Reflections on Batemans’ 10th anniversary

This is an edited version of a speech given by Alex Thompson, project director of The Batemans Trust, in May 2008

Somebody once told me that when you’re in your 20s you think you can change the world. But by the time you reach your 30s you realise that maybe it’s more difficult than it first appeared! I think that it was probably lucky that my dear friends from Cirencester Agricultural College and I were in our twenties when the idea of the Batemans Trust was born! There is so much more to it than we ever dreamt!

We were fresh out of college, filled with the confidence we had gained from living among people who saw beauty and fun in the simple things and maybe the best in life. Six of us lived in the freezing Batemans cottage and spent a lot of time working out how to make our ancient wood burners heat the bedrooms, chopping wood, playing ‘sardines’ in the woods during our breaks from revision and swimming in the river in the summer. We discovered the joy of good friends and the beautiful countryside around us. In many universities or colleges, RAG week, when the students raise funds for charities, is only participated in by a small percentage of students. At Cirencester all of us joined in and helped with three-legged pub crawls and took part in fashion shows of clothes made out of recycled fertiliser and silage bags.

We discovered the fun and sense of achievement that working together for a common cause could give and how we could share our energies to help others. ‘All Joining In’ was something the Cirencester crowd was good at, just as they were, and still are, at seeing the best in life.

During my first visit to Madras in 1994, I was overwhelmed by the way the children at St George’s loved to ‘all join in’ and the way they found the best in their simple lives. They had absolutely nothing – and yet they were so happy with their friends. And, just like us, they loved playing hide and seek and other games in the wonderful, wild compound at St George’s. However, I could see that the little ones would have loved a climbing frame and the older ones were desperate for a cricket bat and football. There were hardly any books and the children adored stories.

Even though the children were happy, the conditions they lived in were pretty bad. The roof leaked and the bathrooms were disgraceful, with dysfunctional sewerage and there was no running water, just a pump. And the food was pretty bad with meat that was almost impossible to chew and great fat, grey rice. My fellow volunteer, Antonia, lived on rice and ketchup for most of the four months we were there.

When I returned from Madras and met up with my friends with whom I had shared Batemans Cottage, they were as interested and keen to help buy cricket bats and balls for the children and to add a bit of fun to their lives. We didn’t dream at that stage of doing more. However, the following year when the place was threatened with closure we didn’t hesitate to volunteer to take on the funding – thank God we were in our 20s and didn’t really have a clue about what we were getting into!

A year or two later we were sitting around my kitchen table looking at the estimates our volunteer architect had sent us from St Georges and wondered just how on earth we were going to raise the £10,000 we needed to repair the leaking roof! Well, that really started us off in earnest and we have been amazed, delighted and touched by the way so many, many people have ‘joined in’ and helped us with funding, advice, time, energy, prayers – or actually out at St George’s.

This year we are celebrating 10 years since that meeting at the kitchen table and it is exciting and wonderful to see what has been achieved with the help of so many people. The roof has been mended, so that the children no longer have to sleep under the tables when it rains. The sewerage system has been re-dug, water pipes laid, a generator installed, the children now sleep on beds and the bathrooms have been renovated. The children now have good quality food, fruit three times a week and milk daily. There is a nurse and extra matrons to care for the children and, of course, there is our our educational support programme and after school activities. The only thing that hasn’t changed is that the meetings still happen at the kitchen table!

As we celebrate the last 10 years of work and the partnership with St George’s, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone here for their support – the sponsors, the volunteers, the letter writers, the accountants and the trustees – your ‘joining in’ has made all this possible!

As well as the work to raise the standards of care in the boarding home at St George’s, we have also been running our hostels and providing funding and support for 16-22 year olds, who have finished at the boarding home. This has meant that all the children we have been supporting have had the opportunity to go on to further education, gain a training and develop important life skills to help them become independent.

