Lifeline to a better life

November 17, 1995

Despite growing up in care Anna Young is at university. She tells Claire Sanders how education has transformed her. Anna Young was abandoned by her mother aged just two weeks. At 18 months she was found to have cerebral palsy. By the time she was 14 her life had been so restricted that she was still watching Playschool.

Now , Ms Young was recently accepted on to a degree course in publishing studies, English and literary studies at Middlesex University. She lives alone in a flat part-owned with Notting Hill Housing Association, designed for someone in a wheelchair.

She said: "If you had asked me as a young teenager if I wanted to go to university, I probably wouldn't even have known what you meant. It was just not considered an option for me, by either my foster family or by anyone in authority."

She clings to education as a lifeline: "Education gives you something to focus on. When you've had a life like mine the urgency to make something of yourself dominates." Ms Young's life has been a mixture of residential homes and foster homes. From the age of four to 14 she lived with one foster family whose protective attitude she found stifling. "I wasn't allowed to go out, to join the Brownies - I wasn't even allowed to brush my own hair."

During this time she attended Parkfield School in Lancashire, a school for people with disabilities. "I never felt pushed academically. The choice of an academic career was simply not there for me."

Then aged 14 she was put on a bus one morning and taken to Gloucester House, a National Children's Home. Ms Young stayed there for four years and describes many of the other inhabitants as "maladjusted". "I used to go to school with rice pudding thrown all over me. Getting an education was difficult." She left school with no qualifications.

At 18 she had to leave Gloucester House. There followed periods of homelessness, a suicide attempt and a spell in psychiatric hospital.

Last month Peter McParlin, a consultant research child and educational psychologist working for Leeds Special Services, and Eric Graham, a researcher into the needs of care leavers, wrote in The THES about the lack of educational opportunities for those who have spent time in residential or foster care. "Education will not solve all the problems but it will give these young people some self-esteem, a chance to dream and aspire and an entry into other worlds," they wrote.

They called for extended grant provision and for trained support and advocacy: "Care-leavers should be entitled to this help regardless of their age - they have been robbed of this access for three decades."

Ms Young echoes their sentiments. Determined to work in the media, she has struggled to get the qualifications.

"I went to the National Star Centre and gained some qualifications, and then I went to Hereward College. I know that without the necessary qualifications I will not progress," she said. Both Hereward and the Star Centre are FE colleges for students with physical and sensory disabilities.

Her exam certificates are framed and placed on the wall of her new flat. They hang alongside framed articles about the other commodity she now realises that she has - herself. "I sat down and realised that although my life has been really ****ty, it is nevertheless marketable. I see my success in terms of the articles I've been able to generate."

In the current issue of Marie-Claire Ms Young appears as someone with cerebral palsy modelling clothes. In another magazine she appears as someone with cerebral palsy who wants to be in Coronation Street, in another she pens a letter to her mother: "I know you couldn't handle the stigma of being an unmarried mum in the 1960s . . . but it makes me angry that you didn't take responsibility for me."

What education has allowed Ms Young to do is to take responsibility for herself: "I've achieved everything since being out of care. Many others faced with the difficulties I have faced would have given up."

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