More problems than solutions await Bradford's Mr Fix-it

25th October 1996 at 01:00
Many of the schools visited by educational psychologist Barry Chisholm are desperate for help with their special needs pupils. Growing pressure on resources means he can't always promise what they want. Elaine Williams joined him for a day.

George is rocking himself, blowing raspberries, singing and repeating everything his teacher says. As he pokes and pulls the girl next to him she moves away nervously. It is 9.30am, registration is turning into a prolonged affair and the teacher is already looking tired and exasperated.

This infants school, with a roll that is 90 per cent Asian, exists in a range of dilapidated Portakabins tucked into the climbing streets of north-west inner-city Bradford. It is Barry Chisholm's first appointment of the day. A senior educational psychologist, he has been called in to assess George, a five-year-old of mixed race whose behaviour has taken a profound turn for the worse since the summer break.

Barry is sitting to one side in the classroom while George continues to perform. The raspberries continue as he rolls about rattling the classroom furniture. The teacher, thoroughly hot and bothered, becomes angry with the whole class, by now a mass of fidgety, giggling children. A lesson on nutrition has to be abandoned. Barry takes George to one side. They sit on the floor in a corner looking at picture books together in a quick test of his cognitive skills. George enjoys this one-to-one attention, though before long he begins an impressive imitation of a fire-engine siren.

Meeting in the head's office with the class teacher and a local family centre worker, Barry learns that George is causing more disruption than the school can manage. George's mother is an alcoholic and George has taken to dropping to the floor and playing drunk. When his mother arrives for him at school he becomes quiet and withdrawn, refusing to go with her.

Barry first met George when he was still at nursery and staff were concerned about his behaviour and lack of fine motor skills. During the last two years, however, when his grandmother largely took over his care, his behaviour improved and he was taken off the child protection register.

But school staff fear George is back at home, sleeping with his mother who tends to be aggressive and out of control by day and comatose, fouling the beds, at night. Barry is sure George's experiences during the summer holidays have contributed to the dramatic downturn in his behaviour. Barry is compiling a list - medical checks, contact with social services and a query as to whether George should be placed back under child protection. He proposes a further meeting with the head to plan how the school might manage George on a day-to-day basis.

The head looks disappointed. She wants outside help. The school has no resources to deal with George who is already occupying the time of another child's care assistant, she says. Barry turns on the diplomacy, delicately pointing out that there may be better ways of managing the classroom to accommodate him and that this is what they must look at. He knows the local education authority will require the school to show that it has first tried to cater for George within its delegated special educational needs budget and has at least drawn up an Individual Education Plan (IEP).

Back in his Land Rover, useful for the Pennine suburbs of Bradford, Barry says: "The teacher allowed George to sit on the edge of the group, way out of her sphere of influence, where he could cause mayhem. My job is to show how things can be structured to minimise disruption."

After studying psychology at Newcastle University and taking a PGCE, Barry Chisholm worked as a special needs teacher for six years in Midlands secondary schools before training and becoming an educational psychologist 19 years ago. He is on a senior grading which attracts a salary of between Pounds 29, 500 and Pounds 34,000. His wife is in the same profession. Unlike other EPs who might prefer family therapy, for example, Barry likes to work with children in school, fascinated by the psychology of the institution.

He regrets, however, that the rapid increase in the number of referrals and children on statements leaves diminishing time for staff development. Bradford, for example, has seen a 20 per cent increase in referrals of children under-five. The pressure is great. Bradford schools are allocated blocks of educational psychology time per term, but it is never enough.

At his next appointment - a comprehensive in the same north-west corner - he is greeted by the special needs co-ordinator (Senco), a woman at her wits' end. She says she has been landed with the job on top of her normal timetable as a maths teacher. She thrusts some formidably thick files in Barry's direction - they have met to decide priorities for the time available. She has a list of boys requiring GCSE dispensations, she has 90 boys on the special needs register, she has thrown the literacy workshop back at the English department and told them to organise it themselves, and she has a number of statemented boys needing review, particularly John who's attacked his support assistant twice.

"Oh my God what a nightmare! I'm given two hours 20 minutes a week to do this job and I spend about 20 hours on it. Teachers come to me and say 'What shall I do with this lad?' and 'I say I don't know I'm just the maths teacher'. "

Barry has been nodding sympathetically throughout, though he knows there's no way they can get through the caseload in the 12 hours allocated to the school. One child requiring a statement could gobble up nearly all of that. He also knows the school is not going to get the outside help it wants without showing the support it has provided from its own resources - it's the same old story. With time running short Barry offers to take away the files and restore some order. Back on the road he resolves to talk to the head.

"It wouldn't have been helpful for me to go into this kind of situation and say: 'This is a diabolical mess.' I'm more likely to say: 'What is the smallest thing we can do that is going to make a change.' You are expected to be Mr Fix-it when you are out there. Ten or 15 years ago the system was much less stressed."

Barry returns to his office for lunch, opens his sandwich box, cracks a few jokes, makes a few calls and we're out again, this time for a case review at a social services centre in Bradford's outer suburbs.

Here Barry joins a meeting of 11 other adults - social workers, family support workers, a special needs officer from the LEA, a children's home manager and parents - to work out a strategy for Rachel, a 15-year-old who is also present. Rachel was excluded from school in January and from a pupil referral unit in June.

Barry has been involved in Rachel's case since she was seven when at primary school she would rip work up, bully other children, absent herself from class. Now she seems to be caught in a violent gang involved in prostitution. Her parents, who cannot contain her, fear her life is in danger. For the last two weeks she has been in a children's home - "rampaging around at three in the morning" setting off fire alarms, according to the manager.

Barry is surprised to find Rachel at the meeting - staring out of the window, shifting uneasily, pulling faces - and even more surprised to find the ball in his court.

Having secured Rachel in care, social services sees education as the priority. For the next hour they wrangle over what that provision should be. Rachel is consulted and says she wants to go to college. Barry knows college will not provide the support and structure she requires.

The group discusses the possibility of special school but Rachel shakes her head vociferously. Her mother, upset by the apparent lack of progress, shouts: "We've been waiting for months for things to be sorted. We have experience of Rachel. We know where she's going. I have youths banging on my door saying they're going to kill her." She storms out tearfully and the meeting winds up on the shaky consensus that Rachel should attend special school and go on day-release to college. Barry is unconvinced that she willco-operate and makes a note to speak with her parents.

It's 3pm and he's got an after-hours appointment at a middle school in a poor, white area of one of Bradford's satellite towns. This is one of Barry's regular slots - a meeting with the Senco to decide the term's priorities. But this time the head appears. He wants to chew things over. He has a problem - a significant number of behaviourally disturbed children coming in at year 5. "I've never seen so many nine-year-olds who don't smile. Seriously, if we don't address some of the issues we are going to have a handful," he says.

Although the school prides itself on good work with SEN children it believes it is missing out financially. It needs to process more of those children through to stage three of the Code of Practice, to draw on outside resources. How could he use Barry's services to get through the backlog? Would it be possible to have extra time for staff training? Barry thought this was reasonable. He explained that although the party line is that "you have your allocation and that is that", he might have some time for "over the hill" stuff.

It is the end of Friday and we are on the road back to the office. "I need to touch base," says Barry. "It's important to swap experiences, share ideas, have a few laughs. I come into the office early - between 7.30 and 8am most days, but I don't take work home. I used to, but it doesn't seem sensible. If we are forced to work a 55-hour week then something's wrong. If a psychology service cannot look after its own then what service can?"

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