Left Behind

In this scenario, England is a country where children and young people feel betrayed and confused in a country that does not work for them.

scene from this world.

Extract from The President of the ADCS, inaugural speech, June 2035

Colleagues, we have failed! We have fundamentally failed to understand the difference between a protection system and a care system. I came into this profession to uphold the latter, but my whole professional life has seen me work in the former. We, and many others, have failed to listen to our children and young people, many of whom feel unsafe, anxious and unhappy. We are not alone in our failure. Politicians for over thirty years have chosen not to invest in a care system that supports, loves and listens to the most vulnerable people.

Today we see the impact of chronic underinvestment with the latest research showing that one in every two children in England are now living in poverty, with half a million children requiring an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHC) - which represents an increase of one third since 2022. Latest figures show that for 2034, 350,000 Section 47 child protection enquiries have been undertaken.

Most worryingly, over 65% of children and young people are now seeking support for mental health conditions, and the suicide rate amongst teenagers has doubled in the last five years, The situation has spiralled out of control and I would argue that this is, in part, because we have been forced as a sector to dismantle some of the hard-won advancements we were able to make to child services prior to 2019, and instead, since then, to retrench into the basic role of maintaining a child protection system for the state. Colleagues, we have moved backwards, and we continue to regress. We need new ideas for new times. How are we to address this calamitous state of affairs. I am pleading with you: as a sector we must respond. Will you answer this call for leadership and work together to stand up and fight against these chronic, system-wide problems?

Abka Salatian, President ADCS

Key characteristics of this world

left behind, neglect, unloving, unsafe, hostile, violent, civil unrest, low state offer, excluding, blame culture fear, mistrust, reactive, uncoordinated, ill-health, anxiety, mental illness, artificial intelligence, inequalities, flooding, tribal

Today in 2035

There has been a collapse of children’s services in some areas due to chronic under-investment. Councils maintain their statutory duty to protect the most vulnerable children and adults. However, due to constraints on budgets, they meet only the minimal requirements, and social workers, teachers and mental health workers often have to resort to crisis management. There is very little investment in preventative work.

Thresholds for social work intervention are so high that unless a child is at imminent risk to themselves or others, little is done. Two years ago, the Police officially stopped sending Concern Reports of low-level negative behaviours to relevant social work departments. Nothing was ever done as hard-pressed social workers were only ever able to respond to the highest levels of risk. Last year, the Association for Directors of Education similarly announced that it would only be making referrals to charities and third sector organisations in the hope of attracting support for struggling pupils and their families.

However, even third-sector organisations have been forced to reduce their volunteer-led children’s services and many have been forced to shut down, owing to a combination of public sector cuts and a reduction in public donations, resulting from more people living in poverty following the financial crash. This has drastically reduced services for children.

Children’s services themselves are fractured, under-funded and suffering from low staff morale and high levels of stress. Professionals and volunteers are under-paid and there is little training or practice learning for newly qualified Social Workers. As services are required to devote most of their time and energy to resolving crises amongst children and young people with multiple needs, they are unable to invest in long-term preventative measures that tackle root problems.

Having been let down so many times, professionals are viewed with suspicion by families. They are unable to develop meaningful, trust-based relationships with families, and are increasingly seen as part of the problem. This further decreases the morale of staff, who are trying hard to plug gaps with few resources, and know full well that more and more children are in urgent need of help.

Across England, more and more children are living in poverty, without their basic human needs being met. Professionals working in children’s services are woefully aware of this and with only a small number of high-risk children are eligible for their support the phrase no statutory reason for our involvement is habitually typed into case notes.

The Chief Executive of the national charity ‘Child Line’ told a conference last month that:

With rising levels of poverty and unemployment, increasing numbers of children are living in impoverished, neglectful and dangerous situations, where they may be subject to physical and emotional abuse.

There are few places for these children to turn.

A record number of young people have no option but to live on the street. Child homelessness has vastly increased, and given that funding for shelters and temporary housing has been cut, tens of hundreds of children are living in disused housing estates and in some areas vast tented camps have emerged that were once public parks. Lacking food, accommodation, sanitation and safety, many children in these makeshift camps are being exploited, manipulated, and forced into prostitution or selling drugs.

