After reading the story of a tragic teen suicide, one elderly couple opened their hearts—and their doors to a group of troubled teenagers. Here's how Fred and Viv Morgan managed to make a real difference to these young people's lives.
The urge to help
Viv Morgan with Northleigh's headteacher, Jill Cornfield
Flicking through the paper one morning, Fred and Viv Morgan came across an article about a bullied schoolgirl who’d jumped from a bridge in Cornwall. The 15-year-old was holding her childhood rag doll and a mobile when she was found.
Instead of turning the page and carrying on with the busy work of running their B&B in Warwick, the couple began to look into how they could turn their home into a place to save young lives.
“I thought it was shocking—she’d done that to escape the fear of these people that were getting at her,” says Viv. “And I thought, We must be able to do something about that.”
Viv, 72, and Fred, 95, sought advice from people they knew in the education sector and embarked on setting up Northleigh House School.
Viv recalls, “I went in to Fred and said, ‘Do you really think this is a good idea?’ He was reading the paper. The paper came down and he said, ‘We’re not quitters, are we?’, and the paper went up again.”
Since 2012, 34 children have passed through Northleigh’s welcoming doors. They’ve got chickens that hop through the cat flap and sit by the log fire to warm up, alongside pupils enjoying a cup of tea while they work.
“When kids come here, they’re extremely apprehensive and anxious,” comments Viv. “Even when they gain confidence, they’re immediately back in a state of anxiety if anything new happens. A lot of them have been bullied. Quite often, children who are being bullied don’t tell anyone, not even their parents. Either it’s ‘their fault’ because they’re silly, or if they tell anyone their dad will come to the school or their mum will make a fuss, and they don’t want that.”
A fresh start
Jill Cornfield with Ruth Harkin on the day she left Northleigh last summer. “It was lovely and I miss it so much.”
Ann Harkin’s daughter Ruth was one of Northleigh’s very first pupils. Ann recounts how from the age of around six, her daughter, the second of four children, began to express distress at school. She found the classrooms overwhelming and tried to escape. When a private psychologist failed to see beyond Ruth’s conduct, she was labelled “naughty” and was soon a target for bullies.
“Once a teacher begins to discipline you more, or is focused on your behaviour more, then all the children start to focus on you too,” explains Ann. “So this compounded over the years and she was quite easy prey for bullies. Many times I’d bring her to school and she would lie in the gutter screaming. School was a very alien place to be and that led into the self-injury behaviour that eventually led to her overdose. She was 13 or 14, and it was a very serious overdose. She ended up in an acute hospital for 12 weeks.”
Following her hospital stay, Ruth was interviewed by a panel for a place at an adolescent treatment unit.
“I’ll never forget how eloquently she put her case,” says Ann.
“She said to them that she felt she’d been born at the wrong time and she didn’t want to continue and just wanted to die—so please let her.”
Ruth was granted a place for eight weeks, during which she received a diagnosis of high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome. Finally, she had an explanation for the way she behaved and learned. This led to enrolment at Northleigh.
“I think I slept for the first six months,” Ruth recollects. “There was a bed upstairs at the school, so I slept there because I couldn’t concentrate. I was so overwhelmed by going back to school. When I first met everybody, I wasn’t sure because I’d tried things before that hadn’t worked. [But] when I walked into the school I remember thinking it was very different.
“All the children are lovely and they try really hard to make you feel better. A couple of times I went into school crying as I was so sad. They’d all sit around me and distract me and think of things to do. Some of these children were 13 or 14, and when I started I was 15, 16. It was amazing how much it helped.
“The staff are very much like my mum and I found them quite easy to get attached to— I saw the same qualities my mum had. It was like they’d adapt their support for every child. They were like my mum for me, but they’d be like someone else’s mum for someone else.”