Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The story of Sarah and John

Home Front, Catholic Herald 8/9/06

Is it really wrong for Tony Blair to want to trace the children most likely to fail in society from the womb? And is it going to make any difference?

I woke up late the other morning to hear Hilary Armstrong, the latest minister responsible for “social exclusion”, on my radio, repeating the Prime Minister’s promise to target troubled kids before they are even born. Just before her studio interview we heard from the kind of people whom, it is generally agreed, the system has failed.

Sarah, 37, is a recovering alcoholic but hasn’t had a drink for three years. Her son John’s childhood was spent largely in “homes”, and now he is an articulate 20 year old who loves his mum.

By 17 John was a young offender and was put on a structured programme with a strict incentive system which taught him much. But he feels it’s all too late - he’s a convicted criminal with no skills, no job and a terrible sense of a lost, wasted childhood.

It’s not that these people have lacked intervention in their lives. The children’s homes kept John out of harm’s way, in their fashion. But they also took away Sarah’s responsibility for him. There was “a man from SureStart who came round a few times and then stopped coming”, said Sarah. The trouble is, intervention has been consistently inconsistent.

John himself is very clear about his problems. (1): A mum until recently permanently sozzled. (2): No dad. “I’d have liked to have had a dad, someone to slap me in line when I done wrong,” he said. The young offender programme was the first intervention which “gave him someone to look up to”.

And (3): Not enough discipline or stimulus in school. “They put the naughty boys in with the slow boys,” he explained, “and you had to sit for half an hour waiting for the slow ones to catch up, and by then we was throwing rubbers about.”

So what (the Minister was asked) would the Government do now that it should have done in the past?

In reply, Hilary Armstrong offered an unworkable solution to (1) and just ignored (2) and (3).

Here’s how she did it: From now on, she promised, a mum like Sarah would get a “more personalised intervention”. She would be identified by a midwife as at risk because she was a teenage mum. Health visitors would “keep close contact” with her, teaching her to bond with her baby and “giving her more confidence and self-esteem”.

The new “personalised” approach, it seems, will force a lot of help on a few people, instead of offering a little to a lot of people. “Personalising” sounds like a new way of saying “cutting back”, doesn’t it? And since midwife numbers have been falling, just how are they suddenly going to acquire the new, clairvoyant powers required by Ms Armstrong’s system?

What about schools? Why has the barbaric practice of shoving tough “bad lads” like John into the same classroom as the easily-bullied slow learners, been permitted? Why do the exams get easier to pass every year, while kids like John are bored out of their skulls? The minister had nothing to say on the subject, nor was she asked.

So here we have an interesting dialogue. John begs for discipline. The minister talks about midwives. John asks for demanding school work that would lead him into a job. The minister talks about his mother’s need for bonding lessons. John wants a dad. The minister talks about his mother’s need for self-esteem.

Now it could be that the minister’s proposed self-esteem lessons have some room for advice on chastity and continence …but the fact is every attempt so far to introduce sexual abstinence programmes has been mocked and dismissed.

Yet this is exactly the self-esteem advice which might have helped Sarah to get herself the reputation of being the kind of girl a bloke might like to take up the aisle, rather than round the back of the bike shed. She might then have met a decent chap and married him. Then there would have been someone there for her and John through all those years. Someone to hide the gin bottle. Someone to tell John to get in line.

John did not ask for more professionals or for more benefits. He has asked, quite clearly, for discipline, for school work that does not insult his intelligence, and for a dad who won’t put up with any nonsense.

I have a terrible feeling that he, and his like, will never be heard.


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