The Best Start In Life

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As Salford City Council announces the possible closure of up to eight of its Sure Start centres, Joshua Tindall looks at the repercussions this may have on parents throughout the city and beyond.

 

Empty crisp packets skirt around the playground, the paint marks making up a netball court fade in and out of obscurity on the tarmac. On the outskirts is an army-like green fence, and just beyond that a sign, chipped but standing proudly, welcoming parents and children to the Fiddlers Lane Primary School in Irlam. But just underneath that sign, another is situated. Pink, vibrant and attention-grabbing, complete with the slogan ‘Giving children the best start in life.’
This is a Salford City Council sign, and it now seems ironic, senseless and almost laughable, seeing as that very same council just announced the closure of eight of its Sure Start centres.

Except the situation isn’t funny in the slightest to the thousands of parents who now face a huge dilemma – where will my child go to learn, play, and interact with others? With no replacement schemes in sight for many of the centres, the question is an important one.

Sure Start, a modern and confident scheme, was set up by the Labour government’s then-Chancellor, Gordon Brown, in 1998 to help areas just like Salford; widely deprived, under-funded, and lacking in learning centres for young children. Its focus isn’t just education, but also health and family support, giving many parents a helping hand. The percentage of lone parents in Salford, for example, grew from 5.9% in 1991 to 8.6% in 2001, and at the time Sure Start was the trendy new ‘bridge’ in the gap, there to support the growing number of lone parents in the city’s boroughs.

With a budget of £540 million pounds, it was set to cement early-years child learning for years to come. But here we are, just 16 years later, facing the closure of eight locally, but hundreds within the North West, like in neighbouring Bolton and Liverpool.

But almost instantaneously, an uprising began, and like David and Goliath (how apt the former name is), many parents are standing tall and defending what they feel is a necessity to the local community.

Irlam, in the south of Salford, is a proud and humble borough. Many refer to it as ‘off the beaten track’ and ‘isolated’. It strikes any visitor as close knit, like rural old-fashioned villages you’d find scoured across North Yorkshire. It’s almost unbelievable that Salford and roaring Manchester are less than thirty minutes away by bus. It is here where the heart of the protest lies, where parents are making a point, and making it heard.

Their Sure Start centre is based within Fiddlers Lane Primary School. This in itself means that the community has already been stretched – some Sure Start centres around the country are in their own standalone buildings, instead of shared like this one. The building transports you back to your own school days, or certainly mine as the building looks so similar. It’s not flash, modern or exciting. It looks weathered and cold. Yet there is an enormous feeling of community-spirit from even looking at the building. It looks content in its setting.
The hustle and bustle of the lane is noticeable especially at this time of the morning. A small row of shops sits just opposite from the school, and children run out holding prized bars of chocolate and sweets. As children and parents cross, baby strollers are easy to spot, and so too is the line of mothers walking and chatting together– it is clear that the sense of community is the reason why Sure Start is such a success here, and it’s understandable why so many want the Sure Start centre to remain.

Just over two years ago in nearby Manchester, the story was painfully similar. When all 39 of their Sure Start centres were threatened with closure in 2011, parents were left in anger just as those throughout Salford are now. A year later, Manchester City Council caved into pressure after a three-month long consultation, the biggest ever for the children services department. However, the council has since still tried to sell off the centres to private investors, as they are desperate to cut millions from their budget. Over fifteen centres in the city are now run by private companies, instead of the council. But as always, there are worries over the privatisation of such centres which were previously government-backed.

The mothers at Fiddlers Lane Primary School are stood in a group, some slowly rocking pushchairs, some grappling with small toddlers who are intent on pulling their parents hair. From the distance, they are talking about the simplest of things, but moving closer it is clear that they are in fact drawing up yet another plan of action. The planning of their protests is not an easy job, and each day is an opportunity to speak to newspapers, television news, and radio stations. Their armour may be jeans and a cosy jumper, but their goal is planned and ready to go.

