Annual Conference 2023 Press Release - Lemn Sissay

Poet, playwright, performer and broadcaster Lemn Sissay


A PLAYWRIGHT and poet who was ‘stolen’ from his mother has revealed a harrowing glimpse of his young life in care.

Lemn Sissay, who is also a performer, broadcaster and Chancellor of The University of Manchester, urged education and care professionals to continue their “incredible work”.

“In a care system that is troubled you are a success story,” he told delegates attending the annual conference of the National Association of Virtual School Heads (NAVSH) in Manchester.

“You are an example of best practice. You are what education should always be about. You are it for the ones who need it most and that is incredible.”

Lemn told delegates how he was stolen from his mother as a child and had his name changed to Norman so he would ‘fit in’ to a working class industrial town.

“Young women who were pregnant and had no husband were seen as oestrogen terrorists and put in mother and baby homes where they had to work for their keep,” he said. “They had to pay to be institutionalised and when they were at their most vulnerable they were given adoption papers.

“My mother refused to sign them so a social worker gave me to foster parents. They thought if they called me Norman no-one would notice. I didn’t meet another black person until I was about nine or know one until I was around 16. They kept me for about 12 years until they decided the devil was inside me then they put me into care. It was a primary lesson – if you love, you will lose everything.”

By the age of 18 Lemn had been in four children’s homes, had six social workers and had been held a virtual prisoner in an assessment centre. It was only when he was 17 that he was given is birth certificate showing his real name.

“When I was in care we were the ‘naughty kids’, ‘the bad ones’,” he said. “People called our home a den of thieves yet most children who steal are not from the care system. Parents said if you are naughty we will put you in a children’s home. If you judge children like this it is emotional fascism. This is unchallenged prejudice that you must fight.”

He said he wasn’t hugged as a child and there was no acknowledgment that this would affect him as an adult.

He told the virtual heads: “Children in care don’t want a hug they just want to know that they are being cared for.

“My experience of being a child in care was having no family and realising how important it is to everything. The care system isn’t far from any of us. A child in care is living proof that things can fall apart and they are hated for it as are their mothers.

“Best practice leads to better lives and what you are doing is at the heart of what everything is about. I am glad you are doing what you are doing. You are activists on the front line making a difference.”