The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “children”

Austerity bites

Community Care have reported a 20% rise in funding from the S.17 budget (an emergency fund available to Social Services to support children in need under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989).

This is clear evidence of the rise in poverty and social deprivation since the introduction of cuts to welfare benefits and the rise in sanctions introduced under the previous (coalition) government.

There is clearly a worrying trend here, but it is also evident that while savings appear to have been made by the government in one area of expenditure, there have been consequential rising costs in another.  It is with huge relief that George Osborne has, in today’s financial statement, withdrawn the proposed swinging cuts to Tax Credits, or at least to allow rising wages under the new ‘living wage’ to come into effect first.

Just imagine how much greater the impact would have been on local authority budgets if it were not for food banks.  But food banks cannot fill the whole gap – nappies, travel, clothing, including school uniforms, toiletries and other essential household items, or cash for electric and gas meters, are not covered.

Picking up these costs is still cheaper for the local authority than taking a child into foster care – which they would have to do if the alternative is that the child is being classified as physically neglected because the parent cannot adequately feed or clothe their child.

I’ll say no more – for social workers reading this I’m merely teaching my grandmother to suck eggs – and anyway, the article says it all better than I can.


As Christmas approaches …..

My heart sinks.  It always does as Christmas approaches.  I see the tinsel and trappings appearing in the stores, the job adverts for this year’s Father Christmases, the craft, cookery and home magazines appear with their recipes and ideas for home decorations, and so on.  I know the loan sharks will be rubbing their hands in anticipation of the extra income as poor families struggle to keep up with the false expectations of the happiness they can bring by buying things they can’t afford, and in reality don’t need, just because that is what the media circus is telling them.

When I was first starting out in social work, nearly 20 years ago, I remember a young mum telling me with great excitement that the Provie man had lent her £200 to spend on toys for her young son that Christmas.  My heart sank.  The best I could manage was a wan smile – she was just trying to do the best for her son in the only way she knew how and it was too late to undo the loan.  I knew it would take her all year to pay that back and it would cost her way more than £200 by the end of that year.  And no doubt by then most if not all those toys would have been broken and discarded.

Since then there has been the credit crunch or banking crisis, a world recession and a downward pressure on the poor under current political austerity measures.  With the threat of tax credit cuts still looming (although there might be some shifting on that) the outlook is bleak for whole swathes of society.  Pressure to be jolly and spend hard-earned money on things you can’t afford and don’t need is just as great, but the gloom and doom that follows as the bills stack up along with the extra debts in the new year will be even more crushing.

At the end of the day it is our relationships and our experiences that make us happy, not the stuff in our cupboards.

As a society we have been spun the lie that we need to keep consumerism high in order to keep the manufacturing industries going and the money flowing.  At the time of the 2008 financial collapse the economists were saying ‘we need to get the Chinese to consume more’.  But none of that is true – as this blog explains more fully:  Sure, if we all suddenly stopped buying the latest cheap fashion rip offs, changing our home decor every year because some fashion has changed or because we are enticed by some new decoration we see, if we all turned to the charity shops to replace our furniture, if we all bought fewer clothes but chose instead those of higher quality and wore them for longer, if we worked together and shared as a community more, then there would be an impact on manufacturing industries.  But entrepreneurs will find other ways of making money.  If we all bought less ‘stuff’ we would have more to spend on leisure, art, beauty, travel and the ‘stuff’ we buy would be of better quality, and those who remain employed in manufacturing could be paid more.  This was the vision of the early pioneers of technology: little did they realise then that we would chose instead the path of the materialism.  At the end of the day it is our relationships and our experiences that make us happy, not the stuff in our cupboards.

The poorest communities have always been better at the economies of reduce, re-use, recycle, restore, remake.  We’ve not seen it for generations in the West, although in the poorer Latin American countries this lifestyle is still thriving.  We need to re-learn these values.  We need to be able to teach our children to value what they have.  That’s not to put on them the pressures of adult money worries, but to teach them the lost skill of appreciating the value of things, instead of succumbing to the pressures of advertising, to always be wanting the next new thing.  And we have to model that for them.

And we need to learn these things ourselves so we can encourage those we work with to see through the lies that tell us to buy our way out of unhappiness.

