Above, ‘Uncovered’, a short animated film inspired by women’s attitudes to community, participation and politics.
The best ideas are, usually, the most simple ones. That’s one reason I’m a fan of a new project called Politics Uncovered, a community-based attempt to demystify politics for women.
Working on the premise that a) women are still woefully underrepresented in politics and b) very few people know even the basics of democracy and government, social enterprise arts organisation The Original Ranch has produced an event that is something of a beginners guide to politics.
The Original Ranch recorded women’s views about community, participation and politics during several discussion groups last year. It used the material to create a short animated film (above) which, along with a basic lesson in the workings of government, constitutes the event Politics Uncovered. The lesson explains the key structures at national and local levels, describes the main players and their roles, and gives participants an opportunity to ask questions.
The first Politics Uncovered event at the end of November involved around 30 women from London, all political novices who wanted to find out more about government issues.
According to Olivia Bellas, founder of The Original Ranch, what makes the project unique is that it is a free and accessible ‘lesson’ in politics, presented in a non-politicised environment (the launch event was at the Women’s Library in east London and offered a crèche facility) and it offers interactive and creative approaches to learning.
Put simply, if you want a beginners guide to politics, delivered in an informative but interesting way, look no further.
“Politics can be quite difficult to grasp; there are many different players, institutions, mechanisms, and formalities,” says Bellas, “and so it is hardly surprising that many people may not fully understand it”.
Although there is as yet no formal evaluation, Bellas says that anecdotal evidence from participants reveals
an increased knowledge of and interest in politics and a feeling of empowerment.
The quirky template used in Politics Uncovered could be used to raise awareness of all sorts of social issues in communities, in a visually appealing way that participants find neither too intimidating nor too condescending. I’m interested to see how the project evolves in 2011.
There are growing ripples of activity in the social enterprise sector caused by efforts to plug the skills gap and boost the role of continuing professional development (CPD). Click to read my piece for the Guardian’s online social enterprise network.
It is Saturday morning and 13-year-old James Hope is desperate to get to his activity club. His dad, Jim, reaches for his coat, but James is frustrated at having to wait. He stomps off to the car and waits silently, brows furrowed.
This scene takes place most Saturdays but rather than tiring of what other parents might regard as a mild teenage strop, Jim and his wife, Alison, celebrate it. James has autism and they are grateful that their son not only has a regular weekend activity but that he is keen to get to it.
When the revolution of care in the community took place, the decision to close long stay institutions resulted in a new, big idea; normal lifestyles, in normal houses, in normal streets.
People found themselves discharged from hospitals into small group homes in virtually every town in the UK. These were shared houses registered as care homes operating effectively as shared supported housing in the days before the supported living drive but without the important security of a tenancy. For many it felt like not only a new life, but a better one.
But now, just as people are looking forward to enjoying this life, due to bureaucratic, regulatory and financial reasons, people are trapped in unwanted small registered care homes. These homes are now closing because of running costs or the need to meet national minimum standards and changes in commissioning practice which prefer supported housing over ‘care homes’.
The problem is these closures are not happening in a strategic or orderly way, so the people living there face the prospect of another move into the unknown.
Take John, for example. He has a complex disability and moved from a long stay institution in 1986 to live in the community. His funding came from the council (let’s call it council A) where his parents lived although his new home was based in a different local authority area (council B).
In 1990 John moved to a smaller house, still registered as a care home (as it was before the supported living options became available), but less rural and with more to do in the community. The new house was still based in council B’s area and the funding arrangements continued.
Over the last 15 years John and his housemates have enjoyed a settled and fairly contented life building up their local support networks. Recently, two of the other people living there have moved on, leaving behind John and a fellow housemate, Mary (she is funded by council C).
The problem is that the charity that runs the home cannot find new people to move in to fill the vacancies – it has continued to run the service at a loss for the past two years.
The inability to find people to join John and Mary has been largely due to the understandable reluctance of authorities to make referrals to registered care placements.
