Jack, aged eight, had been rejected by his parents and went through seven foster homes in five months. But thanks to a supreme effort - by staff, governors, fellow pupils, and by Jack himself - he was making progress at school. Then it all went wrong
Last autumn, the large inner-city primary school where I was acting head admitted an eight-year-old who had been excluded from his two previous schools. Within minutes of his arrival it was apparent that Jack was in no fit state to function well in a conventional classroom; but who would be if they had been rejected by their parents and shunted around seven foster homes in the space of five months? In fact, Jack demonstrated some remarkable personal qualities.
There were so many dilemmas. To put Jack in the classroom on a full-time basis would have set him up for failure. It would also have been unfair to the teacher and the rest of the pupils in his year group. On the other hand, how could we support him outside the classroom and give him the one to one attention he so badly needed? Who would address his extensive therapeutic needs? How could all the agencies concerned work together to create a successful package of education and care for this little boy?
Finding answers to these questions was not easy and in some cases impossible. But we were determined to have a go, and emergency funding from the LEA enabled us to make a start by appointing a person to support Jack. Enter problem number one. Having the cash to appoint such a person is fine; finding the right person for the job is another matter altogether.
Jack was going to need the skill and sensitivity of a sympathetic and experienced person. No easy matter, especially on the salary we were able to offer. We realised we would need to be very creative, so we set about devising a timetable that used our new member of staff to free up some of our more experienced personnel to work with Jack on a rota basis. This situation could only be sustained for a short period of time, but we hoped it would be long enough to get Jack stabilised and make his behaviour manageable.
Gradually, through the provision of suitable activities and sensitive interventions, we began to build a relationship. Jack was spending little time in the classroom, but he was beginning to show a will to behave better, and his volatile outbursts (or "strops", as he called them) were becoming less frequent.
Integrating Jack into our school community was no easy ride. He was so traumatised that the slightest threat sent him into a defensive bout of anti-social behaviour which could upset and alienate people. It is hard not to take such behaviour personally, but most people tried hard to understand Jack's problems.
With support from staff, governors, the children and their parents, Jack gradually began to gain a sense of belonging. His face began to lose its haunted look, and his movements around the building became more relaxed.
Things were not going as well at home, and it became necessary to find another foster placement. It was decided to place Jack with specialist carers; now the pressure was really on. This was to be a "last chance" placement; if it failed Jack would go into a children's home.
Although Jack found this move difficult, he showed amazing resilience and continued to put a great deal of effort into managing his behaviour in school. He was spending more time in the classroom and was beginning to build good relationships with his peers.
By this time, the school was operating closely with social services and Jack's new carers. We really felt that we were putting together an effective package, but when the Christmas holidays arrived we became apprehensive. It was Jack's exclusion from schools and the additional pressure this had placed on his carers that had caused earlier placements to break down.
It was with some relief that we greeted Jack's return to school in January. Whilst the holiday had not been easy, he and his foster parents had survived it, and we were all optimistic.
Things were going well, so why were we feeling uneasy? It was apparent to all of us that Jack was still having great difficulty accepting the reality that he would not be returning home to his mum, to whom, in spite of everything, he remained firmly attached. This was going to be a major difficulty that would require time and patience.
Jack's placement with his carers was initially for six months. At the end of this period he was doing remarkably well both at home and school, but we remained concerned.
In the light of his progress, his carers agreed to extend his placement by 12 months, and although we were all pleased about this, a big question mark hung over how Jack would receive the news. Although on the one hand the positive message was clear, on the other hand it confirmed that he was not to return to his mum.
Our concerns were not without foundation. When Jack received the news, he became disruptive again and was cast once more into unbearable despair; he lost all motivation to succeed either in school or in his placement. In spite of all our efforts, little could be done and we prepared ourselves for the worst scenario, which did not take long to unravel.
Shortly after the Easter holidays we received a telephone call to tell us that Jack's carers could not cope any longer; he was to be moved into residential care 100 miles away, which meant he would also be leaving us. Whilst understanding why they had taken this decision, we were horrified. Jack needed to feel included, not excluded. He needed to be with well adjusted children who could act as good role models for him and play a part in his reintegration and rehabilitation. This was a classic case of too little, too late and presented us with some hard lessons and many important questions.
Why had he not been placed with specialist carers sooner? Why had it been so difficult to get funding for his educational needs? Why had his therapeutic needs not been addressed? Why are our schools so hostile to such children? Why can we not identify and resource schools that are sympathetic to such needy children? Why, as a so-called civilised society, are we completely failing such children?
Only six months after joining us, Jack was placed in residential care in a borough far away from his home; the victim of a society that has badly let him down, he is in the company of children who are equally desperate and ill-equipped to support him. This in itself is bad enough, and the last thing that Jack needs, but if you go on to count the cost to society, it hardly bears thinking about. Jack's care will now cost the tax-payer around Pounds 25, 000 a year. If the right interventions had been made when they were needed, it is an expense that could have been avoided.
Will Jack survive? I hope so. In the meantime we can console ourselves with the knowledge that he must have benefited from his time with us.
However, it is difficult not to feel that we have failed him. The time for drastic intervention is long overdue. If we are to call a halt to the rising numbers of children in Jack's predicament, and be worthy of calling ourselves a civilised society, then surely it is imperative that we get our act together to make sure the right support is available at the right time.
The author is a deputy head in the Midlands