It won’t solve the problems of a ruling elite that appears to have no concept (or care) of the impact of their policies on poorer and middle income earners.  We have to look after ourselves and we have to recognise that if there is to be change it will have to be from the bottom up.  Two recent (and still current) events may well spur that on: the migration crisis as refugees and asylum seekers pour out of war-torn Syria, bringing the reality of their situation to the shores of Europe and the attention of Europeans where it is the less-well off who are the most heart-broken and responsive to the sight of their suffering; and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, showing that politics is not necessarily the preserve and interest of the elite.


British values

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s entry into the Labour leadership race there has been a phenomenal rise in interest in politics, which I have been following.  I found this comment on a recent Facebook post that seems to sum up so much of how more and more people seem to be feeling these days.

Lydia Smith Dear Mr Cameron,

My children’s school has asked them to undertake a homework project on what “British Values” means to them. Although I’m happy to support them with their homework, I admit I’m struggling with the concept of “British Values” and what they are supposed to mean.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value our children because they are our future. Yet under this government, 3.6 million children in Britain live in poverty. Mr Cameron, as a direct result of tax and benefit decisions made by your government since 2010, this figure is set to rise to 4.3 million by 2020 ( And you have imposed massive cuts on Children’s Centres, which were designed to help lift the poorest children from poverty.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value and protect our environment. Yet, Mr Cameron, you are ignoring local government opposition and forcing fracking upon our country, which poses significant risks to our environment and risks poisoning our water supply. You are also failing to protect Britain’s national parks and protected wildlife habitats from destruction through fracking. You have cut subsidies for renewable energy, but continue to subsidise non-renewable and nuclear energy. What kind of environment can our children expect to inherit?

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we look after the sick, which is why we have a free healthcare system, the NHS. But Mr Cameron, our NHS is now in financial trouble, isn’t it. The NHS has just reported a £930m overspend in the first financial quarter of this year, and we both know that this is as a direct result of the actions this government has taken: short-sighted financial planning and sweeping cuts to the public sector. I find myself wondering how long the NHS, free healthcare, and therefore caring for the sick regardless of ability to pay, will survive under your government.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value our education system. But this year, your government introduced the most severe funding cuts to education in years, which has affected jobs, morale and subject availability. Since Michael Gove was made Education Minister, our government has attacked and undermined the teaching profession, making greater demands upon our teachers while cutting resources and funding. There have been hasty, sweeping changes to the exam system; my daughter worries whether her qualifications will mean anything at all once she leaves school.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, everybody’s right to education is valued. But since you have become Prime Minister, university tuition fees have trebled and you have scrapped maintenance grants for the poorest students. I now find myself wondering whether my children will be able to go to university at all, even if they are bright enough for Higher Education.

I want to tell my children that Britain values human beings over corporate greed. Yet you seem on the verge of signing up to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would give enormous power to multinational companies at the expense of consumers and workers.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value disabled people and believe that they too make a valuable contribution to our society. Yet you have practically removed all of Britain’s support structures for disabled people. In fact, because of your government’s violations of the rights of disabled people, Britain is the first country ever to face a high-level international UN inquiry into its breach of disabled people’s rights.

I want to tell my children that it is a British value to offer help and sanctuary to those who have nothing because they are fleeing war or persecution. Yet we are now facing the largest refugee crisis since WW2 and the UK houses just 1% of the world’s refugees. Of 4 million Syrian refugees, just 143 have been resettled to the UK. Furthermore, in 2010, the UK pledged to end child detention for immigration purposes, yet just last year, 40 children under 5 were held at detention centres in the UK. (

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value human rights. But your government wants to scrap the Human Rights Act, so your government will be able to overrule the European Court of Human Rights, meaning far less protection for our people from human rights violations in the UK.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value our laws which are designed to protect our people and our environment. Yet one of the first things you did as Prime Minister was remove and weaken many of our existing laws, benefiting business at the expense of individual people and our environment.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value freedom of speech and freedom to protest so that when good people make bad decisions, we have the voice and power to speak up against what is happening. Yet what use is freedom of speech when the British government callously ignores even widespread opposition to its decisions? What good is the freedom to protest when you pass laws to silence British trade unions and pressure groups? There is no such thing as freedom of speech or protest when you make people afraid to speak out, Mr Cameron.

I want to tell my children that British Values mean being brave and kind, tolerant and inclusive, caring and sharing, honest and integrous. Yet these are not exclusively British Values, Mr Cameron, and – it must be said – values which are hardly being demonstrated by the current British government. These are values that are intrinsic to being a good person, regardless of nationality. You don’t have to be British to be a good person. The reverse is also true: not all British people are good people, Mr Cameron.