We are especially proud of Kenny who gained a place on a bakery apprenticeship for two years and is busy learning to make delicious croissants and cakes for the growing Indian middle class. I often pop in (to see him, of course, not to buy cakes!) and was surprised when he told me he had been making bangles… I later worked out he meant ‘BAGEL’ but you can understand the mistake! Last year we had our first MA graduate and every year two or three go on to university and then get good jobs…

Gervase Phinn, who is a kind of James Herriot of school inspectors, said that teachers often get caught up in spending lots of times with the ‘Benedicts’ of this world – the bright, able and confident children. Or they devote hours of their time with the special needs children, who certainly need all the help they can get. But so often this is at the expense of the great chunk of us in the middle – the average ones! I am confident that at St Georges and in our two ‘Bhavans’ that we do take care of the average ones…we provide enough opportunities for them to develop their talents and enough support for them to and cope in school.

I would like to give you an example of a young man called Keith. He is 14 years old and the second in a family of six. He is doing okay in school but loves to write. With the new computer suite, he is able to type out his stories and gains huge satisfaction from seeing them in print and at the same time learns new words, spellings and grammar. His was one of the best stories for the competition we held.

Another young lady who is gaining hugely from the support Batemans is able to offer is Rebecca. She, like Keith, does reasonably okay at school but loves reading. She spends hours choosing books from our library and loves the group reading sessions that we have using sets of books we have built up.

Other children are blossoming on the sports field – benefiting from the attention of Alroy, our new PT master, who organises matches and has helped construct a throw ball court. Other girls have discovered a talent in dancing or stitching – both of which we have been able to offer to the children. Little Felisha spends hours collecting flowers in the compound and arranging them into little bouquets which she delights us all with. From a family with great difficulties, she is free from the stresses of home and happy in her own world of butterflies and flower petals and has matron to keep her clean!

But it’s the ‘Benedicts’ and the ‘less able’ that we have not been able to help so much. A few hours a week of extra help during our teaching sessions is enough to give the ‘average’ lot the support they need to cope. But the ones who have real difficulties with school have not been receiving as much help as they needed.

So in August 2007 we took on a wonderful addition to the team in the form of Monica, a local graduate with a passion for helping less able children. We have set up an ‘Open School’ where drop outs and 10 standard failures (10th standard is the equivalent of GSCEs) are able to have special coaching and a second shot at the all important 10th standard exam.

It’s been a struggle but they have made great strides… but it has led us to decide to extend this unit to children of 14-plus who are totally lost in mainstream school for one reason or another and enable them to be in a small group of five or six children working at their own pace.

We aim to help them all to achieve basic literacy, numeracy, general knowledge and language skills. And then they can decide if they want to go on and aim for 10th standard or move into vocational training. This will enable struggling children to escape the terrible ordeal of constant failure at a crucial point in their education.

Rosie is a lovely, sincere, hardworking young lady of 18. She is very dyslexic and needs a lot of help and support which we are unable to offer within the current set-up. Next year she will move into Lisa Bhavan, with her own age group, and attend the open school. With the right help and support and time we feel confident she will achieve the basic skills she needs to apply for a child care course and perhaps get a job as a nanny with a foreign family. This unit will mean we need a new premises and extra staff, but I am sure you will agree that for Rosie and others like her, it will be a blessed chance to become independent and confident young people.

As well as ensuring we are helping each child individually, we also need to work on fulfilling our mission of turning them into responsible members of society. We plan to have more life skills workshops to get them taking an interest in voting, social and environmental issues.

We also hope to expand our enterprise project, where currently our older St George’s students earn money by baking or cooking or sewing or ironing – raising money for a group trip. I would like to get more of the older ones opening bank accounts, and undertaking some simple ‘work’ to earn money to pay for small items they need or perhaps to help with some others less fortunate.

Of course we still have more building repairs to complete and the maintaining of standards is a constant challenge in a nation that can be very happy simply to ‘adjust’! However, we need to be thinking about environmental impact and responsibility and everyone will need to ‘join in’ on this one!

So thank you for listening – I hope that you feel inspired to keep helping us with the work in caring for the children at St George’s… it’s just a drop in the ocean really, but as Mother Teresa said an ocean starts with a drop and I hope that one day Batemans will be helping more children towards a secure and responsible future… children of all kinds from the parts of society that are forgotton or lost – the bright, the talented , the dancers, the naughty, the quiet, the ones who find numbers totally impossible or the one who just can’t remember what 7x7s is, the ones who makes us laugh and of course the ones like you and I – the average!

It’s a lot of work but I hope that you will ‘join in’ and help us to help them find the best in life.