Boarding pass

Case notes   

Practitioner: Tricia Hays, senior practitioner. 

Field: Children and families. 

Location: Reading. 

Client: Julian Cowley is a 10-year-old boy who lived alone with his mother Maria – a primary school teacher.  

Case history: Julian’s father died three years ago, after which Maria attempted suicide while Julian was in the house. At this time – through the GP – the family was referred to social services. However, the attempt was not serious and with medical and extended family support on hand the case was closed. A year later the GP again referred Maria who was saying she was feeling suicidal. However, despite her bouts of depression she was coping and caring well – her mother had moved in to help – and the case was not considered high priority. A number of referrals followed (for example, concerns that Maria had sold her house and moved Julian to another school) but none of which set alarm bells ringing. Then the community mental health team said they were about to detain Maria under the Mental Health Act 1983 and were worried about Julian’s well-being.  

Dilemma: Any decision to use public money to fund private boarding school fees would be contentious. 

Risk factor: Unable to stay full-time with his mother or extended family, the boarding school option reduces the risk of Julian being taken into care. 

Outcome: Julian excelled at prep school and has now been accepted by both schools that he and his parents had set their heart on.

Disability, old age and mental health problems effect people of all classes. When planning services and support for, say, an older man with dementia from a minority ethnic group, social workers would, rightly, be sensitive to his social needs. But what of a middle class white boy at private school? Should social workers see it as their job to sustain that privileged background in a moment of crisis?

This intriguing dilemma is one that faced Reading social services when it became involved with 10-year-old Julian Cowley. His mother, Maria, clearly affected by the unexpected death of her husband and Julian’s father, had experienced a gradual and serious decline in mental health.

Last year, two weeks before the school summer holidays began, the community mental health team detained Maria under the Mental Health Act 1983. “With nowhere else to go, Julian became a priority for us,” says senior practitioner, Tricia Hays. “We looked into a non-residential, non-fostering arrangement which we always try to do if possible. There were parents of a friend of Julian’s at school who were prepared to help out temporarily.”

The family, of course, had their own family responsibilities and holidays booked. “So we had to find other possibilities – grandma who although she was supporting Maria also had a history of mental health problems.”

Worryingly, Maria was not responding to treatment and her hospitalisation was set to continue for much longer than Hays had expected. “And we had this 10-year-old boy for whom education had been given a paramount importance – private school and university were very much the plan. In her more lucid moments Maria, an ex-teacher, told me of her dream that Julian could attend one of two schools, one with naval connections,” she says. Julian’s grandfather had been an officer in the navy.

“We were able to track Maria’s father’s family who were in their late 60s, early 70s. We found a great-uncle living in Canada. There was also a great-uncle and aunt living in the north of England. However, they had had little to do with Maria and Julian, and had their own families. The great-uncle still worked – he had an important job travelling the country as an accountant for a large firm: so they didn’t feel able to cope with a 10 year old,” says Hays.

However, the extended family was brought together to see if something could be worked out between them. The short-term was dealt with: Julian went to Canada for the summer holidays. “Although the family was worried at its ability to care for him more permanently, the great-uncle came up with a solution. The two schools that Julian had an aspiration to attend ran bursary schemes which he could be eligible for if his school attainments improved and he passed the entrance exam,” says Hays.

Following his father’s death Julian had been left a monthly allowance of £150 until he was 17 – which Maria had been using to support and care for him. This could be used towards the costs of his education.

Hays continues: “They proposed in order to raise his attainments that Julian should move to a prep school on the outskirts of Reading but still within the catchment area of his target schools.” As the prep school was boarding this meant that the family could care for Julian during term-breaks.

“Julian said: ‘I didn’t think I’d go to boarding school until I was 11 but I suppose I can go at 10.’ He said that he felt his goals were to do well in mathematics, geography and Latin,” says Hays. “So that’s what we did. I saw him every term and we paid the £200 a week term fees. He topped his class in Latin and got a silver certificate in maths. He sat the entrance exam for both schools he targeted – and was accepted by both.”

Although Maria is now at home following the hospital’s closure, she requires intensive support – so a return home is not an option yet for Julian. “Maria was included in all decision-making – both mum and son still love each other dearly – she nonetheless is unhappy at what she sees as their further drifting apart. That aside we can close the case and hope that Julian will go on and prosper – as he may well have done had his mother not become unwell,” says Hays. 

Arguments for risk

  • Julian was not able to be with his mother – apart from her suicidal tendencies, her behaviour became more obsessive. For example, she would make Julian dress up in his school uniform the night before to make sure he would be ready on time for the morning. Hays was correct to pursue placement possibilities with the extended family rather than rely on the simpler solution of foster or residential care. Indeed, having contact with his wider family network means that Julian now knows his cousins.
  • Despite the potential political unease over the decision it is the most cost-effective option: certainly cheaper than fostering or residential care. Social services often commission services from private care organisations – why not education?
  • To attend one of the schools was what Julian wanted. It was part of family’s goals – education being at the hub of their family life. It would be an achievement that would boost his self-esteem and may even boost his mother’s mental health.

Arguments against risk

  • While recognising the efforts to piece together this jigsaw of placements to avoid taking Julian into care, it must be very disruptive moving around so much. Despite her deteriorating condition it is important that Julian remains close – physically – to his mother. She feels that all the work with Julian is resulting in their drifting apart: long trips to Canada, weeks away at school and time spent in the north.
  • A question mark must also be placed over the decision to use public money to fund private – and thus privileged – education. This must sit very uncomfortably – are other children in care, or in danger of going into care, considered for private education? Also it may have a detrimental effect on Julian if other children find out that he is funded by social services.
  • Foster care could provide a warm, loving and caring environment which will not necessarily be on offer in a British boarding school.

Independent comment   

Good private education is a privilege. The facilities, the curriculum, above all the small classes, offer maximum opportunity for academic success. It is a privilege usually reserved for the rich or talented. But social services are duty bound to promote the welfare of the children in their care, and to maximise their life chances, writes Elspeth Loades.     

Hays did a great job in eliciting the family’s own solution and finding a way to make it a reality. Hays’s solution may well be the right one for other children too. But not all. Most social workers will have memories of taking young people to foster homes or residential units, immediately rejected by the young person as being “too posh”. 

That the boarding school environment might not offer the warm loving environment of a foster home is surely a risk, as thousands of ex-private school boys will no doubt testify across the country. The “closed case” is understandable given the pressures of work in a busy social services office. But it gives cause for concern, as does Julian’s prolonged separation from Maria. 

One of the strengths of public sector provision is the safeguarding of the independent professionals involved – the school nurse, the youth worker, the Connexions worker, the education welfare officer – do they play such a prominent role in the private sector? If things do begin to go wrong for Julian, who will listen? 

Elspeth Loades is a planning and development manager for children’s services.

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