Education was once seen as a route out of poverty. However, the disinvestment in the education system has halted social mobility and worsened children’s outcomes. Parents initially sought to plug the gap in education funding through regular donations to schools, to pay for basic equipment - such as paper and pencils. However, parental contributions led to further reductions in education spending, leading to the closure of many schools.

School closures has led to increased competition amongst parents to move to the ‘right’ catchment area so their children can attend a ‘decent’ school. This has led to poorer families being forced out of school catchment areas, due to rising housing prices, which in turn has led to greater levels of segregation within schools - with only children from families with high earnings being able to afford to attend. Children from poorer families and those with special education needs have either stopped going to school or have been forced to move to other areas.

School curricula have been tightly focussed on targets, exams, and ‘achievement’, but with little time to focus on pupil wellbeing. Children who do not perform well, or who misbehave, are treated punitively and threatened with expulsion - indeed, waiting lists for children to enter schools (since the widespread school closures) means that competition is extremely high not only to enter, but also to maintain a place at school. Only children able to maintain high marks and educational standards are allowed to stay in school; with all children being scored on a monthly basis. Children feel increasingly pressured by a one-size-fits-all education system overwhelmingly focussed on rigorous testing and benchmarking, which negatively impacts their mental health.

State education has failed to move with the pace of the world - in particular, continuing advances in technology - and in consequence, while children work exceptionally hard to keep their places at school, the education system does not actually offer children the skills and competences required in the modern workplace. The education system is one-size-fits-all, which is all the funding will allow for. There are no support measures for children with different needs and there are no creative arts classes (i.e. drama, music, art). There is an enduring obsession with exams and curriculum and inspection reforms, which has led schools to focus exclusively on academic attainment rather than well-being.

Children in care, children with disabilities, children with learning needs, and children in poverty are more likely to struggle with the one-size-fits-all educational ‘requirements’ demanded by schools to win and maintain a place. Furthermore, there is no tailored support for such children in state schools. They are therefore more likely to be excluded from schools, despite the clear evidence over many years that children who are excluded have poorer outcomes going into adulthood.

The Children and Families Act of 2014, which tried to empower families of children with special education needs and disabilities, has long proven to be impossible to implement and tribunals are a rarity today. “What’s the point?”, one parent of a boy with special education needs complained on Twitter.

Even if I win, everyone knows, nothing will happen. There’s no money for anything to be done.
Parents and workers have become resigned to that and expect little from the state.

A higher number of children facing multiple disadvantages are being excluded from education, living in poverty, homeless, suffering from mental ill-health, lacking support from alternative provision and family and children’s services, more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system and are generally excluded from society. In this way, exclusion is a rejecting act and sets many children and young people on what feels like a pre-determined path.

The National Crime Agency’s annual report in 2033 explained that it was now unable to map out ‘county drug lines’, as drug trafficking routes were literally everywhere. An increasing number of socially excluded young people have joined local criminal gangs, which have carved some of the larger English towns and cities up into different ‘zones’, leading to ‘turf wars’. Some of the more violent gang wars ways have rendered some districts ‘no go zones’.

The criminal gangs have proven attractive to many marginalised young people as they provide a degree of acceptance, protection, respect and cultural identity. Gangs also provide a source of income to young people, through stealing and selling drugs. However, young people in gangs are at increased risk of drug addiction, sexual exploitation, violence, trafficking and criminal conviction.

The employment prospects for young people are worse than they used to be. There have been consistently high levels of youth unemployment since the financial crisis, with young people unable to get on the ‘career ladder’ and having to take up insecure, zero-hours, poorly paid roles. Furthermore, state school pupils are generally ill-prepared for the future job market, where robotics and AI have replaced many administrative and routine physical tasks, leading to a retrenchment of the economy around creativity and innovation. In rough round figures, a third of state school pupils go onto vocational training, a third into work, and a third are not in education, employment or training. It is the latter group - who are not actively included in society - that are especially vulnerable to gang life.

