Guest post by Ross Hendry, chief executive of Spurgeons Children’s Charity
New research, which we launch today, paints a picture of far too many young families struggling.
Parents with children under the age of 18 are increasingly anxious, according to Spurgeons’ Parent Report, and many feel that there is little support available.
The research shows half of parents worry their children have low self-esteem or are unhappy (46%) or are being bullied (46%)*; whilst 42% of parents think there is little to no support available from statutory, community or voluntary services to help with family challenges.
And it is many of the most vulnerable who are struggling the most. The ones who cannot or do not have a strong, stable and supportive network of family and friends to turn to. These are the families we work with, day in, day out – their children are among the 4 million living in poverty in the UK today. They are the families for whom support seems very distant and hard to attain just when their needs seem to be increasing.
What’s important is that families get the support they need when they need it. And that’s where charities like ours come in. Spurgeons Children’s Charity is driven by its mission to improve the lives of families and children who are struggling to cope; and to see every child given the chance of a hope filled future.
It is 150 years since we were first founded, but we still work at the heart of communities to improve the life chances of some of the most vulnerable children and families in England. Our focus is supporting families who struggle to support themselves through intervention and help that centres on the child.
The reality is, despite the immense wealth and opportunities for social mobility, life for some families is as tough today as it was when we were first established. Inequality today may look different; we may know more about causes and solutions; we may spend more time talking and writing about it; but it is still an enduring social and economic scar on our society.
We offer a range of different services across the country. For example, our 23 children’s centres support parents with young children to access the help they need, ensuring poverty and deprivation don’t become barriers to a better future. We work with local partners in communities with high levels of deprivation across the UK, supporting parents and their children from pre-natal stage up to the age of five.
When parents need to develop new strategies for dealing with issues; or they feel they maybe aren’t coping as well as they could, our support worker teams are there. Sometimes just to listen; but often to provide practical support and advice too. There are a range of parenting courses; opportunities to stay and play and a chance to meet and talk with other parents.
The chance to access peer to peer support can be invaluable and a life line for many parents who often feel alone. This is true for both mums and dads and we’re keen to recognise the important roles fathers play in their children’s lives. Our Saturdads project, which started in 2009 and worked with 89 dads last year alone, helps fathers develop stronger, positive relationships; build peer support networks; and generally build their confidence as a parent. Too often public funded services are portrayed as places of dependency when the reality is a timely intervention can be the route to flourishing, maturity and development for parents and children.
The Parent Report we publish today gives us an opportunity to compare the views of the wider parent population to our own insight. From parent feedback at our services, through to safeguarding reporting, we are able to draw out comparisons and identity some common themes. What we do know from the work taking place is that it’s not always easy for families to reach out.
All too often, parents are afraid to engage. For whatever reason, whether its concern over how they will be perceived, or feeling like they have somehow failed, we’re often the last place they turn. It’s not uncommon for us to be told by parents that they wished they’d reached out sooner. But the question we need to ask is ‘why aren’t they?’
We need our services, and those offered by others like us – from government, charities, schools and GPs – to be recognised as the safe and reassuring places we believe them to be. Where parents can take their children and be free from judgement at a time in their life when they need it most.
It’s only fair that we all accept some responsibility with this – if parents don’t feel that they can access the support available, what can we do differently to help them on their way? More awareness maybe; more accessibility for the isolated and hard to reach groups most definitely; but maybe it’s more than that.
In a world where they are so many expectations and pressures, living up to a perfect ideal can make a tough job even harder. From our part, we want to ensure there is always someone there to support families – especially those in greatest need – with good information, advice and meaningful support.
About the research All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,842 GB parents with children under 18 years of age. Fieldwork was undertaken between 21st – 27 April 2017. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+). * When asked about the three issues they are most concerned about for their children, either now or in the future.
There are, as the report states, six prisons situated within 25 miles of the gallery, including two for young offenders and two for women. More than 420 prisoners and young offenders took part in workshops over the least year and WGAV has had an artist in residence at HMP Send for over 10 years.
