Everyone's saying it: something must be done about disaffected pupils. So why is Newcastle's only residential school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties closing down this Christmas? Elaine Williams reports.
A bar of soap started it all. A relatively calm science lesson on volume displacement ended with a bust-up at the sink when boys were washing their hands before lunch. Dean crashed back into the classroom like a fireball, red and angry, eyes burning, his mouth spitting expletives: "I'll fucking have him!" His teacher moved in quickly, held him, talked to him, contained his fury. Aggro over ablutions, fisticuffs out of nowhere - a regular train of events at Feversham School.
Lunch was civilised. Dean sat down and then left, the tears smarting, the nerves still jangling, but he soon returned and settled to chicken pie and vegetables - real home cooking.
"You'll feel better with food inside you," said Helen, one of the classroom assistants, as she passed plates across the rose pink cloth to her table of four, who were soon chummy and chatty. They could have been schoolboys anywhere.
But Feversham is the only residential school in Newcastle upon Tyne for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. It mops up the violent and disruptive pupils other schools cannot cope with and provides care for those whose families are also in crisis or unable to contain them.
Wonder then, at a time when society is crying out for Something To Be Done about disaffected pupils, that Feversham is closing down at Christmas.
It is closing because the region's local education authorities will no longer give a long-term commitment to the school. Northumberland in particular, which is creating 90 special education places through pupil referral units, has said the 22 children it currently places in the school could fall to as few as six next year.
"Overnight we became uneconomical. Northumberland put the nail in the coffin," says Dr Michael Toman, Feversham's principal. There are 37 children aged between six and 13 attending Feversham, an independent establishment set up by MIND, the mental health charity, in the late 1960s to cater for almost twice that number.
Situated on the western edge of Newcastle, it is a low, spacious, modern building, comfortable and well-equipped, set in ample grounds with all the living and school accommodation ranged around the central dining hall. It is run on tolerant, therapeutic principles and aims to re-integrate children back into mainstream education and with their families.
"Our record is good," says Dr Toman. "One-third of our children return to mainstream school, one-third go on to day special school and only one-third require further senior boarding provision."
As we talk, children constantly visit his office. Jamie, aged seven and looking every inch the Dickensian waif, wafts three pages of phonics proudly. "James is just learning to read and write and doing very well," Dr Toman explains. Turning to the boy, he says: "You'll definitely be getting stars and stickers for that."
James was excluded from school at six and arrived at Feversham visibly suffering from extreme poverty - malnourished, underweight and surviving on a diet of chocolate bars.
Next in line is Martin. He wants authorisation to go on the afternoon's outing. The quid pro quo is that he finishes his work. "We know you have problems but you have to live your own life. We don't want you to spoil your last few weeks at Feversham. When you're on form you can do it," says Michael Toman.
Martin was nine when he was excluded from primary school and was out of full-time education for a year, getting no more than two hours of home tuition. When he arrived at Feversham he could hardly read and write.
"Is it any wonder he finds it hard to re-integrate? Here was a boy of average intelligence who was seriously underachieving. Behind every exclusion is often a personal tragedy," says Michael Toman.
Feversham takes in a wide range of children, many of them displaying explosive, violent behaviour. But while some are highly disruptive and act out, others are neurotic and phobic, having been bullied and intimidated. Many come from families with chronic problems, some are in foster care. Some are prone to self-harm. One pupil's "party piece" is to rip his clothes, and bite and scratch himself until he draws blood.
A girl with learning difficulties who had suffered sexual abuse was excluded from her special school because she injured a teacher. Another with cerebral palsy was excluded from her special school for the same reason. Children come with bad dreams and chronic bed-wetting, the classic sign of inner turmoil. But these often clear up after time at Feversham.
Michael Toman argues that no matter how many pupil referral units local authorities provide, there will always be children needing residential education. The weekly boarding offered by Feversham provides stability and security, and often helps keep families "who hang by a thread" together. The school employs a social worker to work with families directly.
Staff constantly praise the positives in pupils and challenge the negatives. "When kids come to us they hate school. They hate teachers and so do their parents. We turn that on its head," says Michael Toman. Children are on first-name terms with teachers and the ethos is one of tolerance and encouragement. "If we stopped every time we got a kick, a punch or a 'Fuck-off', we wouldn't get beyond breakfast. We don't approve or condone it, but that is the reality. It might sound woolly and liberal but we do challenge them. We just choose our battlegrounds.