A record number of children and young people suffer from mental ill-health, caused by chronic stress, post-traumatic disorders, loneliness, dysfunctional relationships, poor employment and housing prospects, and poor physical health. Over 65% of children and young people aged 12-24 have been diagnosed with, and sought help for a mental illness, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, PTSD and bipolar disorder. Tragically, the suicide rate amongst young people - in particular, young men - has continued to increase year on year since 2020, and there are now over 10,000 deaths by suicide per year.

Loneliness has become a particular problem, as children and young people have become socially isolated from communities, which has fuelled a rise in drug addiction. This is especially evident in rural communities, where even fewer services are available. However, young people experiencing mental health problems or drug addictions are unable to receive support or treatment that could help them, due to the cuts to children’s services and in particular CAMHS.

There are few dedicated spaces for children and young people to socialise and support each other. Funding for youth centres has been removed as ‘non-core’ services, and public parks have been poorly maintained or taken over by homeless groups. Community infrastructure has been left to fall away, as families no longer have the time or energy to invest in their neighbourhoods and communities. As a result, children and young people have access to few community networks, free leisure activities or opportunities to volunteer and find a sense of passion and fun in life.

Children and young people are seeing less of the world. Travel is completely curtailed and package holidays are expensive and out of reach for many families. Continuing failure of several airlines has led to an increase in flight costs and pushed up prices overall.The continuing weakness of the pound makes hotels, food and tourist prohibitively expensive.

During the summer holidays, the odd day out to a nearby coastal town in England and a packed lunch on the beach is the only holiday many kids can look forward to. Kelly, one of the volunteers at the ‘Sunshine Trust’ who arranges seaside trips, says it’s ok. Throwing cheese sandwiches into bags she points out,

Many of these kids have never been off the estate, so this is like a holiday for them.
However, taking shorter holidays in England, rather than going abroad, is benefiting the economy as well as the environment.

At the same time, the Government has strongly encouraged foreign tourism to England, where a weak pound means that holidays for non-Brits is economical, especially if they are staying in Airbnbs. However, this has the downside that, with an increasing number of people letting out their flats/houses to tourists through Airbnb, the rented housing stock has gone down and rental prices have gone up, leading to more families becoming homeless.

Community centres work closely with the local food banks and are often both located in the same place. Pop-up shops within church halls and disused buildings in town centres are used regularly to meet community needs.

It’s the only place to buy single nappies on a Friday to see you through the weekend

Bianca, regular at a local pop-up shop

Women have less equality. There is less affordable childcare available, so many women are having to juggle low-paid home-based work with looking after the children. The gender gap has furthermore widened due to the restructuring of the labour market, as zero-hours and fixed-term employment contracts have become standard, and people have less job security.

Racism and xenophobia have been on the increase. Ethnic and racial minority groups and people with a migrant background have been targeted by extremist political groups and media, leading to shockingly high levels of hate crimes. Many of the new youth gangs that have emerged have also made ‘hating foreigners’ their raison d’etre. Children from a BME or migrant background face extreme discrimination in all walks of life, from the education system to the job market.

Homophobia has also increased over time, undoing years of equalities gains for LGBTQIA+ communities. More and more children and young people in the LGBTQIA+ are refusing to publicly reveal their sexual orientation, and are suffering anxiety and depression as a result.

How we got here

  • 2019

    General election

  • 2020

    Brexit the United Kingdom leaves the European Union - civil disobedience, food shortages and years of gruelling negotiations ensue to agree on citizens rights, the divorce bill and the backstop before moving on to negotiate a UK-EU free trade deal.

  • 2020

    UK Financial markets crash.

  • 2020

    Government refuse extra funding for child services, NHS and other public services amidst a tightening of budgets with post-Brexit financial crash. Social security benefits and pensions are also reduced, and the pension age is immediately increased to 69, to take effect in 2040.

  • 2021

    Financial recession in UK.

  • 2023

    UK and US conclude negotiations on a free trade deal (with the UK in a weakened position due to No Deal Brexit and financial recession), leaving public services including the NHS open to privatisation and competition from US firms. De-regulation ensures, and divergence from high standards of EU, making a UK-EU trade deal more difficult.

  • 2024

    Rising incidents of racism and xenophobia as BAME and migrant communities are scapegoated for the financial crash. The number of migrants and refugees coming to England falls to pre-world war two levels, leaving significant gaps in the labour market. Some political parties portray this demographic shift as creating ‘more jobs for English workers’.

