My piece in Guardian Public: Litter-strewn public spaces, pavements speckled with chewing gum and rowdy street drinkers. For any town centre manager, these city centre hallmarks are familiar problems.
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 He appeared withdrawn and lacked confidence.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!
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.
By Mike Stevenson
On a Scotrail train a few weeks ago, my attention was caught by a sign with a smiling face and the words “thank you for not putting your feet on the seat.’” I felt immediate warmth towards the company as this positive reinforcement was a welcome change from the usual, punitive messages of “no parking”, “wait here until called” and “keep this area clear.” I’m sure most people can think of how some small, inexpensive communication has made them feel better or prompted them to behave differently.
To take a common example, the red and yellow arch of McDonald’s often provides the only whisper of colour on the landscape. Add words that lift your spirits are lifted and the impact can be dramatic; doesn’t “Happy Meal” sound more appealing than “burger and chips?”
Farther afield, the notorious favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, are painted in candy colours, the result of a collaboration between residents and community artists. This doesn’t tackle the underlying issue of poverty but it does encourage positivity and optimism.
We all know how much our world is lifted by a warm smile. It’s magical and powerful. Yet I have worked with communities that report a persistent frown, characterised by a bleak landscape and negative surround sound. I recently spoke to residents who, when ranking preferences for their surroundings, placed colour and affirming messages in their top three desires. They are willing to make these changes happen; people want to see their towns and villages reflect their personality and aspirations. And why not? It’s affordable and has a lasting impact on residents during times of reduced public finance.
Does it work? Yes!
Outside of Edinburgh in Stoneyburn, I suggested using the drawings and words of primary school children to represent the landmarks of the village’s local history. This is now about to happen; the schools are behind the idea and the community is delighted to see the village’s long and illustrious history visibly featured. They believe this will restore a sense of pride in their heritage. We have used children’s words and paintings to encourage people to “Do More: Drink Less” in Stoneyburn. Adults were touched and it made far more impact than dire health warnings.
Similarly in nearby Armadale, because people asked for it, the village will now bear bright, distinctive signage, displaying the faces and words of local residents who speak of their dreams for the community. They also want to show young peoples’ art in the city centre. Displaying the talent and ideas of their residents is important to them.
Above, a poster designed by a child in Stoneyburn, West Loathian, speaks directly to the community.
“Amazing Armadale” was the result of a series of creative workshops in schools, community halls, youth centres and at parents’ evenings. The result was a real consensus on what the town should look and feel like, and this has been put into practice. Armadale has held a music festival, regular “alcohol free Sundays” with street markets and a 5K charity run is being organised. This is real community change. Add their more colourful town centre and residents have helped to make quick, low-cost, tangible changes.
And it is local townspeople themselves who are making change happen – we’re not talking about huge budgets here. Earlier in the year, for example, 100 adults and children volunteered to take part in a clean-up in Stoneyburn. It’s also hoped that support will be offered from businesses with things like painting and gardening.
I would love to see more of this but, in terms of public services, I am struck by how little real creative dialogue exists between them and their constituents. Public consultation can be dry and driven by service references and needs. What if community engagement could be fun, lively and uplifting, allowing the language of participants to lead the discussion? Masterplans, blueprints, strategies and partnerships would rarely be mentioned. I know this because the techniques I use in my work elicit imaginative solutions from the most unlikely of people.
When I showed a class of 12-year-olds in East Lothian the logo of their local council, the first thing that came to mind for one youngster was the phrase “no ball games.” He views his council as a block to enjoyment. Others are likely to feel the same and the long-term impact of this attitude will drive further distance between councils and residents.
So, does this really matter, especially during a time of austerity? When I speak on this subject I get universal approval from audiences as diverse as business leaders, primary school children and local councillors. The consensus is that they are tired of a world that headlines bad news and displays signs that instruct and obstruct. In tough economic times, the need to create environments that lift, improve accessibility and value people could be more important than ever.
Has anyone rung the equality police? For all the 70 or so mentions of ‘fair’ and ‘fairness’ in today’s comprehensive spending review (CSR), it’s the old, the infirm and the disabled who are caught in the eye of the storm. An estimated £7bn will be saved thanks to welfare cuts as well as a 60% reduction in the affordable housing budget and a 26% drop in local government funding. Changes to Employment Support Allowance and Disability Living Allowance, which effectively limit the use of such benefits, are plain nasty.
George Osborne might think he’s aiming at dole-bludgers, benefit-scroungers and fraudsters, but instead his firing range includes wheelchair-users, the learning disabled and the elderly.
