Tag Archives: education

Drawing and democracy: painting project to boost interest in politics

Artist Rachel Gadsden's works on her new project in parliament
Artist Rachel Gadsden’s works on her new project in parliament
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.

Saint image, by Rachel Gadsden
Saint image, by Rachel Gadsden

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.

Work in progress in Westminster Hall, Houses of Parliament
Work in progress in Westminster Hall, Houses of Parliament

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.

Art workshop in parliament
Art workshop in parliament

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

‘They made me feel worthwhile’: community-based alternatives to care

Building relationships with children at risk of care helps keep them at home (pic Includem/Warren Media).
Building relationships with children at risk of care helps keep them at home (pic Includem/Warren Media).

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.

imagesDaniel*, 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.”

INCLUDEM-LWKaren 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.”

* Daniel is not the young man’s real name

Teens teach peers about respect and relationships

Oii My Size, a web-based project to raise awareness about respect in teen relationships
Oii My Size, a web-based project to raise awareness about respect in teen relationships

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.”

Shakespeare, song and special educational needs

Pupils at a previous performance at Godsen House
Pupils at a previous performance at Godsen House

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.

Globe Education runs theatre workshops at Godsen House school
Globe Education runs theatre workshops at Godsen House school

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’s job, and why we need more like it

Jenny Dimmock at work, City Hospital, Sunderland (pic: Positive Negatives)
Jenny Dimmock at work in the pathology lab (pic: Positive Negatives)
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.

In March, the government’s Confidential Inquiry into premature deaths of people with learning disabilities found that 37% of deaths of people with a learning disability who died between 1 June 2010 and 31 May 2012 in the South West of England were avoidable. Put bluntly, patients with a learning disability died whilst they were supposed to be receiving treatment from the NHS.

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.

“It’s important that while I’m having fun, Stanley is having a great time too”

Stanley Holes is, says his little brother Albie in the brief video diary above, simply “the best brother I could ever have.” Albie’s love for his 16-year-old brother is reflected in this short film which I just watched and wanted to share. Produced for Autism Wessex, the charity that supports Stanley, it stands out for me because it’s presented from a sibling’s perspective: “I love him very much,” says 11-year-old Albie of his teenage brother, “and he is very important to me and my family.”

Diagnosed with autism at three, with no speech and, as Albie says, “little understanding of the world that surrounds him”, Stanley hadn’t been to an autism-specifc setting until last year when he started Autism Wessex’s Portfield School in Dorset. Underlining the vital need for autism-specific support, only now is Stanley receiving proper speech and language therapy – and he’s thriving on the specialist care and education. In one of the previous schools he was at, his family was told that as Stanley was autistic, there was no point in him getting speech therapy since his condition made communication impossible.

Stanley was regarded as a child whose behaviour challenges, his complex needs mean he is prone to anger and violent outbursts (“episodes”, as Albie explains in the film). Yet his story shows that even in complex cases, positive outcomes are possible.

Stanley has started to shows more awareness of his surroundings, and is becoming more independent, using signing with more confidence. Younger brother Albie, meanwhile, is more assured about talking to people about his older brother and how autism affects him and his family’s life.

Stanley’s family realised after a few short months that he seemed much happier at his new school compared to previous special needs environments; as Albie says in the film, “It’s important for me to know that while I’m having fun, Stanley is having a great time too.”

Stanley is a weekly boarder at Portfield, coming home for the weekend, where Albie his parents, plus fellow siblings Mabel, 15, and Elsie, 7, are keen to spend time with him. Before starting at the school, as their father Paul says, Stanley’s behaviour was having an adverse impact on his siblings. Now, says Paul, the change in the family dynamic and in Stanley is “the difference between living and existing”.

Young, free and single-minded

Young people who have helped transform their neighbourhoods despite are among those being celebrated in today’s Prince’s Trust annual awards.

Amid recent figures showing youth unemployment has nearly hit 1m, it is inspiring to hear how teenagers and young adults are determinedly pursuing work, training or volunteering, despite the kinds of experiences that would lead some to write them off as “hard to reach”.

The trust’s Celebrate Success event honours young people who, supported by one of the trust’s many programmes, have overcome challenges like homelessness or unemployment to make a difference to their communities or to the lives of others.

The community impact award in particular (there are various categories in today’s awards) recognises how young people around the country have breathed new life into a neglected area of a block of flats, launched a support scheme for young carers and turned a disused part of a children’s centre into a a play space. While their projects might not have led all of them into full-time employment, many are on a more secure path to independence.

Young people in Glasgow transformed a disused space (photo: Prince's Trust)
Young people in Glasgow transformed a disused space in Helenvale Flats (photo: Prince’s Trust)

A group of eight unemployed young people, supported by the Prince’s Trust Get Started programme, revitalised an area in a block of flats in the deprived east end of Glasgow. They created flower beds and benches, built a willow hut for children to play in and sprayed a giant snakes and ladders board on the ground.

