In October 2006 the British Government produced a Green Paper for consultation called Care Matters: Transforming the Lives of Children and Young People in Care (Cm 6932). One of the issues it laments and seeks to address is the educational progress and attainment of these children. The first chapter sets out what it calls “shocking statistics” (para. 1), and relates these figures to the “devastating” (para. 2) long-term outcomes of such children.
For those of us who, unlike the current minister and civil servants, have been alongside children in care (the term at present is “looked after”) throughout our lives, and who have read with great interest related books, articles, white papers and policies on the subject over several decades, there is neither novelty nor surprise in all this. Our weariness comes partly from the fact that no one seems to have noticed the chronic nature of the problem. It is endemic. It is inherent in the very way we continue to conceptualise and institutionalise the process of “looking after children”. In previous columns I have written about this (for example, When is Care Not Education?) and so I do not intend to go over old ground.
At Mill Grove for more than a century we have travelled an alternative route that integrates care and education (pedagogy is a key concept) and the outcomes have therefore been consistently different. So what I would like to do is to describe how this alternative approach is working in the life of one young person who has lived with us since she was three. I will call her Jill. She is now 17 years old, and in her final year of Sixth Form. She has attended local state schools that are probably average in national terms. We can give them due credit, but this is not the whole story. How has her experience of living as part of the Mill Grove community for 14 years nurtured and drawn out her inquisitiveness and learning potential?
She has been surrounded by books of every kind, and there has been someone interested to discuss them with her. There has been continuous encouragement of her formal schooling at every stage, and good sustained links with schools. She has spent holidays with us year by year in North Wales where we have explored geography, history, meteorology, language, religion, philosophy, culture and literature together. Recently she completed hill-walking the last of the mountains over 3,000 feet high in Snowdonia. And she came with us to Switzerland, stopping off with our family members in Germany and Holland. On that trip we visited one of the great libraries of Europe, the Stiftsbibliotheque in St Gallen, and entered into rural Appenzell life and culture while staying in an old remote wooden farmhouse.
She has a peer group at school all of whom are all pursuing higher education and we have got to know these friends and rejoiced in their progress too. And there has been a range of cultural experiences over the years given our proximity to London. We have enjoyed her writing (novels and the diaries she has edited of our holidays). She has taken part in Boxing Day pantomimes for most of her life, and is a confident actress. She sings in the church choir, and has a very good soprano voice. She reads music.
I could go on, but by now you have probably got the point that Jill is surrounded by people and a culture that encourage questioning, exploration, reflection, conversation, and therefore learning. We have had literally hundreds of informal discussions at the meal table. It helps that the adults around here include graduates in many subjects, from universities in various parts of the world.
In mid-December 2006 Jill applied to six universities in the UK to read English Language. They included Edinburgh (where I did my research into residential child care), Newcastle, Canterbury, Bangor, Cardiff and York. It so happened that I was lecturing on the Social Work course in Bangor for a day around this time and so I suggested that Jill and her mother might like to come with me to sample one of the places on her list. They came with me, staying a night in our house in Borth-y-Gest, and then driving with me early in the morning to a damp and sleepy Bangor. What happened next was for me like magic.
While I got on with my lecturing and seminars, one of the lecturers in the Social Work department welcomed and entertained them; Jill introduced herself to a Professor in the English Department and had a very helpful chat; mother and daughter were made welcome in the staff restaurant; and a friend of mine, who is a Professor of Sociology, reinforced the welcome. On top of all this my youngest daughter who happens to be studying at Bangor and her three housemates hosted a meal for the three of us at the end of the day.
We drove back to London later that evening on the A5 discussing some of the times we had enjoyed on the mountains, the story of the Romans in North Wales, the road-building of Thomas Telford and the like, as well as much about university life and studies. Jill’s mother was able to convey to her how much she supported this move away from home and into the next stage of her inter-dependence.
A few days later Jill received an offer from Bangor. Whether she will take it up remains to be seen, but I have little doubt that this particular day will prove to have been a significant part of the whole process of learning and maturing in her life. As one who is relatively familiar with universities and colleges around the world I want to say that I would find it hard to imagine a more convincing and friendly welcome than that Jill received in a rainy Bangor. And it wasn’t programmed or planned whether by the University or by us. It was, if you like, just another day in the normal life of Mill Grove.
No one can predict the future, and so I do not want to suggest that we know how A levels, university and life will turn out for Jill, but I hope you can see that there is an alternative to looked after children achieving badly at school and in later life, and how it is that Mill Grove is the sort of place and community that provides an environment in which genuine learning and exploration thrive.
In the terms used by John Bowlby it constitutes a “secure base” from which children can launch into journeys of enquiry, risk and adventure knowing that it will always be there for them when they want or need to return. Such places are where good attachment bonds have been formed: reliable, responsive and protective, but always encouraging “sorties into the outside world”.
Bowlby. J, (1988) A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory, Routledge, London (p11)