"Violence comes from frustration and an inability to communicate, so we give our kids a language that enables them to express their feelings. They learn to listen to other people's point of view."
Every week Feversham holds whole-school and group meetings where staff and children review the week's events and praise or criticise each other. Children have to learn to be the focus of attention.
"These are children who have previously wrecked classrooms and attacked teachers," says Michael Toman. "They have to learn to sit down and hear other pupils say how horrible they've been. This is what group living is all about. Our greatest strength is that we offer consistency of approach over a 24-hour period. A day school cannot provide this."
Classrooms are colourful and intimate, with a teacher and assistant for every eight pupils. Staff are trained to anticipate and deflect aggression, and how to hold a child who is being violent so nobody is seriously hurt.
Teachers grow used to verbal abuse one minute and requests for hugs the next. They put in a lot of their own time, taking out pupils who have achieved or been "especially sensible" on a one-to-one basis for trips to McDonald's or Newcastle's Metroland. Lorraine Brewis, who teaches the youngest group, says: "They love that special attention. You are more than just a teacher to them. When they have had a bad day they might call you everything from a pig to a dog but when they have calmed down they apologise. They feel so much better if they can do that, it's a socialising process.
"The children are anxious and disturbed by the closure. It's a bad time for them. We will all end up with other jobs, but what will happen to them?" Eileen Chapman, a single mother whose only child, David, has been at Feversham for the past two years, says her son "sat and broke his heart" when he learned of the closure. "'What's going to happen to me now?' that's what he asked." David, who is 12, was disruptive at middle school and his mother could not cope with him. He spent a short time in foster care. "He would storm out and not come back for hours. There has been a 110 per cent improvement in the past year. I didn't want him to board but it has been right for him and given me a break," she says.
Richard and Jacqueline Leightley are concerned for their son Paul, who may have to go to residential school in the Lake District, far from their north-east home. Paul was expelled from his first school at five but has made progress at Feversham. The couple, who are on income support with three other children, are unhappy at the prospect of him being so far away.
Michael Toman is convinced that authorities such as Northumberland will be unable to reduce substantially their need for residential placements. Although Feversham costs Pounds 24,000 per pupil for weekly boarding for 40 weeks of the year, he argues that this is cheap compared to the cost of the family breakdown, police involvement, care and secure units that can follow if children are inadequately catered for at a young age.
Independent residential schools such as Feversham have been out of favour because of some notorious cases of mismanagement and abuse, and because of an emphasis on integration into the community. But Michael Toman believes the pendulum must now swing back. "We are the safety valve. No matter how many PRUs the LEAs open - and the Ridings episode is just the tip of the iceberg - they will fill them and still end up wondering what to do with our sort of kids. They'll have to send them further afield. Northumberland is looking at schools in the Lake District. Authorities are now panicking about our closure."
DRAWING THE NATIONAL PICTURE
Despite all the publicity now surrounding disaffected pupils there has been no national survey in the past 20 years on the provision for pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties.
However, the trustees of Shotton Hall, a pioneer EBD school which closed two years ago, have funded research by the University of Birming-ham's school of education.
Researchers found that from 1987 to March this year, the number of approved independent schools fell by half, from 76 to 35, while the number of local authority EBD schools fell by about 15 per cent. In the first three months of the research alone, seven such schools closed. Head of research John Visser says although some "dross" has gone, "we have lost some very good schools in the past five years".
The school of education runs the only EBD training course in the country and says it is turning teachers away who want to qualify - at a time when need is greater than ever.
The average annual cost per pupil of an EBD residential school is Pounds 25,000 to Pounds 30,000. Although many of those inspected by OFSTED are classed as failing or needing special measures, John Visser believes the inspectors apply the criteria too rigidly. "If you have had children who have been chucked out of other EBD schools, some of whom have already served custodial sentences and you are keeping them on site, in class and getting them interested in life, death and the universe, you might not be following key stage 3 of the national curriculum to the letter, but you will be achieving a great deal.
"I support the need for residential EBD provision but there has been no research into what is good or effective. That is what I am engaged in."
u These figures are taken from an article by John Visser and Ted Cole for the next issue of the Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties journal entitled : "An Overview of English Special School Provision for Children with Emotional and Behaviour Difficulties." Contact Alan Rimmer on 01622 843104