The Caring Alone project helps support young carers.
The Caring Alone project helps support young carers.

Steven Bland was among the four young carers who created the Liverpool-based Caring Alone Support Service, backed by a cash award from the trust, for a Community Cash Award. They matched the funding with support from other organisations launched the online support support for young carers, offering advice and a forum for information exchange.

A team of young people from Birmingham helped improve Fox Hollies children's centre .
A team of young people from Birmingham helped improve Fox Hollies children’s centre .

While participating in the Prince’s Trust Team programme, 10 young people made a disused outdoor space at the Fox Hollies children’s centre in Birmingham into a beach play area. They raised the cash through donations from local businesses and activities including bag packs and car washes.

The project that helps you “be” something

By Liz Naylor of the  charity Addaction
By Liz Naylor of the charity Addaction
When I first met Linda, she told me: “When I was growing up I couldn’t imagine being anything”.

I met Linda when I was delivering a training course aimed at former substance misusers who wanted to become “recovery champions” and better support their peers engage in that service.

Although Linda didn’t speak with any great volume, there was something so utterly powerful and authentic in her statement that for a second the room stopped and focussed upon her. It was not a statement of self-pity, or an attempt to claim the title of the bleakest life experience; it was simply a statement of fact – here was a 48-year-old woman who had never thought she would “be” anything.

I would later learn that Linda had “been” sexually abused from an early age by a string of boyfriends that her mother, working as a street sex worker, had brought into the home. She herself had “been” a street sex worker for most of her life. She had “been” trapped in misuse of heroin and crack on and off for the last 25 years. She had “been” the mother of a small child who died due to swallowing Linda’s methadone prescription.

At some point during the day, we were discussing recovery capital and specifically, the idea of people holding different levels of cultural capital. Many participants talked about how when they were young what they had imagined their lives might be – and the kinds of things that had got in the way of these ordinary dreams. I recall that none of the participants had held any particularly grand or unrealistic hopes, just the usual – jobs, children, and a place to call home.

I guess the power of Linda’s statement was that although she had been many things she had never imagined what she might be.

I am proud to work as part of Addaction’s London training team. It’s a small team of three full time workers and one part time volunteer. The major part of our job is delivering something called the Next Project.

This is a 12-week training course providing the necessary skills and training to people who have been affected by substance misuse and, since August 2010, carers or those affected by the substance misuse of someone close to them.

Some might call it a back to employment scheme that really works (imagine that!), which is fine, except quite a lot of the people who do the course have never even officially had a job. We call it a personal development course that supports the participants to make the kind of changes needed to move their lives forward so they can enjoy the kind of lives that meets their human potential.

Rather than work from the assumption that our trainees are “addicts” or “victims” or “burdened with care” – we work from the belief that our trainees are smart enough to be interested in examining their own behavioural patterns. It is, if you like, a psychology course based upon study of self and the personal changes made possible with this knowledge.

We know this works because since 2005 when the Project started to April 2012, 338 people have attended it and 261 have completed it, a success rate of 77%. This has increased to 87% in the last four years as the project has evolved. 9 out of 10 people finishing Next in the last four years have completed qualifications and gone on to further education/training and volunteering. 31% of those that have finished since 2008 are now in full-time employment. This figure increases steadily over time as Next graduates gain experience and confidence from volunteering and further study that enables them to start applying for jobs

The course is purposefully demanding and intense – giving the participants a real sense of achievement when they complete the course. Next is a proven success story, and is heavily oversubscribed, with waiting lists of up to six months. Referral is from the London boroughs (Islington, Greenwich, Wandsworth and Southwalk funding through Terra Firma) that currently fund places, and a place isn’t cheap at £2,500 but the impact of successful completion reaches much further than the individual (Addaction estimates that each person dependent on illegal drugs costs the country around £44,000 a year, compared to £2,500 for each trainee, for a nine month period). In fact the benefits will extend as far as their children, families and the wider community.

Linda secured funding to do the Project. She completed the course. She did not miss one single session. I don’t think she missed a single minute.

We watched Linda transform – her physical presence, body language, voice projection, intellectual reasoning, confidence, self awareness. It was a transformation that Linda initiated within herself, we provided the right kind of knowledge, support, (the occasional) challenge and encouragement. It was as if she understood the importance of the moment. The moment when she finally could see who she deserved to be.

* For more on the effectiveness of the Next Project and its employment outcomes, see this recent piece in the Guardian.