Sue Campayne is just one of the mothers who have worked tirelessly since the closures were announced at the end of March. She has been instrumental in the campaign, helping to raise awareness of the potential closure on social media like Facebook. The ‘Fight the Closure of our Sure Start Centres – Irlam and Cadishead’ page has received over 1,000 members since being created just over two weeks ago, and many organisers have been blown away by the sheer success of the protest on the internet alone.

“I am so surprised about the success of our campaign, because I think the community has a lot on its plate at the moment, like anybody else.

“But I think it just shows how much the families in this area need and want this service. They value it and everybody is thinking ‘enough is enough’ now. The cuts are biting too hard and they’re affecting everybody. It’s just too much.”

Sue was quick to elaborate on her views on the cuts and was insistent on making it clear who she felt was to blame for the potential threats to Sure Start centres.

“In my view, I would hold the government and the Prime Minister to account for it because having looked at the way in which other councils have been managing their services, our services run very efficiently.”

Clearly frustrated at this point, Sue began to fold her arms before continuing:

“Our centres operate out of small amounts of space within existing schools, they can’t possibly be costing a lot to run and yet they’re providing a huge amount of service to the area. If the cuts from the government to the council are biting that hard, then I think they’re too much.”

Salford City Council says that it needs to make around £1million pounds worth of cuts across its services. But many parents, including Tanya Swindon, are upset that no replacement scheme has been announced if Sure Start were to close.

“No, they have not said anything. There will be four community hubs, (merged Sure Start centres) but our nearest hub from Irlam will be in Winton, which is, if you don’t drive, two bus journeys. That is £4 every day. But we have older children, and by the time we dropped them off at school we would not get to Winton for the early-years sessions, because many of them start at 9:30am. So basically, we’re without anything. We only have a leisure centre, but again that is plagued by costs.”

On the face of it, the closure of eight Sure Start centres and the opening of four as community hubs doesn’t sound like a bad idea, but logistical and transport problems seem to ruin the fair-sounding deal. The hectic nature of a parent’s morning would surely be even worse if this was their only option.
There is also an issue of cost. Can all families, some deprived and facing benefit cuts as it is, be expected to pay up to £4 a day in bus tickets just to let their child learn and interact? For many, it is an issue which the council has failed to do their homework on.

Another aspect to the council’s plea-bargaining is an ‘outreach’ service, staff visiting homes to check on young children and offer advice to parents. But a similar service from the NHS already exists and not all Sure Start families would be eligible for the service.

Assistant Mayor for Children’s Services, Councillor John Merry, gave a quote explaining the council’s decision:

“We (The Council) are trying to save £1million pounds from the children’s centres budget as part of the £26million cuts forced on us by the government this year.

“We are trying to protect as many staff jobs as possible, so that services to families can continue, particularly in their own homes.

It is a straightforward and very difficult choice between cutting staff and cutting buildings.”

The parents in Irlam stand and talk to others, mentioning the Facebook page, the imminent arrival of printed posters and banners, and it can’t help but be noticed that these women are now local celebrities, if not heroes. No, there are no flashing lights of paparazzi, or shouts or jeers for them to pose and smile, but these women are being respected day-after-day because of their commitment to their community.

The respect for these parents comes from the fact that each and every family is dealing with their own affairs – and it’s not until you speak to them that you begin to understand just how crucial Sure Star is to them.
Sue Campayne, who fiercely and eloquently makes her point about who she thinks is to blame for the potential closures, soothes when describing how Sure Start helps her family on a daily basis. Her demeanour remains defiant, yet there is a noticeable sense of admiration when she speaks of the centre. Her voice characterises itself as somebody who is pleading, like many of the other parents are, for the future of the centre.

“The most recent thing I’ve done with the Sure Start centre is a parenting course, which is an internationally recognised, fully researched parenting course which has helped me manage my children’s behaviour.”

Sue carried on, and made it all the more clear why she is fighting so hard:

“I have a child who’s got some quite difficult behaviour which affects school. And it’s helped me to manage those behaviours better with him. It’s been so valuable to my family. We’ve had experiences here that we wouldn’t have had anywhere else. From speech and language to healthy eating courses, every aspect of bringing up my children has been helped by this centre.”

