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Acts of civic vandalism

Parents hold their children in trust. They do not own them; we only own ourselves.

Until we are old enough, that duty of care is vested in those who brought them into the world. If they fail in that monumental task then society’s duty is to step in. And it failed lamentably in the case of the British woman in Spain who snuffed out the life of her two young children.

Once again we have Social Services frantically buck-passing and failing to measure up. Exercising always due diligence, we must not be afraid of being more interventionist. I said as much last week when I supported Sir Michael Wilshaw’s efforts to give deprived children a chance by sending them to boarding school. But provision for our young people extends far beyond the remit of Social Services. Our town halls have a part to play also.

Most days, after I close my shop, I like to round off the day with a cappuccino on the Hoe seafront. One of the pleasures I have enjoyed – along with myriad tourists – is to watch the young people having fun on the diving boards and rock pools of the foreshore. Not anymore.

The powers-that-be in the town hall had other ideas. Aided and abetted, no doubt, by ‘Elf ‘n’ Safety’ they closed it all down and demolished the lot. Even after two years I still feel cold fury at what they did.

It was, in my view, an act of civic vandalism. I never saw an accident in all the years visiting, much less a fatality. What I do know is that the kids loved it and it didn’t cost them a penny.

Did the dunderheads of the dept. involved reason, in their twisted logic, that the kids would turn their attention to the newly revamped and expensive-to-use Tinside Lido and spend their pennies there? No way!

They were, for the most part, poor kids who didn’t have many pennies. But thanks to the city’s forefathers they did have a lot of fun. At huge expense, Plymouth’s forefathers had created something that generations of Plymouth youngsters had enjoyed. It had become part of their childhood memories – even folk law.

What I want to know is: who gave the vandals the right to nullify all this and spend huge extra funds to do so?

Their predecessors had dug deep into their pockets to create a leisure facility because they recognised that they had a duty to provide for young people and in so doing help to keep them out of mischief. All that expense of yesteryear, however, was over. All their successors had to do was maintain it, but even this was too much.

Young people have a need for exciting and challenging things to do, and so in fulfilment of that need they took themselves a couple of hundred yards down the road and hurled themselves into the sea from a rocky cliff face in what is known as ‘tombstoning’. There, the dangers were real if not always apparent. If the tide was not out far enough, they could easily kill themselves.

So when the decision was taken to cull their previous, marvellous facility, did the numbskulls responsible not take this into account? I think not.

You see, they fail to think these things through, and so the law of unintended consequences comes along and hits them over the head.

Whether it’s exhorting kids to wear goggles when they play conkers; preventing little old ladies setting flower arrangement in cathedrals unless they have criminal-record checks; not allowing hanging baskets in seaside resorts in case they fall on someone’s head; or not allowing the emergency services to go in to three feet of water to save a life; they seek to wrap us all in cotton wool and take the risk out of each and every sport and situation.

They do not realise that measuring risk and pitting ourselves against the odds is part of the human experience.

A large part of the fun of sports is knowing that there is an element of risk. Take it away and you have neutered most of the fun.

Our kiddies’ play parks today may be full of colourful plastics and rubberised flooring, but they are sanitised affairs and do not hold a fraction of the thrill of the play parks their parents enjoyed.

Kids need to learn how far they can go and arm themselves for the future in the school of hard knocks.

Look at the pathetically short-chained swings they insist on today, and compare them with the mighty chains of yesteryear that allowed you to soar almost to the heavens.

Yes, the duty of care is multi-layered; town halls should remember that as well as others. They almost forgot it at Mount Wise when those marvellous facilities which the poorer kinds of Devonport enjoyed so much were almost swept away. Only a public outcry stopped the axe from falling.

It was the same sad story with our precious lido. Hands off, I say, please.

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.

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