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A hard core of dysfunctional families

A hard core exists within our country of seriously dysfunctional families: around 130,000 or so according to a recent government-commissioned report.

Children from these families can best be described as ‘feral’, and they account for a disproportionate amount of the crime in their communities.

Their parents are simply not cut out for the hugely responsible job of care and parenting, with all the sacrifice and commitment which this entails. The truth is they cannot even manage their own lives, never mind those of their often many offspring. As a consequence, these children receive no parental guidance and in many cases no love either. Their lives are doomed from the very start, and it is difficult to know what can be done in such a situation.

A suggestion has been put forward by the head of Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) to pluck these children from their hopeless home environments and bestow on them the very considerable benefits of a boarding school education.

Although nothing can compensate for an abusive and loveless setup at home, what could go a long way to giving these unfortunate children a chance in life is to give them a first-class education – something to which their own parents attach no importance.

Regardless of what has gone on at home, a mind that has been stretched, educated and, yes, disciplined, can still break free from a hopeless family and go on to better things. Such a cultivated mind might return to their families during term breaks and talk some sense into their feckless, couldn’t-care-less parents.

At the very least, if they did not succeed in this – although some might – they would be later able to present themselves to the world of work as potentially valuable assets to their company of choice.

The newly appointed head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, deserves to be praised for being prepared to address this difficult issue.

Britain has always been admired around the world for the quality of its boarding school ethos. They turned out to be the elite that made it possible for us to hold our worldwide empire together. It was very much the model on which Plato himself said would make for an ideal education.

Not long ago, the children’s charity UNICEF released figures concerning the life chances of British children who passed through Britain’s current care system; they were truly shocking and dispiriting. Based on historical evidence, the figures stated that 30% would likely grow up to become criminals, 20% homeless and 10% suicidal.

Such statistics caused me to wonder why it was that such a large majority of my own peers in the Foundling Hospital made happy and successful lives for themselves. They had, after all, been very much in ‘the care system’, and in their case did not even know who their own parents were.

But the new school which replaced their 200-year-old one in central London was a truly splendid affair with top-draw facilities; it occupied around a hundred acres and had its own farm which provided fresh produce for the children. The teachers and housemasters were, for the most part, kindly and sympathetic people who had themselves been well educated. But there were red lines and they were crossed at your peril.

Children developed a respect for authority along with a love for their country and were sound in the three Rs. There was an emotional deficit, just as there is in today’s troubled children, but the ordered life, three square meals a day and sound, if basic, education allowed them to overcome their other difficulties.

Why I am so convinced that Sir Michael Wilshaw’s has got it right is that the removal for a large part of the year from the mayhem and inadequacies of their home life will introduce them to another world. They would be free to realise their full potential, learn to treat others with respect and eventually step out into the world as cultured, educated human beings. What is not an option is that in the face of such appalling figures from UNICEF we do nothing. The whole situation shames us.

Sir Michael Wilshaw is to be lauded, not vilified, for his brave intervention in this perilous field of what to do with our problem children. If he is successful, the country will owe him a debt beyond measure. Pilot schemes must be set up without delay and the results carefully monitored.

The new Plympton library

After the devastating fire at Plympton library four years ago, a phoenix of a new library has arisen: 50% bigger and incorporating all the latest must-haves in a modern library. At a time when libraries across the land are being closed due to austerity cutbacks, this is serendipity of the highest order.

All this week there are events, and on Thursday it is authors’ day. I have been much privileged to be asked to contribute on that day. But what shall I speak about? My book, of course, but I shall also speak about children’s issues since it is much of what the book is about.

In researching the book, I came across a startling set of statistics; they relate to a recent UNICEF report. It stated that 60% of children passing through the present childcare system grow up to be either criminals, homeless or suicidal. And we must not assume that the other 40% have made successful lives for themselves; more probably they have muddled through and simply don’t qualify for a place in that terrible roll-call of tragedy.

These figures caused me to consider the fate of the Foundling Hospital children of which I was one. They were taken into care as weeks’ old babies, fostered out for their first five years and then sent to the hospital for their next ten.

The hospital, now called Coram after its 17th century founder, Captain Thomas Coram, has an association called the Old Coram Association (OCA) which encourages old boys and girls to keep in touch with each other. It publishes a twice-annual magazine and stages umpteen gatherings each year at its central London headquarters.

What emerges through all this communication is that, for all its faults, the hospital’s children made infinitely more successful lives for themselves than is the case with today’s deprived children. So what is going on?

Foundling children were institutionalised at a very tender age; they were subject to the harshest and most disciplinarian of regimes – although, it has to be said, no harsher than many of the country’s top public schools of the time – and should, therefore, be prime candidates for a failed life. They didn’t even know who their mother and father were, or even what their real name was (a new one was given them by the hospital). Yet despite all these things they have become, for the most part, loving parents and successful people.

The only conclusion that I and other ‘old boys’ can reach is that the hospital’s policy of fostering them out for their first five years saved the day. Children are tougher and more resilient than we often give them credit for. Having been surrounded by love and security since babyhood, they were able to survive the rigours of what was to become. But what they cannot survive is a messed up, abusive early start to life: nothing and nobody can undo such damage inflicted so early. If this is true – and all the evidence points to this being the case – then it seems to me that we have to move fast and adopt a much more hands-on approach where babies at risk are concerned.

The rights of parents absolutely have to come secondary to those of the child. It is well known that social services will bend over backwards and go to incredible lengths to keep mother and child together. And by the time they wake up to the reality of the relationship it is, in almost all cases, too late. The child is irredeemably scarred.

If it becomes apparent that the parent, or parents, for whatever reason cannot provide stability, love and a decent standard of care then I believe the baby should be removed as a matter of urgency and placed in an environment where it has all of these things. Intervention at the earliest point – once the facts have been established – is of the absolute essence. Who would deny that if such a policy had been in place for poor Baby P, he would not be alive today?

I would not even be averse to sending them, during term time, to a school such as the Foundling Hospital – ran with all its stunning facilities. There, in today’s world, they could be guaranteed a standard of education second to none. Think of the pressure cooking excellence that a live-in school bestows. And don’t say ‘yes, but it would be cruel to send them off from their home during term time’. Isn’t this exactly what the elite of our country have done for centuries and continue to spend thousands of pounds doing? Sending them at the tender age of eight from the far flung outposts of empire in times past, not to see their parents for years, never mind every school holiday?

Armed with this very superior education, wouldn’t society have gone a very long way not just in saving them, but off-setting the sadness of the loss of their own inadequate parents?

If you can spare some time to join with me, we can discuss some of these very important issues. I can also answer any of your questions with regard to my book. The opportunity comes at 2.30pm at Plympton Library on Thursday 9th February. Another local writer, John White, who writes military and political thrillers, will also be there.

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