Better life

In and out of care institutions throughout childhood, Melody Moran was battered by a system that denied children love and attention. She survived and now presides over a school that is 'emotional literacy in action'.

Diane Hofkins reports

The music room reverberates with exuberant sound. Thirty children are on their feet, singing and banging percussion instruments, glancing for direction from a blonde woman among them. She's singing too, and playing a keyboard, bouncing along and grinning with these nine to 11-year-olds, barely taller than they. She is their headteacher, Melody Moran.

Her school, Brentside, in the London borough of Ealing, is a primary designed to capture and encourage children's enthusiasms. Described by a visiting therapeutic children's counsellor as "emotional literacy in action", it is quite probably the most colourful school in Britain. Not only are there lively displays celebrating children's work throughout, but every classroom and hallway is painted a different brilliant colour. The school, where 80 per cent of the 270 pupils speak English as an additional language and 42 per cent are eligible for free meals, is also home to what must be the most gorgeous school toilets ever. Decorated in cheerful colours, the cubicle doors depict swans, trees, fish and sandcastles.

When Ms Moran, 56, arrived at Brentside three years ago, the children were putting up with "disgusting" outdoor toilets. She lobbied the local authority and got a photo in the local paper of pupils holding their noses.

The tactic worked.

When she mentions that she grew up in children's homes, attending eight schools in all, but even now unable to find out just how many places she lived in before the age of five, it casts a chillingly bright light on Brentside primary school. The rebelliously non-institutional colours, the passionate advocacy of children, the range of high-quality opportunities for music, drama and sport, all take on a new, deeper meaning. A head who knows what it feels like not to matter knows how to make sure every child does.

Ms Moran's childhood reads like something out of a Charles Dickens novel.

Born in 1949, she was first placed in a children's home in her native Lincolnshire aged 18 months, but retained a close bond with a mother who had a violent history. It was a mixed blessing because she missed her mother, whom she saw only sporadically, often when it was time to move her to another home. She has memories of being put to sleep in the bath as a punishment for talking after lights out, and waking up once in hospital, having sustained a brain haemorrhage after being hit. And she recalls, aged about three, wanting to push one of the carers in the river, but stopping herself.

Between the ages of five and 11, Melody lived in a children's home outside Sleaford, attending a two-room country school. She had friends but remembers little about the care staff. "There was some cruelty, but mostly aimed at the boys. There were severe beatings. You could hear through the walls.

"I was put out for fostering or adoption a lot, but always returned", she says. "One, because I don't think my mother would consent, and two, because I never settled in. It's a terrible way to treat a child. A lot of children still have that. You don't have power in your life."

But she had two books: Hans Christian Andersen, received as a handwriting prize, and Black Beauty, which she read over and over. When she was 11, her mother suddenly lifted her out of the home and away from her friends into a violent, chaotic household. One of the hardest things about being an institution child is "being with normal people but not being normal", she says. "I remember crying almost every day before I went to school." But when social services came to visit she couldn't tell them she wanted to go back to the children's home.

There followed a range of secondary schools, some of which threw her out for being difficult; an international school in France, where her stepfather was posted; a boarding school for maladjusted children in East Finchley; an RAF psychiatric ward; and, finally, a posh girls' boarding school, through a charitable foundation.

By the age of 18 she had five O-levels and, having left care, trained to be a nurse. She suffered a nervous breakdown but on recovery took a teaching certificate course at Maria Sumpter, a small Catholic college in London - and found her vocation. She loved teaching, discovered she was good at it and later took a BEd at Goldsmiths and a master's degree at London University's Institute of Education.

Today, an estimated 5 per cent of looked-after children go to university; in the 1960s barely any did. So what gave Melody Moran the resilience and confidence to build a successful career when most people would have fallen by the wayside?

Music has played a key role, as she has lived out the name her parents gave her. "I used to sing all the time," she says, and she still writes songs.

One of the schools she attended gave piano lessons, and allowed her to practise for hours. "It gave you time on your own, time to create." As a "child of the Sixties" she became passionate about civil rights and anti-racism, and has deliberately chosen to work in multi-racial schools.

Experts might say that her early bond with her mother, that crucial "emotional attachment" at a very young age, was important. She herself has been married and has a grown-up son. Like other children's home veterans who have succeeded in life, key people helped at certain moments: the foster family she lived with for some summer holidays; a friend in college who assured her she was creative even though she couldn't spell; the stepfather who was alcoholic but kind; and teachers who let her know they understood, and inspired her to "see there was a world bigger than I was in".

Aged five, she loved Miss Ogden, her first teacher at the two-room village school; and at the school for maladjusted children there were teachers who encouraged her to read poetry and anti-racist books. Now, she tells pupils who are finding life hard, "I know what you're going through. This is a difficult time. But people will help you and you will get through this."

The school staff try to see what's behind children's behaviour; an excellent school nurse is at the end of a phone. "If things are chaotic in their life you have to support the child more," says Ms Moran. She's not conscious of developing a special bond with children who are looked after - there are none at the moment - or others with serious difficulties. But her colleague, Year 6 teacher Toni Davies, says: "I think Melody does do that because she can read situations well. If a child is displaying a particular behaviour then she'll be able to identify why the child is behaving in a particular way and make time for them."

Spirituality, says Ms Moran, plays a big part in her life and has helped her make sense of things. "The adult can speak to the child in me." She says she had an inner strength, something she refers to as "good anger", an understanding that she didn't deserve the things that were happening to her, that she was better than that and would stand alone and prove herself.

"School can provide continuity and a sense of what society is meant to be," Ms Moran says. "We make sure everything is safe and consistent, but we inspire them, too. We want to make them feel they're part of something bigger than themselves."

Children at Brentside feel free to express their needs. One boy, for instance, seemed only to come alive when he was performing. "He lost it because he didn't get a big part in a school show. Then he came back and said, 'I know you all need parts, but I really need this part'. Children will do that. They just need to have the right environment."

Ms Moran is not convinced that children in care get a better deal than she did 50 years ago, having no power over their lives, being shunted around foster homes and having their schooling disrupted. "A decision can be made just like that, which changes your life. It still happens."

Time to Care is The TES's campaign to get a better deal for the 65,000 children in care in England and Wales. Just one in 16 achieves five good GCSEs and fewer than 100 go to university each year; our campaign aims to raise awareness of their plight. To join the debate about how they can be helped, go to

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