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Why Is Birmingham Failing Its Children?

I grew up in the place branded a "national disgrace" by Ofsted inspectors.

by Nathalie Olah
20 November 2013, 8:00am

Baby Jade, who was found abandoned in a plastic bag in a Birmingham park on Halloween (Photo courtesy of Birmingham Police)

Birmingham might seem like a sludge-grey necropolis entirely devoid of character, but if you believe the reports in local newspapers, the city is fast becoming a business and cultural epicentre. A new YouTube video entitled “This is Birmingham” has been used to pitch the city to potential investors such as Deutsche Bank, who are opening new offices and creating jobs faster than you can say "polished turd". Things are looking up for the city of my birth; the place where I whiled away my teens in Emerica shoes and Etam belly-tops, staring gormlessly at skaters, drinking 20-20 and pretending to like D12. Though I sort of resented it at the time as its curries and Cadbury’s made me fat, I had a great time growing up in the warmth of its polluted belly and reached adulthood (largely) unscathed.

Which is more than can be said for a lot of young people living there today. While the council does its best to present the city as a boomtown, an Ofsted report released last month claims that it has also become a "national disgrace" that is “one of the worst places to grow up in the developed world”.

After carrying out its first inspection into the state of social care in the UK, Ofsted’s chief inspector Michael Wilshaw declared in a speech that infant mortality rates in the city are above that of Cuba and on par with Latvia and Chile. It also stated that 60 percent of children were growing up in low-income households. It comes after a newborn, later named Baby Jade, was discovered abandoned in a park by a dog-walker in Stechford, East Birmingham. Thankfully, Jade was taken to hospital in time to be saved, but this came in the same month that another Birmingham resident, Rebecca Shuttleworth, was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering her two-year-old son Keanu Williams in 2011. (Social workers were blamed for ignoring numerous complaints.) Three years earlier, Khyra Ishaq, of Aston, North Birmingham, was failed by social services and died of starvation at the hands of her mother and stepfather.

Granted, it may look fairly shabby around the edges, but in a city that is still home to one million people and part of the developed world, how do these things happen? The answer, in part, doesn’t just lie in Birmingham. Speaking to a representative from Action for Children, half of the people working in childcare who took part in a poll said that a lack of services and resources in the UK as a whole, make it difficult for them to intervene when they suspect a child is being neglected. Significant numbers of the police officers, social workers, health professionals and school teachers polled say they feel powerless to improve the situation.

The problem in Birmingham is particularly bad however, and finding sympathy for the local authority is difficult. I called the council and spoke to a woman called Sarah Kirby about Ofsted's accusations that Birmingham City Council is failing its children, to which she replied, “What accusations exactly are you referring to?” Seemingly, she was oblivious to the whole thing. After some hair splitting over the particulars of Ofsted’s report, she brusquely told me that she wasn’t able to comment and would email the council’s official statement.

When it came, the Council at least wasn’t hiding anything. "We are already on record as saying that we have failed to meet the basic expectation of keeping vulnerable children in this city safe,” it admitted. “This is a long-standing problem which we acknowledge and the leader has said that improving children's services is his number one priority... What we don't need... is simply a repetition of our failings without any proposed solutions.”

Left to right: One Mile Away members Matthias "Shabba" Thompson, Tash and Joel Eccleston

The statement was blunt and more than a little defensive, but I didn’t feel like it got me much closer to understanding what had happened to childcare in my hometown. I decided to talk to some people who were involved and contacted an organisation called One Mile Away, created after a film of the same name by Penny Woolcock about the city's notorious, warring Burger Bar Boys and Johnson Crew gangs. Since the height of their conflict – made famous by the fatal drive-by shootings of Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis in 2003 – the two gangs have reached a state of relative cooperation. The film was instrumental in achieving that, and one of the key figures in making it happen – Johnson Crew affiliate Matthias "Shabba" Thompson – now spearheads the break-off organisation seeking to promote welfare and social harmony in some of Birmingham’s most deprived areas, Handsworth and Aston.

“I live on the same street to where Khyra Ishaq died,” explained one of the group’s members, a 22-year-old man called Joel Eccleston, in a car park just behind the Aston Villa football ground. The decades-long turf war meant we couldn’t meet on the main road.

“You hear about domestic violence all the time around here. When women don’t have money to be self-sufficient, they go and stay with men. They want a roof over them and their kids’ heads, and they think the only way to do that is to live under the man.”

Added to that, One Mile Away say, is the apathy displayed by the council and the city’s social workers. “It’s not their fault,” Shabba concedes. “They need a job as much as anyone else, but the problem is, they’ve got no love for it. They’re just ticking boxes by providing money for things that aren’t going to benefit the community.”

Tash, who’s been brought in to deal with women in the local community, tells me: “I have so many girls coming in here who are pregnant, poor, totally lost and have no idea what they can do. They might get their basic benefits, but they don’t know how to get themselves sorted. It’s not the job centre staff’s fault necessarily, but someone needs to tell these girls that if they’re struggling to pay their bus fare to get to a job interview, they can get help, and the job centres just aren’t doing that. It’s leading to a culture of depression that’s just getting worse and worse.”

While these members of One Mile Away remain fairly measured in their response to the council, others haven’t been quite so forgiving. Ofsted chief inspector Wilshaw said, “I have to ask the question: Can political leaders in Birmingham deliver the scale of the change that is now required? If they cannot, should national government act before more children suffer, or indeed, before more children die whose deaths could have been prevented?”

Wilshaw may get his wish if the Council doesn't shape up. Last week, the government declared plans to step in and intervene on all child-welfare related cases in Birmingham if standards don't improve.

Heading back into the centre of town, walking through the old Bullring Market and up New Street, the devastating impact that limited job prospects and low incomes is having on so many families is visible everywhere. A girl of 19 who wished to remain nameless, tell me that she and her daughter live off their thirty-pound weekly shop; while another woman pushing a young boy explains that she, as his grandmother, became his sole carer after his mother was put into a care home for severe depression. Couple these circumstances with shoddy, apathetic social care and it's clear to see why so many children are suffering.

“When I first got back from Pakistan I was depressed,” admits Nosheen, a 20-year-old who escaped an arranged marriage in Pakistan and fled to Birmingham where she grew up; one-year-old son in tow. “I didn’t know anyone and I had no money, no family. It’s almost impossible and I’m on income support and child tax credit. I won’t be forever, I’m training to be a beautician, but I know a lot of people around here aren’t registered and are scared, for whatever reason, to get the help they need.”

I paid a visit to the new Library of Birmingham – a massive, golden nine-storey structure which replaces the old brutalist Central Library, the kind of place I used to gather as a kid to mess around and kiss boys. The new one was packed to the hilt with people reading and working at their computer But despite the appearance of progress, too many of Birmingham’s children remain in trouble. What’s the point of being the country’s “second city” if it comes dead last in providing for its children?

Follow Nathalie on Twitter: @NROlah

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