That British Class Thing

On top of the things James Brown said were great about “Living in America”, an additional one for me is the outsider’s perspective it gives on my own country.  Interest in the UK is now fuelled by lockdown binges of Peaky Blinders on the one hand and Downton Abbey on the other.  A confused American friend recently asked “So where do you come from on this British class thing?”

In his 1960s infamous and groundbreaking  comedy sketch  John Cleese ridiculed our class system. It feels like an awkward subject today as it did then.  Many of us just wish class had retreated along with black and white TV, outside loos and coal sheds. So I reformulated the question in my head to the less awkward “which type of community did you grow up in?”  After that pontification, my answer was : “poor, urban and multicultural”

I wrote about the poverty bit before, We were so far at the bottom of the ladder, we didn’t even make it onto the Cleese class sketch. I spent my formative years in inner city  South Birmingham and North London. Without any fuss, we grew up with a diversity which was as influential as class in shaping our identity . Many of our school mates were only second or third generation British. Their grandparents had arrived in the migration waves that followed the second world war, forged ties across communities and faced down the duel struggle of poverty and racism.

There were rites of passage for all teenagers . First kiss, first football game…and in those days first smoke. But poor, urban kids like us had specific obsessions: Music, fashion and navigating trouble.

You could hear all types of music in our neighborhood, but Reggae was the main soundtrack and everyone wanted to be a DJ. In those days this was usually through a “sound system” with wobbly speakers piled on top of each other, booming out fresh imports from Kingston at neighbourhood parties. The average age of first buying a vinyl record would have been around 11 or 12.

Reggae and punk had been the most subversive music of the previous teenage generation . Back then, punk bands had no DJs to spin tunes between performances, so they hired reggae sound systems.  The Punk and Rasta collaboration that followed was celebrated in Punky Reggae Party by Bob Marley and inspired a uniquely British, urban sound. It can be traced from the The Specials and the Beat and through to UK streetsoul collectives like Soul II Soul and Massive Attack and on to Amy Winehouse and even Stormzy. We loved Jamaican Reggae and US R& B, but we also had a sound that came from our own communities and reflected our experiences. It was political, but not ideological. It reflected our anxiety about violence and unemployment. The teenage toaster of the Beat, Ranking Roger sang of “Love and Unity”. Community and shared struggles above hatred and racism.

Despite our poverty, we were also irrationally obsessed with style. The precise geometry of where a trouser hem ended and a shoe began  and the colour of the socks in between.  The nurturing care of a pair of Brogues, High Tops or Nikes. The shame of being turned out in something below par. We were not peacockish. You just had to hit a certain standard and then you could go about your regular business.

The diversity affected the way we held ourselves and spoke. It was completely normal for someone of say Irish or Indian heritage to curse with a Yiddish word in a Jamaican patois accent….or the other way around.  . We were poor, but our style and music was our source of dignity.

There was also a whole heap of trouble. It was not like The Wire. There were less crack dens and guns. Communities like ours could be vibrant and aspirational-with the music, Asian food, Irish pubs. But just beneath the surface, it seemed like an assault course of gangs, violence and drugs too. Joining a gang and dealing drugs were easy-access compared to healthier options. Poor kids like us did not go to university.   Those with strong, united families tended to navigate better than those from broken or dysfunctional homes. For many , our futures hung by a thread. I was a proper tearaway, kicked out of multiple schools and in trouble with the law. I was eventually rescued by the influence and care of a wonderful teacher

It was a blessing to grow up with so much diversity. As Ezra Klein wrote in “Why We Are Polarised”: research shows how super-diversity with multiple identities and influences sets you up well for co-existence. Difference only becomes divisive and polarising when there are just two sides facing off across a single fault line. This is worse when bad politicians amplify identity above ideas and hate above hope. That type of politician is not faring so well in this pandemic. When difference is cut across multiple lines, it is a strength.

Covid 19 exposes the inequities of class and race, but it also shows how much we yearn for community, not tribe. As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote”Community is based on mutual affection and tribalism on mutual hatred”. In this pandemic we are now united by our shared vulnerability and dependence on the same public systems and low pay delivery workers. Even our conservative Prime Minister acknowledged that our National Health Service is powered by love. Its workforce is radically diverse and disproportionately hails from similar streets to the ones I described above.  Thats where I come from in the “British Class thing” . Here’s to Love and Unity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COVID-19, Violence & The Need To Act with Urgency

Amidst the fear and uncertainty of the Covid19 lockdown in China, 26 year old Lele experienced something more terrifying than the virus itself. Her husband fashioned a weapon from a kitchen stool and beat her semi-conscious as she held her 11 month old baby in her arms. There was nowhere to go, no services to support, no possibility to flee. She had to spend several more weeks with her abuser before she could reach safety.

On the other side of the world in Greenland, the capital city banned alcohol sales to prevent growing child abuse during lockdown. In India the were 92,000 calls to a child abuse helpline in the first 11 days of lockdown. France experienced a 34% increase in abuse helpline calls by children and an even bigger increase in the number of peers and school mates calling on behalf of friends. . As closed schools and stay at home orders spread, so did the risk of abuse.This pattern played out across the world, in three ways:

The first is the way that lockdown piles pressure on households . Even the calmest, securely attached and ‘child development-aware’ parents are being tested by ‘pandemic-parenting’. Often they are working in uncertain jobs while teaching ‘cabin fever kids’ while adapting to loss of space and privacy. But most will not suddenly become abusive or neglectful. In more volatile families however, this stress can spill over into violence or exacerbate existing abuse patterns. The biggest beneficiaries of #StayAtHome are the serial abusers who practice coercive control and other forms of psychological aggression. the lockdown increase the likelihood of adverse childhood experiences.