  • 2024

    General election, a Government is formed.

  • 2025

    Opposition parties’ efforts to encourage the Government to introduce a framework of regional and further local devolution across England fail.

  • 2028

    A shallow UK-EU Free Trade Agreement agreed, which was negotiated on the back of the controversial deep and comprehensive UK-US trade deal, which leaves the UK in a weakened position - English firms are now open to stronger competition from US and EU companies, and the pound has fallen sharply in value.

  • 2029

    Widespread unrest and civil disobedience curtailed by the Government, which introduces martial law (direct military control) to disperse protesters up and down the country, resulting in thousands of arrests. Portrayed by right-wing media as a 'strong and necessary' measures to break-up illegal insurrections by minority extremists, winning centre-right votes.

  • 2029

    General election; a Government is formed.

  • 2030

    Government introduces new AI legislation, extending US company access, radically transforming the labour market.

  • 2032

    With high levels of unemployment and ongoing rumbles of civil disobedience, the Government refuses to heed opposition parties’ demands to radically restructure the education system (from primary school to university) to adjust to AI technology, leaving many high school, college and university graduates unqualified to find a job.

  • 2033

    Government strikes new trade deals with China, India and Japan, allowing companies greater access to the UK market. Several new foreign HQ are established in England, which has become a low-tax and low-regulation economy. Many see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create new jobs for British workers.

  • 2034

    General election, a Government is formed.

Living in this world

“Pack your bags, Amira, we’ve got to get going.”

I stare at the peeling, yellow wallpaper above the wardrobe, ignoring my mother’s instructions. I wonder how many cigarettes people must have smoked to turn it that shade – a hundred? A thousand? Then we moved in six months ago and it became my bedroom.

Well, not really my bedroom. It belongs to the whole family – me, my Mum and the baby.

“Amira, did you hear me?”

My mother thumps on the wall next door. She’s been in the kitchen all morning packing boxes.

“Yes, Mum,” I reply, pulling the polka-dot pink duvet over my head. The greasy wallpaper disappears from view and all I can see is blackness. I’m safe here, in bed.

But then Mo starts crying. Big, gulping, distressed cries.

I sigh and throw the covers off, walk two steps to the crib, and reach down to lift him up. He holds up his chubby little hands, eyes full of hot tears, face smeared with snot. He’s not been able to shake off this cold for weeks.

His wails reduce to a coughing whimper as I hold him tight and rock him. I tickle him on his chest - his favourite spot - and he giggles.

“Did you get him, Amira?” I can hear the concern in Mum’s voice.

“Yes, Mum,” I reply, plopping Mo on the bed beside me and giving him a dummy. He thumps his chest with a sticky fist, a mischievous glint in his eyes. I stick my tongue out, make a funny face and dive in for another tickle. He yelps with delight, his cold instantly forgotten.

I’m used to being Mo’s carer. When Mum started working day-shifts for the delivery company, I had to look after Mo. There’s no-one else to do it, not since Dad died two years ago. It’s difficult sometimes, as you never get a moment to yourself unless he’s asleep.

On the plus side, it means I don’t have to go to school. If you can call it that.

“Fooooood,” says Mo, throwing his dummy onto the duvet. Nothing - even tickling - distracts him for very long when he’s hungry. He paws my leg impatiently.

“Right,” I say, swinging him onto my hip and marching through to the kitchen. Warmth spreads through my torso - he feels like a hot water bottle, but wrigglier.

“Mum, Mo’s hungry,” I announce. I open the food cupboard door, but find it empty except for some stock-cubes and dried herbs. “Did you remember to pick up some more baby food?”

Mum swears under her breath and puts down the cardboard box she’s carrying. “I thought I asked you to go to the foodbank, Amira?” Her eyes bore into mine, and I flinch. “It was your only chore yesterday. You know we’re being evicted from the apartment today.”

I glance down guiltily. “Sorry, Mum. I forgot. I was trying to catch up with my course-work.” I’ve missed so much school, looking after Mo. “I’ll go there now, if you like.”

