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Life on the street

31 January 2014

By Sarah Meyrick


THE programme that everybody is talking about - as Channel 4 likes to remind us - is Benefits Street (Channel 4, Tuesdays).

It has attracted ire from all sides. The Revd Steve Chalke, of the Oasis Trust, has called on the pro-ducers to apologise to the community, who feel that the street has been turned into a human zoo. For the Daily Mail, the series confirms all our worst fears about workshy Britain. Even tuning in feels voyeuristic.

We have had the episodes on Danny the shoplifter, with his 200 offences, and the wretched plight of the Romanians, tricked into coming to Britain by a gangmaster and unable to claim benefits or to work legally. Last week, the focus was on family life. Mark and Becky are struggling to bring up their children, Callum and Casey, with little money, and not much to hope for.

Frankly, it was all pretty desperate. Poorly educated, and barely more than children themselves, they had met at school and somehow stuck together through a drug problem (Becky's), and long-term unemployment (Mark's).

They bickered constantly, and their parenting was chaotic: Callum, in particular, was running rings around them, up half the night and rarely attending nursery. They had got into a muddle about their housing benefit, and were massively in debt. And now the Social were coming round because of a missed doctor's appointment. Becky talked sadly about the pros-pects of the children being taken into care.

(This very scenario was painted for us by another young mother, Sam, who lost the care of her son to his grandmother because of her heroin problem. Every time her welfare payment comes in, she has to fight the temptation to spend it on drugs. We saw her trying to organise a visit to her son. But when she called to arrange a visit, the grandmother said she was busy, and hung up. Heartbreaking.)

Yet this visit from the social workers was a turning point for Mark and Becky. Mark got himself a job; OK, it did not work out, but he did try. Becky seized control of sorting out their debt; and a lovely lady from the charity Home Start came to help them find ways to cope better with their children. And the new strategies worked, visibly. What happens next is anyone's guess; but I was struck by their heroic determination in the face of almost insuperable odds.

It may not be easy watching, but this is surely an important series in reminding us what life is like for thousands of people in the UK who have never known good role-models or a decent education. What a different world we saw in The Grammar School: A secret history (BBC4, Wednesday of last week). It was based on fascinating archive footage, and a few inter-views with successful alumni (Sir David Attenborough and Baroness Bakewell, for instance).

As such, it painted a decent historical picture of how grammar schools came into being, and the leg-up they offered thousands of bright working-class children. The first episode took us to the beginning of the 1960s. The second will show what followed: the way the grammar-school system was dismantled by the very people who had benefited from it most.

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