When I asked my young children what British Values meant to them, their response was, “We are brave and kind and honest. We care and share. We look after our world. We care about other people. We look after babies and children, people who are sick, poor people, disabled people and homeless people.”

If even the youngest children in our society understand that these qualities are something British society should aspire towards, why doesn’t the British government?

A society is only as good as the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members, Mr Cameron, and I’m very sorry to say that I could not find any examples of my children’s “British Values” in your government. Where do I even begin with the hypocrisy of trying to instil “British Values” into the next generation by a government who fails to lead by example? Perhaps we are trying to teach “British Values” to the wrong people.

Thankfully, bravery and kindness, tolerance and inclusion, caring and sharing, honesty and integrity are being nurtured in the next generation, without the need for these values to be labelled as “British”. Perhaps, Mr Cameron, you should spend more time in British classrooms, in the presence of our children and our teachers – you might actually learn something. Then again, I rather suspect you are beyond redemption.


Dear Prime Minister….from teachers everywhere.

Dear Prime Minister….from teachers everywhere..

Girls play soccer

Imagine you are the deputy head of a girls’ soccer academy. It’s a small school, around 150 pupils aged between 14 and 18. You have a regular teaching assignment, teaching science. Right now you are standing in front of a class of eager students all waiting to learn. Each one has a Kindle with all their text books downloaded on to it, a pen and a notebook for recording their notes in neat handwriting. You know that those Kindles are treasured and none will be lost or damaged. Each girl is proud to wear her school uniform with the logo “Education is the key to our future”. Each one is different, they all have their own personalities. Some are members of the school soccer team that has won so many trophies you only have room for a quarter of them to remain on display. You know that if you ask the class who wants to set up in their own business when they finish school nearly every girl will put up her hand. You also know you’ll get a range of answers as to the type of business they want to go into. One wants her own butchery business, another wants to go into wholesale, while yet another wants to go into the beauty profession and one wants to be a psychologist.  Most want to continue their education post 18 and go on to college or university. Some would like to come back and teach here. Working with children with such ambitions and love of school and learning makes your job your joy. You’re delighted that the school is growing and that this year the school has had its first intake of boys. The school is popular – two hundred children applied for the 70 places available for the last intake.

With so many reasons to enjoy your work you become more determined to overcome the stresses.

You see the girls smiling faces. You don’t see the ragged sleeves of their jumpers, the frequently repaired skirts and blouses, the shoes that are down at heel and with the broken straps. You don’t see that the old and tiny wooden desks are crammed in tight to all four walls of the classroom with barely room to move a chair and just enough room for you to stand beside the door. You don’t see the rough walls that haven’t been painted since Barclays Bank sent over a team for a “do good day” several years ago. You don’t see the mud courtyard and path that runs around the school, with an open rivulet of water and raw sewage running through it, clogged up with plastic and other rubbish. You don’t smell the stench of garbage that pervades the air all around. You don’t mind that you don’t get paid while your teaching colleagues get on average 25% of the national wage for a teacher. You don’t mind because in return for being house mother and house father to a dorm of ten students whose parents can’t afford to keep them at home, you have a roof over your head and you are able to join in with the free school meals.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen you are not teaching you are talking to sponsors and potential sponsors, finding little bits of money here and there for the things your students and the school need. Some more school uniforms for the students who would not be able to come to school otherwise as their family cannot afford to buy their uniform; the money to pay for the free school meals for everyone otherwise they would almost certainly go without; sanitary towels for the girls so they don’t have to pay for them with free sex to the boys who offer to buy them on their behalf. And that’s before you even think about buying supplies for the science room or some extra books, novels and general fiction, for the school library.

Some of your sponsors are bigger than others – such as the company that provided the Kindles. This means you can pass on your old text books to another school that needs them and free up some more space for another classroom. Another sponsor wanted you to offer places for boys as well as girls and provided you with funds for another building. Right now you are campaigning to raise funds to build a new school-house, the old buildings to be converted into a dormitory so that more of the children can stay at the school all week and make better use of the facilities there.

