Fight for the right to study the law

24th February 2006 at 00:00
If you grow up in care, you can't pass exams. Or so a successful barrister was told at 14. Nick Hilborne reports

Ivor Frank was 14 when he was told by a teacher at his Hampshire comprehensive that he was not clever enough to take exams. "It will only make you depressed," said the teacher, a careers adviser.

His foster father, a lecturer at a local polytechnic, agreed. "The teacher knows best," he told him. "You don't want to set your sights too high."

But Mr Frank was determined and fought for the right to take O-levels, an experience most teenagers dreaded. Now, having also taken A-levels, a law degree and Bar finals, he is a senior barrister specialising in commercial fraud and human rights law.

Looking back, Mr Frank, now 51, said the teacher who told him to avoid exams had low expectations, because he was a child in care and because he was black.

"I was surprised by what he said. I was used to winning at sport, and did not see why I could not win at exams, if I put my mind to it. I had always read avidly."

Mr Frank is a trustee of the Frank Buttle Trust, which gives grants to disadvantaged children, and fully supports the TES Time to Care campaign.

He grew up with his two brothers and sister in an orphanage complex in Banstead, Surrey, after his Nigerian father left his Irish mother when he was four. The complex was made up of 24 houses and had its own church and school.

"Orphanages were a bit like madhouses," Mr Frank said. "They were full of kids with problems, screaming and having fights all the time. I was very motivated to get away.

"I am not sure that some of the others understood the situation they were in. Orphanage, borstal, prison was the path laid down for them, and many went that way."

When he was 13, Mr Frank went to live with foster parents in Hampshire. It was there that he excelled at sport, running middle-distance races for the county, but was told at school that exams were not for him.

He complained to his social worker, and at the age of 15 was moved to Greenshaw high school in Sutton, south-west London, where he lived alone in a bedsit.

"The place was a tip," he recalled. "It was running with damp and I did not know anyone else in the building."

His favourite teacher was an elderly Scotsman, whose eyes filled with tears during history lessons when he spoke to the class about the British empire.

"He told me once that if there was anyone at the school who could get to university, it was me."

After passing half a dozen O-levels, including getting an A grade in history, Mr Frank moved school again.

On the advice of his social worker, he went to Holland Park comprehensive in west London, studying for A-levels alongside the offspring of Labour politicians such as Tony Benn and Anthony Crosland.

"I was made head boy for a few months because no one else wanted it. I was in constant trouble with the head, as I was expected to be the advocate for errant youngsters who were having confrontations with their teachers."

He passed A-levels in history, English and biology. That summer, before studying philosophy and then law at University College, London, he worked as a roadsweeper for Westminster council.

"I remember the inspector coming round on his bicycle, telling me I had done a good job. He told me not to worry about university, because in a few years' time I could be an inspector like him."

Mr Frank said that not only were children in care faced with low expectations academically, but their achievements were often unrecognised.

"When I passed my exams, I never got any praise. Far from it being a positive experience, it made things difficult for me.

"I did not go to award ceremonies, including the one for my degree. I did not want to be the only person in that huge hall without the support of family and friends."

Mr Frank said he had recently attended an awards ceremony organised by Warwickshire county council to celebrate the achievements of looked-after children.

"The message has to get through to all local authorities that if their kids achieve, they should get rewards and recognition," he said.

* nick.hilborne@tes.co.uk

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