Troubled kids need your oasis of calm

4th May 2007 at 01:00
Leon is six and knee-high to a grasshopper. He and his angelic smile came into school accompanied by his mother, asking for a Year 2 place. A child had left recently and we said we'd take Leon the following Monday. We never refuse anyone, but we do ring the previous school for background on a new child before his personal file arrives. That way we can find out what he's good at and whether he'll have difficulty settling in. On this occasion, the secretary at the other end of the phone paused, then said: "I'll pass you to our Senco."

The special educational needs co-ordinator couldn't believe her good fortune. "He's coming to you? What a relief! He's an objectionable little boy. His behaviour is appalling, he does no work, hurts children, hides under tables and spits at staff. I wish you luck - you'll need it!"

When Leon's file arrived, things looked even more depressing. Police often arrived to turn his home over, his older brothers and sisters collected Asbos like trophies, and there had been serious involvement with social services. We've never excluded a child, but I worried about our chances with this one. Nevertheless, he was going into Amanda's class, and Amanda's the sort of teacher who tells you how delightful her class is, but doesn't realise it's because she's so good at her job.

Things went fairly well on day one. Leon was allocated a friend to help him during his first week, and apart from being wary of the other children, wandering around the classroom whenever he felt like it, and calling out during lessons occasionally, he seemed like most children we'd taken on.

Leon, for his part, seemed genuinely surprised at how well the class behaved. He obviously wasn't used to this.

The problems started on the second day. Leon arrived at school late, looking as if he'd just crawled out of bed. His mother had demanded he take the DVDs back to the rental shop before going to school. He'd had breakfast - a small bar of chocolate for going to the shop. We gave him fruit and a hot drink, but he was clearly angry. Later on, we discovered he'd had very little sleep - the police had found his baby sister wandering in the street.

At break, he wouldn't line up with his class and he ran off and climbed on to the playtown. A child was sent to fetch me. "I'm not dragging you inside," I said. "If you want to run home, you can. If you want to stay out here, it's up to you. But it's going to rain, and your class is cooking cakes this morning." I crossed my fingers and went back inside. Ten minutes later, I found him under a table outside his classroom. "Do you want to go back in?" I asked. He nodded and I slipped him back into the room.

By the end of the week, he'd discovered that school was a place where you could do lots of interesting things instead of spending the time being told off. He was bright, alert, exceptionally talented at art, and desperately keen to learn how to read - something that seemed to have been ignored at his previous school.

He quickly formed a relationship with Amanda. He knew she liked him and he was anxious to please her, even arriving one morning at 8am to see if she needed any help. In those first weeks, I often popped into his classroom, but he was fine. Now, apart from habitual lateness, which isn't his fault, he's settled. But I do wonder what is happening when two schools perceive a small child so differently.

Last week, I returned to school after a few days with flu. When Leon saw me, he ran up and hugged me. "I missed you," he said quietly. I was reminded of just how awesome my responsibility as a headteacher really is.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary in Camberwell, south London

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