A ladder to the stars: Ian Dickson’s reflections on 70 years of the care system 

Between January and July 2022, Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, and Ian Dickson held a series of conversations over Zoom to record his reflections on growing up in care, and how he has devoted his adult life to making sure children are loved, valued and can fulfil their dreams.

One of the most important days in young Ian’s life was when a kindly man wearing a trilby hat came to collect him and his older brother, Aaron, from the crowded squat in which they were living with their mother. Both boys had suffered serious neglect and had lived in post-war bomb sites and squats with their mother for as long as Ian could remember. Piecing together the few scraps of official information he possesses, Ian believes this visit from the authorities, when he was aged five or six, may have preceded his mother’s imprisonment. The reason for the boys being received into care recorded on the piece of card which Ian was to retrieve from Manchester Council read: “mother HMP” [Her Majesty’s Prison]. This was the only possible reference to this event Ian ever saw, and it was never discussed with him.

Ian tried to hide from the man in the trilby by squeezing into the wooden pigeon loft in the back garden. He remembers that “they got me”. The man wearing the trilby was a Mr Royle, a social worker from Manchester Children’s Department. He drove the brothers away in a black car to a ‘reception centre’ run by the Children’s Department. The boys had been in and out of foster and residential care before, though “this was the big one; this is where they came and took us away”. Ian recalls: “I know now, looking backwards as an adult, how very badly neglected I was … I was looked after pretty much by my older brother and he was only five years older than me”.  

In the 1950s, children taken into the care of local authorities were routinely put into large, impersonal establishments known as reception centres whilst the Children’s Department “sorted out what they were going to do with you”. Usually there were three choices: a children’s home; a foster family; or children returning home to their parents.

Another of Ian’s memories is of being in the juvenile court looking up at “a lady wearing a hat” who would have been a magistrate. Afterwards, Ian and Aaron were ushered down the steps from the courtroom into the cell area where custody officers ordinarily guarded remanded and convicted prisoners ahead of their transportation to prison. On this occasion, the two little boys descending the stairs were in the care of the state. The courtroom experience must have been bewildering, if not terrifying, for such a young child. Ian recalls the custody officers, like the social worker Mr Royle, treating him and Aaron with kindness.

Around 30 or 40 children lived in the reception centre. As “a tiny”, Ian says he was spoilt and enjoyed the four or five months he lived there – “nice staff, good food, looked after”. He remembers having mumps. It was years later that Ian realised how much Aaron had sheltered him during his time in care: “Aaron was always with me, right until I was a teenager in care Aaron was there, and it was only in later life that I realised how much he protected me”. Another revelation which was to arrive later in life was that Mr Royle wouldn’t allow the council to split up the boys, and racism had for many years stood between them and a foster family. 

Ian was told years later that Aaron’s father was a black American GI soldier who had been stationed in Glasgow. Ian explains: “people would take the curly-haired, blue-eyed white kid [like me] but not the black kid”. Consequently, both boys spent their formative years in residential care. 

Ian believes that racism and stigma drove their mother to relocate from Glasgow, first to Liverpool and then to Manchester, after being thrown out of the marital home by her returning soldier husband due to her extra-marital relationship. 

Born in Manchester in 1950, Ian’s birth certificate registers his mother’s address at the time of his birth as a homeless hostel.

He was the youngest of six children – five boys and one girl. Next one up from Ian by 18 months was Brian though they never knew each other until approaching middle age: “We never met him for 40 years; we had no information at all other than knowing his first name”. Brian was effectively adopted in Glasgow; the family who fostered him changed his surname and treated him as one of their own. 

Aaron was the third youngest, and then came Donald and Arthur who went to military academies on account of their father being a serviceman during the Second World War. 

Anna was the eldest of the six children, with a 15-year gap between her birth in Glasgow and Ian’s in Manchester. Ian’s most vivid memories of Anna was that she was “very wayward” and spent time in a girls’ remand home (where children charged with offending were sent when the courts were not satisfied they would be properly supervised at home) in Manchester. When Ian started his social work career in the 1970s, Anna was appalled that he worked in this very same remand home for a few months: “Even at her age, then, she was still an absconder, she’d been there, managed to escape, and they’d never caught her”.  

We can assume the move from Scotland was a huge wrench for Ian’s mother, borne out of necessity and survival to protect herself and Aaron (perhaps Ian too) from the fierce prejudice heaped on ‘mixed’ families at that time. Ian’s maternal grandfather had been a carpenter at Glasgow docks and his mother had also worked there as a cook. The loss of workplace community as well as family relationships must have been profound, and it’s likely Ian’s mother never recovered. Ian remembers her always having “serious drink problems”, and no bond ever grew between them. As a young child in residential care, Sundays would “feel odd” when other children’s parents came to visit and Ian and Aaron had no-one. Ian would fantasise about a father coming to take him out for the day; a father he had no picture of, and had never known. He had lived with his mother for five years but not once dreamt about her coming to rescue him.  

