Exclusion zone

John Gooch (not his real name) is 15 and comes from a home where
violence was commonplace. He was continually bullied at school, and
eventually stopped going altogether when he was nine. The school
placed him in a pupil referral unit “for my own safety”. But when
he lost his temper and hospitalised another child, the unit took
him to a GP, who referred him to a unit for young people with
behavioural problems.

He says it was not a good move. He was bullied and started throwing
chairs around. “I couldn’t do anything – I had a lot of family
troubles in my head, right at the back of my head. It felt like my
brain was tangled up. When people were bullying me and taking the
piss out my mum, who has a weight problem, I hit back.”

John was eventually sent to a therapeutic community, where he has
settled and started to flourish. But he is one of a growing number
of children and teenagers who are being permanently excluded from
school as a result of emotional and behavioural difficulties (EBD).
The symptoms are as varied as the children themselves, but the main
indicators are disruptive, anti-social and aggressive behaviour,
over-activity, attention problems, difficult peer and family
relationships and poor school attendance. Children may lack
self-confidence, emotional intelligence and resilience.

The incidence of EBD in children appears to be rising, but there
may be other contributory factors at work. Children who would once
have been labelled “naughty” may now be viewed as having special
educational needs, a conduct disorder or an underlying mental
health problem.

The situation is compounded by the fact that mainstream schools are
under pressure to exclude children whose behaviour is disruptive or
unacceptable. The difficulties of recruiting and retaining good
teachers, and the challenges posed by pursuing excellence through
league tables and exam results, may be significant factors in the
rising numbers of children being diagnosed with EBD.

Once excluded, children with EBD face two possibilities for
continuing their education. One is full time education in a special
school for children with EBD, the other is attendance at a pupil
referral unit (PRU) – usually part time and sometimes concurrent
with attendance in mainstream classes.

In January 1998, between 20,000 and 25,000 pupils were attending
EBD schools, PRUs and other alternative schemes in England – about
0.4 per cent of the school age population. There were 280 English
EBD schools and a further 70 catering for EBD as well as moderate
learning difficulties. Boys outnumber girls 12 to one in special
schools, and three to one in PRUs. And while EBD schools are set up
specifically to deal with children with behaviour problems, PRUs
also cater for pregnant schoolgirls and young mothers and children
with a phobia of school.

A new report into the mental health needs of children with EBD in
these environments has just been launched by the Mental Health
Foundation.1 The report found that while there were many
examples of good practice and excellent teaching, there were
significant problems with the provision for children with these

Diagnosis of EBD was often found to be patchy. The report suggests:
“Defining both the terms EBD and mental health is an imprecise and
problematic enterprise. Whether some young people are said to have
EBD can be more a function of the attitudes and practices of their
mainstream school or the LEA’s ease of access to EBD schools,
rather than an accurate assessment of the child’s real

Recruiting motivated teaching staff, learning support assistants,
residential social workers and other professionals was also a major
problem for many establishments. Many EBD schools and PRUs are also
expected to operate “on unsuitable or badly maintained sites,
sometimes without security of tenure, making mental health
promotion difficult”.

The report also highlights issues of control, arguing that
collecting large numbers of children with a propensity for
dangerous behaviour in a class together “creates a potentially
volatile cocktail”. It adds,: “Some schools appeared to be places
where both staff and pupils’ mental health would seem to have been
at risk.”

Many children with EBD have problems in forming and maintaining
personal relationships, and the report’s authors suggest that one
of the key functions of staff in EBD schools and PRUs should be to
enter into positive relationships with the children. It says: “The
young person should be helped to form attachments to significant
adults, to bond, to belong, to feel and show acceptance, to
communicate well, to participate, to tolerate difference.”

The report suggests that many children begin to experience
difficulties when they move from a primary school, where they may
have enjoyed a long-standing relationship with a single class
teacher, to a secondary school, where subjects are taught by many
different teachers. In this context, the relationships children in
EBD schools develop with teachers, residential social workers and
learning support assistants can be of immense value in addressing
their problems and raising self-esteem and self-awareness.

Perhaps more significantly, the report highlights the fact that
children exhibiting EBD have to be viewed in the context of their
immediate relationships and environment.

Brian Harrison-Jennings is general secretary of the Association of
Educational Psychologists, and has 23 years’ experience of dealing
with children with EBD. He says: “All of the people who refer
children to us believe they have EBD, but we have to start from a
different point. Very often a child’s behaviour that seems aberrant
or difficult and perverse may be a perfectly rational response to
an appalling background context.”

He argues that children’s behaviour needs to be seen as “a function
of the relationship between that child and the adults around them”,
adding that in many cases unless the adults change their behaviour
significantly and permanently it is unlikely that the child’s
behaviour will change.

Harrison-Jennings is ambivalent about the use of EBD schools. “The
tragedy is that kids get sent to EBD schools, which teachers and
schools and sometimes parents see as a sort of ‘cure’ for them.
They expect them to go in for a while, get cured, and then come
back to mainstream education. But that’s incredibly rare – less
than 5 per cent ever go back. So the health analogy falls down –
rather than being like hospitals where children get cured, EBD
schools are more like hospices where they go to die.”

He adds: “There’s a fundamental philosophical flaw in putting
children whose behaviour is bad in these establishments with a lot
of other children whose behaviour is also bad. A large part of a
child’s education – in terms of behaviour – comes from his peers.
In a comprehensive, you have the full range of models of behaviour,
from very bad to very good. In an EBD school, you’ve only got
people who behave as badly as you, or often worse.”

Conversely, Harrison-Jennings describes PRUs as “one of Blunkett’s
better ideas”. He points out that because many units are on the
campuses of mainstream schools, children can still walk to school
with friends and attend some of the mainstream classes, while at
the same time getting more intensive support in the PRU. “A lot of
children behave very badly in some classes and not in others, which
may be a function of the subject matter or it might be related to
the teacher – we have to acknowledge that teachers do vary in their
ability to handle individual children.”

He adds: “I’m not sure exactly how useful the label EBD is, really.
Most children definitely do grow out of it.”

1 Harry Daniels and Ted Cole,
Mental Health Needs of Young People with Emotional and
Behavioural Difficulties
, Mental Health Foundation, August

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