“It’s not open on Saturdays!” Mum shouts.

My heart thuds in my chest, shame washing over me.

Mum takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that.” She wipes her brow, leaving a faint smear of dirt on her forehead. “It’s just, well, we don’t have any food for the trip. And I don’t know where we’re going yet, and if there will be any food banks nearby. And you know I only managed to get one shift from the company this week, so I’m not going to be paid until next week.” Her voice gets quicker and quicker as she talks, as if someone had pressed fast-forward.

I look around the room, trying to find a solution. Then my eyes land on a stack of letters – bills for communal expenses that had been shoved through our letterbox.

“I’ll ask the neighbours,” I say. “Maybe they can lend us something for Mo.”

Mum looks at me doubtfully but nods her head. “Okay, Amira. But come back quickly. The social worker should be here in ten minutes. She’s going to find us a new place to live, now that they’re converting the block into private flats.” As I turn to leave, I notice her sag against the counter.

“Come on, Mo-Mo, we’re going for a walkie,” I say to my brother, blowing a raspberry on his chubby arm. He giggles and grabs my hair – his favourite plaything – before putting a long black strand in his mouth.

It won’t salve his appetite, but at least it will keep him happy.

In the narrow hallway, I push my feet into my plastic clogs, and walk out onto the open landing. A cold breeze brushes against my skin, making my sari billow out. Mo shudders and nuzzles into me.

I gaze at the row of brown doors to my left. There are five flats on this floor, level 15, but I’d only ever exchanged a few ‘hellos’ on the stairway with one of the families living here – the Moffats. Thankfully, I knew they had a baby. So I walk past the first three doors to try them first.

“Press the button, Mo!” I say encouragingly, trying to make a game of our dire situation.

Mo releases a gummy handful of my hair and leans across to the doorbell. Ding-dong.

We wait for a minute before I press the bell myself, much to Mo’s annoyance. Seconds tick by, and he starts trying to wriggle out of my grip. I hoist him up and wait some more. No answer.

“Okay, Mo-Mo,” I say, trying not to sound too disappointed. “Let’s try the others.”

We knock on each door. But one by one, nobody answers. They must all be out. I can feel my anxiety levels rising as we reach the final door at the end of the landing. I say a silent prayer.

Please someone be home.

Mo dutifully presses the doorbell. And a moment later, the door opens. A large, bald-headed man in a ripped t-shirt stares down at me.

“What do you want?” he growls.

“I… I’m sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you could lend us some food. We’ve run out, you see… and my baby brother’s a bit hungry...” My words trail off as I see the man’s face turn red, a vein pulsing across his forehead.

“You foreign scum.” His voice is cold as ice. “Beggars and criminals, the lot of you. Get out of my country!” he shouts. Mo starts to wail.

I jolt to action, squeezing Mo as tight as I can, and sprint back to our flat. Mo’s still screaming in my ears, but above the noise, I hear a distant door slam as I reach our home. Our soon to be ex-home. I run down the hallway and lunge into Mum’s arms.

She strokes my hair and says nothing as I explain what the man said. We’re curled up on the grotty kitchen floor, with Mo between us. Once I get all of the hurt and anger out of my system, she kisses me on the cheek.

“Don’t worry, darling,” she says. “He won’t be our neighbour for much longer anyway. We’ll start a new life, with a new home. And I’ll get a better job. I promise.”

“Huuuungry,” cries Mo, pinching my arm. I look at him, a powerhouse of energy. But so vulnerable, so reliant on us. I give him my thumb to suck on.

Then the phone starts to ring.

“Yes?” says Mum, with her telephone-voice on.

Her expression darkens as she listens to the voice on the other line. She mumbles her agreement and finally hangs up. Then she sits back down next to me and closes her eyes.

“Mum?” I ask, shaking her arm. “What is it?”

She takes a deep breath before responding. “The social worker is not coming after all.” Her voice is barely a whisper. “Our situation is not serious enough. They don’t have a home for us yet.”

The words sink in like poison.

“But where are we going to sleep tonight?” My heart starts racing and I feel like I can’t breathe. “What are we going to eat?”

“I don’t know,” Mum says, hugging Mo tightly. “But we’ll find a way.”