Schools can offer great hope to children but sometimes can do
little to alter poor behaviour. So, is it time to introduce some
form of therapy into schools, asks Melissa Benn.
Whenever I worry that I have lost interest in politics, that the
blandness of the third way has finally claimed me as its victim, I
only have to visit my daughters’ school. Sitting at the back of a
school hall, watching 30 seven-year-olds, including my own beloved
eldest daughter, put on Jack and the Beanstalk for their peers,
parents and teachers is a poignant experience.
The tears that fill the eyes of most parents come not just from
pride in our own children but from watching them begin to take
their place in the wider world. There is something touching about
the children in an inner city primary like ours. Here is the
potential shape of utopia, as children from vastly different
backgrounds – the child of a Bosnian refugee, and of an unemployed
builder, and of a newspaper editor – joyfully act out a complex
story and play squeaky recorder tunes more or less in unison.
But the mix of emotions, from unalloyed pleasure to inexplicable
sadness, has more complex roots. Most of us adults recognise that
the United Nations style vision presented by this school assembly
is, in its own way, an illusion. Few believe in utopias any more,
not least because we know too much about the individual children on
the stage and the world they, and we, live in.
From nursery onwards, it is pretty clear which children are
going to thrive in life and which children are not, who will end up
socially excluded and, quite possibly, literally excluded from some
school in the future. And, almost without exception, those who are
going to thrive are those who come from well off enough homes with
parents with sufficient time and money to spend on them.
It’s not all clear cut. There is still some room for manoeuvre
within the system that supposedly no longer exists. But there is
also something very predictable about the lifelines of some of the
children, the badly behaved little boy who has already, aged five,
broken a chair in the classroom and scratched a deep cut into
another child’s flesh. The little boy’s mother, barely into her
twenties, already has an aura of defeat.
It is a problem reproduced around the country in the many state
schools struggling to contain the problems of an unequal and
divided society. In the past, the answer has often been to exclude
disruptive or difficult pupils, therefore leading to a wild element
wandering the streets, their chances of recapturing a place in the
mainstream diminishing day by day.
In its latest report on school exclusions and truancy the
government says that full-time education should be arranged for
excluded children. Schools should not be able to exclude pupils in
order to manipulate their league table results (it is disgraceful
that they ever could). Like all government reports the tone is
efficient, crisp and no nonsense.
But schools like my local primary may hold one small part of the
solution to the problem of difficult children and children in
difficulty. The Place to Be, a national counselling service, runs a
scheme on site; children can either be referred by a member of
staff or by themselves, posting a request to talk through a post
box outside the school office. Up to 200 children a year might be
seen by counsellors but the effect is dramatic, with teachers
reporting an 84 per cent improvement in whatever was the presenting
difficulty; moodiness, difficulty in making friends or disruptive
Some of the children may still be in nursery, and the scheme is
not cheap. A school like ours may have to contribute up to
£10,000 a year. The rest of the funds will come from
government or charitable trusts. But it is surely worth it. School
counselling services acknowledge that hard-pressed teachers and
equally hard-pressed parents are sometimes the last people to be
able to help a child sort out his or her feelings.
They may not offer utopia and they do little to ease the
problems caused by housing problems, low income or the despair felt
by some refugees. But they at least admit a psychological realm to
children’s lives, whatever their home circumstances. From a
political point of view, they chime almost perfectly with third way
theories and going with “what works”. I’m surprised the government
doesn’t make more of them in its report on truancy and school
exclusions. It should surely have no difficulty in recognising the
tremendous value of a scheme like The Place to Be and the need for
something like it in almost every school in the country.