“Is that alright” she questions after finishing the interview, bitterly certain that she hasn’t spoken as well as she could have. It’s telling, and it becomes clear that these parents aren’t used to this, and maybe aren’t even comfortable with it. Yet they strive on, and as a Granada van nearby drives away, a sense of relief waves itself upon the group. As the school bell rings like a klaxon at the start of a race, the parents begin to make a move. Listening, it’s clear that today’s diary is jam-packed with more ways to protest. The latest idea is t-shirts, ‘bold blue’ in colour, one mother exclaims, to make sure that their S.O.S campaign stands out.

They stroll out of the gate, toddlers running ahead and behind, oblivious to the determination of their parents. As they walk, the word ‘hope’ echoes around them. They know they may not succeed, but they’ll fight for as long as they are able. The power of people truly is apparent with these parents, and we can only admire them for it.

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Domestic abuse and the new ways to expose the hidden problem

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Walking down any ordinary street in Salford, it is astonishing to even contemplate that behind some doors will be abusive relationships. With tables suggesting that we have the highest number of incidents throughout Greater Manchester though, many are obviously silent victims. But with new volunteer led support groups and national laws coming into force, there are clear plans of a brighter future for those who have escaped violent partners.

 Jane Gregory is just one woman who has made it her mission to protect the vulnerable from an agonising and abusive relationship.

In the early part of this year, she founded the Salford Survivor Project. The group aims to support those going through, or having gone through, an abusive relationship.

Jane was prompted to act after a number of murders in Salford. She said that it is local victims Linzi Ashton and also Leanne McNuff, who was killed by an ex-partner, who made her determined to set up the volunteer-led group. Her emotions ran high when thinking of the victims, and she openly admits to once crying when thinking of Linzi Ashton’s two children left without a mother.

“I decided this year that enough was enough,” she said. “Support, campaigning and awareness is needed to stop the abuse.

“Linzi Ashton and Leanne McNuff should not die in vain. Lessons need to be learnt, and the Salford Survivor Project will hopefully be a legacy for them for years to come.”

 The story of Linzi Ashton made national headlines when her body was found at her home in late June. Her ex-partner, Michael Cope, is currently on trial having pleaded not guilty.

 Jane’s daughter was also a victim of domestic violence. But the six years that she suffered were put to an end when her friend Leanne McNuff, mentioned earlier, was killed. “Leanne saved my daughter’s life because then she decided to leave the abuse for good,” said Jane. “She knew that she couldn’t carry on living with a man who could lash out.

“He’d first attacked her when she was just 19, and on one occasion threatened to rape her before trying to rip the gas cooker from the wall. She knew she had to leave.”

 There is no doubt that Jane’s group is a step in the right direction for protecting victims. But volunteer groups like this are up against startling figures, one revealing that last year there were 1,526 domestic abuse incidents reported to Greater Manchester Police over Christmas and New Year alone.

 There are of course other more prominent groups helping victims daily. Women’s Aid, which was set up in 1974, works at regional and national levels. Dawn Redshaw, who is the manager of the Salford office, said that domestic abuse in Salford is a major issue.

“We’ve got one of the highest percentages and I think we’ve got one of the highest rates of domestic abuse in Greater Manchester. We dealt with over 5,500 calls last year.

“Only 30% of these calls were reported to the police, because many victims are too afraid to take it to that level.”

 Working long hours at a small office in the heart of Salford, Dawn explained how the recent murders in the area had went some way to make other victims speak out before it’s too late.

“The more aware the threat is; people feel more confident to come forward. More victims are coming forward and not suffering in silence like they have for over thirty years.”

 But many noted that the police also need to be trained more about how to deal with a victim who has decided to come forward. Looking back, Jane Gregory felt that her daughter was mistreated by police on a number of occasions. “The domestic violence unit informed my daughter that she was not high risk enough to be given a home alarm as the abuser had not been in contact,” she explained.

Dawn Redshaw of Women’s Aid also voiced concern, saying “police need to train more specialist officers that are going out to the houses, because we’ve got one of the best domestic violence units in Greater Manchester but the officers who are on the beat are not being told what to look for.” She went on to describe how whilst many steps are being made to make things better, some laws and practices remain in the force which ‘take steps back once again.’

