JUST as Chelsea Cameron refused to let her life be blighted by drug addict parents, we must never become resigned to the effect of poverty and neglect, writes Dani Garavelli
Late last year, there was a flurry of headlines suggesting children’s life chances are established by the age of three. The newspaper stories were prompted by a 40-year study of 1,000 people, from birth to adulthood, which found 22 per cent of the group accounted for 81 per cent of its criminal convictions, 78 per cent of medical prescriptions, and 66 per cent of welfare benefits.
The study also revealed brain tests carried out at three could accurately predict who would end up in the 22 per cent. In other words: so great is the impact of social disadvantage on children’s mental development that even before they start primary, their futures are determined.
Such research makes a powerful argument for investment in early intervention: continuity of maternity care, more health visitors, better nurseries, a concerted attempt to encourage interaction can all improve prospects by addressing poor parenting before negative habits become entrenched.
But studies like this also send out a subliminal message of predestination and hopelessness to older children living with poverty and/or neglect. If you come from a particular family or a particular housing scheme, if you have been in and out of care, if your parents are in prison, then you might as well give up. It takes guts enough to keep on trying in an environment where life is chaotic and aspirations are low without having to cope with social stigma and the assumption you were born to fail.
So, it was cheering last week to learn of Chelsea Cameron, the daughter of drug addict parents, who – supported by a group of great teachers – went on to become head girl of Menzieshill High School in Dundee. Those teachers helped her transform herself from a disruptive adolescent to a model student, who loves languages and recently travelled to Uganda to carry out charity work.
Chelsea, 18, has come to public prominence as a result of an open letter she wrote thanking her mum and dad for showing her how not to behave. In it, she says: “Parents, both of you, thank you for teaching me that taking drugs ruins lives, breaks families apart and gives no-one a quality of life worth living.
“I’ll be eternally grateful for this lesson you have taught me which has a message which has stuck by me until this day and always will.”
Chelsea’s upbeat tone cannot disguise the anguish she suffered as her life degenerated from one of relative normality – she describes being taken to dancing lessons – to one in which her parents were so detached, she was left to take her little brother to his first day at school.
“Thank you for not being there to wave goodbye as I jetted off to Uganda on a trip of a lifetime,” she writes. “Thanks for not being there when I got my first set of exam results to say well done, thanks for not being there when I got the position of head girl (a personal dream), thank you for not being there for me when I needed you. You gave me the greatest lesson on how to be independent.”
When she still lived with them, her parents brought violent drug dealers into her home. Now on an administration apprenticeship, she no longer sees her mother, and last week her father was jailed for drug offences. Yet, she still dreams of a time when they can be together.
Chelsea is inspiring; she demonstrates that, though poverty is intractable, you do not have to be defined by your own past. From her own account, she seems to be possessed of that most Scottish of qualities: thrawnness. So, when her parents failed to support her, she used her disappointment to drive her success; when she heard a teacher say anyone exposed to drug abuse as a child was “absolutely certain” to follow that path, she became determined to prove them wrong.
“Society sometimes tells you what your future is and tells you that if your parents live a certain way or you live a certain lifestyle then it’s destined that you will live like that,” she told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show.
“My hope is to show other young people they can choose how they want their life to be no matter what the circumstances.”
Not everyone is as resilient as Chelsea, though. For many children, a lack of structure and support saps self-esteem until they believe themselves unworthy. And even if years of neglect haven’t worn them down, with few resources and no-one to emulate, it can be difficult for them to know where to start.
This is where committed teachers can play a vital role in helping a child to reach their full potential. Chelsea says the ones who kept giving her more chances “when most likely they wanted to give up” turned her into the person she is today.
Trying to narrow the educational attainment gap is an uphill task. Despite proclaiming it a top priority, the SNP has so far had limited success. Every year, there are schools in affluent areas where 70 per cent of pupils get at least five Highers and schools in deprived areas where the number of pupils getting five Highers or more can be counted on one hand. The Scottish Government is committed to expanding nursery provision and last week it announced 2,513 schools would share £120m from its Pupil Equity Funding scheme. But critics point out the move coincides with an alleged £327m cut in local authority budgets. And, in any case, throwing extra money at the problem will only work if the extra cash is used to fund effective initiatives targeted at the most disadvantaged.
The SNP knows failure to make an impact on this problem will undermine its credibility. But it’s not merely the party’s reputation that is at stake, it’s the future of our greatest assets – our young people. We need radical solutions and fast because, right now, for every bright spark like Chelsea, who, by dint of her character and the right support, escapes her troubled childhood, there are dozens of others trapped in a cycle of deprivation, substance abuse and failure.