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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tales of the unexpected

I'm in that post-holiday limbo, when the children are yet to go back to school and I delude myself that I will be able to catch up with work and the kids will look after themselves. Working from home does have its advantages though, such as having the radio on in the background without having to worry about whether it will bother anyone.

This morning's Radio 4 background came into the foreground as I listened with increasing interest to Kathy Burke's choice of Desert Island Discs. She spoke about her challenging childhood, brought up on a council estate in north London, mother dying when she was 2, father with drink problem... all the ingredients for future "anti-social behaviour" and "problem families", justifications that were so often thown up by New Labour for the next wave of draconian initiatives.

Except Kathy Burke went on to become an acclaimed actress, winning a best actor award at Cannes. Which begs the question, what is it that leads to some people overcoming childhood disadvantage in adulthood (not necessarily measured by how many film awards you win) whilst others continue to experience as adults poverty and social exclusion?

Many studies have focused on identifying factors which enable resilience and thus either prevent families falling into extreme poverty or from children experiencing the same outcome as adults as their parents. One study, with the snazzy title of Tales of the Unexpected, conducted by social policy and public health experts in the UK, defined resilience as "the process of achieving positive and unexpected outcomes in adverse conditions." 

Unfortunately, public policy generally has very low expectations of the resilience of families living in pòverty. Yet, in working with such families for 8 years in the UK, I was constantly amazed by the fortitude shown by many parents, especially to keep their children out of the care system.

Such a shame then that the Coalition Government seems to be following the New Labour pattern in side-stepping evidence based policy-making when it suits in favour of gimicky measures to grab tabloid headlines. The latest being the resurfacing of plans to withhold benefits from anyone refusing treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. This despite the social security advisory committee finding back in May that withdrawing benefits from drug users would lead them into crime and prostitution.

Not all kids living on north London council estates can go on to receive an award at Cannes. But surely it pays to raise our expectations of the height children and adults living in poverty are able to reach if we understand and trust in their capacity to achieve the unexpected.


  1. Very interesting insight. It would be worth deepening by identifing the very details and steps that lead to overcoming poverty in case studies (maybe it has already be done?). Not only to highlight models fueling with hope those who feel trapped in poverty and extreme poverty and those who fight along them but also to replicate those examples. (I suppose this is what "learning form success" is about...). what a pity that the "tales of the unexpected" is not available (for free). Keep on writting, I am reading!

  2. Thanks for your comment which I've belatedly discovered (apologies!). If I come across other research which tackles this question of resilience and provides a "model" I'll post them on the blog. Thanks for reading.