Keeping up appearances

3rd June 2011 at 01:00
The children of well-to-do homes, like their peers in less affluent areas, struggle with the fall-out from divorce, domestic violence and parental neglect. But a veneer of respectability can mask the extent of their problems

There is a timid knock on the door. Tracey Austin looks up, and sees a 10-year-old girl peering nervously into her office. "Can I talk to you?" the girl says.

The girl is softly spoken, academically successful, well-behaved. The primary school she attends is in the heart of west London's media-luvvie land, populated by journalists, photographers and designers. At home, she wants for nothing; at school, there is a parent-backed assumption that all pupils want to succeed. The girl is well-fed, well-clothed, well-spoken. From the outside, it is impossible to tell that her world is slowly, irrevocably falling apart.

"Of course," Ms Austin replies. "Come in." Quietly, her eyes firmly fixed on the floor, the girl comes in and sits down.

The primary school where Ms Austin works as manager of counselling services is in an area of Georgian terraces, verdant parks and organic greengrocers. A four-bedroom family home here would leave the buyer with little change from pound;1 million. But teachers turning to such areas in the hope that they might provide respite from the gruelling pastoral demands of the inner city would be sorely misguided.

"Nobody knows what goes on behind someone's front door, whether it's on a council estate or on a smart street," says Stephen Adams-Langley, regional manager for The Place2Be, a charity that provides school-based counselling services.

"Children's risk factors are not class-based. Obviously, if children are in poor areas, there are issues around poor housing, crime on the streets. But even in middle-class areas, people get divorced, there is domestic abuse and violence, there is child maltreatment. These aren't related to economic circumstance."

In Tracey Austin's west London primary, the 10-year-old girl begins to speak hesitantly. She wants, she says, to talk about her friends. For some reason - and she is not sure why - she has been struggling to get on with them recently. There is nothing tangible: she is just finding the motions of friendship increasingly difficult to perform. And then, accidentally, tangentially, she mentions her alcoholic father.

The possession of a university degree and a mortgage does not guarantee an ability to raise a family. Last year, the charity Young Minds received 6,000 helpline phone calls from the parents of children with emotional problems. Almost 10 per cent of calls were from families with an annual income of more than pound;50,000.

Louise Robinson, head of pound;3,000-a-term Merchant Taylors' girls' school in Liverpool, concedes that her pupils' parents are probably better educated and more affluent than the average. "Yes, parents might be able to put food on the table," she says. "But they might not always be willing to care for their children."

In the past, she has asked pupils what they ate for dinner the previous night, only to receive the reply: "Two packs of Jaffa cakes". "There is a difference between being well-educated and having common sense," Mrs Robinson says. "Lots of people are very intelligent and well-educated, and actually do not know how to care for another person."

Speaking to the 10-year-old girl, Ms Austin deliberately avoids pushing her into unwanted confessions. But slowly, gradually, more of the girl's story comes out. Her mother separated from her alcoholic father when the girl was two years old; both parents remarried. Both parents' new spouses, it turned out, also had alcohol problems. Time, meanwhile, did nothing to heal the vicious relationship between the two remarried parents.

"Middle-class parents have the financial resources for a very bitter, acrimonious divorce, with the children caught right in the middle," Ms Austin says. "They can be hauling each other back into court constantly, issuing injunctions. The child can be going back and forth, having to choose between parents. And they really suffer for it."

Maggie Bailey, head of Grey Court School in Richmond, has seen this among her pupils. Richmond, a Surrey commuter town of cobbled streets and rolling parkland, is home to rowing enthusiasts, Tory voters and the not- inconsiderable intersection of the two. When one of her pupils, a Year 9 boy, started bursting into tears repeatedly, Ms Bailey noted that this was "unusual for a boy of 14". It transpired that the outbursts were his response to his parents' messy divorce: he was caught in the middle of a furious custody battle.

A 15-year-old girl, meanwhile, reacted to her parents' divorce by retreating increasingly into her own world. A few months before her GCSEs, she would communicate only by nodding or shaking her head. "If children are naughty, it is much more straight-forward, it is much simpler to deal with," says Ms Bailey. "This is much more complex."

Violence, aggression and misbehaviour - the usual classroom identifiers of underlying problems - are relatively rare in affluent areas. Often, for pupils brought up in middle-class homes, violence is not part of the lexicon of self-expression.

This does not, however, mean that it is entirely unknown in middle-class homes. "Fucking come out!" Ms Austin's 10-year-old girl recalls hearing, as she cowered in her bedroom. "Fucking come out and talk to me."

