Harsh reality that ruined a modern fairytale

For Ryan, this was his third strike – and he's out, expelled from Downside in the run-up to his exams
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The Independent Online

It's a heartening fact that even – maybe particularly – in these cynical times, we're all suckers for a good, old-fashioned fairytale. Which is why every fair-minded person, of every political hue, surely wants Ryan Bell's story to have a happy ending.

It's a heartening fact that even – maybe particularly – in these cynical times, we're all suckers for a good, old-fashioned fairytale. Which is why every fair-minded person, of every political hue, surely wants Ryan Bell's story to have a happy ending.

Mr Bell is a boy who found himself transported at 14 from pauper to prince, transformed from excluded petty criminal to Latin scholar and sporting star. He came to the attention of the public two years ago, when he was selected by Trevor Phillips, now chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, as the subject of a social experiment.

Ryan had been asked to leave his state school, Putney ADT College, because he was "disruptive, rude and unteachable". The months that followed had been spent hanging around on the streets of the south London housing estate where he lived, passing his days in bed or indulging in petty crime.

Mr Phillips offered to send him to Downside boarding school in Somerset, paying his £15,000 a year fees until his GCSEs were completed. In return, he would allow his documentary film company, Pepper Productions, to film Ryan's progress.

For Mr Phillips, who was educated in Guyana and sends his own children to private school, the object of the exercise was to show that underprivileged children, particularly boys, and particularly black boys, are let down by the state education system and branded as losers, when in a more supportive and disciplined environment they would thrive.

Mr Phillips was criticised for using a child's life to make a political point. But such criticism abated when it appeared that the experiment had been a glorious success. Ryan liked his new school, and his new school liked him. Academically, he shone, and was preparing to sit 10 GCSEs. In sport, he excelled, becoming dominant on the rugby field, even though the game was entirely new to him.

There were a couple of teething troubles – an incident back home on the Larkhall estate, when Ryan was caught spray-painting Railtrack property, and another at school when he was implicated in the "mischievous rather than malicious" theft of a mobile phone.

But, all in all, a clear point had been made. Ryan's second chance was changing his life. For the left, his example proved that Britain is still a nation in which talent is squandered among the least privileged. For the right, it proved that state education was just as woeful as they had always believed it to be.

Now, though, disaster has struck. Ryan, with six other pupils, left the school at the weekend and went to Bath and bought vodka. All seven pupils were suspended for their misdemeanour, while Ryan was the only one among them to need hospital treatment for alcohol poisoning. For Ryan, this is his third strike, and he's out, expelled from Downside, in the run-up to his exams.

It should be mentioned too, that if lazy conclusions about Ryan reverting to type are made, plenty of people get expelled from public schools. Often, in fact, we read about such educational travails in the profiles of people who have become great successes, with their poor education record invariably quoted breathlessly as part of their own story of untameable spirit and glamorous individuality.

So, for Ryan himself, this expulsion is a setback, especially as his position demands that his failure be held up for public scrutiny. But it is not necessarily a tragedy. Ryan can still find a way of harnessing his promise. It is not too late for other arrangements to be made for his education, and Pepper Productions is at pains to emphasise that this is what it is doing. But at the same time, the only conclusion is that the problems facing people like Ryan are more complex than Mr Phillips's school-centred analysis allows for.

For a start, the depiction of Ryan's poor educational experience as chief among his difficulties has always been exaggerated. Putney ADT College is not a sink school, and Ryan travelled quite a distance, passing many less reputable schools, to attend it. Much has been made of how Ryan was expected at Downside to sit 10 GCSEs, but the pupils at ADT college sit nine as a matter of course. The pass-rate at this school, frequently damned for abandoning Ryan, is 86 per cent.

The estate on which he lived, on the other hand, is not a great environment. Eagle-eyed news junkies may note that the last time it made headlines was when one of its few green spaces, Larkhall Park, had the smouldering body of a murdered woman dumped in it. Even in so deprived an inner-city area, this was unusual. But stabbings and muggings in the park and streets around it are not infrequent, and growing up in such an atmosphere tends to make an alcohol binge seem a pretty petty piece of bad behaviour.

Further, Ryan's home life was not easy. His mother Jacquie had him when she was just 18, and lost touch with his father shortly after the birth. He recently turned up again after a 15-year furlough. Ryan has three younger brothers, all of whom are looked after by his mother, a supervisor at a bar. She was recently evicted from her council flat after her rent arrears became unmanageable.

All this makes her sound like a dreadful, irresponsible mother, but from her appearances on the television programmes, she does not seem to be. She loves her children, and says she missed Ryan so much when he went to Downside that she slept in his bed. She must also have been fairly proactive about Ryan's schooling, since she got him into a good state school when there were easier but less attractive options available on her doorstep.

All the same, the conclusion has to be that Ryan's mother worked unsociable hours for a wage that could not adequately support her family. Even with all the love in the world, this does not make for a stable home environment. Poverty and a lack of paternal support were factors just as important in Ryan's development as schooling.

Insecurity in the home and disorder out on the streets seem to me to be a splendid pair of environments in which to develop a distrust of authority and a disdain for the rules adults make. Ryan's behaviour at Putney ADT, where in two years he pushed the limits of authority until they collapsed, and at Downside, where he did the same thing within the same time frame, was different only in degree. At both schools, despite the differences in environment, resources and structure, Ryan was eventually deemed "unteachable".

As far as school was concerned, Ryan himself put his better academic performance down to, surprise, surprise, smaller class sizes and increased time for individual attention from the teachers. At ADT he was in class of 30, while at Downside the class size was half as large. Once out of the classroom though, and beyond the focus of teachers, Ryan still craved attention. He's certainly getting it now.

It is considered terribly illiberal and downright nosy to suggest that "alternative family structures" are not always a terrific thing. But it seems to me that a family structure in which a single adult has to work long hours for subsistence wages while bringing up many children is one in which that single adult is under appalling pressure, and therefore the children are too.

It's all very well for middle-class liberals to defend their intricate arrangements, and I'd defend any family structure, however bizarre, that worked. But what so often gets lost in these arguments is that having children is hard, and without much money it should be embarked upon with caution. Schools can't be expected always to pick up the pieces when families are living under very tough circumstances. A decent minimum wage, and a proper understanding of just how crucial it is for children to maintain links with both of their parents, would be much more useful.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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