As a solution, the charity could de-register the accommodation so it is no longer classed as a care home, but if it does so, it will come up against two bureaucratic barriers. Firstly, local government ‘ordinary residence’ rules mean council B would have to take on the support costs for John and Mary (while councils A and C would relinquish all funding). Secondly, council B is reluctant to open up its procurement arrangements to recognise the charity as a preferred contractor so will not place people there under contract for supported living!
Unknown to John and Mary, the home is likely to close and they will be faced with a move back to authorities A and C, a part of the country they haven’t lived in for over 20 years where not many family members remain. The costs to authorities A and C are very likely to increase while authority B will lose a good resource that could meet local needs.
Our 2007 report titled No Place Like Home recommended three actions: firstly to agree the principle of a person-centred approach to funding and placement, secondly for the government to issue guidance and thirdly to put in place a framework for funding to transfer between authorities.
In October the VODG published Not in My Backyard as a follow up and found that despite the fact that new guidance had been issued there was little evidence of good practice. VODG demands the government include the concept of portability of social care entitlement in the white paper on social care due to be published next year.
We must do right by people like John and Mary; they represent a particularly wronged generation of people. Regardless of promises for future reform we need a kind of national amnesty, one that ensures funding is in the right place, providers and commissioners are working in partnership and individuals are given a proper voice. Because putting people first is not just a one off action, it is an enduring commitment.
It is a simple act that speaks volumes about the barriers that have been broken; a young Roma boy hands a flower to the play worker he had been so challenging towards just two weeks ago.
The scene took place in August at a groundbreaking playscheme run by social enterprise the Big Life group which encouraged Roma children aged 7-11 to mix with their local Manchester counterparts.
As Europe’s largest ethnic minority, the 12m-strong Roma population might be dispersed across the EU, but it is unified in the discrimination routinely faced by its people. From being moved on from traveller sites to outright repatriation, Roma families live in poverty and are reluctant to contact statuary services fear being moved on or suffer harassment.
Negative perceptions of the Roma community in Manchester along with an increase in the number of Roma people wanting to sell The Big Issue in the North led to the launch of the Big Life group summer play scheme (Big Life owns the Big Issue in the North). Open to all children living in the Longsight area of Manchester, it aimed to break down barriers between the communities and reduce the perceived or actual nuisance behaviour over the summer.
The scheme was publicised through leaflets given out during the social enterprise’s family support sessions and through local children’s centres. Word of mouth also encouraged Roma children to access the project.
The scheme, jointly funded by Manchester city council and The Big Issue in the North Trust, did not charge participants and 60 children registered across the month-long scheme with a total of 30 per session. Take up was even; 52 % Roma registrations and 48% from other communities.
Project leader Daniel Achim recalls that the scheme got off to a shaky start: “At the beginning all children seemed to be rather slow to action the requests of the play workers. The children were testing the boundaries and the workers had to repeat the same information over and over again in order to get a result.”
Yet, as Achim says, by the end of the playscheme there was a major transformation in the behaviour of the children in terms of respect and politeness to staff. “In a safe and welcoming environment where they were not discriminated against children learned to relax around each other, they learned to share play equipment, they learned to wait their turn.”
While entrenched attitudes towards those who are different can be hard to shatter, the Big Life playscheme shows how to break down barriers through play. Any mutual suspicion was soon overcome. Encouraging integration through play and from an early age is starting to reap rewards.
As Achim says, often the tensions tended to be between children from the same backgrounds: “Sometimes it is easy to see differences between communities – when really it is just kids being kids.”
When, where, why and how much were you last really happy? It’s important, because the government plans to spend £2m on measuring our happiness.
For me, it was 2pm last Saturday in a checkout queue in Sainsbury’s, Ringwood, Hampshire. The standout moment of happiness was thanks to my youngest sister, who has Fragile X syndrome, and the charity Camphill. As for how happy I was (forgive the veering into Tom Cruise-esque sofa-jumping territory), it was a pure, punch-the-air-feelgood that catapulted my stomach upwards and made me want to hug my fellow shoppers.
While I avoid supermarkets on Saturdays – they are the next rung down on the ladder of hell from a weekend family trip to Ikea – I would join that checkout queue every week if it made me as happy as I was a few days ago.
