Mark Riddell MBE, Department for Education’s National Implementation Advisor for care leavers
The Department for Work and Pensions has been focusing on care leavers as part of its See Potential campaign. The campaign encourages employers to recognise the benefits of recruiting people from all kinds of backgrounds. I was in a care home myself and I think care leavers have many valuable life skills to offer.
I spent my early years in Scotland with my two brothers, my mum and dad and all seemed well. When I was about eight years old my mother frequently would sleep at the bottom of my bed. I had no idea why that was. Anyway, I came home from school one day to find my mother packing stuff into suitcases and into my auntie’s car. My mother had suffered years of abuse at the hands of my father but I never saw any of that. After about six months my mother became unwell and died shortly after. After many changes in living with family members and finally with my father we entered public care in 1980.
My experience of care was neither good nor bad. That does not mean to say it was easy. It carries with it huge stigma and disadvantage and always follows you wherever you go. Getting through the system was tough and at times led me down some very challenging roads. One of those roads was using solvents to escape from the emotional things, mostly related to the death of my mother and the feeling of loss. Fortunately, as I approached 16, new roads emerged with better opportunities.
One of those was meeting the manager of the last children’s home I lived in, Alex. His approach was firm but fair. He was a firm believer in never giving up on someone.
His response to my bad behaviour one weekend became a turning point in my life. I had been using solvents and I began to smash up windows in the children’s home with a hammer. I was taken to the police cells overnight and when I was bailed, I went and packed my stuff into black bags and got ready to go into custody. But Alex said: “You are going nowhere – this is your home”. That changed my whole life. I stopped using solvents and I got the other young people to stop using them, too. Alex gave me another chance and that is why I am where I am today.
It was after a chance encounter with a Hollywood star while travelling through Europe that I decided I could give something back to the system. I was in a bar in Eilat in Israel when I was approached by a fellow Scotsman who said he was a casting agent on the film Rambo III. The following day I was on the set dressed as a Russian Spetsnaz Commando with an AK-47 and I spent six weeks filming in the desert and some studio work in Tel Aviv.
I met Sylvester Stallone – who himself spent time in foster care – and he was really interested in my care experience. I got to eat with him and travel with him to Tel Aviv and even stayed in the same hotel for free. He told me his story of never giving up on getting his story Rocky made into a film. That made me even more determined to get into social work and also to write about my care experiences, which I have done in my book, The Cornflake Kid.
I started my career as a residential child care officer in Manchester and wanted to become a social worker so I could get into the system and try to change it. I qualified in 1997 and began to specialise in children in care and care leavers.
In 2015 when I was the service manager in Trafford for children in care and care leavers we became the first local authority in the country to get an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted judgement for care leavers. This was huge for me as a care experienced adult and also as a professional. Getting the judgement brought with it local and national interest in how we achieved it. That was when I met the then Children’s Minister Edward Timpson and was appointed National Implementation Advisor for care leavers. The role means working with local authorities deemed inadequate or requiring improvement and offering them ‘critical friend’ advice on their leaving care service. I also feed issues back to Government where national policies may be affecting the offer to care leavers locally and I talk to care leavers themselves.
Local authorities are seen as the corporate parents for children in care and care leavers. I see employers, businesses and the local community as their corporate aunts and uncles and I want them to see past the media images of care leavers. The challenge and experience of being in care produces many skills for care leavers – determination, resilience, empathy, leadership, negotiation, decision making, ambition and a sense of achieving success. All of these are qualities we want from our workforce.
Having heard about our work at Drive Forward, Mark met the team in November last year and has since been an invaluable source of support for our charity. Mark attended this year’s Drive Ambassadors launch event in February, where he inspired our ambassadors to stand up for their beliefs and bring their ideas to improve the sector forward.