Prior to Mr Royle’s life-changing visit, Aaron would stay home from school to look after their mother, while Ian thrived at his infant school “which was literally over the road from the squat we were in” – “I just enjoyed it, the teachers were kind, you got your orange juice, you got your milk, you got a school lunch and a nap in the afternoon. There was an element of stability. It gave me a love of school until adolescence”. Aaron’s earlier responsibilities at home inevitably hindered his education. Instead of making up for this disadvantage, the system wrote him off as ‘maladjusted’. As Ian explains: “he was perfectly well adjusted thank you; it’s just he was adjusted for an environment that they didn’t like”. 

While the connection between Ian and Aaron was unbreakable, the six children “never lived together as a unit”. Their mother came to her early death in Manchester at the age of 58, having fallen into the fire at Anna’s flat after drinking heavily while on medication. Ian was ‘crashing’ there too. Returning to the flat one evening, he found his mother face-down in the fire, hastily pulled her out of the flames but she could not be saved. The post-mortem paperwork said she was in good health for a woman of her years, a stark reminder that official processes can start and end with the person at the centre remaining unknown. After this harrowing experience, Ian moved back to his foster carers until his twenties, but his earlier years in care were far from happy.  

The boys were moved from that first reception centre to a family group home, which was a nationwide innovation intended to emulate family life; a break with the large 19th Century Poor Law institutions once and for all. The city of Manchester at one stage had 48 of these family group homes. Some were located in former institutions whereas others were deliberately positioned on housing estates where they would, in theory, blend into the neighbourhood and offer children a semblance of ordinary family living. 

There were eight children in the family group home, including Ian and Aaron and the houseparents’ own two children. The young brothers stayed there for around six years. The male houseparent went out to work while the female looked after the eight boys with assistance from a part-time cleaner. The children “were compelled to call them mum and dad”. One of many reminders that this wasn’t a real family came once a year when the houseparents went on holiday with their two sons, while the cleaner ran the home full-time. 

Ian “hated that place, I used to get knocked about a lot”. The man he was forced to call dad was frequently violent towards Ian. (It wasn’t until 1991 that the law was changed to protect children living in children’s homes from corporal punishment). School was a refuge once again. Ian loved his junior school and especially enjoyed reading and doing his sums. There was no big build-up to the 11-plus examination, in fact he was totally unaware he was taking the test. Ian cannot remember how the results came through but he does recall he “took a kicking” from his ‘housefather’ because he passed, and the houseparents’ son didn’t. Physical abuse was the norm in this purported family group home and Ian’s way of coping with it was to close off his emotions: “One of the things I learnt very young in care was to build a wall and stay behind it”. 

The first year of grammar school, which Ian attended with one of his best friends from junior school, was joyful. Then the Children’s Department found an elderly couple who were willing to take both boys, which meant a change in school. Ian and Aaron were moved to the other side of Manchester, to live with a couple called Doug and May who would have been in their fifties – “ordinary working class folk”, he a crane driver and she employed on the cheese counter of a small local supermarket. “Now, I gave them hell for years but looking back they were wonderful”, reflects Ian. Aaron didn’t settle and eventually “followed the family tradition and joined the army”. 

The move to a new high school didn’t go well; Ian didn’t fit in and truanted most of his final year. He left with one O Level (in English) and a CSE in French (“about as much use as a chocolate fireguard”). This was a time when children were expected to be seen and not heard, including within social work, and Ian and Aaron’s views on moving home and schools were not sought. Nonetheless, if such a question had been put to Ian he says he would have jumped at the chance: “I would have gone with Rasputin at the time, I would have gone with anyone, I hated that place”. 

Foster carers Doug and May lived in a two-up, two-down terraced house, which stood out in the neighbourhood because it had its own bathroom. They were a childless couple: “I suspect that at their age and stage they would never have been approved for fostering but we were the unfosterables. Whatever I’ve achieved today it would be because of that transfer”. The boys called them auntie May and uncle Doug. 

Doug was a member of the local fishing club, very well-respected in the community and a “thoroughly nice man”. May suffered from poor health, was tiny in stature and known around the neighbourhood as ‘little May’. There were the usual family skirmishes as Ian passed through his teenage years, and stayed out overnight a few times with his girlfriend, but there was never any risk of him being rejected and “neither of them ever raised their hand or did anything to hurt us. They were lovely folk”. May would slip Ian money when Doug said no.