Secondly, the means of reporting severe child abuse or neglect have been dramatically reduced. According to the US Department of Health & Human Services child protection interventions are initiated by reports from teachers, social workers or nurses. Social distancing measures have reduced reporting. From the 1980s onwards increased reporting of family violence was a major mark of success and progress in protecting the rights of women and children. Momentarily, reporting is in decline.

The third issue, is complex but equally serious. In normal circumstances less than 1 or 2 % of children are subject to interventions by social workers. Yet Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) research across populations suggests between 15 and 20% of children are affected by chronic, multiple forms of abuse, neglect or dysfunctional parenting at home. This 15 to 20% of children are now in a state of isolation. Children have a biological imperative to have protective, soothing relationships with an adult and are simply not built to be isolated. When a positive relationship at home is absent, the child interprets it at risk. It over-activates their stress response system which wreaks havoc on all aspects of healthy development. Unaddressed it can lead to catastrophic health and wellbeing outcomes throughout life. But when the stress is buffered and soothed by a healthy relationship with a teacher, grandparent or friend and the child is made to feel they matter on an individual level-then the recovery can begin. Right now around the world, hundreds of millions of children have been cut off from those relationships.

This is deeply distressing. Accounts of childhood maltreatment often recall a despairing loneliness and unbearable slowness. Loneliness when the parent who should soothe the pain, is actually the source of that pain. Slowness during long pauses of waiting for a violent outburst or scarce moments of maybe feeling loved. The isolation of the pandemic amplifies this pain exponentially. It is malleable with no end in sight. Relationships with teachers, grandparents and friends were cut off suddenly with no date for restoration.

We need to act with urgency on all three issues. Governments and communities could appoint ministers or local leaders to coordinate child wellbeing during lockdown. A priority must be engagement with parents on managing stress, home schooling and positive discipline, tailored to lockdown conditions. Online and media platforms could be adapted to facilitate a conversation with families and disseminate pandemic-specific parenting tips, similar to the global UNICEF parenting hub. Social protection and housing support must be adapted to reduce the stress on vulnerable families. Behavioural insights and technology innovations should be used to understand how we can best support parents and protect children.

Expanded helplines and channels that enable neighbours and friends to report maltreatment anonymously need to be provided . Equally we need to encourage extended family and friends to maintain regular communication with children in lockdown with abusive or neglectful parents. One of the most moving stories of the pandemic so far is the upsurge in calls by friends of victims reporting maltreatment in France.

Innovation and adaptation could help teachers and social workers restore normal levels of communication with children, despite lockdown. If they are not giving lessons, can they call each child for five minutes? These measures need to be population-wide and not just targeted to 1-2% of children who are child protection cases.

Decades ago, it became normal to ensure every child was immunised against deadly disease with a vaccine. In the future we could hope for a world were every child is buffeted from trauma by a calm and predictable adult connection. A world in which we improve prospects for parenting in every family at the earliest possible stage and maltreatment is managed and prevented as a part of routine public health . All we can do now is demand protection for Lele, her baby and millions of abused children and women locked down, unreported and isolated around the world as part of our immediate and shared struggle to defeat Covid19

 

 

 

 

 

A Children’s Pandemic

A month of Pandemic measures and I already wince at a handshake or touched face on Netflix. Just yesterday, New York was bustling, packed and confident. Now it is cautious, dispersed and masked. If our relationship with the world around us has been instantly transformed, what about the impact upon children in their formative years?

It may be the single blessing of this ruthless pandemic that children are least vulnerable to the virus. But sadly not the potentially deadly ricochets and aftershocks it leaves in its wake. This week the UN Secretary General reported that health and food system impacts will increase other childhood diseases and malnutrition. The number of children living in extreme poverty is projected to increase from 386 to as much as 450 million as a direct result of a new Covid19-induced economic crisis. Extreme poverty is always a killer and likely to take more children than the virus itself. Perhaps reversing 2-3 years of global progress on preventable childhood deaths.

There is barely a child on the planet whose life has not been affected by the Pandemic in some way. 1.5 billion are at home and not school. At least tens of millions of children will be born into this crisis, mostly in conditions that would have been different if it weren’t for the pandemic. Children cannot see their friends and suffer major disruptions to learning, life and play. Sports tournaments, excursions and hackathons all shelved, teenage romance on hold. A recent study suggested that prolonged quarantine in general can make a person 4 times more likely to have poor mental health. The pandemic shocks touch all children .

Fortunately many children have the shock absorbers of a safe home, loving family and freedom from poverty, social exclusion or war. If just one from the set is missing, the impact of the pandemic is likely to be deeper and life-changing. There is now a new single thread of additional vulnerability tying together children in tightly packed slums in African cities with those in camps in Syria and Yemen. It extends to the low income children in rich countries like the UK and US and those at risk of severe acute malnutrition in the poorest countries. It also hits the approximately 5% of the world’s children with disability and the 15-20% in seriously dysfunctional, neglectful and violent homes. This pandemic has been merciless in piling more pressure on to those least able to absorb it.

The bottom billion have no means for social distancing or hand washing. Their health systems often have just a few ventilators and Intensive care beds. They are not thinking of flattening the curve, but rather a couple of dozen cases flattening their entire health system. Prevention of other childhood diseases is already disrupted, including vaccination programmes on hold in 23 countries. 30 million conflict affected children are dependent on humanitarian assistance which is likely to be battered as supply chains buckle and aid financing and fiscal space contract. 40% of the world’s children don’t even have hand washing facilities.