When, eventually, her mother's second marriage broke down, too, the girl tells Ms Austin, voice low, eyes still fixed to the floor, her stepfather turned aggressive. He, too, was an alcoholic; he would frequently turn up at the family home in the early hours of the morning, drunk and abusive. Slamming on the front door, hurling high-volume expletives from the street, he would attempt to persuade the girl's mother to let him back into the house.

In school, too, it is not entirely unknown for troubled middle-class pupils to use violence as a coping mechanism. Louise Robinson recalls one girl who responded to difficult family events by losing control in the classroom. Following a perceived slight, she lashed out, knocking over chairs and tables. Then she began swinging her bag around, ignoring the classmates who were within easy hitting distance on all sides. Finally, after turning over a table loaded with paper and books, she stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her. A member of staff followed her, trying to calm her down; the girl ran off the school premises.

"When a major trauma happens in life, they often can't cope with normality," Mrs Robinson says. "Living the life they were originally going to live seems pointless: they think everything is trivial. They stop working, they stop going out, they become depressed, they just lose control of their emotions. Nothing is normal for them any more. A lot will turn around and question the worth of doing anything: what's the point?"

But the relative rarity of such outbursts means that it can be difficult to identify potential problems among middle-class pupils. Indeed, many of the flashpoint signs of trouble that teachers might typically look out for become hard to spot - if not irrelevant - in areas where parents have the knowledge to be able to perform the role of good parent, regardless of what goes on backstage.

"Children present themselves as better dressed, better clothed, with more access to a computer at home," says Ms Austin. Their parents know how to put on the correct appearance of concerned parenthood; divorcing couples often feign a united front for parents' evenings. In many cases, the parents themselves are all but invisible for most of the year: children will instead be picked up from school by a childminder or a nanny.

Meanwhile, a veneer of gentrification can hide abuse of prescription drugs or alcohol. This is true both of parents and of pupils: the binge-drinking children of progressively liberal parents are much harder to spot than the vodka-swilling hoodies vomiting their way across council estates. "Parents think that, if they let their children drink, they won't have any problems," says Ms Bailey. "They will ask 13 or 14-year-olds if they want a beer. They think it is acceptable to drink within a controlled environment. And it probably is. The problem is, when teenagers go to parties, it isn't a controlled environment."

Other parents, meanwhile, do their best to hide their children's problems from the outside world. "Higher-income families feel more guilty, more blamed," says Daphne Joseph, who manages Young Minds' parents' helpline. "They think, `We're a decent family. We've got a mother and a father and a big house. Where has this come from?' They feel the stigma much more; they wish it would just go away."

The 10-year-old girl who is currently sitting in Ms Austin's office has not shown any dramatic changes in behaviour or schoolwork. Her homework is still handed in; her grades are still acceptable. But, she confesses to Ms Austin, she finds the daily routines of school increasingly difficult. She struggles to focus, to concentrate. Instead, her thoughts drift irresistibly back to the situation at home.

Academic signs are not obvious either: middle-class girls, in particular, are unlikely to go from top-of-the-class overachiever to teenage drop-out overnight. Instead, change is incremental, noticeable only with time. "Girls often start out quite bright, sparky and switched on," says Ms Austin. "Over time, they just slip a bit. Their creativity shuts down. They might have had lots of brilliant ideas in the past. But now, slowly, slowly, they are quieter, they slip to the back. It's not, `Oh my God, they are sitting there with a completely blank page. But they might be writing two pages now, instead of four. It is a slow demise of enjoyment of school."

Daphne Joseph recalls similarly nuanced definitions. Asking one mother what signs of depression her daughter had displayed, she was informed: "Well, she's not been on her horse lately."

But when fears and concerns remain unexpressed, they percolate, brewing into something altogether more potent. In very young children, stress can emerge as chronic headaches, stomach aches or fatigue: an early sign of depression. Other children begin to experience panic attacks. Some are reluctant to leave their parents' side in case something bad happens. This can develop into full-blown school phobia: one Year 4 girl at Ms Austin's school began hyperventilating as soon as she reached the school gates.

"Children feel so anxious that they simply have to go and be around Mum in the middle of the day," Ms Austin says. "They think that (their mother) will only be all right if they are with her. They are worried about her well-being.

"A lot of children are just absorbing stress at home, whether about work or any of the other things adults worry about. Things bubble under until a crisis just builds up later on."