The school’s careers service found Ian an apprenticeship at a local factory, which he loathed and he began to feel “absolutely aimless”. Aged 18, he followed his three older brothers into the army, and began training for the military police upon the recommendation of the recruiting office. This was “a really poor idea because doing as I was told was the thing I was least good at”. Ian left the army “with nothing” and went to live with his sister Anna. The only positive thing to come from this period was the discovery that he had a congenital hip disorder from childhood. He had been pulled off parade for limping and accused of messing around. As so often happens with children in care, this important aspect of Ian’s health history had never been noticed, let alone dealt with.

Their mother was also living at Anna’s place. Ian describes this period as hell, with both his sister and mother drinking heavily: “I couldn’t stand it, I would go round the streets looking for work”. He eventually found a job working in the laboratories at ICI, a chemical company. It was after work at ICI, and having spent the evening with his girlfriend, that Ian had found his mother in the fire. Distraught and traumatised, and having slept overnight at his older brother Donald’s house, Ian went and knocked on the door of his former foster carers. It was May who answered, and without any hesitation brought Ian back into the fold. After the horrendous circumstances of his mother’s death Ian says he will “always credit my foster mother with saving my life”. Social workers were not involved at all, and Ian was to remain living with May and Doug until he got married. These days children in foster families are meant to have the option of ‘staying put’ with their carers until the age of 21. Latest figures show 60 per cent of 18 year-olds still live with their foster families, but this drops to 30 per cent at 19 and 20 – the age at which Ian knocked on the door to ask May if he could come back home.

It was the chemical company that put Ian on the educational path towards social work. His managers sent him to further education college and rekindled his love of learning – he acquired a run of O Levels and the equivalent of A Levels, which built up his confidence for him to one day go into a social services office in Manchester, tell them he had grown up in the council’s care and ask about becoming a social worker. Unbeknown to Ian, the person who came downstairs to see him was a senior manager, and he remembered Ian and Aaron as young children. It’s difficult to imagine care leavers today being given such a respectful welcome after turning up, impromptu, at a council office. But for Ian this exchange was to set him up for a career in social work lasting four decades: “he managed to get me on an interview trail that led to me getting a job as an unqualified social worker trainee in those days, and the rest was history”. 

May and Doug were Ian’s family for the remainder of their lives. Ian became their (unqualified) social worker when Doug’s health deteriorated and he was able to find sheltered accommodation for them. After Doug’s death, May and Ian became even closer – she attended his wedding, was nanna to his daughter and would visit his family home where she would have a Guinness each night before bed (she never drank alcohol anywhere else). Ian was with May when she died: “She was very much the mother I never had”.

At the age of 27, Ian was seconded to the University of Manchester to study for the Certificate of Qualification in Social Work and, once qualified, he worked in the remand home his sister had lived in and hated, and then moved up the ranks of children’s residential care, eventually becoming a service manager. May continued to be there for Ian throughout his student years, both emotionally and financially – slipping him the odd tenner and also giving him a £200 lump-sum, the equivalent of around £2,000 today. It was tough financially for the first year of studies, so Ian drove a black taxi at weekends to keep afloat, and his young wife took on cleaning jobs. Manchester City Council sponsored him the second year, in return for him agreeing to work there once qualified – an arrangement which Ian took on gladly.

Ian was open about his care experience on the course – having always seen this “as a medal not a wound”. He describes being “treated with great courtesy by lecturers and students alike”, and from recent discussions with members of a newly formed Association of Care Experienced Social Workers believes today’s social work students “are suffering far more from discrimination”. There was one incident of ‘inverted discrimination’ at a social work placement with a children’s charity based in Rochdale, where his supervisor offered him counselling simply because he was a care leaver. Ian says this was “meant as kindness” but was “tactless obviously”. He “declined respectfully” and went on to pass the placement, and those that followed. 

It was relationships with children that motivated Ian to go into residential care. He could make the most difference there and loved “the humour, the banter” that came with working with adolescents. But this was a haunting period in the history of children’s residential care, where violence was ubiquitous and respect for children’s rights was still very much in its infancy. As a student, Ian had witnessed physical and verbal cruelty in one of his residential placements: the manager (then called officers-in-charge, terminology drawn from the military presumably with the intention of attracting a certain type of man to the role) controlled children by bellowing at them and knocking them around. This was reminiscent of his early years at the family group home, and was never Ian’s way. He avoided giving children ultimatums that would entrap him and the child; it was essential “to allow the kid a route to get out of the confrontation”. Additionally, “if a member of staff can’t explain a rule to a youngster, then the rules are wrong because it’s got to be obvious. It’s got to make sense and it’s got to meet the children’s needs”.

