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by Dr Nick Hammond

November 2014. I have been invited to deliver a session on forum theatre (FT) at the British Psychological Society’s Community Psychology Festival. As I sit in the church cafeteria – that’s doubling up as an auditorium for the day – a young couple approach the stage carrying a banner which reads ‘Social Housing, not Social Cleansing’. The couple are from London’s Focus E15 Mothers, a group of campaigners who fought to save their homes after Newham Council earmarked the area for regeneration.

As the couple share their problem, one can’t help but be moved by their extraordinary endeavours. Their point was clear – ‘affordable housing is not affordable’. The solution offered? Alternative accommodation, not in their own communities but in cities as far afield as Manchester. For Focus E15 Mothers the austerity measures mean facing social segregation and community fragmentation: losing the familiarity, community cohesion and support networks of friends and family. For many children across the UK, austerity has subjected them to inadequate housing, poor food, and greater inequality of opportunity.

Children who face difficult times can often find solace and stability in school. However, many arrive unprepared for learning – some would have had insufficient sleep or food and inappropriate shelter, or be preoccupied with worry for their parents and siblings. So they might need preparation for learning before the curriculum can be effectively taught.FT_Hammond-Blog_Feb_15

While political rhetoric identifies a range of factors relevant to children’s achievement, such as school leadership and quality teachers, it fails to acknowledge the profound impact of austerity on some of society’s most vulnerable children and families. Politicians are missing the elephant in the room.

In 2013, 15.2 million work days were lost due to stress and anxiety, one of the largest causes of sickness in the UK (ONS, 2014). These are adults who have found levels of emotional distress too overwhelming for them to function effectively at work. Children too experience context-related emotional distress – yet this can often go unrecognized or be seen as an ‘excuse’ for underachievement and poor behaviour. Failing to provide a platform for children’s voices to be heard and solutions to be discussed merely contributes to the inequality and inequity children endure.

FT starts with the child: their context, views, experiences, concerns, dreams, ambitions and learning. A vehicle for the child to look inward at themselves, as well as outwards, to share their views and ideas for solutions with those who can make a difference: their teachers, families, politicians, service managers, peers and others in their community. FT allows one to get closer to the child’s lived experience, to explore issues such as austerity and the various impacts this will have on different families. Combining psychological principles, play, and a mindful facilitator, FT is a safe, collaborative and transformative method of empowering children and their communities to explore real issues to find sustainable grassroots solutions. It is an approach that doesn’t just notice the elephant in the room, but welcomes her in without fear or judgement.

Dr Nick Hammond is an educational and child psychologist, and author of Forum Theatre for Children: Enhancing social, emotional and creative development from Trentham Books@IOE Press, out now.

Picture credit: Cindy Tatum, 2015.

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