Role models against all the odds
We (the staff of King Edward’s Witley) met Mrs K and her 11-year old youngest son, Mohammed (all names changed), at an Open Morning in March 2011.
I spotted her in a corner, a small figure in Islamic dress with a scarf over her head, which she continually pulled in front of her face out of habit. She was nervous and shy, obviously uncertain and a little uncomfortable about being at the Open Morning, but determined to see what opportunity there might be for us to help her son. To this day I’m not quite sure what brought her to us in the first place.
In our first conversation with our Bursary Officer and me, Mrs K explained that her two younger sons had been on Child Protection plans in the past and she was trying to prevent that happening again. She didn’t want her boys to be taken away from her. Piece by piece the family’s story came out - some of it when we first got to know the family, but more information came to light after a year or so.
Mohammed is the youngest son of five boys all born within 9 years of each other. By the time we met Mrs K she had enduring mental illness and personality disorders that significantly affected her ability to care and support her sons.
As early as 2002 the boys had all been made subjects of Child Protection plans because of their unsafe and unhygienic home environment; poor engagement and resistance to change; their mother’s mental health/depression; and hoarding (of clothes and food). There were reports of physical abuse from their father against mother, and the police had been involved on at least one occasion. Although Mrs K refused to meet Social Workers at home, she would occasionally meet them at School.
Eventually the family were re-housed to a more appropriately sized house and with limited but acceptable improvement in their care and surroundings, the children’s names were removed from the CP Register and they were made subjects to a Children in Need Plan.
This increased stability and improved conditions in the boys’ lives was short-lived. Their father, an Imam at the local mosque, died of a stroke in 2005 when Mohammed was six. Although Mr K had not seemed particularly sympathetic or supportive towards his wife while he was alive, his passing didn’t improve things for her: her condition deteriorated and she became even more isolated and withdrawn from contact.
By 2008 the children were back on a CP Plan, which was reduced again to a CIN Plan at the end of 2009. This was in place until 2010 when the boys’ Schools were to maintain the role of lead professional and monitor the boys’ progress.
By 2011 the younger two boys were at a very supportive Junior School and the staff there helped as much as they could – they provided what they could for the boys: coats, paid for lunches, school trips, equipment and provisions for those trips etc. Mrs K still wouldn’t engage with the school-home liaison staff. The School identified that some help was being provided by neighbours and some families from the local mosque – meals, overnight accommodation, transport and activities. This was clearly unsustainable as the boys moved to Senior Schools.
When we met the family, although we didn’t yet know all of this detail it was obvious that this was a family with very great needs. During the admission process for Mohammed to join the school, we contacted RNCF, Buttle UK and Reedham Children’s Trust who all made home visits. The RNCF Caseworker reported that she met Mrs K in the hallway of the house, sitting on a type of deckchair, whilst Mrs K sat on a box. What could be seen of the house was filled with bags of papers and boxes of books. These belonged to the father, but Mrs K didn’t feel able to tidy them up, give them away or destroy them. The caseworker reported: “this was one of the strongest cases that I have home visited so far – in my view it is imperative that the boys secure a place at boarding school and I will be relaying that in my recommendation to our trustees.”
During his visit, the Buttle UK Caseworker noted that the fridge was broken and piled up with other debris in the garden. Despite this being in the summer and with Ramadan approaching, the family had nowhere to keep food cool and fresh. Fortunately Buttle UK were able to help buy a new fridge with a grant from their Emergency Essentials Programme (a fund in collaboration with the BBC Children In Need).
With the help of three charities and our own Bursary Foundation, we were able to admit Mohammed to the School in September 2011 and his 13 year old brother (Abdullah) in the October. Another brother (Leo) joined our Sixth Form a year later.
We were unexpectedly contacted by Social Workers in Spring 2012. Mrs K had presented at a local maternity unit in an advance state of pregnancy, and at the same time disclosed that she had been issued with a Possession Order and was due to be evicted 2 days later, which coincided with an exeat weekend for us. The house was in a bad state: Mrs K reported to the school (not mentioning the pregnancy to us) that the family couldn’t use the kitchen as there was a hole in the floor and infestation of rats. She said the boys ate cereal and toast upstairs.
Maternity staff, social workers and staff from the school worked together, and the eviction was postponed and the boys stayed at home with my family that weekend. A baby girl was born at the beginning of April. Unfortunately, Mrs K and the father of this baby, were both deemed incapable of looking after her safely, and she was removed from their care and has since been adopted. The younger two boys were back on a Child in Need Plan for a while.
Over the years there has been a lot of contact between the team of social workers involved with the family, the school safeguarding team, and the Housemaster of the boys’ Boarding House. The boys all look out for each other (as they have clearly had to at home); they are very protective of their privacy and don’t or won’t talk about home life. They are wary of authority and nervous about perceived interference. We have been able to confirm that they often stay with family friends for the shorter breaks from school, or go to members of the extended family in the Midlands for longer breaks. The safeguarding conferences have declined in the last two or three years.
Despite this background, we find the boys all to be friendly, engaging and keen to participate fully in school life. All three boys have played a huge part in House sports and have committed themselves fully in representing the school. The oldest (Leo) was made a School Prefect within one year of joining the school. He could always be relied on to be helpful to others, whether it be pupils or staff, and his empathy in dealing with those in difficult times was a real strength in his leadership. Abdullah left King Edward’s last summer having achieved 32 points in his IB Diploma and his gold Duke of Edinburgh Award. He has moved on to Sussex University to read Medical Neuroscience. Like his older brother he was also appreciated as a role model for others in school, showing integrity and charm, with a practical good sense and real entrepreneurial spirit, in a good way! Mohammed has just moved into our Sixth Form having achieved 10 GCSEs this summer and been part of the U16 football team which became National Champions – watching him score a penalty in the decisive penalty shootout was one of the best moments of his life and of my career. He is studying for A’ levels in Biology, Chemistry and Maths. Like his brothers he has a good work ethic and general positive ‘can do’ attitude: he just gets on with life with the minimum of fuss and all is done with a smile and something constructive to say.
But as well as anything we have seen in the boys in their time at King Edward’s, we have seen a stabilising of their mother’s condition. Mrs K still can be difficult to get hold of, but we have more success in contacting her than we used to. She attends some school parent-staff meetings, and has even come to our celebrations at the end of the year, marking the end of Leo and Abdullah’s time with us. It is good to see her engaging with other parents and staff at these times. It is as if the stabilising influence of the structure, routines and pastoral care enjoyed by her sons at King Edward’s, has spread a little further.