Disruptive children and special schools

This morning on Jon Gaunt’s show they were talking about the recently announced government policy of moving “excluded” (expelled) children into the more popular schools, so that such kids don’t end up being concentrated in “sink schools” - that is, dumping grounds for kids other schools can’t deal with. I was intending to send him an email with my views on this subject, but because I got stuck in a traffic jam, couldn’t get to the computer in time to send it before the end of the show. One of the ideas mentioned was that there should be more special units and special schools for disruptive children. I feel qualified to comment on this, because I spent much of my education in such places. The special school was Kesgrave Hall in Suffolk, and I was sent there after getting expelled from a private school in Croydon, after my previous school had decided I could no longer stay there. The place was supposedly for academically able children with behavioural problems. The reality was a bit different.

It was a spin-off from an earlier school, a primary boarding school called Heanton in Devon, which closed some time in the 1980s. The founders were reacting against other schools which they claimed used children as “educational guinea pigs” - they preferred “tried and tested old-fashioned methods”, to quote the Kesgrave prospectus. They founded Kesgrave after realising that Heanton pupils were “invariably badly served” by the secondary schools they went to afterwards. The school ostensibly favoured a “structured” and “disciplined” approach, but appeared to sorely miss the opportunity to use the cane or slipper (though some staff did assault kids).

The problem, at least by the time I got there, was that plainly inappropriate pupils were taken on, and the school was a melting pot of different types of problems: some of the pupils were violent, some were just thugs, and others had various social difficulties. One I remember clearly was not apparently “academically able”. He could remember car number plates, but was obviously retarded. He was bullied very badly by members of his form group, and little was done about it. Another (in my form) was abused so badly over the years that he turned to drink while still at the school (I had to sleep in the same dorm as him through most of this period).

Quite a few of the staff were lazy and incompetent, and made various excuses to avoid punishing boys who attacked other boys for various “reasons”, and there was quite a bit of racism (including, on occasions, from senior staff), and a bit of sexual abuse too. “Stressful” is the best word I can use to describe living there, and the stress has never quite worn off.

As for a solution to the problem of disruptive pupils in mainstream schools, you need to avoid lumping all “disruptive” pupils into one group, separating the violent pupils, bullies and serial vandals from those with social difficulties, some of whom have tantrums, but are not opposed to learning. We need to realise that some of those who present difficulties at school are also vulnerable to becoming victims if they are put together with the violent, disturbed people. Some may have hyperactivity problems, which are often these days treated with Ritalin (an issue mentioned in an article by Margaret Cook in the New Statesman last week, noting that the drug companies taking doctors on various all-expenses-paid junkets and ghost-writing “research” in medical journals may be connected with this), but whatever happened to the matter of food additives having a role in influencing children’s behaviour and contributing to hyperactivity?

I think we should also lower the school leaving age, so that pupils who don’t want to be at school can leave and stop making everyone else’s life a misery, and invest more in adult ed, so that these people can get an education themselves if they decide they want one.

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