Better to separate

21st November 1997 at 00:00
No one could ever pinpoint the time or place when Tom crossed the invisible line between being a difficult child and being a disturbed one. In reception he had a short attention span. He tended to knock over paint pots and get into fights. Little girls, reporting primly to their mothers, described what the "naughty boys" had done that day. Tom was usually among them.

Over the next two years he acquired a reputation. In the classroom he was fidgety. In PE he could be wild. At lunchtime he was a disaster. Dinner ladies, anticipating trouble, would warn him as he left the table that they had their eye on him. If there was trouble, he was generally involved. Other miscreants, polishing a repertoire of excuses, began to realise that "Tom started it" was one that nearly always worked.

By Year 3, even the other "naughty boys" no longer asked him to their birthday parties. If he needed a pencil, he would snatch one from the hand of the nearest child. His drawings were full of angry cartoon faces. Sometimes, with no obvious provocation, he would walk over to the racks of drawers where the children stored their work. He would pull one out, never his own, and empty its contents on to the floor.

Staff at the small village school began to feel out of their depth. An educational psychologist was suggested. Tom's mother refused. Other parents at that stage knew nothing of this. Nevertheless, as she arrived in the playground at collecting time, they began to draw away from her - pitying, embarrassed and resentful that her child was forcing his mysterious unhappiness on theirs.

An observant Year 4 teacher realised that the pencils Tom snatched and the drawers Tom emptied were almost always those of volatile children, guaranteed to protest. His more stolid peers he ignored. He moved on: picking out the younger brothers and sisters of those same edgy classmates and chasing them in the playground. He did this openly, challenging adults to notice and intervene. Big children fought him. Little ones wept.

Tom was now not only labelled difficult, but also a bully. He was temporarily excluded from school. When he and his mother stepped into the village shop, or arrived at the paddling pool, there was a frisson of nervous anticipation. People were watching him, waiting for trouble. He did not disappoint them. While his mother called out impotently for him to stop, he would ride his bike fast and straight at other children, braking only inches away.

At the end of his fortnight's exclusion, it was agreed that he should go for a trial term to a special school for emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children. He would continue to spend one day a week at the village school. That way, people argued, he could be reintegrated as soon as possible.

In retrospect, it was never going to work. When Tom was back, the four tranquil days when he was absent seemed alluring every minute of the day.

A few people stood up for Tom. A classroom assistant noted at least two occasions when an infant said "Tom did it" on a day when Tom was not even in school. A child in his class comforted him when she found him crying behind the games shed, saying that he hated his mother's new boyfriend, he hated his father, he hated everyone at school and everyone hated him. Half an hour later in the classroom, he got out of his seat, walked over to her table, and calmly ripped her work to shreds.

The special school gave its verdict. There was nothing wrong with Tom; he should go back full-time into mainstream education. The village parents gave their verdict: if this child was returned to school, they told the head, they would withdraw their children the same day. Tom was permanently excluded. No one was sorry to see him go.

It is not a happy story. Would Tom have responded to a more formal behaviour management policy earlier on? Perhaps. Could intervention by psychologists have solved the problem sooner? Who knows. What is clear is that by the age of nine, Tom was high on the attention he gained from misbehaviour and cruelty. He needed detoxification in a school with small classes and specialist skills. And he needed a refuge from his own reputation.

However much integration we manage to achieve, there will always be children for whom a special school is the only answer. It is the only way they can be rescued from the damage they do in schools and the only way other children can be rescued from them.

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