 Dawn did however raise her eyebrow at the thought of volunteer-led groups like Salford Survivor Project. Whilst being in support of them, she insisted that they ‘must be careful.’

“My staff are all trained by a Home Office scheme called MARAC and they receive specialist advocacy training, so how are these local groups that are just setting up managing” she questioned.

 When asked about this, Jane Gregory, with a puzzled tone in her voice, insisted that all of the volunteers who handle victims one-to-one, called mentors, are trained and ex-survivors themselves, so to ‘relate’ to the person needing support. She also said that these mentors provide aftercare, something she said was lacking for many victims who have escaped abuse.

 Both managers from Salford Survivor Project and Women’s Aid had the same distinct message for the local and national governments – aftercare is key. Currently, restraining orders are common practice but many are not held for a long enough time. “Many women are being tracked down and murdered after they’ve left their partner – we need more protection after somebody has left a violent relationship,” Dawn Redshaw explained. She went on to say that local government “are tending to the higher risk stuff and forgetting therapeutic work.”

 With a tone of voice which sounded as if she was willing for people to understand the seriousness of aftercare, she analysed how domestic abuse works.

“Victims of domestic abuse are linked to torture and the tactics used by the perpetrator to abuse women is what was used in prisoner of war camps. People in those camps are often victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and are given long term support and counselling – these women are not getting that, and this is what they need.”

 CLARE’S LAW

 Whilst aftercare may be a problem, new laws have made those who work in the domestic abuse sector feel more positive. Many groups have voiced support for a new scheme being made open to the public called Clare’s Law, which gives people the opportunity to ask the police in confidence whether their partner has any previous convictions for domestic violence. The law was piloted in Greater Manchester earlier this year, with over 146 applications being made, 22 of them in Salford.

 The law is named after Clare Wood, who was strangled to death in 2009 by her boyfriend who had a history of violence. Clare’s father, Michael Brown, was supported by Rt Hon Hazel Blears, MP for Salford and Eccles.

 After being given the green light to be rolled out nationally on 25th November, Hazel Blears spoke through a spokesperson, commenting “(Clare’s Law) has the potential not only to change people’s lives for the better, but also to save lives, so I am absolutely delighted that it is being rolled out.

“I know how dearly Michael wishes that this option had been available to Clare, and of his belief that if it had been; she might still be with us today.”

 Mrs Blears was an advocate of the law, even organising a parliamentary launch for the campaign at Westminster. The law went on to receive support from many from the political spectrum. She was also a key player in allowing Michael Brown to speak personally to Home Secretary Theresa May.

 “The roll-out of the scheme is a testament to the hard work of everyone who has been involved in our campaign, including Clare’s dad. It is also testament to the dedication of all the police officers and partners who have been involved in making the four police schemes a success,” Mrs Blears said.

 Despite political delight, and comfort for the father of Clare Wood, Dawn Redshaw of Women’s Aid mentioned an astonishing fact – Clare’s Law is something which we’ve “technically always had.

“Police have always had the power to disclose information but it’s a power which has now been tidied up.”

 She did however go on to say that she thinks that the more unified law will now “work for the victims.”

CHRISTMAS

 Nonetheless, Christmas will be a tumultuous time for some. As stated earlier, there is a steep rise in the number of police callouts over the December, and Dawn Redshaw offers a theory as to why.

“I think the problem is that they try to keep the family together, and when Christmas Day has been and gone, all the tension and stress builds up, and drinking alcohol adds to the dynamics.”

 “My staff will be working in A&E from next week with specialist trained officers and specialist safe-guarding nurses and what we’ll do is try to use the domestic violence protection orders to help those in need.”

Written in December 2013 as a university assignment

Facebook: Change for changing sake?

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Last week Facebook unveiled a brand new design for its news feed, an integral part of its site introduced in 2006.

The news feed, which creators say is less cluttered, comes with a host of new features. Bigger images are seen across the feed, information is more spaced out, and multiple feeds are able to be viewed at one time. The same look is also streamlined across all platforms for the first time.

