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Case study: a Harrogate comprehensive

We might as well call them Tom, Dick and Harry. There are certainly plenty of them, even in middle-class Harrogate. And that's just the boys.

Tom had been royally messed about long before we ever met him. Born into one odd set-up, adopted into another, fostered all over the place when that went wrong, now living at an undisclosed location. It's hard enough remembering his latest surname, for heaven's sake, and after a miserable childhood like his, how the hell can we set about giving him "realistic targets"? He breaks all the rules, but then so do we. We'll fail, of course; he needs a bigger miracle than even a church school can produce.

We ask the same question as schools all over the country. At what point do we give up? Another assault? Another enraged act of vandalism in the toilet? The shop floor is telling management that "the boy needs a firm hand". It's not true. Tom needs someone to make him feel loved, but it's easy to understand how they feel.

Dick has the classic single-parent story: never known his dad and neither have his siblings. There's no point looking because you'd be looking for several dads. Does Kate Bell of One Parent Families really believe that we should "focus on poverty" as the cause of Dick's utter despair and disaffection? Harry's experience gives the lie to that. There are lots of Harrys in Harrogate: middle-class children whose worlds fall apart when one parent leaves, however politely it is done. We try to construct some sort of policy as, I imagine, most schools do.

Becoming aware of the breakdown is the first hurdle. Pride, anger and pain are a lethal mix and calling the school can be a big step for the parent left in charge. In any case, Harry may be fiercely opposed to the call being made. Once aware, we must update all records immediately. This is crucial. The worst thing possible would be to continue communicating with the family as if nothing has happened. We make sure that the school nurse knows. Harry's visits to the nurse may not increase, but a Harriet in the same position will want someone to turn to at school. Finance staff are told immediately so they can keep a careful eye on what Harry is or is not eating through our computerised catering register, and whether or not he has suddenly pulled out of a school trip. The head of year, the crucial liaison between home and school, will ensure that all the above is happening. How much information teaching staff are given is a matter of discretion. We are not proud, and are ready to use whatever outside agency might have something useful to offer. Relateen (see resources) seems to be the best.

Now for the tricky bit: being as firm with the parents as they expect us to be with their children. If we have reason to believe that the collapsing relationship was in any way abusive then different criteria apply. We know all the legal requirements about separate copies of reports and separate interviews at parents' evenings. But the admin usually goes wrong at some stage. So, if the breakdown has not been because of abuse, I refuse to allow the school to be berated by self-indulgent parents who should, in respect of school at least, put their children first. Full stop. They should be communicating with each other about their children, not us.

And another thing. Harry's dad is a high-powered accountant, money no problem. His affections have moved elsewhere, so Harry senses he has moved into second place. Harry's dad senses it as well and the compensation culture kicks in. Harry gets lots of holidays, swish gear and fancy restaurants. And it is so destructive. Harry's mates pretend to be impressed but really hate him for it. Mum resents it and, in his heart of hearts, Harry knows it's a con. Time is worth a lot more than money, especially when adolescence and acne are in full swing. It is best, wherever possible, for mum and dad to stick with it till the children are 18, then they can all make their own minds up. That last bit now appears in our PSHE and citizenship curriculum. There's no point hiding it in the closet.

Dennis Richards is head of St Aidan's C of E secondary, Harrogate

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