From shattered lives to school wars

9 May

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“Jung and Freud would have rewritten their books if they’d been to Peckham,” said Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company and author of Shattered Lives: Children Who Live with Courage and Dignity, speaking at the Swindon Festival of Literature this evening.

I sat within a near capacity crowd, and listened to this lady, dressed in what looked like a flower garden, in total awe. Not just because she’d worked with the most troubled children but because she was smiling; genuinely smiling.

She has heard and seen at first hand what humans can do to each other. Humans with what should be the most special and protected relationships – parents and their children. The one relationship a child should be able to rely on, but at whose hands they suffer the most awful abuse. Children who have no one to stand up for them, to even do basic things such as feed them.

So how did Camila keep smiling (apart from being a happy person and wearing bright clothes)? Because these children still cared about their abusive parents. Because she helped innercity London children with ‘murdered childhoods’ leave lives of crime, attend Oxford University, or simply go on to become great parents. Kids Company listened and understood why abused children act as they do, and has filled a gap in the system where they are are routinely ignored and demonised, treated as insignificant.

“We are all insignificant,” she said. “Our significance lies in what we do.”

She related that one prime minister told her that child services needed to change but that no one would touch it – because the public only care about ‘what is being done about problem children’ or educational achievement.

We need to start caring.

Following Camila’s talk, Melissa Benn, writer broadcaster and daughter of a famous father, took to the stage at Swindon’s Arts Centre to discuss the topic of her book School Wars.

Evangelical about a good state education system, Melissa expressed her belief that her own children had been enriched by mixing with others from different backgrounds at comprehensive school. She was in sympathetic company, the kind of audience who laughed at her Rupert Murdoch jibe, me being one of them.

She is anti-academy and grammar school, ambivalent about free schools, feels that ‘private schools are the problem not the solution’ and that the current system is ‘soulless’. She voiced concern that so-called failing schools are being tendered to charities or private companies to run, based on a system from the US that isn’t working. She felt that the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, was counter-revolutionary but his heart was in the right place. She worried about his focus on the poor but very talented students: “that’s not 95% of children, that’s not relevant for most of the children Camila is in contact with.”

I stuck my hand up to ask the first question. As a former teacher (and someone who went on BBC Breakfast News some years back to say how rubbish teaching conditions were) and a mother of a five-year-old I had about ten questions, with time for one. I expressed my commitment to state schools but wondered how she would recommend protecting children from the bullying behaviour from other possibly damaged children. As soon as the words left my mouth I realised I’d made it sound like comprehensive school equalled bullying, public school did not. Eeek. Melissa responded that it wasn’t background and poverty that caused bullying but the values that students brought to school with them. Afterwards a festival volunteer told me she’d moved her daughter out of her local comprehensive due to bullying, put her into a fee paying school whereupon she suffered racism. Okay, so what I meant to ask was how Melissa thought the system could create schools with a caring, confident, safe and happy environment so that people from all backgrounds could mingle happily, or at least rub along productively.

(Ah the perils of asking questions in literature festivals. I once made vernacular author Irvin Welsh blush after his talk. Taking the microphone, I punctuated my point with profuse swearing. I thought it a tongue-in-cheek homage. His slightly red face said he didn’t agree.)

Heavy topics today, but as yesterday, am feeling inspired and uplifted.

2 Responses to “From shattered lives to school wars”


  1. Roman Krznaric – life inspired by history « Festival Chronicle - 19th May 2012

    […] this…pasty tax anyone? Festival director Matt Holland held up an earlier festival speaker and Kids Company founder Camila Batmanghelidjh as a great example of an empathic […]

  2. Programme launch defies convention with longevity and…fruit | Festival Chronicle - 22nd Mar 2018

    […] example than founder of the ill-fated Kids Company charity, Camila Batmanghelidjh (16th May). When she last came to the festival in 2012 she was well respected and loved. This time it’s to answer her critics and the effect of […]

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