I’m writing this at the end of a day when staff in one of our schools have been frantically trying to co-ordinate emergency support for a student who has been kicked out of home. Her parents, who have huge difficulties in managing their own lives, have told her she’s not welcome – they don’t like her behaviour, they don’t like the fact that she is using drugs, they don’t like the way she treats them. Last night, she slept on a boyfriend’s sofa, but she’s been told this isn’t happening tonight. She’s 16, so the LA are looking to house her in a hostel for the night. Despite the shrugged shoulders and uncooperative manner, she’s frightened and lonely. I have no idea what will become of her, but the prognosis is not good.
The most shocking thing about this story is its sheer ordinariness for those who work in the majority of our schools. Whenever we read a heartbreaking story about exploitation of vulnerable young people, about homelessness, about children drawn into drugs, crime or prostitution, we can picture a long list of our students who may well share this fate. It feels like it has got worse over the last few years as resources are stretched to breaking point, but it also feels like there’s a wider shift in terms of the support that families and young people receive from the people around them, the extended family, the local community.
I’m 55 years old – when I grew up, children played out with each other, but we also interacted with the adults in our neighbourhood. I have a distinct memory of me and my friend, aged about 5 or 6, knocking on the door of an elderly man who lived on our street and asking him if we could come in and see his dog. We were invited in and sat in his front room, playing with the dog, while we chatted and he gave us orange juice and biscuits. After an hour or so, we thanked him, and went out to carry on playing.
Play that scenario out in a modern-day context. It’s inconceivable. Even at that age, children would know how dangerous strangers are, parents would be worried sick, the old man would be terrified to get the knock on the door, and if he was foolish enough to let them in and give them juice and biscuits, he could expect to find himself in serious trouble, and a figure of suspicion in his neighbourhood.
Vulnerable and damaged children are made, not born (I recognise the exception of our SEND children). Look behind (almost) every unsuccessful child, and the chances are there’s an unsuccessful parent or two. It’s a truism that children who are brought up in an environment of love and care, surrounded by wisdom and happiness, are more likely to thrive emotionally, socially and academically than children brought up in an atmosphere of chaos, anger and neglect. Every child needs a strong family. How those familial relationships are configured and organized is not the important factor here – one parent, two parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, friends and neighbours, two dads, two mums – it’s the relationships themselves that are important. Coming back to my childhood experience, we had more uncles and aunties than I could count – it was only as I got older that I realized that most of the people I called uncle or aunty, we’re not related by blood at all, but they fitted every other definition of family.
Surely people’s nature and instincts haven’t completely changed in a single generation? Are today’s parents really more feckless, morally inadequate or incapable than their parents? I don’t believe that. However, they are more isolated and they face many challenges unknown or less significant a few years ago.
Those of us who come into contact with it know that Social Care is an emergency service – thresholds are heartbreakingly high and staff are stretched to breaking point. Preventative work and family support is almost impossible. Imagine a scenario where a school identifies a young mother that was struggling to cope, where the children displayed some early signs of a lack of care but nothing that meets any criteria for intervention – children tired, eating unhealthily, clothes dirty and disheveled, homework not done. If that young mother was your daughter, what would you do? Most of us know instinctively – take the children for an evening so she could have a break, help her organize the housework, maybe sit with the children to do their homework, or help make a meal. Do a few small jobs around the house, or help with an online application form. Be on the end of a phone, or available to pop round occasionally. Be a role model, and a source of kindness, care and stability in the family life. The fact that this young mother is someone else’s daughter, does not mean that most of us would instinctively turn our backs on her.
I believe that there is a huge and willing resource available that could transform lives, that remains completely untapped. It’s all of those people, many perhaps coming up to the end of their working life or enjoying good health in retirement, who have wisdom and experience and time. We need a national mobilization of people of goodwill and generosity, who can transform the lives of others. My generation and people slightly older have had a lot of advantages through an accident of timing – free university education, great pension deals, affordable home ownership, relative job security, access to relatively generous benefits when things were tough (and yes, I’m aware that these don’t apply to everyone).
It’s time for the baby boomers to pay their dues, but we need to make it possible, practical and even beneficial. I’m aware that there are a number of excellent charities and voluntary organisations that promote this sort of work. Family Action, the Early Intervention Foundation, Action for Children, and many others do amazing work but they are flying in the face of public policy and social trends that makes this much more difficult. We need systems and structures that not only allow people to support others but make it easier to do so. I’m not talking about huge expense, but measures that with a little management and co-ordination, could pay for themselves in a very short period of time.
Here’s one idea – allow people in a public service pension scheme to retire early and access their pension if they commit to spending a proportion of their time supporting vulnerable families. How about reviewing the bureaucracy around safeguarding checks for volunteers to take some of the hassle and expense away from the people we should be encouraging? Maybe a role for Local Authorities in setting up local partnerships with church groups, charitable organisations, employers to promote family networks? What if we encouraged large employers to commit to giving employee time, and even incentivised them to do so? Perhaps we can co-ordinate social media groups to give access to advice and offers of help? Should Social Care have a lower threshold for those families who just need a bit of extra support, rather than waiting until the crisis point had been reached?
I’m sure there are many other measures that people who are far more expert than me could come up with. Bringing up children can be hard – if you’re struggling with money, lack of practical skills and experience, mental health issues etc it’s harder still. I have enough faith in human nature and in our society to think that when we see someone who needs help, the huge majority of people want to provide it. It’s such a shame that it can be so hard to answer that instinct.