Disturbed at an ever younger age

26th May 1995 at 01:00
When Sandford School opened in 1968 the arrival of a ten-year-old was a rarity. This week Derek Morris, head of the school which caters for children suffering educational and behavioural disorders, discussed 13 applications on behalf of children under the age of ten, of which four were aged just five.

Sandford in Gloucestershire was originally intended for 50 children but from September it will have 111. It is the largest EBD centre in the country and the age spread means it is now split into primary and secondary departments.

Once most of the children would have had nervous disorders. Mr Morris fears that the timid child whose phobias may indicate deep-seated anxieties and insecurity is now probably being missed by today's teachers.

Instead the majority of the referrals now are children with behavourial problems. Mr Morris believes these delinquent children reflect the changes in society since the 1960s.

"Society is more violent and that is copied by children. The break-up of the family and the number of single-parent families are also fairly new phenomena, " says Mr Morris who is also a local magistrate.

"I find it unbelievable we are getting children as young as five. Some of these children have only spent two or three days in a mainstream school. In the 1960s primary schools would have been too embarrassed to say there was a five-year-old they could not manage."

But Mr Morris and others involved in dealing with these children - psychologists, psychiatrists and headteachers - also believe that pressures on schools, with budgets and the curriculum to consider, mean they are less willing to cope with difficult children.

Mike Redman, head of the 680-pupil Kingshill school in Cirencester and chair of the Gloucestershire Association of Secondary Heads, says: "The rocketing of the number of exclusions reflects the pressures in the schools themselves. Cuts have meant fewer staff, less contact time and bigger classes at a time when the number of children with problems is increasing."

He also believes that in the past schools focused more on pastoral care. Now the emphasis is more on the curriculum and standards. There is also more competition. "Schools' sympathies with difficult children will be less than they used to be."

Mr Redman added that more and more children were coming into primary school having missed out on basic nurturing at home. The social pressures on children outside school will also influence their behaviour in the classroom.

Many people also believe that because special education attracts extra money the statistics are being skewed and it is not certain whether the rapid increase in the number of statemented children reflects their need or the need for more cash.

Don Batten, consultant in charge of adolescent psychiatry for the East Gloucestershire NHS Trust, says though the statistics cannot be relied upon they do point to a social phenomenon.

"While I would love to say it is all the fault of the Conservative government they are nothing but pawns in the overall picture," he said. "What we are observing is happening in other Western countries."

His theory is that the growing number of children needing psychiatric help and the severity of the cases coming forward is due to a number of factors: the destruction of the nuclear family, the bias in favour of technology; 20th-century hedonism; violence on TV and significant changes in parenting.

He said: "Parents want to be able to go out and enjoy themselves and they want children not to pose any problems. They want children to be entertained, rather than entertaining them. Children become hooked into television, cinema and computers. There they are bombarded by a message that children are really small adults, when they aren't. And the children most influenced are the psychologically unstable."

Dr Batten said children continually pushed against parental boundaries to reassure themselves that there was emotional security. The less control in the family environment the more the child will experiment with delinquency and misbehaviour.

"The only positive note is that social phenomena are cyclical and we can expect things to change for the better. I think a return to the Victorian era is around the corner."

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