An extra degree of separation

30th January 1998 at 00:00
Psychologist Ruth Nissim explains why children in care deserve special consideration in schools

Many parents will recall the pangs of loss when their first child enters full-time education. And for others the decision to use boarding schools will have intensified these feelings. Reunions which are not daily but weekly, monthly or termly may have the advantage of absence making the heart grow fonder. But they may also carry a mutual sense of lost intimacy which can lead to withdrawal on both sides.

For the younger child who has been separated from the home, this may create the necessity to construct in their head images of the missing person, or to use special objects as links. The emotions that might have been spent on their families may instead be invested in talismans, or their inner landscapes may take on a vividness they are unable to express or experience in their actual encounters with family members.

Imagine, then, the predicament of children removed from their families either at the request of their parents or against their parents' will.

Common sense might suggest that children would be relieved to be removed from parents who neglect, abuse or reject them. But such children's bonds with parents often defy conventional logic - they are capable of acts of loyalty which would shame most of us.

Every school teaches children living separately from one or both of their parents, either temporarily, intermittently or permanently.

But think of the plight of children who have been separated from their parents by the social services. These children in local authority care enter school with a heavy burden.

It could be argued that children already labouring under such a disadvantage should not be further stigmatised at school. But is it likely that children's family experience will have no impact on their perfor-mance? Frequent changes and the loss of intimate relationships may result in children becoming mistrustful of adults. They may also lose what confidence they may have had in themselves as learners.

Many separated children face uncertainty in their personal lives. Are the hopes and fears they feel to be denied or hidden at school? Must they pretend that all is well at home?

For many years we have been lamenting the poor performance of children in care. Their poor acad-emic achievements and inability to make and maintain reasonable relationships are often highlighted. What is rather less often discussed is the ability of the education system to meet their needs adequately.

While we may understand why school reject and even exclude such "difficult" children, we must never forgive it. Nor can we forgive the special units and schools with students in local authority care, following the same pattern.

We know that positive educational experiences and achievements can help to mitigate the effects of a disrupted family life. Surely children in care are especially entitled to such opportunities?

Ruth Nissim is principal psychologist with Oxfordshire social services

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