The report has been commissioned by Watts Gallery Trust and written by Helen Bowcock, a philanthropist and donor to WGAV and, as such, a “critical friend”. Bowcock argues that, despite the impression of affluence, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village “is located in an area that receives significantly less public funding per capita than other areas of the UK”. The argument is that local arts provision in Surrey depends more on the charity and community sectors and voluntary income than it does elsewhere in the country (the concept that philanthropy, volunteering and so-called “big society” – RIP – only works in wealthy areas is something I wrote about in this piece a few years ago).
As public sector funding cuts continue and community-based projects are further decimated, Watt’s words are as relevant today as they were during his Victorian lifetime: “I paint ideas, not things. My intention is less to paint works that are pleasing to the eye than to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart and will arouse all that is noblest and best in man.”
More information on the gallery’s community engagement and outreach programme is here.
Tech entrepreneur Alexandre Mars is known in his native France as the French Bill Gates. Having made his fortune creating and selling tech startups, Mars, 41, founded Epic Foundation two years ago. In an interview for The Guardian, Mars explains how his orgnaisation aims to encourage tech-savvy investors to donate to children’s and young people’s charities it has selected.
Mars believes a debate is needed “to explore opportunities and strategies for increasing giving”. At at time when trust in charities is at an all-time low following criticism of some traditional fundraising practices, new ways of engaging donors through technology is surely needed. Such challenges are expected to feature in next year’s House of Lords select committee report on charities, with its focus on digital innovation and financial sustainability.
How does he define the role of philanthropists versus the state? “We need policymakers, we need strong leaders … [but] they don’t have enough money, so where is it [the money]? It’s with the corporate world most of the time, so how can we [business] just step up?”
Guest blogger Lesley Rogers is chairing the charity Sense’s inquiry, The Case for Play into the lack of access to play opportunities for under-fives with multiple needs. Lesley is involved alongside co chair David Blunkett, the former education secretary, and Julie Jennings from RNIB as an expert advisor.
Play is an important part of childhood, it’s where children learn about the world around them, build relationships and friendships. But I know from experience with my eight-year-old Ruby that children with multiple needs often don’t get the same opportunities to play as other children.
Ruby was born with a rare condition called CHARGE syndrome and is consequently deafblind, she also has a heart condition and feeding problems.
We struggled from the very beginning to find appropriate play opportunities for Ruby. From finding accessible play groups to swimming pools and play parks. Every activity and opportunity for play has to be checked it’s accessible and appropriate beforehand, if it’s not, I have to ask for adaptations – and if those can’t be made, we can’t go and Ruby misses out.
But for children like Ruby, play is even more important. It was through play that we learnt to communicate with each other through basic sign language, through play Ruby is developing her muscle tone and through play she’s learning to connect with others around her.
We initially struggled to find appropriate play and activity groups. When Ruby was younger I wouldn’t take her to regular toddler groups, I felt vulnerable and isolated. I didn’t want to explain Ruby’s condition to other parents, and I wanted to go to places where I could meet people who would understand.
When Ruby was 18 months we were introduced to the deafblind charity Sense, it was a lifeline. We started going to the Sense play group, Sparkles, in Barnet. It used to take me 40 minutes to get there, but it was worth it. You didn’t need to explain to anybody what was wrong; if you came along with a feeding pump and a suction machine, it was accepted. I found everything I needed there, support from other parents and expert knowledge from staff.
Over the years I have spent so much time researching activities and play opportunities on the internet. I don’t want Ruby to miss out so I have thoroughly explored my borough but nowhere fully meets her needs. I’ve learnt that you have to be very proactive; I approach establishments, tell them about Ruby and ask if they are willing to make adjustments.
I hope that the inquiry will raise awareness of the challenges families like ours face every day. I hope that the government listens to the evidence and the recommendations that Sense presents and that appropriate changes are made following this. I hope that families get more support, particularly in the early years when parents could be feeling overwhelmed and confused. The earlier they receive help, the sooner they can provide the right support to their children.
