GIRLS WITH emotional and behavioural problems are getting a raw deal, because of a lack of suitable places for them in their local schools.
The problem is acute in small boroughs and new unitary authorities, according to Rathbone CI, a charity working with excluded and disaffected pupils.
Some councils are sending problem girls to out-of-county residential schools - with costs ranging from pound;13,000 to pound;83,000 a year.
Special schools and support services cater mostly for boys, who make up 87 per cent of the children excluded from school. Male-dominated environments are considered unsuitable for many girls, but in small authorities there are not enough of them to justify funding a separate unit.
While boys who miss out on help may descend into delinquency and crime, girls are more likely to display psychiatric problems such as self-harm, depression and suicide.
Rathbone CI's findings are based on a survey of more than 60 councils' behaviour support plans - which set out local arrangements for helping troubled pupils.
The charity is backing calls from some smaller councils, such as the London boroughs of Enfield and Croydon, for regional planning for girls.
Croydon has 31 girls with statements for behaviour problems, about half of whom are in mainstream schools. The others are in a special school for moderate learning difficulties, the independent sector, out-of-borough residential schools, or pupil referral units.
Alan Malarkey, group director for student services, said: "We have a special school which initially had the option of providing for girls at key stage 4. I'm pursuing a policy of not placing girls there because I am concerned, even if you had two girls in a class of seven, that there's not sufficient emotional support. I started to fear for the youngsters' emotional development and security."
He believes regional arrangements, involving a handful of neighbouring authorities each specialising in a particular special need - such as behavoural difficulties for girls, or autism - could provide a better and more cost-effective alternative to out-of-borough placements.
But regional special needs planning - currently being piloted elsewhere - is not well developed, while co-operative arrangements would need money to audit existing services and launch joint projects.
In Enfield, girls make up 22 per cent of referrals to the authority's secondary pupil referral unit, and a quarter of those to its child and family service. The authority has a range of support services available to schools to help such pupils, but also has a secondary special school where a fifth of the pupils are girls.
"For us, girls are not a major problem, but there are other places where there are not enough girls to get a viable peer group. It's a regional problem," said Denny Grant, principal educational psychologist.
Carol Toms, Rathbone CI's policy officer, said help for girls was an equal opportunities issue.
"Currently, at least nine of the authorities surveyed had no special provision for girls in separate schools.
"Provision for boys was much more widely available. More boys are excluded, but there are still girls with difficulties and they are having a raw deal at present," she said.
Requests for copies of the Rathbone CI survey of behaviour support plans should be faxed to 0161 238 6356.