Remote learning is a great solution for most children, but even here in New York city it is estimated that 300,000 low income children don’t have the digital means to participate. School closures will widen the two main learning gaps. The first between countries with high performing education systems who have the agility and means to switch and those countries which cannot run their education system effectively at the best of times. The second gap is between the learning outcomes of wealthy and poor children within countries. 368.5 million of those poor children have also been cut off from essential school feeding programmes which are often the only source of nutrition. Children in need of special learning support at school or dependent on relationships with teachers and friends to mitigate the pain of violent and neglectful homes are suddenly adrift. All against a rising backdrop of increased reporting of intimate partner violence and child abuse from India to Greenland to Australia and all points in between.

If the Coronavirus was a pantomime villain waiting behind a curtain for an opportune moment to pounce, it did so with precision. Thus far, dwindling internationalism has made us too weak to address the Pandemic in the whole. But you cannot partially address a pandemic. Even during the Cold War, the USSR and the West realized this and joined forces to end smallpox. And thats what our polarised world needs to do now. If everyone is not safe, no-one is safe. The virus shows our interdependence and in the end, maybe thats its virtue.

This is not insurmountable. WHO, UNICEF, the Red Cross, scientists and artists have joined forces in the Solidarity Fund to mobilise resources for a vaccine and for prevention and response work in low and middle income countries. Scientists shared the genetic sequencing on the virus very early on and are collaborating across borders despite nationally-minded governments. There is also a global initiative to galvanise leaders into more collaborative and internationally-minded policy-making in response to the pandemic.

We have also seen national governments and societies prioritise children. 83 countries have adapted their social protection systems to help shield poor families and children from the crisis. Health, education and social work systems have often adapted to maintain basic services. Armies of school and health volunteers are helping minimise the impact of the pandemic upon children.

We should now see maintaining supply chains, aid flows and health systems in poor and humanitarian contexts as a first line response for us all, even though it seems far away. Look how far the virus has already travelled. We may also need to invest in social protection to help the bottom billion socially distance, particularly those in densely packed and poorly resourced urban slum and refugee/migrant camps.

In wealthy and poorer countries alike we should support adaptions for teachers and social workers to have exactly the same amount of contact with children as they had before the crisis and for school feeding programmes to be delivered to homes. When adapting education we need to prevent remote learning widening the gap between wealthy and poor.

Albert Camus may have appreciated the importance of teacher contact and continued learning. In 1957 he dedicated his Nobel Prize for literature to the teacher who was there for him in the midst of poverty and adversity. His masterpiece The Plague is once again a bestseller and remains a testimony to our interdependence and collective strength in the face of this crisis. In it, he wrote: “No longer were there individual destinies, only a collective destiny, made of the disease and emotions shared by all.” .

Reasons to be Humble

It is humbling to work on global health and humanitarian communications in this moment. The vastness and vulnerability of the human race are breathtaking in equal measure. Talking with people in Nairobi, Geneva or Bangkok on how Covid19 could quickly collapse a fragile health system in a conflict zone or disrupt a medical supply chain on one continent causing a deadly drug shortage on another. Consulting on strategies for incentivising rebellious European teens to stay at home or to help impoverished children in low income countries stay safe without soap and water. Even the uncertainty of where we are heading. We are all vulnerable, in different, but equal ways. There is no ‘us and them’ this time.

People in Liverpool, Lagos and Laos are all social distancing and uber- handwashing as the virus wafts right across isolationist and nativist barriers. The nationalist orientations of just yesterday seem small and redundant today. We are on a war footing with a deadly enemy, but Covid19 is not an ethnic or ideological foe. Like all living things it simply wants to reproduce. We cannot counter it with an alternative ideology. We need the two things that populism seeks to diminish: science and international collaboration. A solution found in one country or more, will become a solution for all countries everywhere.

I have been lucky to work alongside epidemiologists in large scale humanitarian responses, but never on this scale. Public health, along with universal education and social protection, are amongst the UN’s basic international human rights tenets. In disaster and war, maintaining public health is a recognised humanitarian principle. Good public health is when societies improve health outcomes for all: reduced child mortality, non-communicable disease and longer life expectancy. It is also our first line of defence against a deadly enemy like Covid19.

The global child survival revolution of previous WHO/UNICEF and public health generations dramatically reduced child mortality by attacking disease transmission. For the first time in history, major childhood diseases were stopped in their tracks. This occurred through herd immunity via mass immunisation and access to clean water and sanitation. Vaccines, clean water and Sanitation transformed our world beyond recognition and still stop more deaths than any invention since. This is the reality that many of our societies have come to take for granted for the past few decades. Until now.

Pandemics recede when the basic reproduction rate drops way below one. This is the average number of people someone with the disease will infect. The current basic reproduction rate for Covid19 is estimated at between 2 and 2.5. It is much more infectious than regular flu which has a reproduction rate of 1.3, but much less infectious than measles with a rate of up to 18.

Without vaccines or herd immunity for Covid 19, we need other means of reducing transmission. Mass testing and then isolating and caring for cases is our primary form of attack. Social distancing and rigorous hand washing are the best defensive assets we have. Often these public measures are challenging as recent politics has shrunk space and trust for public intervention. We need to rebuild it to defeat Covid19. In doing so we can build a more cohesive society, as many places did after the second world war. This is up to us.

