Thursday, 27 October 2011

What we know about the rioters now

Back in August when there were riots in some of our major cities I wrote it was too soon to debate what the causes might be, we needed a period of time to pass before taking a long, calm look at the causes. This week the Ministry of Justice published comprehensive statistics about the background of the rioters:

  • More than 2,500 businesses and 230 homes were damaged or burgled during the riots
  • 90% of those brought to court were male and one half were under 21
  • 42% were white; and only 13% of all those brought to court were gang members
  • 35% of the adults (age 18 or over) were claiming out of work benefits (the national average is 12%)
  • 80% of the adults and 62% of the juveniles had a previous conviction
  • 42% of the young people (i.e. under 18) were in receipt of free school meals (the commonly used indicator of coming from a poor background) compared to the national average of 16%
  • Two thirds of the young people had some form of special educational need compared to the national average of 21%
  • Over one third of the young people had been temporarily excluded from school compared to a national average of 6% and more than one in ten had been expelled from school, compared to a national average of 0.1%
It is well known that dyslexia (difficulty reading) is very over-represented in the prison population - some estimates say as many as two thirds of all prisoners cannot read. This may well be one of the 'special educational needs' that young people brought to court have.

Imagine going to school each day and not being able to read. In primary school you may find plenty of other things to motivate you but the ability to read becomes crucial in secondary school. Most Year 7 (the first year of secondary school when children are 11) text books require a reading age of about 13 years. Even 11 year olds who are good readers will be challenged a little, imagine what it is like if your reading age is much lower. 

So you find yourself increasingly unable to engage in secondary school education, its not surprising you might ask yourself about the point of school and decide it's not for you. But you have no choice - you have to be there day after day in an environment where you cannot succeed. You might kick against it, you might give up - either way you will end up in trouble. It's not hard to see how that might end up in the school excluding you. Then what do you do with your time? The state has a duty to provide a minimum education to you usually through an individual tutor, but the rest of the time is your own. Chances are you will be hanging around on the streets where, who knows, you might fall into bad company.

Of course there is no inevitability between difficulty reading and eventual criminality. Primary school children who are struggling to learn to read require extra help as soon as possible to overcome the difficulty. That is why Children North East encourages parents to introduce their children to books and read to them well before they start school. It is also why we are setting up a scheme for secondary school students to help primary school children to read.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Cutting off children

This week the National Children's Bureau (NCB), a well respected independent research, policy and lobby group, published a report which concludes that children are bearing the brunt of the recession and austerity measures. Local Authorities have cut services for children and young people such as play, youth work and support for disabled children disproportionately compared to services for adults. And the recession, rising prices and cuts in tax breaks for families mean that children are becoming poorer.

NCB’s chief executive Dr Hilary Emery said, ‘Not only are their services being cut, but their home-life is becoming increasingly more stressful as parents worry about employment and the cost of food and fuel. We know families under stress can lead to an increase in domestic violence, child abuse, mental health problems, drug abuse and alcoholism - all of which have a greater long-term cost to the UK taxpayer.’

Last Saturday Caitlin Moran wrote a powerful piece in The Times magazine describing exactly what it feels like to be poor, to be broke for months and years on end. Only ever having enough to just scrape by day by day; hoping no unexpected expense crops up; then going without and never feeling you can make a change for the better. It makes you feel like you don't exist.

Our photography project is nearing completion. The biggest issues for the children and young people are poor housing and derelict neighbourhoods, they have taken thousands of pictures of boarded up houses, rubble and rubbish. Poor children don't go anywhere unless it is free and within walking distance. Most spent the whole summer on their estate. If there is nowhere for them, the young people hang out in children's playgrounds where adults don't bother them. So the younger ones stay clear of the playgrounds and play on derelict land out of the way.

It is simply not fair to invest less in play and activities for young people at this moment. They need safe places to go to socialise and play outside their home. They deserve to be treated as citizens, valued members of the community not simply ignored.

Thursday, 13 October 2011


This week on Tuesday the Institute of Fiscal Studies published its latest report. The BBC picked up their forecast that 600,000 more children are likely to fall into poverty in the next 2 years. The IFS published a similar report in October last year in which the forecast was 300,000 more children were likely to fall into poverty. The forecast has doubled in a year.

Yesterday the unemployment figures were published. Unemployment is now higher than any time since 1994. In the last 3 months the sharpest rise has been in the North East to 11.7%. More part time jobs have been lost than full time ones. There are now 991,000 16 to 24 year olds without jobs, a national disgrace.

Last night I went to a Newcastle City Council public meeting to discuss the impact the Welfare Reform Bill will have on people in the city. The Bill sets out a simplified benefits system, which is welcomed by campaigners, but at the same time reduces many present entitlements. For example restrictions and 'caps' on Housing Benefit is likely to mean families needing to move to smaller or cheaper properties with lower rents, but the stock of properties is limited in Newcastle; so we could see more people falling behind on paying rent, more hardship and possible homelessness. This is on top of changes to Tax Credits which makes child care relatively more expensive, increased food and fuel prices for working families.

From December this year lone parents will no longer be entitled to Income Support once their youngest child reaches their 5th birthday. They will be forced into work - but where are the jobs, especially part-time ones so that lone parents can fit work around school times?

This morning Shelter published research that private rented houses are now 'unaffordable' for families on average incomes in 55% of local authorities. Shelter found rents had risen at one-and-a-half times the rate of incomes in the 10 years up to 2007.

On a positive note, this week Children North East has a new member of staff whose job is to help us create opportunities for young people in the organisation as volunteers, apprentices and work experience. A small contribution to give young people a sense of purpose, and to feel less excluded.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Children and Young People Now Awards shortlist

I am delighted that Children North East has been shortlisted in two categories of the prestigious Children and Young People Now magazine awards.

The Children and Young People Now awards are in their 6th year. They share and celebrate the best practice in the UK of all those working to improve the lives of children, young people and families. Out of hundreds of entries, the judges have shortlisted the ones that represent the best work with children, young people and families from all over the country.

Our West End Youth Enquiry Service (WEYES) is one of 5 projects shortlisted in the Youth Work category; and our Families Plus Hidden Harm service is one of 5 projects shortlisted for the Parenting award.

I am particularly pleased that Children North East has been shortlisted for two awards. This places us on a par with the big national children's charities - only Barnardos and Action for Children have, like us, been shortlisted more than once this year.

The winners will be announced at an award ceremony in London on 17th November. It would be wonderful to win but even if we don't it is a huge achievement and enormous credit to our staff who work at WEYES and in our Hidden Harm service - it proves they are as good as anyone else in the country!

The full list of the projects shortlisted are on the Children and Young People Now website: