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Desperate to talk to a teacher

Anne Taylor is taking one day out a week to help impoverished parents cope with inner-city life. Nadene Ghouri reports

Anne Taylor has taught in the inner-cities for 23 years. But she says she has never seen so much poverty as she does today.

Mrs Taylor is a nursery teacher at Hillside primary school in Beeston, Leeds - a predominantly white, working-class enclave where vandals run amok among the narrow terraced streets. A place where depression, drugs, drink and domestic violence are everyday realities. And every day the children bring those problems with them to school.

Junior education minister Charles Clarke recently told a London conference that pupil mobility caused by poverty was the largest problem facing inner-city schools - be it aspirant parents seeking better schools in the suburbs or poor families being forced to move between short-term housing.

At Hillside, around half of the 300 pupils on the roll have changed during the year. Three-quarters are on free school meals.

Mrs Taylor said: "Some of our kids have been to five or six schools by the age of nine. When the rent doesn't get paid or the vandals get too much, they're on the move again.

"One Hillside pupil had been through 27 schools. There is both a women's refuge and a short-term hostel within the catchment area. By then, families have really hit rock bottom."

While the teaching unions insist that teachers cannot fix all of society's ills, Hillside head Sarah Balfour insists they must try.

She said: "Our main role is as educators but unless we have happy and settled children they can't learn. Often school is the only place where they have boundaries or stability."

Anne Taylor puts it more succinctly: "If the parents are crazy, the kids are crazy."

The school is running a pilot, part-funded by the local authority, where Mrs Taylor spends one day a week running a counselling service for parents.

A recent survey by the school revealed that, for all but a handful of parents, not having enough money to buy clothes or food for their children worried them most, followed by depression.

"People were coming to me and saying, 'I can cope with the old man knocking me about a bit, but I can't cope with not feeding my kids or the bailiffs taking the telly away'," she said.

Since the pilot began last October, Anne Taylor has counselled at least 60 parents. Cases included the single mother with four children who couldn't face another pregnancy and the woman who discovered a relative was sexually abusing her daughter.

There was a man whose partner had walked out on him and their two sons. He had no help with childcare and was about to make himself jobless to look after them. Mrs Taylor helped him to find a child-minder and a charity to meet the cost.

Parent Maggie Evans thinks people are happier confiding in teachers than in social workers or professional counsellors. She said: "People have a lot of pride and they aren't going to lower that. You don't want strangers to think you're not coping."

Ms Evans needed help because her sons, Stuart, seven, and Andrew, eight, were setting fire to the house and pulling electric sockets out of the wall in the middle of the night.

After a few hard words - "I told her it was a child protection issue" - Mrs Taylor sat down with the family and helped them work out a few basic rules, such as talking problems through, instead of shouting.

Ms Evans had failed to realise how unhappy her children were. Their stepfather had left home, they had moved house five times in two years - once when vandals burned down their home.

These days, instead of waking up to "chaos and screaming my head off", she looks forward to "a cuddle and a family breakfast" before walking the boys to school. "They even hold my hand," she said. "They never did that before."

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