As is the usual case with change, it seemed unwanted by many. I personally felt the same; it always seems that just as you feel comfortable with a certain layout or style, the big social media groups introduce what seem like vast and unnecessary changes. This is apparent for Facebook as well as Twitter.  

Facebook claims to have extensively researched before designing this new look and says it used input from its estimated 175 million everyday users. But did it also use design features from its rivals?

I’ve seen multiple users of the new look news feed mention that it looks coincidentally similar to the design of Google+ , launched by the search engine giant in 2011. The minimal colour palette and clutter-free design certainly seems similar and it would be no surprise if certain elements were seized upon by its rival, just as Facebook’s ‘share’ feature relates similarly to Twitter’s ‘retweet’ tool.

Here are some comments from Twitter which I have collected in a Storify blog. You can see I pursued one comment specifically to find out why @JAGDrummer felt that Facebook had used features from Google+.

Despite the changes it’s clear that Facebook will continue on its dominance in the social media sector. But of course it won’t be that long before we see another load of changes coming in, and we’ll all be complaining again!

Borgen: The idealist politician, the ideal political drama

ImageAs BBC Four revealed its list of new and returning dramas this week, there was a sigh of relief amongst millions when the third and final series of Borgen was included.

Borgen (The Castle) is a Danish drama first broadcast in the UK in January 2012. It focuses on the tribulations of the country’s first female Prime Minister, Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) a moderate party leader who unexpectedly wins an election.

Birgitte’s ever growing tied-up hair, dubbed the ‘power bun’, became as well-known as Sarah Lund’s knitted jumpers during the shows second season. But even Sidse herself admits that it was The Killing which ‘paved the way’ for Borgen:

Britain’s increasingly keen eye for Danish dramas is unexpected. I never thought I’d enjoy a subtitled drama. However Borgen is gripping. Birgitte is an idealist, a politician trying to create a better Denmark. But she is thrown by coalition chaos, international crises and much more.

Borgen is filled with rich characters that all have backstories and storylines which make them feel real. Birgitte’s personal life falls apart and we see how ruthless politics can be.

The new BBC Four trailer shows various shots from series three, including Birgitte in a passionate embrace. But with who?

On a visit to Edinburgh just weeks ago, Sidse Babett Knudsen sat for three Q&A sessions in front of more than 800 people. It was initially planned to be one session. There was so much demand that more tickets were printed. During the first Q&A, which I attended, hundreds cheered for Sidse as she arrived. She raised both her arms in a jovial manner and laughed as the applause carried on and on.

Sidse, (pronounced like Caesar, she says) is for me, the stand out in Borgen. She makes Birgitte Nyborg a politician who is likeable. Now that doesn’t happen often…

ImageThanks to Noble PR and Nordic Noir TV for permission to use photograph/video.

Me

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So, my very first blog post on my very first blog. Admittedly this is not my first ‘go’ at a blog, in fact I’ve had a couple down the years. Like a diary, I thought I’d keep note of all my thoughts and musings, but instead, after one post, the blog was forgotten.

This time I hope things are different. Not least because I have to embrace blogging for a #digijourno (I know this isn’t Twitter, but I do like that hashtag) or Digital Journalism assessment. But I’d also like to make blogging a regular thing. I finally feel like I have things to talk about at length, whereas when I was younger I didn’t develop any idea or thought that I had for a blog.

So enough with my attempt at starting a blog, and more about me. I’m a 20-year-old student from Hartlepool in the North East, the town made famous for ‘canoe man’ John Darwin. It’s my town’s little claim to fame! I’m studying journalism at the University of Salford, based at MediaCityUK. It was my first choice and I’m still proud of myself for getting a place there. Moving from a small town to a big city was, of course, nerve-wracking but I’m so glad I did it.

In terms of journalism, I’d love to work for an established broadcaster. Who wouldn’t? Its a tough world out there, I know. I’m interested in international journalism mainly, particularly the Middle East. The continuing Arab uprisings, the Israel/Palestine story, and much more.  I also like to keep informed with domestic news and politics, of course!
So, thats me… and my aspirations. Stick around!