With the right support, Ruby has the chance to enjoy play and leisure activities. She loves swimming. She goes once a week with school. It’s a great achievement that Ruby is able to attend the sessions. Ruby doesn’t like cold water so together with the school we contacted the leisure centre to see if they would be willing to open the jacuzzi and smaller warmer pool for us, we also needed an extra life guard and extra time in the changing rooms which they agreed to.
Ruby goes to the pool with her intervenor, her intervenor is basically her eyes and ears, she shows Ruby how to do things in a way that she understands. The intervenor will take toys into the pool, she’ll flick a ball to Ruby and Ruby will flick it back. Through swimming Ruby is strengthening her muscle tone, she’s also learning to socialise with her classmates which is great to see.
The most common barriers in terms of access to play settings for children with multiple needs is that there just aren’t enough places that are accommodating to children with multiple needs so accessibility is a big one.
There is a lack of information about play groups and activities that are suitable. For example we got introduced to Sense when Ruby was 18 months, it was a lifeline for us and I wish we knew about them earlier. Quite often you find out about things through word of mouth, this shouldn’t be the way. Parents need support as much as the children. It’s vital, particularly in the beginning.
Also I don’t often have confidence in the staff to leave Ruby with them. For example, I need to know that the staff can feed her and that they can sign. The reality is these places are few and far between, I have fully explored my borough and there is nowhere that fully meets her needs, this means I have to go with her all the time. Or use an intervenor.
What more can be done to boost such opportunities? Parents should have better access to information and advice on how to play with their child. Disabled children and their families should be involved in the design of play spaces and sessions to ensure they meet their needs.
There should be better training of staff and management at play groups etc. Often parents of children with complex needs have to come in and train staff how to care for their child’s medical needs. Every local authority should provide accessible play opportunities that meet a range of needs, in both specialist and mainstream settings.
All children and their families should have early access to support from specialist workers. Local authorities should make early intervention through play a funding priority.
A focus on play just isn’t seen as a big priority in the current financial climate. It’s turned into a kind of post code lottery for families, local authorities can now make their own choices about whether to prioritise play – some local authorities still have a local play strategy and continue to invest in play whilst others do not. This is despite the fact that funding early intervention and development is the best way to make a saving in the long term.
* Sense is calling for evidence from parents of children with multiple needs, specialists from the disability sector and practitioners. Visit the Sense website to get involved. For more information about the inquiry, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
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.
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
“I quite clearly remember being tied to the cot sides,” recalls Florence, now in her 70s, of the childhood she spent in hospital. “Literally, two wrists tied to the cot sides with cotton tape so as I couldn’t get up and I couldn’t sit up because they – the doctors – had decided that if there’s something wrong with your back, you have to lie prone.”
Florence’s memories are among those featured in a project that encourages schools to create theatrical performances based on real stories of disability from people born in the 1940s, 60s and 80s. The Changing Lives, Changing Times project involved workshops at three Leeds schools over five weeks last summer and led to the development of teaching packs. These help teachers run awareness-raising workshops about disability and are being sent out to UK schools by the end of the year.
The drive coincides with Disability History Month, which starts today.
The rest of my piece in the Guardian’s social care pages is here, and I’m devoting the remainder of this post to extracts from the stories of Florence and Dan, both born in the 1940s, Poppy, born in the 1960s, and Holly, born in the 1980s, reflecting the contrasting experiences of disabled people in different eras.
Florence was born in the late 1940s, the daughter of a single parent, but when doctors diagnosed that she would never walk, her birth mother left her. Florence attended mainstream schools throughout the 1950s. She left school and entered her first paid job in the mid 1960s as a telephonist and clerk. Her second job was as a typist. Florence is a trained social worker. She is single, she has no children, she drives her own car:
“There were all sorts of problems of having a child that wasn’t going to be able to get do things normally. The children’s home really wasn’t ideal and they decided that they would foster me out because there were too many kids running about in the children’s home and because I wasn’t mobile I was getting picked on, getting hit, getting spat at by the other children.
I then went to foster parents who, although they knew that I wasn’t going to be able to walk, said: “Oh yeah, we’ll manage that fine”. And they didn’t, and after two months I was back in the children’s home. The children’s home said “no, we can’t cope with her here because she’s not mobile” so I went back into hospital, where I didn’t really need to be but because there was nowhere else suitable and they couldn’t find another foster placement, so that’s where I went.
