Friday, April 08, 2011

Calder on Air: Care Home Kid and Oxford vs York

My column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Home truths

In the 1970s, when there were just three channels, television producers did not worry too much about losing their audience. A Marxist Play for Today could attract million of viewers and Panorama and World in Action would confidently offer demanding documentaries. Today you may have ambitions to screen a searing expose of the suffering of refugees in Sierra Leone, but unless you get Stacey Solomon to front it you can forget the idea.

Care Home Kid (BBC2), Neil Morrissey’s two-part documentary on the public care system for children, sounded like another example of this. But it was very different – and not just because it is some years since the heyday of Bob the Builder and Men Behaving Badly when Morrissey’s was as big a name as any in British television.

Because Morrissey grew up in the care system himself. When he was 10 he and his favourite brother Stephen were taken into care because they were getting into trouble for shoplifting and pilfering. Small boys behaving badly.

To the authorities they were taken into care because they were being neglected at home. But to the boys, separated in a moment from their parents and each other, it felt like a catastrophic punishment. The Home Neil was sent to offered nothing worse than a lack of affection but, as it was presented here, Steve was catapulted into a hell of cold baths and canings.

There is an important historical point here. If you read the professional literature you are told that, under the 1969 Children and Young Persons Act, the old Approved Schools were transformed into Community Homes with Education. The reality, as this documentary showed, is that the same people carried on inflicting the same regime on the same children.

Does this sad story have any messages for us today? I fear it does. Liberal Democrats tend to be keen on a rise in the age of criminal responsibility, but as the brothers’ experience showed, what matters in not what an institution is called but how it treats you. And when Neil Morrissey opened the file that had been kept on him even in his more benign home, he found the awful comments had been made about him.

The most shocking comment was the bland “Case closed” – written because he had reached the age of 18. In a Liberator pamphlet I once quoted research from 1996 showing that of over 10,000 teenagers leaving care each year, 75 per cent had no qualifications, 80 per cent would be unemployed 12 months later and 40 per cent homeless. It also showed 40 per cent of girls in the care system would be pregnant before they were 18, 38 per cent of prisoners aged between 18 and 24 had been in the care system and so had 66 per cent of male prostitutes.

Have things got better since then? I hope so. I also hope that one day it won’t take a celebrity’s story to make the public show an interest in the care system.


Laura Penny, leading light of the Oxford University Light Entertainment Society turned socialist journalist, sounds like a character Bertie Wooster spends his time trying not to become engaged to. But some take her very seriously and so she fronted a documentary on Monday.

In Dispatches (Channel 4) Penny looked at the extraordinary salaries enjoyed by university vice chancellors and their eagerness to recruit overseas students. This viewer was happy with her patrician message – I believe the expansion of higher education is a bubble that will one day burst – but I wonder what her more radical followers made of it.

Besides, good British radicals take regular pot shots at the Oxbridge hegemony that rules us. Penny, however, directed her fire at York while remaining silent about her own university.

So if you take into account Monday’ final of University Challenge (BBC2), York was being shafted by Oxford on two channel simultaneously.

1 comment:

dreamingspire said...

The then Sir Eric James sent many of the pupils in his school to Oxbridge - and then went off to run York. Very much an egalitarian - the age of meritocracy man, except that it still hasn't come.