I have seen children die in countries where herd immunity and vaccine confidence has dipped following a concerted anti-vaccination campaign . The Covid19 crisis is only a very moderate version of where they would take us. The anti-vaxxers and their friends would unravel decades of progress on the major childhood diseases and leave our children exposed to something much worse than Covid19. Deadly diseases, including measles, with a basic reproduction rate of between 5 and 18.

One example is Polio. Only two generations ago Polio was every parents worst fear. The paralysing, life changing and often deadly disease has a reproduction rate of between 5 and 7. In 1955 Jonas Salk, a virologist from a working class, Jewish migrant family in the Bronx became a global hero when he found a Polio vaccine.

Just 60 days into Covid19, we already have a vaccine being trialled. This is unprecedented and would never have happened if countries had not put the genetic sequences out in public. It will probably be a multi-national team of Jonas Salks who will deliver the final vaccine to defeat Covid19.

Mostly now we are seeing the best of ourselves. We can see that the values that have recently stripped employment rights, public services, science and international collaboration to the bare bones are flimsy and reckless. We can see that wealth makes you no less dependent on the at-risk front-line health worker or low-paid food delivery person. It is a humbling time indeed. Maybe that humility will help us regroup, rethink and defeat Covid 19. And then build a better tomorrow.

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A Tale Of Two Pandemics

Will Covid19 Widen Inequality?

With Rugby & Football postponed and social gatherings replaced by social distancing-the only hope for an exhilarating weekend was a long bicycle ride. As Hudson suburbs gave way to inner city Bronx & Harlem before the more prosperous heartland of Manhattan- a simple bike ride shows how different income groups cope with Corona Virus. In prosperous neighbourhoods, cafe bars and barbers shop were half or three quarters empty. There was not a hipster to be seen. By contrast, poor migrant areas were bustling. It’s a bike ride-not a piece of scientific research. But do high rents, poor pay, insecure employment, no sick leave & “for profit” health systems prevent the poor from social distancing? Do they need to carry on as normal? Even when they are frightened of the virus?

We may all be frightened of getting sick. But the poor often fear the sickness itself less than the life consequences. One pay check away from homelessness, the potentially ruinous out of pocket hospitalisation costs or the direct relationship between todays work-shift & tonight’s family meal. Over time the secondary costs will hit the poor the most. If children are out of school, who will look after them? Online learning is a brilliant solution for social distancing, but those who already have the worse learning outcomes also have the worse connectivity: the poor. In the end, there will be job layoffs. Corona virus will break some businesses and the working poor will be the first to go.

27 million Americans don’t have health insurance. The world’s wealthiest country equals many middle and low income countries in having dramatically worse health outcomes for it’s poor. Brits shouldn’t be smug. Low income males in the UK die almost ten years earlier than the wealthy. Many of the non-communicable diseases and conditions that render Covid 19 lethal are much more prevalent for those in poverty. In the poorest countries on the planet, weak health systems may be overwhelmed by Corona Virus. This will divert resources from other child killers such as ebola, measles, cholera and pneumonia.

Child poverty is not the only driver of lifelong inequality. Adverse childhood experiences such as family violence and neglect also lead to serious inequality throughout adulthood . How do you think #StayAtHome sounds to a child who only feels safe when they are not at home? Whose only soothing & supportive relationship is with a teacher or a school deskmate. The pandemic will turn their already fragile world upside down and minimise their chances for recovery. When schools were closed during the Ebola crisis in West Africa increased rates of sexual abuse and exploitation of children were recorded.

Privileged cultures, wealth and education rightly equip children with skillsets to better navigate complex challenges in a way that often eludes the less well off. This is highly relevant in a pandemic. The ability to distill a stream of useful facts about the virus amidst an explosion of noisy fake news. The agility to regularly absorb and update ones knowledge and act up upon it. Adaptation to change and uncertainty and knowing where to seek help. When something goes wrong for a poor or high-adversity kid and they are knocked off course, it takes them much longer to get back on their feet.

In many countries including the US and UK, inequality seems to be expanding and social mobility declining. If you grow up without university educated parents, your future prospects seem to be in decline. It is rarely articulated, but deep in the sub-conscious of working class and poor people this trend has transformed voting trends. Growing inequality has created space for populist braggarts who shun science and international cooperation. The very people who now appear shrivelled and sheepish next to scientists with international networks of practice.

Covid 19 is not just a public health crisis. It will be an economic and social crisis, a jobs crisis, a housing crisis and it will certainly be a child crisis. It needs a social strategy as well as a public health strategy. Are we the Italian balcony Sopranos who celebrate our shared humanity by singing our hearts out together? Or the hysterical supermarket goers who elbow each other out the way to buy endless supplies of loo roll? I think time will show us to be more like the sopranos, but that social strategy needs to bring us together rather than build wedges to drive us even further apart.

Do the Academy Awards Point to an Awakening on Adversity?

I am unbearable company during the Oscars. Like most US-based Brits I can’t help but do football stadium style cheering every time someone from the UK wins anything. Worse still I can’t watch films like Judy or Rocketman without analysing the”underlying messages” on insecure attachment. Nor can I enjoy The Joker, Harriet or Honeyland without giving a droning commentary on how toxic stress ruins lives. The invitations are drying up.

In case you are not clued up on the lingo: Insecure attachment is the term used to describe how poor early parental attachment undermines our ability to form healthy and nourishing relationships . Toxic stress is when prolonged childhood trauma chronically activates our stress response systems. Robust recent research now shows how people with either do worse in education, employment, physical and mental health and inter-personal relations throughout life.