My mother still was saying, “I don’t want anything to do with this child’, which was really difficult for her because any time that I needed any surgery or any intervention they had to get hold of her, and every time I needed something obviously it brought it back to her that I wasn’t living with her. So that must have been really difficult for her.
A relative of a child that was in the next bed to me for quite a while came in and after a couple of times coming in she realised that there wasn’t anybody visiting me, because nobody from the children’s home came, my mother didn’t come, so nobody came. So she said; “Well could I still continue to visit after my niece goes home?”. And they [hospital staff] said: “Yeah if you want to”. You know: Why would you want to do this? And she said: “I just seem to have got on with her and she’s got a really nice smile”. And so after a couple of visits she’d sort of said to the nursing staff “Is there anything else I can do?” And the nursing staff had obviously said, “Well, you know, it’d be nice if you maybe spoke to the social worker”, and so they set up an appointment with the social worker – and I ended up going out to them. Initially short-term fostering and then it turned out as adoption eventually. So that was really just luck and chance.
I had absolutely no idea where I was going because there was no proprietary work done – no photograph of the house, nothing. They didn’t do things like that then, they just assumed that a child would cope with it, you know. So we ended up at this house and there were like two steps at the front door. Although they knew I couldn’t walk it just didn’t register. I suppose because they felt I could stand up, I could walk, and the two are not at all related, but to people that have not known disability … why would you think about it?
I don’t think my adoptive brother was really consulted that much about it and I think he just took the attitude, “well, I’m an adult, it’ll not bother me”. And so, because there was such a big gap there really wasn’t a very close bonding at all and there still isn’t, but there is with his children, so that’s okay.
Apparently one day when we were in the town shopping … my adoptive mother saw my other, saw my natural mother coming in the door … … and we turned and walked away. Now I have not even got any memory of what my natural mother looks like. I have nothing.”
Dan, born in the 1940s:
“I can remember, I should imagine possibly 7 or 8, being in and out of hospital and, it was suggested by the medical profession that I should go to a special school, and I always remember it was a real big old type of building and we used to be taken on a… on a blue single decker bus and this school was um, it… it was more about doing this like making raffia baskets and playing with you know, clay and they… they had gardens at the back and used to let us potter about, digging things up or planting things, but it didn’t seem to be you know, really academic type of thing, it was all about… and I always thought I was the least disabled person there to be honest.
You were sort of cotton-woolled, you went in and there was always lots of people to help you, you know go to your classroom, help you if you needed it, sitting down, people brought things to you all the time to your desk or whatever, and um, it was… you knew you was different and you had this all the time, you knew that you were, you was different from anybody else, those outside, your friends at ordinary school, you needed this particular facility because you had a disability, and it was always the physical disability that was sort of, you know, important. That’s why I’m sure you know, it was as though you were limited, your mental capacity was limited.”
Poppy, born in the 1960s, went to residential special school at the age of four until she was 16. The school became her social world and she remembers feeling bored and lonely at home during the summer holidays. Her ability to move around independently was limited by an inaccessible environment. At school there was a strict institutional regime of normalisation including intensive physio and speech therapy (“the more dependent you were, the less privileges you got”) and there was corporal punishment for non-compliance and allegations of sexual abuse from some children: “I knew it wasn’t right, but there was no one to tell”. Poppy also saw changes towards a more enlightened attitude in the late 1970’s and whilst academic expectations for the pupils were not high she was able to gain enough basic qualifications to enrol at a further education college. Here is Poppy’s story:
“My first memory of school was crawling down the corridor after my mum and dad had gone, and I was in tears, because I didn’t really understand what was happening. I never walked, I was on the floor, I always crawled, so I crawled down the corridor. So the headmistress picked me up, shouted at me and put me on my feet. They had bars on the walls, and she said ‘we don’t crawl here, we walk’ and I had to walk and I’ll never forget that. It was pretty traumatic at the time.
