Who will listen to teachers on the front line?

22nd August 2008 at 01:00

Teachers are born fixers. Give them a problem and they fall to it with a verve and a thoroughness that would make a pioneer blanch. Lost pencil cases, petty squabbles, nits, cheek, defiance, bullying, fighting, pushy parents . It's in the nature of the job to deal with trouble.

But, as society becomes ever more complex, so too do our pupils, and some of the problems we have to face are deeper and more disturbing than ever before.

Teachers now find themselves working frequently with children who have severe mental health problems or come from dangerously dysfunctional families. The volume of referrals to outside agencies and the growth in exclusions bear witness to this fact. Working with troubled youngsters is not new, but the sheer number of autistic, severely disturbed, self- harming, sexually abused, violent or simply unloved pupils these days is overwhelming.

It is easy to argue that these children have always been there. But, in the past, many would have been cared for in specialist schools. In theory, the inclusion agenda makes sense, but in practice it has generated a whole tranche of problems for schools struggling to integrate these pupils. In response, many secondaries have created new roles. Inclusion managers, teachers in charge of student services, pastoral team leaders, and guidance counsellors have all appeared in my time as a teacher.

The government hope was that inclusion would "normalise" those young people who are most at risk of becoming non-participants in society. But, with the number of children suffering mental health issues now higher than ever before, the reality is probably far more complex. Social observers are already offering up headline causes: family breakdown, alcohol and drug abuse, violent crime, binge drinking, a culture of educational testing and failure. It's no wonder teachers are frequently caught up in harrowing situations that are utterly beyond their control.

As a profession, we may be wholly committed to bringing troubled pupils back from the brink, but few among us have the skills to sort out the chronic problems that exist outside our schools. We may do our best to respond to crises, but solutions are often beyond our influence.

Recently, a young mother came into my school to help sort out the appalling behaviour of her son. It soon descended into a monologue of despondency about her own mental health issues, until she turned on her son, saying: "I don't want him any more. No one wants him. I've given up on him. He's going into care today." It was the first he'd heard of it.

Do we need help? Yes we do. We may try our best to create order out of chaos, but we know it isn't enough. The trouble with trouble is not being able to see a way out. Helplessness can be crushing. Who should we call? The police? Social services? The health service? Who's going to help us?

Is anyone out there listening?

Lindy Barclay, Deputy head, Redbridge Community School, Southampton.

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