paid to the myth that some people are ‘hard to reach’. In fact, it’s often the support services that are hard to find, because parents think they’re unapproachable or simply don’t know about them, and if they do, the onus is on the individual to make contact.
Let’s leave the last word to Angela, a mother-of-five from Hackney: “SHS were the only ones who never judged me as a parent. Carla, our SHS practitioner in school, never said ‘you’re no good.’ I’m not perfect but I do my best for my kids and I love them.”