There was a disturbing documentary on during the week (currently available here) about Camila Batmanghelidjh and her charity Kids Company which collapsed in disgrace last year after allegations of failing to safeguard young people and massive financial mismanagement. I regret that, despite planning to, I never got round to blogging about Kids Company before it collapsed but I did tweet quite a bit over the years.
The ideology behind Kids Company was the familiar one that those who do bad things, just need more compassion, but this was combined with a remarkable ability to get money out of government. Back in 2010, I had read and shared on Twitter an incredible Guardian story about an “Urban Academy” set up by Kids Company, which, inbetween reporting sympathetically on Batmanghelidjh efforts to beg for public money, reported that:
Batmanghelidjh thinks that up to one in five children in mainstream education should be in specialist schools for those with emotional and behavioural issues.
The story is also, now, notable for quoting headteacher Jo Shuter as another advocate for “more holistic care”. Shuter, you may recall, was another self-publicist who has since been banned from teaching for her habit of spending school money on herself.
However, it was in 2012 when I tweeted, but unfortunately didn’t blog, my big concerns about Kids Company.
The Guardian article link showed how good Kids Company were at using brinkmanship to get money out of government. The other link was to this video which shows the extent to which Camila would make up pseudo-scientific justifications for cosying up to young criminals:
…we assume that a 10 year old holds sufficient levels of control and responsibility to be held criminally responsible. If you actually look at what neuroscience is telling us about the way children’s brains develop, it is absolutely evident that the frontal lobe which is the area responsible for prosocial behaviour and assessing the consequences of your actions doesn’t develop robustly in males until they’re 27 and in females until they’re 25. Neuroscience is saying the quality of the attachment relationship that is provided for you sculpts your ability to control your behaviour, plan and be prosocial.
She goes on to claim that rape victims should consider that believing that for “any child who commits a crime, there is a legacy of crimes committed against that crime prior to the time that they got to be a perpetrator” because it might be “a better narrative” than “I happened to be picked on and happened to be raped because these children are evil”.
These two links had made me realise that millions of pounds of public money were going to a woman in fancy dress who thinks that rapists can’t help themselves if they are under 27. Is it any wonder this ended up with brown envelopes of cash being paid to an arbitrary selection of youths, often to buy drugs, and stories of vulnerable kids being left unsupervised with adult criminals?
And apart from the scandal itself, let’s not forget the wider influence this pernicious denial, of responsibility might have. As a respected expert on difficult children, Camila would get to work with schools. This blogpost from a SENCO describes a local authority governors conference with Camilla:
She talked about parts of the brain, she talked about cell memories and gene memories and things I had never heard of, but what she said made sense.
She talked about how our children in our schools respond. She described the child who absconds from the classroom every time she is asked to pick up a pencil and write. Not only did she describe her actions she described what made her do it. She talked about how the brain structure in children who were malnourished, mistreated, abused could change. She also talked about the care routine needed in school to try and overcome some of these difficulties.
I had had an idea based on nothing a few weeks ago that perhaps when some of our children “made the wrong choices” (which have now been explained as not really a choice) we should take them out and run them round the field (with me standing in the middle, not actually running obviously) until they were exhausted…
…Camila with great eloquence explained the cycle of stress hormones that give the fight/ flight reflex and then the come down after. She explained how for some of these children that it has become muddled – the waiting, the quiet is actually stressful – once there is violence that is the comedown, it is over. These children need that physical exertion to reduce stress and how a good way to do this is to make them run – she suggested up and down stairs until they were breathless. This way we offer them an opportunity in a controlled way to get the aggression out and let them get to a calm place – without the need to thump someone. We have a brilliant teacher at school who has always promoted exercise and has set up early morning and lunchtime running clubs – he had it right, perhaps we just need to encourage more children to attend.
Camila explained how memories can be frozen in people’s brains to be retriggered when 3 or 4 factors, seemingly unrelated, come together and the “child’s” response is to fight, although the victim is not appropriate. How if as a baby they were beaten/ abused by a man who had purple hair this could trigger the following series of events seventeen years later on a crowded bus:-
- “Child” is sitting down
- Innocent man with purple hair gets on (Part of memory 1 – physical)
- Innocent man approaches and stands next to “child” (Part of memory 2 – proximity)
- Innocent man is standing, “child” is sitting (Part of memory 3 – height difference)
- “Child” switches to fight mode and beats innocent man
The “child” won’t be able to explain the sudden switch, the sudden rage, it just happened. It explained how some (not all) of the frenzied attacks we hear about in the news can happen.
It was fascinating. I shall go back to school with a totally new awareness of how and why these children might react.
There were no shortage of progressive educators who believed Camila Batmanghelidjh was an unimpeachable authority on children’s behaviour. In particular there had been a long queue of people who had tweeted to tell Tom Bennett, who is overseeing a report on behaviour in ITT, that Camila was the person who really understood poor behaviour. When I used to tweet about the problems with Kids Company I used to get a lot of disagreement. But despite that I was willing to be a critic. I’m particularly proud of this tweet from just before the scandal broke:
So what should we learn from the debate (and lack of debate) about Kids Company before the scandal broke? I think there are two lessons.
- Be suspicious of those who, without being accused of not caring, tell everyone they care more than you about children. People like Camila and Jo Shuter tell everyone how much they care, so as to suggest those who would question or scrutinise them were uncaring or cruel. Claims to be on the same side of the argument as those who are “thinking of the children” are now widely recognised as a rhetorical device but I still see arguments about education on Twitter where somebody claims that the person they disagree with didn’t mention children often enough.
- When “respected” or apparently well-intentioned people are saying things that are either factually incorrect or just ridiculous we should challenge them. All too often pointing out that people have spread something that isn’t true is treated as a personal attack. When I write posts like this, this or this, it gets treated as a personal attack on whoever is saying something not true (even in the cases where it is probably accidental and I have not suggested they were lying). Now this does not mean that somebody who gets something wrong (we all do that) or even somebody who is caught lying, is going to be the next Camila, but we should never be ashamed about seeking to establish very early on whether people are being honest with us or not. If people tell us things which aren’t true, or which are true but clearly misleading, we should be able to point it out without being told we’re being offensive. Honest people want to know when they are wrong. Only dishonest people are insulted by it. Being challenged when making claims is the mildest possible sort of accountability, but I think if more people in government had thought this important, then the Kids Company debacle could have been prevented.