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What keeps me awake at night

School was Jamie's only refuge. But not any more

School was Jamie's only refuge. But not any more

Jamie wouldn't do PE last week. Nothing unusual in that, except his stubborn, silent and, eventually, sobbing refusal was challenged by a supply teacher who didn't know we make an exception for Jamie.

Because, sometimes, if you let him change in the toilet, and you promise absolutely and on your life that no one will see him change, you can get him into the sports hall in his grubby grey tracky-bottoms. Jamie has a secret not known to the supply teacher - he hasn't got any underwear, so he won't get changed where anyone might see him.

Yesterday, as he ate his breakfast in school he talked to his teaching assistant. He told her the usual story: of getting home and having to sit in the car because his mum wasn't home and he wasn't allowed into the house alone; of getting colder and colder; of his brother, whose learning difficulties are acute, taking his puppy that he'd been cuddling for warmth and throwing it out of the window so that now, he thought, its leg might be broken.

And yes, before you ask, Jamie has a social worker. He has professional people who care for him, genuinely care, who try to address his mum's drug habit, who advise that he and his brother and his mum should not share one mattress on the floor of a house, cuddling altogether for warmth.

It is the school which notices and reports the cigarette burn etched delicately into the soft, unwashed skin just below his jaw; it is the school which untangles his hair on to white poster paper that crawls like live newspaper print when we have finished, each word a separate head louse.

It is we who make sure he is fed, attend to his learning needs, report his plight. The school gives him safety and structure and security and, if it can be allowed in such times as these, love. So when last week, his mother, sick of the pressure we exert, sent in the note we knew she would, saying she was exercising her legal right to take her child out of school and educate him at home, it was not just Jamie who cried.

I have not cried before for a child that is not mine, but I cannot see the road as I drive home. I tell the staff we have done all we could and all we should - but how can there be a law that allows these sad, grey children to be kept at home? There are many Jamies, kept away from school, denied the one place where they might find some sort of sanctuary. It makes no sense, and yes, it keeps me awake at night.

The author is a secondary headteacher in the east of England.

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