The school was very institutionalised, and you got up at 7 every day, including weekends, which I wasn’t too happy about, and they had set meals, you had set bath times, set bed times, the day completely structured. Luckily we did have lessons, they did try to educate you, as much as they though was possible, but I still think we had a substandard education. It wasn’t very tasking.
I remember one child getting hit around the head, and I knew it wasn’t right, but I was too scared to tell anyone.
A new headmistress came, and she had very new ideas about disabled children, and I think she had higher expectations of us, and she taught us about classical music, how to appreciate the arts, I think we responded to that quite well. We would go to the theatre or we would go on days out to the Tate Gallery.
The aim was to get us as independent as possible, but not independent to use a wheelchair to get about; you must walk, you must talk. I had speech therapy, although you couldn’t tell now. I had speech therapy, and , I had physiotherapy, and we had to dress ourselves, we had to feed ourselves, and some people weren’t able to do that; the more dependent you were, the less privileges you got. So because I could get dressed on my own, I could sneak a few minutes in bed longer in the morning, I had more freedom, you know, I could do as much as anyone, I could come and go as I pleased.
I think young people have a lot of pressure today, I think it’s harder, I know one lad, he’s at a non-disabled school and he finds it really hard to kind of be part of the whole system, because he is different, he knows he is different and in some ways, his school mates treat him differently and he hates that. I didn’t get that at school, we were all the same.
College was like a right of passage. It was where I learnt to become who I am now. The way I learnt to become, I think, an independent adult, not in the sense of learning to walk, dress and all that stuff but to think for myself, to have the choices that I wanted, and to be able to make those choices. Also it made the selection process more powerful because you knew you’d been selected because of your intelligence, and not someone patting you on the head.
I majored in English and my minor was in Sociology and we studied ethnicity, racism, and sexism, and different kinds of religions and beliefs, and age discrimination and class, nothing about disability, so at that point I wasn’t even aware I had a political identity as a disabled person.”
Holly was born, several months prematurely, in the 1980s. She was not expected to live for more than a few days and doctors advised her parents not to bond with her. Her parents separated after her impairment was diagnosed, so Holly lived with her mother, who gave up her career, and a step-brother from a previous marriage. Her mother re- married. Holly was sent to a residential special school when she was two-years-old, and stayed there until she was 18. When she left school, at the age of 18, Holly also left home, partly because she had become more distant from her parents, and because she had experienced some domestic violence and abuse. She went to a mainstream college to study dance, but never finished due to back problems. Holly lives alone in a council flat. She works as a volunteer for a local disability organization and a charity that supports children who have been abused. Holly has aspirations to do a paid job and marry her boyfriend:
“Some people are completely ignorant, not through malice but they are ignorant when it comes to disability. Somebody’s already formed in their own head what a disability means and if you kind of break their train of thought about what a disability is, you kind of completely shock them.
I think it’s changing very, very slowly but I don’t think it’s changing at the pace that it should be. I think there’s still an awful lot of undertone, tokenism, you know, people still get patronised when they’ve got a disability. I actually find the worst people for it are teenage girls – like girls in between the ages of let’s say fifteen to early twenties. I don’t know whether it’s because you know, I don’t quite understand, but I’ve experienced really quite bad attitudes with that kind of age group.
I still find it absolutely disgusting that women that need to access places like women’s refuges are turned away on the basis of their disability. I think people are still like –what do you mean domestic violence? Well, you’re disabled. Because they either think that you – that you are completely spoilt and wrapped up in cotton wool as a child, and obviously you can’t experience domestic violence from a partner because disabled people don’t have sex. I find the – worst thing a parent can do is pull a child away when they want to know why that lady is in a wheelchair. I wish to god parents would just let their children ask. And then maybe we could start educating from that age.”
The intriguing photographs here are from those in a new exhibition created by children from Roma, Slovak and Polish communities in east London,
The works, created using pinhole photography, have been produced by 12 young people aged eight to 14 from Roma or new migrant backgrounds. The show is part of a Children’s Society project, the Roundabout Arts Project, and the images reflect the children’s views of their heritage and the summer of Olympic sport. The young people from Newham created 20 pinhole photographs and an animated film (below).