As Richard Hawkes, chief executive of disability charity Scope, said today, it’s an assault on the most vulnerable “characterised by the callous removal of the mobility component of Disability Living Allowance for people living in residential care, which will simply increase dependency and mean many people will literally become prisoners in their own homes.”
Today’s CSR will have a huge and adverse impact on the vulnerable who rely on statutory services, leaving the community and third sector to pick up the slack. The big society concept could sweep in and save the day, casting out the necessary safety net for the vulnerable suddenly bereft of support, but there’s a snag; such charities and community groups are already suffering from under-funding and increased demand for services. Oops.
“Tough but fair” would be the three word George Osbourne would doubtless choose when summarising his CSR. Shadow chancellor Alan Johnson might go for “Dave’s Deficit Deceivers”. Mine: firm, but unfair.
Here’s a selection of some more three-word verdicts, thanks for the contributions so far – add by replying to this post or email me:
Kids comprehensively kicked – children’s charity Railway Children
Housing’s body blow – Sarah Webb, chief executive, Chartered Institute of Housing
Homes, what homes? – Kate Murray, journalist and The Social Issue guest blogger
George’s horrible medicine – Kate Murray
Poor get poorer – John Adams, general secretary, Voluntary Sector Disabilty Group
Expect eagle eye – Helen Donohoe, director of public policy at charity Action for Children
Ouch that hurts – Graham Faulkner, chief executive, National Society for Epilepsy
Time to re-think – Mike Stevenson, owner of social business Thinktastic
Thanks to Bill Mumford, managing director of the charity MacIntyre and chairman of VODG, who has pointed out one potential positive – the introduction of Individual Budgets (IB) for children with special educational needs (SEN) which could help create more flexibie short breaks for them and families and with transition.
Bill’s three-word verdict is an acronym (but we’ll allow it): S.E.N. I.B’s: F.A.B.
Gravesend doesn’t have too many claims to fame, aside perhaps from being the place where Pocohontas is buried and the former home of Bond girl Gemma Arterton. It never makes the national headlines – unless it’s for recording record high temperatures in a heatwave. And before any Gravesendians out there start to protest, I think I’m allowed to say that as I was brought up in the town.
So imagine my delight when I saw my old home had scored a UK first by launching an application to report anti-social behaviour on a smartphone. The local authority, Gravesham borough council, announced it was joining New York, Boston, LA and San Francisco in making the ‘City Sourced’ application available to residents.
The app, the council said, would allow townspeople to send in instant reports of graffiti, flytipping or housing repairs, and would allow the authority to streamline its response. Its American supporters are even more effusive: the app, they say, represents the future for residents interacting with government. ‘It’s like having a city official in your pocket,’ said one satisfied LA resident.
Gravesham is the first in the country to use City Sourced but it’s not the only UK authority to engage with new technology in this sort of way. Brighton led the way last year with an app showing local bus times, followed by another one which lists council services and local entertainment. Trafford has an app which allows residents to find their nearest library or leisure centre, or to see what’s on at the weekend as well as to report litter or a missed bin collection. Preston even has one offering residents – and visitors – a ‘blue plaque’ trail of notable local sights.
These initiatives are not always popular in these tough economic times. Critics have accused authorities of wasting money developing applications for perhaps a few hundred iPhone or Blackberry users in their patch. I think the critics are missing the point.
Visiting Gravesend to see my mother on the day after Gravesham’s “Download Day”, I couldn’t resist having a go. I’d already downloaded the Gravesham 24 app and it didn’t take too long for me to find some graffiti that could do with being cleaned up. One quick snap on the camera phone, choose your anti-social behaviour category and press send. The GPS on your iPhone or Blackberry automatically shows the location of the problem and your report whizzes through to a terminal at the council offices to be prioritised and dealt with. You can also use the app to check how action on your complaint is progressing. Filing my report felt strangely satisfying. I might not have have had a council official in my pocket, but I could see why Gravesham had called the app empowering.
We hear a lot about how to promote real engagement between citizens and government. We’re going to hear a lot more about it as the coalition attempts to roll out its big society ambitions. But if the big society is to be about more than just getting volunteers to provide services on the cheap, then it has to have real, effective community engagement at its core.
Too often people feel that there is nothing they can do about the problems in their community. Offering them the chance to interact with government, in however small a way, has to be a good thing. There’s little point asking citizens to do more for you, if you don’t in turn give them fresh routes to get you to do your bit.