True to what the school teaches about developing business for independence, you are also involved in supporting a photography and film company, Shedders, run by the school, which helps ‘shed’ light on the reality of life living in a slum and brings in some welcome income from some quite prestigious contracts. You are overseeing the setting up a new internet café where you will also offer photocopying and passport photos.  You help manage the micro-finance scheme that enables your former students and the families of your students to set up in business themselves.

As well as the very successful soccer team the school has a successful drama club that tackles the issues of discrimination, poverty, health problems such as HIV/AIDS, politics and religion that are relevant in their community. The debating club tackle many of the same issues as they take on thorny subjects such as as school dropout, early marriage and domestic violence. The science club recently learned how to make solar power light bulbs and turned their experience into an income generating opportunity.

The school where you work is more than just a school, it is a community resource.  It’s the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy which was founded in 2006 with the philosophy of ‘working against extreme gender inequalities because we know that by educating girls, there is a power ripple effect through the larger community and future generations of leaders’.

What is Kibera?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs it name suggests the school is based in Kibera, a district in Nairobi, Kenya. Kibera is the second largest slum in the world and the largest slum in Africa. In an area of 1.5 square miles live over a million people. That’s 60% of the population of Nairobi living on 5% of the land. Half the population of the Kibera are children and young people under the age of 18. Although the Kenyan government own the land they have deemed Kibera an illegal settlement. This allows them to refuse to recognise the slum and abandon all responsibility for the area and the people in it. Just a short drive away are the homes of the wealthy, with Range Rovers and other luxury cars turning up at the Westernised shopping malls.  The slum butts up close to the French Embassy.

Open sewers run through the streets. Many of the people there live on a $1US a day. Their first priorities are food and shelter. The rubbish piles up against their houses and fences, or clogs the trickling river that runs through the district and is fed by the open sewers.  Refuse collection trucks could not get through the streets, and anyway the people cannot afford to pay for their refuse to be collected and taken away by the private refuse collection companies. Instead it piles up to become the rotting home of rats and mice; the children play amongst it and the goats nibble at the corn husks and whatever other tasty morsels they can find. When the rains come there is flooding and then cholera and typhus claim their dues from among the population. There are few toilets and no private washrooms. Fifty houses might share one latrine – with an average of eight people living in a house that’s one latrine to 400 people. Flying toilets fill in the gaps (sh*t on a leaf or old plastic bag, wrap it up and throw it over the fence). Where public latrines exist, set up by private enterprises that charge for their use, the effluence joins the rubbish in running in rivulets down the streets. With standing and slow moving water, breeding grounds for mosquitoes, malaria is a very real risk. Malaria prevention is undertaken through the use of mosquito nets but there are no clinics or hospitals in Kibera and the only treatment available is for those who can pay to visit the doctors beyond the boundaries. Some die. TB and other chest infections, urban dengue and yellow fever cause more health problems. Cars, let alone ambulances and fire trucks cannot get through many of the narrow streets, and probably wouldn’t bother to come here anyway.  The sick have to be taken out in a wheelbarrow or carried by their family on a home-made stretcher.  The good news is that HIV/AIDS is receding as a problem through the successes of health education programmes.  Few people own bicycles or motorcycles.  Most people walk.  For longer journeys out of the Kibera there is the bus.  An unguarded train track passes through Kibera, running from Mobassa in the south right through to Uganda.  People walk along the track all the time.

Unlike recent refugee camps Kibera is a mature community and doesn’t make the news.  Despite the problems it is a thriving community. The streets are crowded with small businesses, tiny little shops selling household goods, furniture, meat, vegetables, clothing, toiletries, and charcoal. Street vendors cook corn or other local foods and sell to passers by. In between are internet cafés, hairdressers or barbers, and cafés. All the normal shops and business you might expect to find in any shopping centre or town centre High Street.  Except their buildings are built from mud or corrugated iron or old shipping containers.  Around 20% of the people have electricity.  Even though there is no waste removal and treatment service some homes receive fresh water supplies, which they sell to others for 5 Kenyan schilling for 20 litres (about £0.04 or $0.06).  Earlier settlers here now own the homes that others rent.  During the day the streets are mainly walked by children and goats.  Early in the morning and by night the streets are crowded as the workers who travel out of the Kibera for work every day return home.

These are the condition your students live in.  The children are your future and the girls from the Kibera Girls’ Soccer Academy will have the opportunity to use the education your are offering as a means to escape the slum. Some may choose to return to help others escape, just like you and many of your teaching colleagues have chosen to do.

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