Despite his own positive outlook, during his time in residential care Ian saw, and at times was part of, “horrific practices”, such as the time he found a child who had run away from a residential school (at that time they were called ‘absconders’) and drove him back in his car, buying him sweets for the journey, only for the child to be beaten by the headteacher when he stepped through the door. After that, whenever Ian was sent out looking for children, and happened to find them, he would deliberately lose them. He didn’t want to be part of a system rounding up children to be summarily assaulted by staff.  

He worked in a reception centre, later to become a remand centre, where 36 girls aged between 12 and 17 years lived. A female member of staff would go round with a bucket each night in which the girls were instructed to throw their dirty knickers, and in the morning fresh underwear would be handed to them. On Sundays the girls were allowed to go home and, in preparation for this, would be subjected to collective hair washing with Prioderm lotion, to keep head lice away.

There was a serious disturbance at the centre, what would probably be called a riot today, when Ian was called on duty and was the only member of staff there overnight. Around half the girls had been taken to police cells for the night. Ian’s way of dealing with the situation was to get the girls to bring their bedding into the gym, so he could supervise them together. The evening passed without event: “I sat by the door just basically minding them until morning”. The next morning he effectively bribed the girls to get themselves washed and dressed in an orderly fashion through offering them cigarettes – a sort of ‘custodial compromise’ which was “totally against the rules”. 

There was never any inquiry or investigation into what had caused the incident, as far as Ian can recollect, and putting him in charge of around 16 girls overnight was “appalling” and “completely inappropriate”. He reflects that in these kinds of situations, where the whole culture is institutionalised, it’s not difficult to see how easy it is for men to groom girls through showing them attention and seemingly basic acts of kindness. Some years later the centre was closed down and the senior manager in charge of residential services in the city was found to have been part of a major ring of child sexual abusers in Manchester and was jailed for two years.

In later years, when he was manager of a children’s home, Ian sought to build relationships with the local police by inviting them round for cups of tea and a biscuit, and the occasional game of pool, so the boys could get used to handling themselves with authority. It had been standard practice for the police to be called to deal with difficult situations but Ian tried to avoid this whenever possible, partly due to the dreadful treatment in the past of a boy who had learning disabilities. He was very tall and heavy and could become unmanageably aggressive. Someone called the police who came and “sprayed Mace or something in his face” and restrained him violently, with his arms up his back, and “dragged him away”.   

Over the four decades that Ian worked with adolescents he was never assaulted or verbally abused. He puts this down to his “very dark sense of humour” and says this “was to do with the fact that I tried to engage them through using humour and banter and allowing the kid a route to get out of the confrontation”. Eschewing violence and seeing life from the child’s perspective were clearly two other critical factors at play. And he carried this children’s rights commitment with him when he moved into inspection roles.

It was the early 1990s when Ian was asked by Salford’s director of social services if he would join the new inspection unit being formed to inspect the council’s children’s homes, part of a small team inspecting the city’s residential care provision. This was a hugely rewarding position, and Ian moved from there into national inspectorates, with his final role prior to retirement in 2010 (when his wife was gravely ill with cancer) being an Ofsted inspector specialising in the inspection of secure children’s homes and secure training centres. 

From this local and national experience he became convinced that inspection must be transformed so that it follows the child’s experience, rather than taking a snapshot of a particular establishment at a particular moment in time, especially if those running the institution have been told in advance when exactly inspectors will be knocking on their door. He grew frustrated at the inertia and sometimes incompetence of those employed to ensure children were looked after well and had homes to go to post-release. 

During an inspection of a secure training centre, he observed a girl asking her social worker where she would be moving to when she was discharged the following week. The social worker was “most offended” when Ian challenged her for not having a home for the child to go to; it was unacceptable to not be “able to answer or know what to say to a kid a week before she’s discharged. ‘I’ll find you somewhere’ didn’t sound like a very considered placement”. A decade of austerity has since increased the likelihood that children leaving custody won’t have a home to go to until days before their release, if at all.  