"It's - there are - I'm . there are nightmares," the 10-year-old girl stutters to Ms Austin. Desperate to keep things stable at home, she rarely talks to her mother any more. She can see her mother is stressed; she feels it is her responsibility to calm her down, to limit household worry as much as possible. And so she has internalised her own fears. She feels little connection to the outside world, to the carefree normality of her schoolfriends. She is desperately needy, but has no idea how, or in what context, to express this need.

This internalisation of stress is also a common way of coping with that very middle-class of pressures: parental desire for academic achievement. "Of course, if parents are paying for education, they want to see a return for their money," says Mrs Robinson of Merchant Taylors' parents. "There is a pressure to succeed: that is why they are in the school they are in. We are very aware that some students will respond badly to pressure. And we are trying to make our parents more aware of it, too."

Middle-class parents often assume that their offsprings' failure to achieve the highest-possible grades indicates an inadequate investment of time and effort. Grey Court parents, for example, will react to the news that their children are predicted 10 B grades at GCSE with undisguised disappointment: they were hoping for 10 A*s.

Recently, Ms Bailey was forced to intervene when a pupil confided that her father was putting her under enormous pressure to become a doctor. The girl, meanwhile, wanted to be a midwife, but "my daughter, the midwife" did not have quite the ring her father was hoping for. "It is absolutely right for children to achieve the best they can," says Ms Bailey. "But sometimes parents have unrealistic expectations, and the children really feel that. Parents put them under pressure, without giving them support."

Children often respond by internalising a sense of inferiority and guilt. These are the foundations that can underpin an eating disorder: under pressure to attain the perfect grades, to be a consummate all-rounder, girls focus instead on weight loss, where success is guaranteed. Failing to live up to their own idea of the perfect pupil, they instead become the perfect dieter. Middle-class boys, meanwhile, tend to develop similarly addictive behaviour, but with a different focus: they are more likely to become alcoholics or drug addicts in later life.

"Sometimes middle-class parents are preoccupied with academic attainment, with trying to get their children into the right school, the right catchment area," says Stephen Adams-Langley, of The Place2Be.

"But they are not so tuned into the child's emotional or psychological needs. And that is when children start self-harming or developing eating disorders. They are expressing something, saying it without words."

Ms Austin's job, therefore, is to pre-empt this. Carefully, she begins to discuss with her 10-year-old the possibility of telling her mother how she feels. The girl, Ms Austin suggests, might find it helpful to express her stresses and fears: to have them understood and acknowledged.

Her office, pupils know, is a place where they can come to talk. While teachers and parents will draw specific pupils to her attention, many - like the 10-year-old girl - self-refer. Often, again like the 10-year-old, the initial problem will be relatively superficial: a fight with friends, a classroom telling-off. It is only through patient conversation that the underlying issues emerge.

And this is where schools serving middle-class pupils are often at an advantage. As an independent school, Merchant Taylors' has an enviable pupil-teacher ratio, making it easier for staff to spot potential problems. Pastoral managers track and monitor individual pupils: when results are carefully monitored term by term, it becomes much easier to spot even the smallest dips in academic performance. "We go out searching for it," Mrs Robinson says. "If you are in a school where you are just concerned about getting people to stop messing around, it is much harder."

Mrs Robinson is president-elect of the Girls' School Association; GSA schools often provide on-site counselling services, as well as the full- time presence of a school nurse. Ms Bailey's key resource, meanwhile, is not money: it is the enthusiastic engagement of middle-class parents. She offers regular evening workshops, providing guidance on topics such as talking to teenagers and dealing with exam stress. "There is a culture of parents wanting to get involved, stay involved," she says. "It is absolutely right - it is as you would want it to be - but it does make it more complex. A lot of time is spent with parents. It is time-consuming, but you cannot turn your back on it."

Back in Ms Austin's office, the 10-year-old girl stands up to leave. She will return, later: they will talk again, to help the girl develop the confidence necessary to speak to her mother about her fears. But she feels less worried now about facing her friends in the playground, slightly more relaxed about returning home after school. Opening the office door, she turns to look at Ms Austin. And briefly, fleetingly, she smiles.

What schools can do

Many teachers increasingly find themselves in the role of counsellor, but outside help is available. Charity The Place2Be, for example, is able to set up on-site services so children can receive one-to-one counselling, or hold group sessions on specific issues such as friendship, bullying or transition to another school. Other charities, including Beat Bullying, offer resources for teachers to use in PSHE lessons to confront difficult issues.


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