From a rough estimate, about a quarter of 2020 Oscar nominee productions feature a story line with the following formula: Child trauma – healing/soothing relationships = train wreck adulthoods. Does the proliferation of these story lines in films mean our recognition of the link between early trauma and poor life outcomes ? It is not just happening in Hollywood. In the sober UK BBC Question Time a couple of weeks ago. Decorated former Police Chief Mike Barton told a studio audience that we can only reverse the London drug and crime problem if we address adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Research in the USA shows how media coverage on the theme has dramatically increased in recent years.

Our shared narratives should never be deterministic about the pathway from childhood trauma to adult dysfunction. Sometimes those with high childhood adversity flourish. But the most recent evidence suggests those with higher levels of trauma are much more likely to have poorer life outcomes. As Mike Barton may concur, they are the ones most likely to be targeted by criminals, groomers and radicalisers alike. As the US Centre for Disease Control has shown, they are also do much worse on almost every health and wellbeing indicator. The costs are huge and quantifiable. The UK Based Overseas Development Institute modestly estimated that violence against children alone (excluding the devastating global costs of child neglect) cost 8% of GDP. Conversely Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman argues that if we invest in prevention in the very beginning of childhood-the return on investment through life is up to 13-fold.

Film scripts don’t always end with trauma. They can also inspire us with recovery and resilience. Gus van Sant’s Good Will Hunting had nine Oscar nominations and won two and is one of America’s most popular films. It is perhaps the most compelling cinematic representation of how a young adult overcomes debilitating childhood trauma through connection with an empathetic witness . When the film was made, recovery through connection was only a common sense proposition. Now that proposition is firmly backed up by science base. Human connection and a sense of belonging in family, school or community provides a buffer against toxic stress. It calms the stress response system and helps rebuild the attachment model. It enables the child to build the resilience to navigate future shocks and see a lifeline to a better future. We call this science of resilience.

The opposite of Good Will Hunting’s story of recovery is the inter-generational emotional neglect suffered and transmitted by Elton John’s father in RocketMan. Deep in middle age he sings: “I can’t love, shot full of holes, I don’t feel nothing, I just feel cold“. At the extreme end of this spectrum is the character played by Joachim Pheonix in The Joker. Severe childhood trauma with no empathetic witness on the path to adulthood is costly for the individual, their family and society as a whole.

Film and literature critics often tell us that fine writing gives a tangible narrative to feelings the viewer or reader has, but could never put into words. The research shows that between 50 and 80% of any given population have experienced one ACE and between 10 and 20% have experienced 4 or more. Everyone, everywhere is affected by childhood adversity. We don’t talk about it easily. We could assume it has been taboo for most of human history. But if we are not affected by it directly, our spouse, neighbour or colleague is. It is often manifested in their decisions and behaviour. It’s why we identify so much with these stories. It’s one of the reasons Good Will Hunting is held in such affection and why so much of our popular culture alludes to this theme. This is our story. Our broken childhoods and our struggle to overcome them are a central theme of human existence and spirit. But a marginal theme within our national and international conversations. Could that be changing?

From an advocacy perspective I hope so. More public openness to the theme could drive the political will and public demand needed. A good public policy start would be investment in 3 things. Trauma prevention though early parent outreach and support. Recovery and resilience through trauma-informed communities and schools. Open and taboo-busting public discussion on adverse childhood experiences. These interventions could close the costly gap between what we know and the policies we do. Imagine how much trouble could have been prevented if Gotham City had had better childhood policies. In Pinner and Philadelphia too.

And that brings us back to Elton and his Oscar nominated recovery anthem: “Find the wind to fill my sails, Rise above the broken rails, Unbound by any ties that break or bend, I’m gonna love me again” How rich our world would be with an opportunity for everyone to rise above those broken rails.

Another Brick In The Wall? Transforming Global Learning

Its progress we rarely acknowledge. Today across the world, in savannah and steppe and in city and village, most children will go to school. A few decades ago, this was a pipe dream. Access to education is a hard-fought human right which makes our world a better place. It is an accelerator for every other form of progress in any society. For example, half of the global reduction in child mortality over the past 20 years is attributable to the first generation of mothers in many poor countries receiving an education. A third of the world’s poorest girls continue to be out of school with huge societal costs. In total, 9% of the world’s children still don’t go to school. By 2030 we must achieve the goal of basic access to universal education.

Now the global discourse is expanding from access to quality and relevance of what children learn. From this lens, global education is in a learning crisis. 53% of children in low and middle income countries cannot read a basic text by the time they are 10. This is a benchmark described by the World Bank as learning poverty. Education spending has increased in many low and middle countries. Yet it is not directed towards the poorest children who need it the most. In low income countries, almost half of education budgets go to the wealthiest 10%. Against a background of fast-paced technological change in the labour market, poorer children will be left behind.


We now know that brain development is most prolific before the age of 5. Primary and secondary school are hugely important, but not the most impactful institutions for social, emotional and cognitive development of the child. The family in infancy and then pre-school from 3-6 years of age yield the most influence on learning and life outcomes. Yet, the poorest families have little guidance on early stimulation and brain development. Research has shown that 3 year olds from families on welfare hear around 600 words an hour. Those from professional families hear over 2000. This gap in language acquisition is an indicator of huge inequality even before the child enters pre-school.

Such early disparity could most obviously be addressed by a pre-school education starting at 3, as the child’s brain continues to develop rapidly. But in many countries most poor children just do not go to pre-school. The gap in pre-school access between the wealthiest 20% and poorest 20% is vast. The OECD Pisa survey shows that much later at 15 you can see the outcome of this early inequality. 15 year olds who attended pre-school are on average between one and two years ahead in maths science and language. Together, these early disparities drive an intergenerational cycle of poverty. This harms the individual child, exacerbates inequity and undermines economic and social development.