Post-retirement, Ian married again and kept his passion for improving the care system alive through consultancy work, including investigating complaints, and then working with others to organise a major conference for care experienced children and adults held at Liverpool Hope University in April 2019. He recounts investigating a complaint from a girl detained in a secure training centre who had suffered a fractured wrist while being restrained by officers: “she made a complaint about it quite rightly and it turned out that, basically, this kid had been left in a cell all weekend with a broken wrist”. A nurse had claimed to have medically examined the girl in her cell, but this wasn’t a truthful account. Here was an unbroken thread connecting young Ian and his brother Aaron being knocked around in a family group home in the 1950s and then him, decades later, railing against a young girl spending 48 hours locked alone in a cell in agony with a fractured wrist. Children need many more adults like Ian who truly connect with their feelings and their sense of powerlessness, who refuse to bow their heads or look away.

The Care Experienced Conference held at Liverpool Hope University brought together 141 care experienced people between the ages of 14 and 82 years. Through workshops, a “magnificent” display of art work and a packed lecture hall of debates and activities, the views, experiences and priorities of delegates were recorded in two separate documents – a conference report and a research report – and shared with central government, Ofsted, the Children’s Commissioner and countless others involved in the care of children. To make their demands for a transformed care system beyond doubt, Ian and other conference organisers curated the conference’s top 10 messages, starting with love and respect for every child and ending with an affirmation of rights and the obvious truth that: “Nobody knows more about what it means to be in care than we do”. 

This was months ahead of the 2019 general election. Ian was to be invited by Who Cares? Scotland to a small gathering in Glasgow to hear about and discuss the Scottish care review. Labour’s then leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was there and promised a similar review in England, should his party get to form a government. Then the Conservatives published their manifesto which also committed to a review of the care system. There was huge optimism that the key messages of the Care Experienced Conference would be carried into a review of the care system, no matter which party came to power. 

It took more than a year after the general election for the then Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, to announce his government’s review of children’s social care, to be undertaken by former teacher and leader of the fast-track social work organisation Frontline, Josh MacAlister.

The first point of deflation for Ian was hearing that a review of the care system had been extended into a wholesale review of children’s social care. Like many others, he also believed Josh MacAlister did not have the knowledge or the experience to undertake such a review. But it was the insensitive rejection by email of nearly a thousand care experienced people who had applied to serve on the ‘Experts by Experience’ board which made Ian lose faith in the process. Ian reflected that the majority of those selected appeared to have established links with Frontline. Ian had applied for a place on the board, though didn’t expect to get an interview due to his outspokenness. Still, it’s hard to comprehend how a man with his vast personal and professional experience could be deemed unworthy of a brief online interview, which is how a shortlist of around 30 was apparently whittled down to 12. He met Josh MacAlister online several times. He found him to be “charming and personable” but most of Ian’s contribution to the review remained on the side-lines. As the review moved at pace, by MacAlister’s admission in order to make the most of the government’s majority in the House of Commons, Ian’s health deteriorated and he was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a form of blood cancer. He deeply regrets that the top 10 messages of the Care Experienced Conference, which MacAlister had told him were ‘common sense’, are not prioritised in the review’s final report, and feels care experienced people have been betrayed.  

Reflecting on what he’d want for every child or teenager in care, Ian says this would, “vary little, only by degree because obviously what you’d want to give a child in care is a very stable loving experience where they are surrounded by love and warmth and all their practical and emotional needs are met. You’d want to emulate what a good family would give them”. One of Ian’s non-negotiables is that children and young people should not be ejected from the care system at particular ages: “I personally would do away with the transition. I’ve never seen a value for it”. Thinking back to when he started university at the age of 27, and the emotional and practical support he received from his ‘auntie May’, it’s clear to him that the system needs to stay with every child for as long as they need it. Of course the nature of care and support would change over time: there must be “emotional filling stations” along the way because far too many care experienced adults endure years of loneliness and feelings of abandonment. 

Ian abhors the practice of social services ejecting children aged 16 and 17 into so-called supported accommodation, where they receive no day-to-day care, and is especially incensed about children’s homes refusing to look after children whose behaviour they find troublesome. These were the children with whom he formed the strongest bonds when he worked in residential care, and he knows too well the hurt that comes with childhood rejection and instability. Across his 40 years of residential care, he “found the vast majority of kids I met were really quite reasonable when you got down to it, when you made a mistake provided you held your hands up, they were quite reasonable. The idea that kids are some sort of massive threat, it’s just not real”. Ian wants every child to have a “a ladder to the stars, so that the youngster who is looking up can see the stars and a way to climb up towards them”. His life began in the most difficult of circumstances, and as soon as he found his feet he went back to social services to ask if he could help others. There must be hundreds, if not thousands, of adults out there whose lives Ian has touched and made a difference to. However, his greatest pride is reserved for his four grandchildren who are each, in their individual ways, climbing their ladder to the stars with their grandad right behind them. 

23 December 2022