Foster care stripped bare

20th January 2006 at 00:00
Full Monty actor Paul Barber endured a tough childhood as he was shunted round eight homes - and school was an escape. He and his foster brother talk to Nick Hilborne

School was a sanctuary for Paul Barber, the Liverpudlian actor who appeared in The Full Monty, the Oscar-winning film about middle-aged out-of-work steel workers who strip to raise money.

It was the one point of stability in his life. And the one place where he could keep in touch with Ben Brown, his foster brother.

Mr Barber, who is also famous for playing Denzil, one of the loveable rogues in the television comedy Only Fools and Horses, was put into care at the age of seven after his mother died from TB.

Mr Brown was in care from the age of 18 months after his seaman father died and his mother abandoned him.

The two met when they were moved to a foster home, a huge Victorian house in Liverpool presided over by a middle-aged couple. There Ben, aged nine, and Paul, eight, joined six lodgers, and the couple's three children, one of them married. The "kids from care" lived in the attic: four boys in one room, the only girl in another.

By the time the pair left care Mr Barber had been shunted around eight foster and children's homes, and Mr Brown in 14. The only thing which stayed the same as they grew up, and kept them together, was school.

"School was a sanctuary," Mr Barber said. "I didn't learn anything, but it was sanctuary."

The brothers have both been successful, and have remained close. As well as his role in The Full Monty Mr Barber has appeared in the popular television shows Brookside and Boys from the Blackstuff.

His foster brother stepped down last month after four years as assistant director of Haringey social services. During the 1980s he was responsible for running 35 children's homes in Birmingham.

Both men, now in their fifties, said they had loved school, because it was an escape from their foster parents.

"There was an English teacher I remember with total fondness," Mr Brown said. "She wore a fur coat and gave us lollipops. She could shout, but she had patience and you felt she had time for you. She got me into reading in a big way, and I'm still an avid reader."

Mr Barber recalled a more negative experience with a PE teacher. "I was totally into sport, and was in the football team, until I lost my shorts.

The teacher decided to tell everyone, and I got the cane. I felt humiliated. There was a stigma attached to you for being fostered."

They moved from their primary to the local Roman Catholic secondary modern, where they were put in the bottom sets. This meant not even being considered for GCE exams at 16, and leaving school with nothing.

Careers advisers certainly did not expect them to go far. "They said labouring was all I was good for," Mr Barber said. "I remember saying I wanted to be a fireman," Mr Brown said. "I was told: 'We don't have black firemen.'"

Mr Brown started his working life in the navy, but left after a year because of sea sickness, and joined the army. After a spell in Northern Ireland, he left and studied at an FE college before becoming a social worker.

After a succession of labouring and factory jobs, Mr Barber's breakthrough came when a friend told him about auditions for a musical called Hair.

Despite not knowing what an audition was, and arriving as the director was leaving, Mr Barber got his chance to sing 'Yesterday' and his performing life began.

Both men still visit children's homes, giving talks and dropping in unannounced - in Mr Barber's case, sometimes with a film crew.

"What we tell the kids is that there are chances out there if you take them," Mr Brown said.

"The problem with being in care is no one is there to motivate you to do well. Children in care don't need to be treated as special, they need to be treated as normal, but given the same opportunities as any other children."

Children's agenda 29

The Time to Care campaign aims to highlight the problems of children in care inside and outside school.

By starting a debate about how we can improve attainment of looked-after pupils, The TES hopes to help create an increase in the proportion who leave school with good qualifications. Official figures show more than half leave school without a single GCSE and just 6 per cent get five Cs or better.

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