Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: family

Why Is It So Hard? It’s Time for Action

Last year I was lucky enough to attend a ceremony in London where Jean Vanier received the Templeton Prize. Vanier (the founder of L’Arche and many other great initiatives) said to the assembled audience:

“There is a revolution going on. We are beginning to realise that everyone, every human being is important. We are beginning to see that every human being is beautiful. At the heart of this revolution are not the powerful, the wealthy or intelligent. It is people with disabilities who are showing us what is important – love, community and the freedom to be ourselves.”

This is so true. Despite austerity, despite confused and damaging Government policies, despite a culture of consumerism and ongoing prejudice – people with learning disabilities and their families continue to show that they not only belong, but they can lead the way to a better, more civilised and respectful society.

John O’Brien and Beth Mount, in their brilliant book Pathfinders, describe how the leadership that only people and families can provide, is constantly undermined by systems that keep people poor, drain them of energy and limit their potential. Yet even still, the sun keeps breaking through, for instance, they cite research from Canada where families were asked about the impact of the child with a disability in their lives:

  • More than 70% said their family was stronger
  • Almost 90% said that a wonderful person had come into their lives
  • Almost 90% said they’d learned what was really important in life
  • Over 50% said that they now laugh more

My rather childish response on first reading this was to shout: “Suck on that Peter Singer!” [Peter Singer being the eugenic philosopher who wrote Should the Baby Live? The Problem of Handicapped Infants.]

But it can still seem so hard. It can still seem so unfair. There are so many odds stacked up against families. Money continues to pour into dreadful institutional services – demeaning and abusing people. The system continues to control people, to place barriers before them and burdens on their backs.

Why is it so hard? Why do so many of the systems that should be there to help people get in the way, often doing harm, rather than good?

One concept that many of my friends and colleagues use to describe this problem is Serviceland – they picture the strange systems and assumptions of professionals, managers, social workers as a peculiar world unto itself. A world divorced from community, a world where limited assumptions have become normal, a world where small problems become huge barriers to change.

But while I recognise the truth of this description I also worry that if we are not careful we can end up further burdening families by failing to challenge services and professionals to offer the right kind of support. It may not be normal, but it is still quite possible for professionals to:

  • Listen properly and offer good advice
  • Form meaningful and supportive relationships
  • Organise assistance which the person and family can direct
  • Reduce the burdens on people’s backs

In fact I know many people who are doing this and I know many people who welcome this kind of respectful and effective support. Service providers and professionals are not the enemy – even if they spend too much time listening to the system and too little to people and families.

The question is then how can we get better at offering good help and assistance?

The most important answer to this is to put the person and their family in the driving seat. Professionals can only lead the way in emergency situations and for very short periods – ultimately power must reside with the person.

New systems of control, like direct payments and personal budgets, have made a difference here. It is now possible for people to take control and organise the support they need. This is good – it is a valid option – but surely it cannot be the case that the only way people and families can get good support is to do everything themselves.

We know that some service providers are able to offer what I’m going to call Personalised Support:

  • They work with the person to help them get a good life that has true meaning
  • They listen to the person and put them in control, but don’t leave them without support
  • They help people pick and manage their own assistants, and don’t force them to be employers
  • They create systems that are tailored to the person and keep them safe
  • They respect and protect the person’s money, they know that they work for the person

I know that there are organisations and supporters working like this all over the world. I’ve met them in Scotland, England, Canada, the USA, Finland, Australia and New Zealand and I’m sure they are many more elsewhere. There are not enough, but these kinds of organisations do exist and we need to develop more of them.

It is for this reason that the Centre for Welfare Reform has decided to start actively supporting the kinds of change that will make a real difference to people and families. Not just for people with learning disabilities, but also for older people, children, people with physical and mental health problems and many more. It is time for us to start to learn from each other – to share best practice and to set our standards higher.

To begin this process we have launched an international survey to begin to map and measure good practice in Personalised Support around the world. This first survey is targeted at service providers – we want to find out who out there is trying to do this right and what they’ve achieved so far. We want to understand the problems people face – so we can begin to work together to move things forward.

If you are a service provider then please complete our survey.