The project, a partnership between the Children’s Society New Londoners Roma/New Migrants Project, art group Click Academy, aims to promote a greater understanding of European migrants and Roma culture, showing the communities’ contribution to London life.
Artist Marta Kotlarska’s Click Academy uses pinhole photography to encourage social change (with the aim of showing it is possible to “make something out of nothing” and at little cost). As Kotlarska has blogged on the Children’s Society website: “Our hopes for the children to learn the realities of the creative process and have the opportunity to express their creativity were realised. Roma children often don’t have access to the arts because of discrimination and social exclusion and we wanted to change this.”
* The Roundabout Arts Project exhibition is open for three weeks at The Hub, 123 Star Lane, London, E16 4PZ, 9am-8pm from Friday 19 October to Thursday 8 November.
“Even though we’re not involved in gangs,” the young man from Hackney tells me, “the way people look at you just puts you down. No matter what you do, you’ll always have that bad name of a black kid from Hackney, so some people think, ‘if people are going to see me like that anyway, I might as well be bad.’”
Last summer’s riots, which began a year ago today, hardened my resolve to write an uncompromising book, British Voices, about our country from the perspective of its people. The comment above comes from a teenager I met in east London last August, not long after the end of the unrest.
The riots felt like an expression of something we had swept under the carpet. It seemed to me that failing to address the way that people in the country were feeling – including the sense that ordinary people’s voices often went unheard – would simply leave those feelings to fester once again. I wanted to approach the widest range of people possible and no matter they said, would present their opinions faithfully.
I started my research three weeks after the end of the riots. One of the first places I visited was Hackney, the scene of some of the worst trouble, and a lot of discussion focused on stereotypes of young people and a lack of opportunities.
“There’s a lot of talent in Hackney,” one young man suggested, “but there are no opportunities to uplift yourself. We’re left stranded; we have to fend for ourselves; so, if you see people with the nice car, you say, ‘I want some of that’. Our generation, we like fancy stuff but we can’t afford it – the riots were an opportunity to get things you know you couldn’t otherwise get.”
Was it worth the risk of a criminal record? “If there are no opportunities anyway,” he replied, “you might as well risk it.”
There was also anger towards the police. “They racially discriminate,” another young man said. “They search the black kids and leave the whites. They smashed my brother’s head against a windscreen, pushed me up against a wall, all for no reason. That’s why people rioted – they enjoyed having power over the police. They were saying, ‘If we wanted to take over, we could.’”
“It was great how youths were united by the riots,” one young woman said. “Gangs you wouldn’t expect to mix going up against the police together. It was great to see such spirit.” She went on: “It was wrong to burn people’s houses and family businesses, but the big shops all had insurance so what does it matter? I don’t see how it’s different from MPs and their expenses.”
I asked her whether the expenses scandal justified violence and looting. “No,” she said, “but it sets a bad example.”
It was an argument I heard again and again; indeed a sense of disillusionment, and alienation ran throughout the entire three months I spent travelling around England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. I went as far south as Lizard Point in Cornwall and as far north as the Shetland Isles, talking to over a thousand ordinary people along the way. They were disillusioned with different things and expressed their feelings in different ways, but the feeling remained.
As I travelled, the anger in the wake of the riots seemed to fade. It was replaced by a sadness, a sense that for all the social, economic and technological steps forward the country had made, a lot had been lost along the way: a sense of community, trust and responsibility to one another.
The riots may prove to be a one-off, a few days of violence consigned to history; and even if there is trouble again, the police will be better prepared to respond. But none of the underlying issues have changed since the unrest began a year ago. Indeed, since then the economy has deteriorated and national institutions – the media, the police, the banks and politics – have all continued to take a battering. Surveyed around the Queen’s Jubilee, 75% of respondents to a Yougov poll said that community spirit had got worse in Britain, chiming with my own findings.
I came home determined to use the lessons I learnt to found a new charitable trust, The Community Trust, aiming to address this issue. My confidence comes from the most powerful lesson from my journey: that, in spite of all the changes in our society and the challenges we face, the kindness and decency of the British people lives on.