So, happiness policy wonks, here’s one way to spread the love.
It’s Saturday and I’m visiting my 21-year-old sister, Raana, at the Camphill Lantern Community in Ringwood which she moved to in September from a Camphill college in Wadhurst, East Sussex. The Lantern is an adult community for the learning disabled which aims to foster greater independence in those who live and work there. Supported by staff and volunteers, Raana enjoys life in a shared house, is proud of her work in the shop and of her new skills in the bakery, has joined a local gym and is planning her Christmas shopping in Bournemouth.
Saturday is her shopping day so we’re at the supermarket. I’m impressed that my crowd-hating sister ducks and dives through bodies and baskets like a retail pro while I’m all at sea in an unfamiliar store. My sister’s enthusiasm and confidence hint at what is to follow…
We queue and, as her shopping is scanned, I remember she needs to top up her phone card and buy stamps. From ordering in restaurants to buying train tickets, communication with strangers has always been tricky so, like the rest of my family, I’ve become used to speaking up for her. We usually encourage her to make a stab at speaking for herself but, with the queue snaking behind us, for practical as well as historical reasons, I launch into support-mode autopilot: “And can we have…”
But suddenly my sister pierces the air with: “Can I have some stamps please?’ and I’m left gawping while an unprecedented exchange takes place:
Checkout girl: “Of course – what sort?”
Me (eyes wide as you’d like the checkout aisle to be): “…….!”
My sister: “Book of 12, first class please.”
Checkout girl: “Anything else?”
My sister (nonchalant, in control, ignoring my beaming face): “Yes, a top up on my phone card please.”
Checkout girl: “That’s it?”
My sister: “Yes, I’m paying on a card.”
Me: (grinning, restraining a high five, elbowing Tom off Oprah’s sofa): “RAANA! YOU’VE DONE YOUR OWN SHOPPING!”
Checkout girl and my sister look at me. I feel silly, but very happy.
My sister was clear, confident, polite and – and here’s the thing – her behaviour would have appeared to most people to be entirely unremarkable. She fitted in.
It’s the little things in life that matter – running errands might not be your idea of achievement, but for my sister, making a shopping list or paying for something herself reflects her growing independence. She is benefitting from the holistic approach to social care and education that she has enjoyed since the age of 16, when we first came across the Camphill movement.
“You’ve not replied to emails this week,” I say later. “I’m very busy!” she replies, indignantly. Raana is sometimes too busy working, learning and socialising to contact us – this is a sign of independence and security because when stressed, she bombards us with texts (my sister is phone-phobic, but I hope one day to have a telephone conversation with her). For the first time, she shares some common ground with her mainstream peers – the “too busy to phone home” line is not dissimilar to the one I’ve peddled since I was her age.
But the spending squeeze threatens to undermine the support provided by organisations like Camphill because the councils which fund those who live there will be reluctant to keep footing the bill. Local government bureaucracy and money wrangles along with government cuts to councils are huge threats to disability organisations.
To return to the happiness survey, the correlation between happiness and strong welfare and social support is well-documented. For example, as social policy professor Alan Walker notes, ‘social quality’ is key to measuring happiness; he defines social quality as how much people are able to participate in society under conditions that enhance their individual potential and wellbeing. Social quality is commonly used in European social policy and, says Walker, the essential foundations of social happiness include health care, housing, employment-related benefits and additional forms of social assistance.
Money alone won’t ever make you happy, but taking it away from social support, and from those who need it most, not only adversely affects their well-being, but that of others around them. And what’s more, the support my sister and her peers receive today unlocks their potential, enabling them to play their part in society tomorrow.
I’m sure the £2m plan to measure the nation’s happiness will include complex statistical science and a multitude of boxes to tick but I quite like this rather more simple equation:
Vulnerable person + resources x specialised support = happiness
A 24-hour radio station for recovering addicts is among the new schemes in a Royal Society of Arts-led (RSA) project to put service users at the heart of their treatment and support, read my Society Guardian piece here.
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.