The Scheme: A brutal eye-opener or 'poverty porn'?

The decision to postpone future episodes of BBC Scotland's controversial documentary on six families in the Onthank area of Kilmarnock has given critics and supporters alike the chance to mull over whether the series is helpful or simply making matters worse.

• The Onthank scheme

IT HAS become one of the most talked-about television shows in Scotland, an "observed documentary series", greeted with dejection and derision in equal measure.

With its first episode drawing an audience in the region of 350,000, and reams of press coverage over the past seven days, BBC Scotland's The Scheme has enjoyed a high-profile debut.

The four-part series is a fly-on-the-wall documentary of life in half a dozen households in Onthank, a housing estate in Kilmarnock. Condemned in some quarters as little more than "poverty porn", it has provoked debate. In its depiction of six families in the Ayrshire community, a myriad range of social problems have been shown on screen, from poverty and unemployment through to addiction and antisocial behaviour.

The reality of the challenges facing the families was highlighted starkly on Tuesday night, when the BBC announced the final two episodes of the series have been postponed indefinitely because a 17-year-old male resident featured in the shows had been charged with assault.

So, as The Scheme enters a hiatus, what has been the impact of its first two episodes – not only in Kilmarnock, but across Scotland as a whole? Given the uncompromising nature of the programme, produced by the award-winning Friel Kean Films, it comes as no surprise to find no easy consensus has taken shape. Whereas some people feel the show has helped bring home the realities of grave social problems, such as child poverty, others warn against contemplating change in social policy from a programme which ultimately focuses only on a handful of disparate families.

FOR Douglas Hamilton, head of Save The Children in Scotland, The Scheme has proved a worthwhile addition to BBC Scotland's schedule. He believes its impact has been far ranging, with many ordinary Scots likely to have found themselves surprised by the lives depicted on-screen.

"The face of child poverty in Scotland has been brutally exposed in The Scheme," he said. "For many viewers, I am sure that this programme has been an eye-opener to the experience of some of the poorest children growing up in Scotland."

Doubtless, the region of Ayrshire featured in the show has not got its problems to seek. According to the Campaign to End Child Poverty, no fewer than 23 per cent of children in East Ayrshire are from families on out-of-work benefits, one of the highest rates among local authorities in Scotland.

In the north-west pocket of Kilmarnock where Onthank lies, the statistics make for even more alarming reading. There, compared with other parts of East Ayrshire, four times as many children live in households where no adults work; almost three times as many adults are unable to work due to disability or illness; and nearly twice as many adults die as a result of heart disease.

• Marvin, Dayna and dog Bullet

James McCormick, the charity adviser and former director of the Scottish Council Foundation, believes the programme highlights the "catastrophic impact down the generations" of men losing their foothold in the labour market. "This is not about poverty, actually," he told The Scotsman's podcast this week. "There's a long tradition of people who've struggled financially, but didn't live in shame. This is a different type of experience about a loss of order, positive role models, a failure to benefit from state education. It is a vortex which we cannot ignore."

YET, while The Scheme has helped shed light on the social problems in Onthank, no-one is under the impression that camera crews visiting other communities in Scotland would have trouble gathering footage that was equally illuminating. "Unfortunately, this is not an experience that is confined to one scheme in Ayrshire, but is the day-to-day reality for thousands of children across the country," Mr Hamilton said. The Onthank experience, he pointed out, is one which can be found in "pockets" all over the country, from similar urban housing schemes through to seemingly idyllic rural villages.

Christine Grahame, the SNP MSP for the South of Scotland, also said the issues in Onthank could be extrapolated nationwide. "As a politician you don't even need to watch these programmes," she told The Scotsman podcast. "When I've been out canvassing in what look like posh places of Perth, that's what you see – people who have no partner or several partners; they've got big dogs, kids running about; there's nobody working; they're getting up in the afternoon because it kills the day and watching late-night television. I'm not condemning them, it's just a fact."

She added: "There are whole areas and generations like that. I understand about the work ethic but it's also about the breakdown of the family unit."

Fiona Lees, chief executive of East Ayrshire Council, said: "The programme portrays a selective slice of life in a very small number of families in one community in Kilmarnock, but the challenges highlighted are not unique to Kilmarnock – we all know that this community could be in any town or city across the country."

OTHER parties, however, are wary of viewing the The Scheme as symptomatic of the problems facing Onthank, let alone Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, or Scotland. Keith Kintrea, senior lecturer in urban studies at the University of Glasgow, expressed doubt that the series would contribute to a wider understanding of social issues.

He said: "There is a dissonance between the programme's title and its content, which is not helpful, either to that area of Kilmarnock, or the residential areas across Scotland with similar profiles. I would have expected the programme to focus much more on the place and the relationships people have with each other beyond their immediate families. But the housing estate just happens to be a backdrop for a programme about individual families. You can't derive any wider understanding."

Mr Kintrea, whose research focuses on neighbourhoods, urban regeneration, and housing policy, added: "Obviously the programme is leading to a debate, as the media are focusing on it. But whether it's leading to a more structured debate, I'm not sure. Of the issues raised, one which is implicit is the matter of child rearing, but it's below the surface. You only see snippets of relationships. I believe that policymaking should be based on evidence. The programme is not evidence. You cannot generalise from these particular families."

For his part, John Dickie, head of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, also cautioned against becoming overly focused on a programme featuring the lives of just six households. "We need to ensure that in discussing this kind of television we are not distracted from tackling the underlying causes of poverty in Scotland," he said.

Ms Lees also believes The Scheme cannot be seen as representative of the area. Yesterday, she wrote to Ewan Angus, BBC Scotland's commissioning editor, complaining that the first two episodes "were not balanced." She said: "I am also seeking assurances that during the many hours of filming in Kilmarnock, there was no occasion when BBC employees considered it necessary to report concerns about the neglect, abuse or exploitation of a child or vulnerable adult."

EVEN after only two episodes of The Scheme, there are other distractions. The series is being discussed widely on social networking sites, with several groups set up in honour of a bull terrier named Bullet. One group, with nearly 12,000 members, praises the animal as "the most socially mobile and successful person on the show". Another group has launched a petition for Marvin Baird, a drug addict from Onthank, to be included in the upcoming series of the reality show Big Brother. "It's insulting to make celebrities of people who clearly are in need of help," said one Ayrshire councillor. "There's a danger that, for the families who've taken part, their lives are going to become even more difficult because of all the attention they are receiving."

Less attention, certainly, is being paid to possible solutions for communities like Onthank. Yet anti-poverty campaigners believe changes can be made in simple ways. Mr Hamilton, for instance, believes that decent paid work, improved education, and a "culture of aspiration" might make a difference. "It is shameful that 95,000 children in Scotland live in families surviving on less than 33 per day."

Mr Dickie agreed that issues such as low pay, a lack of decent jobs, child-care barriers, and the "inadequate benefits safety-net", coupled with alcohol, drugs, family breakdown and crime, leave families from all social backgrounds unable to offer their children the best start in life. He added: "But the challenges are magnified tenfold when people are struggling to get by on shockingly low wages or woefully inadequate benefits and are cut off from opportunities most people take for granted."

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