Even many well-resourced primary and secondary education systems in wealthy countries struggle to keep pace in a changing world. Education reform is never a progression from one static position to another. It is an evolution constantly informed by two streams of change. The first is the changing labour markets and civic culture Education should prepare citizens contribute and gain from progress and prosperity. The second is our growing knowledge of brain development and how children learn. Systems creak and move slowly, and despite the amazing dedication of most teachers, schools are behind the curve on both counts.

All research shows the one thing that drives good education outcomes is the performance of teachers. Yet stakeholders including unions, parents and parliamentarians often focus on structural issues like class size or teaching hours rather than teaching itself. Children learn from teachers they love and who inspire a passion for their curiosity. The 20% of children affected by multiple traumas at home cannot learn at all unless the teacher provides a sense of safety, calm and belonging.

Most countries do not have a system to recruit high calibre teachers, keep them motivated and developing in step with a changing world. Many spend less than 1 % of their education budgets on in-service development. They are teaching for a moving target. A glance at todays vacancy pages shows jobs that did not exist when I started school millions of years ago. Teachers should be preparing children for jobs that don’t exist yet, and for working lives with much greater change than we have known before. Teachers need to shift from teaching kids stuff to teaching them how to think and create stuff. Children also need to learn how to learn and to be inspired to keep learning throughout the life course. For good citizenship they need media literacy too. Many countries are not adequately making these obvious changes happen. Pink Floyd railed against authoritarian teachers in the 70s. Today the threat is “authority-less” teachers with kids checking their smart phones in class to see if what the teacher is saying is up to date.

No public service institution can keep up with the pace of start-ups and tech. No country can address the learning crisis without engagement of the private sector. No private sector can flourish without a properly equipped workforce. Each needs each other, yet there is so little collaboration between them.

Both our evolving knowledge of adolescent brain development and of the labour market lead us to the same conclusion. The most relevant and rewarding way for a teenager to learn is through collaboration with peers in developing a creative solution to a problem. Yet most classrooms do not and cannot practice this.

Rutger Bremen questioned the mantra about educating children to find their place in the labour market of tomorrow. Instead he argued we should educate children to create the kind of labour market and society we would like them to live in. School informs character development, whether we intend it to or not. Inclusive moral and civic learning is a prerequisite for individual and societal flourishing. The UK-based Jubilee Centre has developed a framework for teaching integrity, respect, neighbourliness alongside core performance and intellectual competencies. The framework is being adopted in UK schools, and adapted oversees.

To address the global learning crisis we need to make sure that children are ready for three big transitions. The first is school readiness at 5 or 6. This requires narrowing the gap in early learning. All parents should receive knowledge of early stimulation through pre-existing primary health networks, at the same time they learn about vaccines and nutrition. We should pursue universal access to pre-school for 3-6 year olds as we have pursued access to primary and secondary education. Governments should invest at least 10% of their education budgets in early learning. They should also end the huge wealth disparity in pre-school attendance.

The second transition is at age 10. We need to eradicate learning poverty by ensuring that all children can read a basic text at 10. More than anything else, this will depend on the quality of teaching. We need behavioural science innovations to keep teachers motivated and systems where teaching practice can be informed by the evolving science of learning. Schools need to be trauma-informed so children affected by family or humanitarian trauma can be soothed, feel safe and make the important connections required to enable learning. Inclusion and gender-responsive school systems are also essential to end learning poverty.

The third transition is at 16 or 18 to work, training or higher education. This is about the relevance of education to both the labour marker and citizenship. We need a global commitment for teaching competencies, collaboration and character in an age of AI and fast-paced technological change..The public sector cannot achieve this alone and needs innovative financing and constructive technical collaboration with the private sector. As has happened in Finland, the teaching workforce needs to become an agile community of practice. This would enable it to adjust and develop teaching based on what it sees in the classroom and in the outside world. Creativity and collaboration needs to be at the heart of teaching.

Wherever we are, in addressing the learning crisis, our aspirations must be high. On the one hand we should work toward a world in which our children and then their children have a quality of life that is better than the one we had. On the other to ensure that they shape a society that is even fairer, kinder and a better place to live. Only a radical rethink of global education will help us get there. We owe our children nothing less.

The Networking of Trauma

Preventing Organised Crime and Other Exploitation Groups Preying on Vulnerable Children

Violent extremists, gangsters and groomers have a simple recruitment strategy. They network trauma. They can spot a vulnerable teenager from 1000 yards. It can be easy to pull them in by sating a desire for belonging or through initial kindness. But the intention eventually is always exploitation.

An Irish security expert once shared three observations about the Northern Ireland conflict. Firstly that at any given moment during the conflict, there were only ever a few dozen people who could actually kill someone. Secondly that they usually came from traumatic homes with fathers who had also killed. He concluded that it seemed political extremists and organised criminals knew exactly how to identify and recruit such people. I have seen similar recruitment strategies in lawless or conflict-affected countries from Afghanistan to Bosnia. It always has devastating consequences.

