Handle with care;First person;Interview;Chelsea

29th May 1998 at 01:00
Now living in her sixth children's home, 15-year-old Chelsea says she's never had a childhood. She is, however, enjoying a secure education thanks to a school which believes in inclusion rather than exclusion. Wendy Wallace spent a day with her

Chelsea's day begins with a 10-mile taxi ride to school. Wearing heavy mascara and dark lipstick, she slumps in the back seat, curling her eyelashes while the driver leers at her in the mirror.

This is Chelsea's third term at Woodlands Community School outside Southampton. Now in Year 11, she is a rare success story. After being in the care of her local authority for almost four years she is at a mainstream school and about to take a respectable clutch of GCSEs.

Chelsea is lucky to live in Hampshire where a dedicated education support team works to keep children in school. And lucky too, to be attending a compassionate and enlightened school. Still, the pressures on children who are "looked after", as the jargon misleadingly has it, are immense.

Since being taken into a secure unit at the age of 12, Chelsea has lived in six children's homes. She has been in her current home for six weeks. Alongside two teenage boys, she is now living a semi-independent existence in a small "independence training unit" where she must look after herself and pay nominal bills on pound;40.75 per week.

She has striking grey-green eyes, fading yellow love bites on both sides of her neck and streaked hair scraped into a heavily-sprayed ponytail. She sets out for school in tight black trousers, platform boots, nose stud and - especially for The TES - a school tie shrivelled as a lamb's tail hanging outside her white shirt. This exterior disguises a sweet-natured, needy child.

By the time she steps out of the taxi, Chelsea is gasping for a smoke. She dashes to the school gates, lights a cigarette, moves her nose stud into her ear and by 9.45 is in her first lesson, contemplating "the digestion of starch". The teacher's note at the top of the board reminds pupils how many days there are until the science GCSE exams..

Chelsea is ahead in her science work. Naturally quick, she has been studying in the children's home. She sits at the back of the class and uses the pep talk time to fill in her homework diary, catch up on some music composition and take extra notes on enzymes. While some pupils doodle or hold up their hands in mystification, she's hurried and efficient. "I love biology," she says, not looking up. "I always have done."

Chelsea is highly-motivated and finds academic work easy. Yet she is only doing five GCSEs. Her homework diary provides a stark reminder of her double life. Whole weeks are marked "absent", with the reasons sometimes indicated in brackets: (London), for when she ran away at New Year after being bullied by other girls at her former children's home; (Hospital), for the last time she took an overdose in despair; (Aunty), for when she saw someone from her family. Mixed in are her personal notes - it snowed; she nearly got expelled; Valentine's Day came and went.

To her own and the school's credit, Chelsea has been excluded only once from Woodlands, in her first week. "When I was new I tried to prove my-self, to fit in," she says. "My way of doing that is to have a go at teachers. I told one to stick the detention he gave me up his arse. I don't usually lose my temper, but I get stressed." As a result of incidents like these, Chelsea - who is only on a part-time timetable - has been ejected from maths and graphics courses.

In the school corridors she has celebrity status, with other children wanting to catch her eye or say hello. She is unmistakeably not one of them. The things that have happened to her set her invisibly apart from her peers. "I don't have any close friends," she says. "I just feel really different from them all. I wish I could go back to how they are, talking about which boy they fancy, giggle, giggle, giggle. But I don't know how to.

"I've always been different from everyone else. Even when I was little I was thinking about different things. I wasn't thinking about whose house I'd like to go to, or what I wanted for tea. I wasn't allowed out, or to play, and if there was no one there I had to make the tea myself. I didn't have a childhood."

Chelsea began absconding from her adoptive family home when she was 12, spending longer and longer away until she was put into a secure unit. She has slept on the streets of Blackpool and London. "It's not scary at all," she says. "I had so many people looking after me, homeless people. They thought I was beautiful. They called me an angel. It made me feel great, because I felt like shit."

At break, queuing for a doughnut and a bottle of water, a girl behind her blurts out that her father drinks, and beats up her mother. Chelsea flashes her easy-come, easy-go smile and says "me too. Only he beat me up. Horrible isn't it."

Many children tell her their problems. Over the course of the day four others, boys and girls, her own age and younger, seek urgent consultations with her. She writes her phone number on the back of their hands and says she'll chat to them later. In recognition of the way other children open up to her, Chelsea has been made an unofficial peer counsellor. It's an example of the way staff at Woodlands have focused on her strengths.

"Teachers here have been great," says Chelsea. One lets her kick his cupboard when she needs to relieve tension; another gives her the attention she craves in the form of tea and biscuits in her room; her year tutor appears unfazed when she drapes herself around him for safe human contact. Tom Brown, special educational needs co-ordinator, is her mainstay in school and has worked out her timetable. "It really is carefully structured," he says. "We know the background, and teachers are matched to children."

There are difficulties. Her smoking is an open secret, but what teacher of goodwill would make too much of that, having seen the mesh of thin white scars which covers the length of her left forearm, where she has cut herself to relieve her feelings? And who really could insist that she stick to the uniform rules when they hear that ties make her feel choked, reminding her of when she used to have her head held under the bathwater?

"We've gone for inclusion instead of exclusion," says Tom Brown. "We've made a start. We're still learning."

After lunch it's music, and Chelsea is practising the solo she will sing for the exam. It's from Les Miserables: "I had a dream my life would be, So different from this hell I'm living... now life has killed the dream I dreamed."

Most of the lipstick has worn off now and she spends a contented 40 minutes singing and picking out tunes on a keyboard. Then she throws herself into adrama class where for the first time she looks positively happy.

The school day over, Chelsea returns to the "unit". Inside, she takes off her platforms, puts on a cassette in the bedroom which is halfway between a hotel room and a teenager's den. Barefoot, she microwaves an Asda vegetarian meal-for-one and eats it straight from the carton. It's lonely as hell, and only 4pm.

No national statistics are collected on the education of children in care, but studies have found that between 50 and 75 per cent leave school with no formal qualifications. Less than a fifth go on to further education. Nearly half are not even entered for GCSEs. These statistics spring mainly from the disrupted lives of children who tangle with the care system, and the fact that social services have traditionally not focused on their education.

With the Government concerned about the number of children excluded from school, children in care are moving up the political agenda. People in the field anticipate the DFEE will soon set targets for their educational attainments. Both educationally and socially, schools have a huge potential role to play in the lives of children in care says Barbara Fletcher, education officer at the Who Cares? Trust. "School is the one place where they can have continuity and be like everyone else. It's where children are meant to be all day and every day."

Schools like Woodlands and children like Chelsea show that they can be.

Who Cares? Trust. Tel: 0171 251 3117

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