Cuts and controversy in Tower Hamlets

Lutfur Rahman’s name is usually prefixed with the word “controversial”. It is an apt description of the first directly elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, in east London. He is the council’s ex-Labour leader turned independent mayoral candidate who won 2010’s election amid political intrigue, mudslinging and alleged links to Islamic fundamentalist groups – allegations he has repeatedly and categorically denied. His win, with 51% of the vote, handed Britain its first Muslim and Bangladesh-born executive mayor and the Labour party an intractable gulf between national leadership and grassroots activism. The rest of my piece is on the Guardian’s Society page.

Bricks and mobility: buildings and disability history

Carved stone hands reading braille, on the exterior of the former Royal School for the Indigent Blind, Hardman Street, Liverpool. The Grade II listed school was built in 1850 (pic: English Heritage)
A gap in a church wall speaks volumes about the history of disability in England; lepers’ squints allowed people with leprosy to see the pulpit and hear the service through a small chink in the stonework, without coming into contact with the congregation.

Images of churches with lepers’ squints are among hundreds included in a web-based project launched today by English Heritage. The Disability in Time and Place resource encourages the public to understand changing social attitudes to disability via England’s architecture and shows the influence of disability on the built environment.

Eleanor House, Buckinghamshire, the Epilepsy Society, opening ceremony 1896 (pic: Epilepsy Society)

As Rosie Sherrington, policy adviser at English Heritage says of Disability in Time and Place: “In essence we can track disabled in and out of the community and back in again by looking at the range of buildings they inhabited.”

The image-led project features institutions and landmarks, among them the Le Court Leonard Cheshire Home, often taken as the first meeting place of the disability rights movement where Paul Hunt began campaigning with other residents in care. The pictures are from English Heritage’s archive and also draw on historical images lent by the charity’s partner organisations.

Disability in Time and Place is being launched at the Graeae Theatre, Hackney (among the country’s leading fully accessible theatres) this afternoon with speakers including Tara Flood, ex-paralympian and director of ALLFIE (the Alliance for Inclusive Education), and architect and access expert Dr David Bonnett, whose pioneering work includes the refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall.

Guild of the Poor Brave Things, Braggs Lane, Bristol (pic: Brave and Poor Ltd)

Among the places featured is the Guild of Brave Poor Things in Bristol (above), the first meeting places for disabled self-help groups. The visual history also includes the Liverpool School for Indigent Blind, opened in 1791 by Edward Rushton, who was blind. Rushton’s school was the first in Britain that aimed to give people the skills to be more independent.

Other sites featured are churches designed for deaf congregations such as St Bede’s Church in Clapham and St Saviour’s in Acton, both in London (the latter is still used as a deaf church). They have dual pulpits, one for the chaplain and one for the interpreter, as well as bright lighting and raked seating to boost visibility.

English Heritage’s web resource is divided into six sections, each taking a specific historical period – the Tudors or the early 20th century, for example – and looks at the building types associated with it.

Sherrington adds: “In the medieval period we have the idea that disability was a direct consequence of mankind’s sin, and therefore a religious matter. However disability as a result of disease such as leprosy was widespread, and an ordinary part of everyday life. It was not understood in the same way as we see it today.”

Moving onto Tudor times, she says, much of the care provided by monasteries and the church was destroyed during the dissolution, having disastrous consequences on the lives of disabled people. Paradoxically, Henry VIIIs “fools” were people with learning disabilities paid to entertain the court. It was a privileged role and they were thought to have divine wisdom.

“The 18th century saw the idea of disability being a matter of physicality rather than morality,” according to Sherrington, “and providing for the disabled became a matter of civic pride. As such many private asylums and enormous hospitals for the war disabled (like the Chelsea Pensioners) were built.”

With the rise of asylums and workhouses, disabled people were hidden away (although Sherrington adds “ this was though of as a positive move enabling disabled people to receive the ‘treatment’ they needed”). With the 20th century came the attitude that many people had incurable conditions (Sherrington draws our attention to the rise of eugenics “and the perceived need to separate those who were ‘healthy’ from those believed to be ‘inferior’”). But then two World Wars resulted in the notion of “heroic disabled” and the emergence of memorial villages and specialist rehabilitation hospitals.

According to Baroness Andrews, who chairs English Heritage, the project “is a history of the nation’s buildings and of a significant proportion of our population which, until now, has gone unexamined and untold. It is the part of the history of every town and city, with the schools, chapels and hospitals which surround us all each day but it has remained invisible and silent.”

English Heritage worked with a disability history steering group which included disabled employees, disability history academics including Jan Walmsley from the Open University’s Social History of Learning Disability Group and Dr Julie Anderson from the University of Kent who specialises in war disability. Partners included ALLFIE (the Alliance for Inclusive Education). Other sources of advice, information and images include the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, Disability History Month, the Centre for Disability Studies in Leeds, Leonard Cheshire, the Epilepsy Society, New College Worcester. All the content has been translated into British sign language videos by deaf interpreters.

* English Heritage has also updated its, Easy Access to Historic Buildings, available to download.