It’s not black and white. There are economic and structural determinants of violence too. Most people affected by childhood trauma do not turn to crime or violence. But the world is waking up to the impact of childhood trauma as a driver of recurring violence. It occurs in cycles. Data from Wales show that adults affected by chronic childhood trauma were respectively 14, 15 and 16 times more likely to be a victim or perpetrator of violence or use crack cocaine than others. Data on consequences of chronic childhood trauma is similar across continents

There is an underpinning neurobiology to this cycle. Children are dependent on a strong attachment with a parent. If the attachment is absent due to neglect or violence, a child will see it as a serious threat. That threat chronically activates the stress response system. It distorts the way they perceive danger, they way they see themselves as well as their attachments to others. If families, schools or communities cannot provide soothing connections to heal the trauma, the child enters adolescence and adulthood with unresolved chronic trauma. This leaves them extremely vulnerable to exploitation and with limited prospects for learning or finding a lifeline to a better future.

All of this leads to an obvious question for anyone reading this blog. In my neighbourhood are there more forces trying to exploit or trying to prevent the inter-generational cycle of violence? Prevention services, usually delivered through the health system help new parents develop a secure attachment with their child. That attachment is the best weapon against neglect and violence. it can help heal the parent at the same time as protecting the child. In an ideal world these services would be provided globally. As noted elsewhere this type of prevention provides the greatest return on investment for the public purse. No other intervention does more to prevent poor life outcomes including in mental and physical health, crime and productivity.

Response services provide a second chance to children who have already been traumatised. In Trauma-informed schools for example, the teacher creates a calming environment and a caring connection. This ensures every child in school is safe, seen, secure….and most importantly soothed. The four Ss feature in the excellent “The Whole Brained Child” by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. In a Trauma-informed school, the teacher makes the child feel they matter as an individual. Many who come from traumatic childhoods have been rescued by a teacher who did exactly that. Positive relationships and connections build resilience that help teenagers navigate away from poor decisions that bring bad life outcomes. And if a child is approached by a Fagin type exploitation group, they feel they can tell the teacher

A second important question is what is being done in my neighbourhood to prevent the cynical “networking of trauma” by exploitation groups.

Both in the UK and the US, Trauma-informed practice is also being adapted to policing and justice sectors. One of my favourite champions of this is Detective Superintendent Stan Gilmore of Thames Valley Police in the UK. He observed those arrested for “County-Lines” drug trafficking were almost always in their mid teens. He started to see them as much as exploited and vulnerable youngsters as offenders . Instead of pursuing a custodial sentence, the emphasis was placed upon diversion from a potential life-cycle of crime. This included curfews and supervision orders that stopped the gangsters reaching the child . It cut off their source. It also referred the child to services to help address the underlying trauma. The whole approach switches the question to the child from “What did you do?” to “What happened to you?

To me this is intelligent and effective policing. It recognises that the foundations of organised crime are built on networking trauma and vulnerability and if you prevent that networking, you can break the cycle. Childhood trauma is not an excuse for crime, but to effectively reduce crime we need to be trauma-informed.

Just imagine how societies would flourish if we not only prevented the networking of trauma by exploitation groups, but also prevented or mitigated the trauma itself. We now have enough evidence and knowledge to work towards this goal. We just need the political will and the resources

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Could You Be Loved?

How the love, optimism and resilience captured in My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay adds so much to our understanding of childhood

The most magical moment of the holiday season for me was seeing A Christmas Carol at New York’s oldest functioning theatre the Lyceum on Broadway. Way up in the rafters, I couldn’t help but ponder whether everyone has a ghost of past, present and future. Everyone knows an Ebenezer, if they are not indeed one themselves. I am not talking about his prolific miserliness. But rather how his adaption to survive an early trauma becomes a maladaption over time. And how that rigid maladaption distorts and derails his whole life course.

But like most of Dickens stories, a Christmas Carol in the end is a joyous tale. It acknowledges human trauma, which as James Baldwin once wrote is a major purpose of literature. “The suffering and struggling person finds great liberation when they realise something they thought was only happening to them, happened to Dostoevsky 100 years ago”. But A Christmas Carol then takes that trauma and shows how magical and resourceful humans can be in overcoming it. And old Ebenezer breaks through in the end because of love, optimism and resilience.

A Christmas Carol probably did more than anything to shape the modern narrative and aesthetic of a western Christmas. Dickens grew up in a rare decade when London winters were bathed in snow. Thats why we yearn for a White Christmas. The concept of a warm family hearth and a shared feast as a buffer from unresolved trauma and winter cold. But Christmas is ruthlessly painful for those with no such buffer.

No-one knows this more than poet and Manchester University Chancellor Lemn Sissay, who has created a whole national movement of volunteers across the United Kingdom providing communal Christmas dinners for young adults who have lived in care of the state.

In any given year, the list of Lemn’s accomplishments is remarkable. But this year he contributed something that may have even inspired Dickens. With astonishing dignity and courage he completed his 30 year struggle to acquire the social work files from his own childhood in care and shared them in his memoir: My Name is Why.

In addition to Dickens, Maya Angelou, Edgar Allen Poe and Maxim Gorky wrote painful stories of childhood. The general narrative on violent, neglectful or otherwise unjust childhoods has evolved over decades and centuries-faster than our political will and technical ability to address it. I think Lemn’s writing has added something profound and new to it.

When interwoven with his own memories, the social work files run through My Name Is Why like a real time set of MRI scans on a childhood struggle. They are accounts of Lemn’s interaction with the so called “care” system and the social workers who drift in and out of his life. Combined they represent the culture of that system. By sharing them he exposes a deeper level of vulnerability than most would have the courage to do. He does this from a position of strength and it serves as a powerful antidote to the toxic masculinity and superficial egocentricity of our time. He is courageous beyond belief.