I also picked up some valuable lessons on the types of initiative that the new trust might support to harness that kindness and decency and to build a stronger society.
First, projects bringing together people from different backgrounds, building social bonds, fostering trust and breaking down barriers between communities. Second, initiatives enabling people to help each other to navigate their way in an increasingly complex, difficult world, building the skills, networks and personal attributes needed to get through and to thrive.
Small but important initiatives such as these – and the willingness of ordinary people to support them – could foster a greater sense of community and citizenship in Britain. That might not solve our problems, but might help us to face them together, rather than turning in on ourselves.
Positive mental health promotion should start in schools and we should teach all our children to be more mentally resilient. This approach means that, as adults, they will face the world with more confidence and have empathy and compassion for others. Currently 1 in 10 – or around 850,000 – children and young people are diganosed with a mental health problem, according to the charity Young Minds.
Research from Warwick University last week suggests that children involved in bullying – as both a victim and a bully – are three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts by the time they reach 11-years-old.
Four years ago when I worked for the Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust, myself and a non-clinical colleague, Marjorie Wilson, who worked in the Information Department, created a storytelling-based approach to mental health for use in primary schools.
We based our idea on Virginia Ironside’s book The Huge Bag of Worries. It seemed the perfect choice to deliver a powerful message in a creative and interactive way. Our Huge Bag of Worries Emotional Health and Wellbeing Project aimed to highlight the detrimental impact of bullying on a child’s emotional health and wellbeing and promote more understanding of mental health, thus challenging the stigma aspect.
Each session lasted approximately 45 minutes and we visited over 30 schools, fitting in at least four classes into the day
We started by introducing ourselves and asking the children what a nurse did. I then explained the role of a mental health nurse and we asked what the term “mental” meant? After a chat about this, Marjorie then read the book which we also had on a Power Point display so the children could see the beautiful graphics.
We then got a volunteer from the class to put balloons – each of them representing a worry – into a large, colourful sack one by one as we recalled the story’s key messages. The child then walked up and down with the bag to show how difficult it was to carrying around your worries.
We tried to emphasise that you don’t need to carry around your worries and often we have to take each worry out and hand it to our parents or teachers. Children don’t often realise they don’t have to be burdened by adults’ worries.
We specifically highlighted bullying as a worry and what we could all do to prevent and deal with this. At the end of the day 25 children, five from each class, would line up in the playground and one by one they would release the helium balloons. The rest of the school and the parents would stand around in a large circle and watch. Everyone would clap and cheer – that was one of the highlights of our day.
The project was funded for a year but we went on to deliver it voluntarily for a further two years. We still deliver it now voluntarily.
The project was successful as the book carries a simple yet powerful message. It has beautiful graphics and words and we used colourful materials in an informal, creative approach.
It seemed to resonate well with pupils in their final year of primary school who were apprehensive about starting a new school. We also found many of the children were also less judgemental and had far fewer preconceived ideas around mental health than adults.
The children would often say who their best friends were and that they would talk to them if they were being bullied or felt stressed. This was quite touching. One school had a “friendship bench” in the playground that a child could go and sit on if they felt alone so that others would know this and play with them.
We met a number of children who were caring for parents with ongoing mental health issues. Often, they enjoyed their caring roles and in a way they felt proud of what they were doing. I feel our project helped them to ‘normalise’ their circumstances and showed the other children in the class that because mental health affects one in four of us, they were not so different to their classmates.
The path to positive mental health and the shattering of stereotypes and stigma can start in the classroom and children. While the government’s new mental health strategy, No health without mental health, promotes more teaching of mental strength, or “resilience”, in schools so children grow up better prepared to face the stressors of the world, the caveat is that there will be no extra money to fund this.
My mum and dad realised something was different about me when I was about two to three-years-old, because I played differently to other children. I didn’t engage and interact with others. I didn’t cuddle or give eye contact. I had difficulties with speech and hated change.
