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Watch that girl, or she'll hurt herself

Nearly one in three senior girls in Edinburgh schools has admitted to some form of physical self-harm, a survey has found, leading one expert to say that teachers can no longer ignore the problem.

Lesley McAra, lecturer in criminology at Edinburgh University's school of law, gave details of the survey at a conference last Friday on "problem girls".

Dr McAra said that the study of self-harming behaviour - involving all 23 local authority secondaries, eight out of 14 independent schools and nine of 12 special schools - highlighted the fact that self-harm is significantly higher among girls than boys.

About 28 per cent of girls in fourth year had committed some form of self-harm, while the equivalent figure for boys was 12 per cent. The survey also found that the prevalence of self-harm in Edinburgh is significantly higher than in the rest of the UK.

However, Dr McAra said that this should not be taken as a sign that there is a self-harm epidemic in the capital. The more likely reason was that the rate of disclosure in the study was much higher than anywhere else in the UK.

The conference, which attracted a large attendance of teachers, academics and other education professionals, heard speakers from north and south of the border discuss ways of dealing with troublesome girls and young women.

Professor Sheila Riddell, of the department of educational studies at Edinburgh University, said that the emphasis in the past has been on problem boys while girls have been largely ignored. She warned that teachers could no longer be concerned only with what went on in their classroom.

Dr McAra said research showed that the UK had the highest rates of self-harm in Europe, with one in 10 teenagers deliberately self-harming, and around 16,000 hospital admissions each year. The figures were rising, particularly among boys.

In the Edinburgh study, the incidence of self-harm appeared to peak in third and fourth years. About 28 per cent of girls in fourth year admitted self-harm caused by cutting (the most common form), stabbing, burning, bruising or pinching, overdosing on pills, pulling out hair or in some other way.

The figure for girls compared with 19 per cent of boys in third year and 12 per cent of boys in fourth year.

Dr McAra said: "Around the age of 14-15, one in three girls and one in eight boys in the cohort reported that they had self-harmed. This compares with one in 10 in the UK figures."

Fifth-year pupils had been asked if they had ever attempted to end their lives. A total of 169 girls and 57 boys said yes. "That makes up 5 per cent of the total cohort and that, to me, seems an extraordinarily high figure," Dr McAra said.

Childhood depression, social deprivation, family structure, drugs and bullying were among the strongest factors. Most badly behaved girls were also "needy" girls, yet a high proportion were unknown to social work agencies or the children's hearing system.

"The human nature of much self-destructive behaviour means that girls often slip through the net of the case system," Dr McAra said.

Gwynedd Lloyd, head of the department of educational studies at Moray House, said schools could do more to prevent young women reaching the stage of being labelled SEBD - social, emotional and behavioural difficulties - and ending up in special provision.

There needed to be more discussion within schools about the creation of safe spaces, time to listen, time to talk, the promotion of mental health initiatives and encouraging greater resiliency.

Dr Lloyd said: "As professionals, we are enormously powerful in the lives of young women. We make decisions which are life-changing. We need to study that and think about it. We could resist a lot of the sorting and classifying."

Jean Kane, lecturer in education at Glasgow University, who is currently working on research on girls and boys at risk of exclusion, said that children who are looked after in residential accommodation are some 30 times more likely to be excluded. Children who received free school meals were about 12 times more likely to be excluded.

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