The Skywalkers...and other troubled families

Graham Duxbury
Friday, October 25, 2019

So, there's a new Star Wars film on the horizon and the trailer has the internet tying itself in knots about potential plot twists to be revealed in the latest instalment. 

One thing that has become obvious over the years is that, when you strip away the CGI, the Star Wars saga has now eclipsed all other stories in popular culture centred on that familiar topic of family breakdown - going beyond even Dallas and the Royal Family. 

As someone who queued up multiple times to see the first episode in its revolutionary big screen glory, and has kept faith with the franchise ever since, even I'm getting confused about who's related to whom and why the discovery of a bloodline seems automatically to lead to a level of violence not seen since Aeschylus.

One theory for the popularity of such plots is that problems within families are common - even the norm - but seldom aired and shared.  These are generally matters dealt with behind closed doors involving very private emotions. They're also problems that can become inter-generational as behaviours go unchallenged, get reinforced and ultimately passed on.

Although the issue is now more frequently recognised and discussed, finding a solution or providing a support system is challenging. The government's Troubled Families initiative has had its own troubles, not least because it has been trying to achieve positive results while the underlying material situation for many families has worsened due to welfare changes, and some of the most important support services - in particular mental health support - have become harder to access.

The key learning from programme evaluations to date has been the importance of multi-agency working, in particular relationships between family support leads, the police and social workers. What's often forgotten in these discussions is the front line work being done by teachers with families in crisis.

The decision by the Reach2 trust to put ‘community fridges' in its schools is just the latest in a long line of stories about teachers stepping in to provide for the basic needs of their pupils. It's also the latest admission of our societal failure to make sure our children have a decent start in life.

Meanwhile, the RSA's Pinball Kids project is exploring how to address the rising level of school exclusions and why these are impacting disproportionately on children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The link with family stability and parental engagement is clear, as is the view from teachers about what would help. A recent survey of 1,500 teachers put ‘more specialist support' - particularly from mental health practitioners - at the top of the list, followed by ‘more time' to build relationships with pupils and parents.

The latest political pronouncements provide glimmers of hope - increased school budgets, mental health more of a priority in the NHS long-term plan and the promise of a £500m youth investment fund. Of course the point has been made that all of it could be swallowed up recovering lost ground and patching up services which have been starved of funds for a decade. The best thing we can do then is to figure out how these new resources can be aligned to ensure they enable a more integrated approach to supporting the children most in need but also supporting families whose circumstances prevent children from realising their potential.

Granular analysis of the trailer for Star Wars: the Rise of Skywalker suggests a brief outbreak of family unity as the latest keeper of the flame matures and fulfils her destiny. We can't promise young people they'll grow up to be a Jedi but we should at the very least make sure they have the basic building blocks in place on which to construct their dreams.

Graham Duxbury is chief executive of Groundwork

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