[No longer active – survey is finished – report due soon]

If you know a good service provider or an organisation trying to change then please share the survey with them too.

We are already well into the 21st Century. We cannot keep waiting for change to begin. We must start acting according to our values and beliefs. If we say that people are full citizens, if we believe in inclusion and community, then we need to get organised and start to do the work.

Taxing Love

You can’t redistribute love. 

Love is the most important thing in life. It is what keeps us strong, makes great children and build good citizens.

The government cannot take away someone else’s love and use it on other people. Love is bound up with real human relationships, commitments and families.

However, while the government cannot redistribute love it can tax love and often does so in ways that are highly damaging. In the UK system we find love taxed in many ways:

  • If you are in poverty and live together then you lose benefits
  • A family where one partner is working loses the tax allowances of the non-working partner
  • If you need care or support you are often deemed ineligible if you have family in your life

So we punish people for love, impose taxes on families, means-test family strength. For example, disabled people have sometimes found social workers encouraging them to get a divorce in order to be entitled to higher levels of benefits or social care.

The design of the current tax-benefit system is anti-love – it punishes and penalises people for being in relationships and it incentivises family breakdown. The answer is not to reduce benefits but to design a system that does not punish love.

The Paideia Proposal

The Paideia Proposal was an educational reform plan proposed by Mortimer Adler in the USA. The description of the plan below is drawn from the article Reconstituting the Schools, included in the 1988 edition of his book Reforming Education, The Opening of the American Mind.

The Paideia Proposal is a system of liberal education intended for all children, including those who will never attend a university. It was a response to what Adler characterized as our antidemocratic or undemocratic educational system, a holdover from the 19th century, when the understanding of universal suffrage and basic human rights fell short of 20th century expectations. Adler further believed that a system oriented primarily for vocational training has as its objective the training of slaves, not free men, and that the only preparation necessary for vocational work is to learn how to learn, since many skilled jobs would be disappearing.

The Paidea Proposal was based upon the following assumptions, which contradict beliefs widely held by educators:

  1. All children are educable
  2. Education is never completed in school or higher institutions of learning, but is a life long process of maturity for all citizens
  3. The primary cause of learning is the activity of the child’s mind, which is not created by, but only assisted by the teacher
  4. Multiple types of learning and teaching must be utilized in education, not just teacher lecturing, or telling
  5. A student’s preparation for earning a living is not the primary objective of schooling

The relevance of the Paidea Proposal to our present difficulties is obvious. Clearly the damaging assumptions that Adler challenges are still around today and they still damage the spirit and capacities of today’s children and adults.

However, and at the same time, it could be said that many of the failed reforms of past decades have also drawn on some of Adler’s counter-cultural assumptions. His optimism about the capacity of educators to include more and more children within their academic disciplines also seems to have fed a decline in academic standards and discipline as educators are told to be more inclusive and more flexible.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we continue to see education as merely a professional process that is done to our children – to prepare them for labour markets. If we were to truly follow through on Adler’s assumptions would we not want to consider a more radical approach to education? The springboard for a child’s education is the love of the family, not the love of educators. We want our teachers to love and honour their subjects and find effective methods for communicating those subjects to our children. But we erode the family’s authority and responsibility by taking away form them the ability to shape their child’s education.

Strangers are much less likely to see potential within a child than loving parents.

The community does have a wider role here, both to support and discipline the family in the fulfilling of their responsibility. But no school-only approach is really going to work for most children. We need to begin developing family-based approaches to education.

Furthermore we need to challenge the notion that the state is competent to set a curriculum based on its flawed guesstimates of what the labour market will demand at some point in the future (all the more flawed because markets don’t ‘demand’ anything). Again we may still want to think about explicit accounts of the basic skills that are critical to our citizenship – but we should much more realistic about our capacity to foresee the market-value of skills we try and impose on our children today. Listening to the child’s capacities is more likely to be a reliable foundation for meaningful success that any sketch of our future economy.

It does not help those who are educationally disenfranchised to include them in a system that is flawed and failing. Instead we must attend to the conditions that really support motivated learning, personal development and real excellence in multiple fields: academic and non-academic.

 

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