I started realising from the age of 14-15 that people were treating me differently and this is when I first realised that I was different. At first I felt kind of annoyed about and wondered why I was getting all the attention. I then asked my mother what was going on with me. She told me I was different to the other kids. First of all she told me all the good things about me; such as my brilliant memory and amazing empathy with animals. She also explained why I was having difficulties in certain areas such as making friends and interacting .
I was diagnosed when I was five. I went to a mainstream school with a statement of special educational needs. At school had I one-to-one support, speech and language therapy. I also attended a behaviour unit and later on had support from the Autistic Spectrum Condition Support Services which came into my school to give advice and support.
Being autistic means I am someone who feels and sees the world in more detail then people without autism. I have heightened senses such as sight, taste, touch ,smell and hearing . This means that I can find things incredibly annoying that wouldn’t bother other people or in some cases it means that I find things more interesting.
Looking back, it was when I started school things became a huge challenge. People often thought I was a trouble-maker (mostly the teachers due to their lack of understanding of my autism and my behaviours). Other students often found me very strange and in some cases would be cruel; bullying me because I was different. Being treated badly by people who didn’t understand me made me very negative about my ambitions and myself which still affects me today. The other thing that makes me different is my obsessions, but I’ve used to help guide me through tough times and they have also created opportunities and brought me success, like the award.
At the moment I have no support except from my parents because the local authority says I don’t meet the criteria.
At the end of last year, I won an Erica Award from learning disability support organisation Dimensions for the talks I do about autism. The annual awards celebrate people with autism who help others. It’s nice to feel appreciated for the hard work I do. I’m very honoured by it and I still can’t believe I won it.
My talks came about when my mum was working with pre-school children with autism so when one day she asked for some advice on how to support a child, it made me think back to when I was a child of the same age. I looked back on what made things hard for me and told my mum what it was like from my perceptive. I told mum what it was like for me being autistic and how it affected my everyday life.
My mum said she learnt so much more about autism from me that day that she thought it would be really helpful for other parents. She arranged for me to do a talk to the parents of other children like me.
My talks cover a lot of areas including sensory issues, how my brain works, how I learn to communicate and socialise, my repetition,imitation, obsessions and my behaviour issues. I also offer general advice and strategies to help support people and the opportunity to ask questions. I give out evaluation sheets so people can comment on my talk if they want me to add or change anything.
The feedback is amazing. One parent has written: “I got home yesterday and saw my son from a completely different perspective, thanks to your insight and inside knowledge of autism” and a professional commented: “Simon’s talk was super every trainee teacher/nursery/pre-school worker in the country should meet Simon and hear his experiences. I learnt more in one hour about autism that 20 years as a teacher have ever done. I feel very uplifted and look forward to sharing/reflecting to my colleagues.”
I feel happy that I am going to try and give advice which might help people that I’m talking too. Afterwards I feel mentally tired as it takes a lot out of me and I need feedback from people because I find it hard to tell how well I’ve done.
The feedback from my first talk made me want to help more parents, so my mum asked Amaze – an advice service for parents of children with special needs – if they could help. Through Amaze I did a talk to 27 parents. These parents requested that I spoke to the professionals that they have to deal with because they felt that they were often not listened to. So my mum arranged for me to do talks for professionals such as respite services, PRESENS (Pre-School SEN Services) and two local special schools. I do talks for professional services and parent support groups and have done two workshops at a conference.
It makes me feel uplifted to know how much people appreciate my talks, to be told how much of a difference I am making in helping them to understand more about autism from a personal perspective and this encourages me to do more. I believe that information about autism is better when it comes from someone who is autistic.
My plan is to do more talks and to encourage other people with autism to do them with me and to continue my mentoring. My biggest aim would be to form a group of people with autism who would be confident to be able to attend any meeting regarding anything that might affect people who have autism because I feel it’s very important to have individuals with the problems to speak out and have a voice.
I would like to make councils and governments have someone with the learning disabilities or someone with autism actually on board, attending meetings and giving their own personal input which I think we can all benefit from. If I could get the government to do one thing it would be to consult more with the people that experience the conditions that they are making policies about to get their points of view.
* Simon Smith, 23, from Brighton, won the 2011 Erica Award because of his outstanding contribution to helping others understand what it is like to experience autism.