I believe he shares the files to illustrate one of the most original and poignant themes in his book. The importance of memory for all of us. As we saw from Scrooge, the struggle for recovery always requires bringing the memories back into one comfortable place. For Lemn, a childhood neglectfully dispersed and disrupted by multiple carers in scattered locations eats away at the sense of self-hood and deprives you of a “valid persona”. The impact of this fragmentation is profound and: ” quietly depletes the sense of self-worth deep inside a child’s psyche. This is how a child becomes hidden in plain sight. Family is just a set of memories disputed, resolved or recalled between one group.” But what happens when the family is not there?

The care system could have been the buffer and the hearth. A loving space for recovery and a platform to build a better tomorrow. But the social service files show how the children in its care were treated with suspicion and mistrust. As a teenager Lemn wrote poetry, had a Saturday job and bought a guitar with the proceeds. A good parent would be proud of this. But rather than assets, each of these activities were viewed negatively by the care workers. He devoured Bob Marley biographies, when “there were no books and consequently no encouragement to read” in the children’s home. He described these adolescent passions as his “flagpoles on the mountainside”. They told the story of someone whose identity and self was formed without compromise. Of someone who would one day soar. I wondered how many readers laughed out loud, as I did, when the school report from the sadistic quasi-prison Wood End file said Lemn had “average intelligence”

The cruelty of these institutions and Dickens workhouses before, are the tip of a very big iceberg. Adverse childhoods are more common than we ever thought them to be and occur mostly within families-not institutions. The more we make it normal to talk about it and understand it, the better chance we have of building a society and world that lives up to the best hopes of a Charles Dickens story. That is one where we acknowledge the lasting impact of trauma-but always seek to defeat it through love, optimism and resilience. A society where every child is connected and matters on an individual level.

Lemn’s book, and much of his life’s work contributes to the understanding we all need to achieve that goal. He personifies a spirit of love, optimism and resilience, and we could all do with more of that.

Merry Christmas from New York

“What You Have Been and Still are for Me”

The Power of Teaching

I have a favourite teacher story and it goes like this. As a child, Albert Camus was asked by his impoverished single mother to quit school and start work. Camus’s teacher visited the family home and convinced her to let young Albert continue his education. The teacher’s name name was Louis Germain.

Decades later when he got the Nobel Prize for Literature, Albert Camus wrote to Mr Germain to say thank you in a letter entitled “What You Have Been and Still are for Me”.
He continued “Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened.”

In different ways, how many of us have been touched by a teacher who made us feel like we matter? Sometimes as children we carry the weight of the world on our shoulders through poverty, trauma or conflict. In those contexts, the narrow opportunities for a child to exercise curiosity, collaboration and cultivate character can only be seized with the help of incredible teacher.

Two thirds of us have had teachers who made a difference in our lives, according to research from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Yet the research also shows that these teachers are outliers in their own school settings. Even the university professors who produce the most impactful teachers are outliers in their faculties. We do not incentivise modern day Mr Germains at all

We have recently come to understand that children learn from teachers they love. We used to see reasoning as being the opposite to emotion, but neuroscience tells us something different. It is only through a deep network of relationships, belonging and collaboration in school and life that we can have an ecosystem for learning. To motivate and organise ourselves for learning, we have to engage the emotions. Emotions are not compartmentalised in a different part of our brain while we deploy rationality and reason to absorb facts.

In any given classroom of 25 children, at least 4 or 5 may experience multiple forms of trauma at home. Such trauma chronically activates their stress response system. This doesn’t switch off when they enter the classroom.   An attuned teacher in a trauma-informed classroom can soothe the stress response system. They can help the child to learn, trust, connect and build resilience and attachment. And here is where the healing, and therefore the ability to learn, begins. Trauma-informed schooling is potentially one of the most impactful strategies for reducing child trauma in general. 

A few years ago I listened to Dr Tony Wagner an education Professor at Harvard explaining the research on the outlier teachers who help kids recover from a broken start . It inspired me to track down a teacher who had transformed my life. At 15 I lived in state care in an inner-city area blighted by drugs and crime. I had been kicked out of three schools and had wound up in an education centre for those at the very end of the line. In every sense, my life prospects were incredibly bleak.

Jan Rapport was an idealistic teacher working in the most difficult of education settings. She gave me a chance. She became the only adult I could remember who I had a real conversation with during my entire childhood. She instilled in me a lifelong passion for learning and particularly for literature. My imagination soared and I began to see a different path forward. I now know, it was probably the calming attachment and connection, the relationship itself that made the most difference.

When I the school at 16, I lost contact with her. When I finally found Ms Rapport over 25 years later there was so much to talk about that we didn’t really know where to begin. She was now a pensioner and I was well….er…middle aged. We caught up on what we had done with our lives. Nobody expects someone from my background to have a job in the UN, though somehow she thought I would turn out okay. I needed to tell her that she saved me-that I would not be here and I wouldn’t have done all of this without her. I didn’t have any words in my vocabulary that could adequately convey how grateful I am. I was in awe to look into the eyes of this person who saw things in me that I did not see in myself and helped me beat a pathway to places I could have never imagined. A teacher. The power of a teacher.

It is often said that when you are teacher you don’t know where you legacy will end. Louis German commitment stayed with Albert Camus through his life. A part of it passed onto to others through his work, friendships and family. Imagine if we could deliver a global legacy on teaching. If we could take what inspirational, life-changing teachers have and dispense it through entire teaching workforces. Every teacher emotionally present for children. Every child made to feel like they belong and matter as an individual. Every school dedicated to learning, curiosity and trauma-informed healing. We could and we should celebrate the power of teaching and harness it to touch the lives of every child.