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When home is a burden that we cannot ease

I sometimes ask my pupils to write about themselves, and I sometimes wish that I hadn't. To finish off their examination I asked my Year 7 to write about something memorable that had happened to them. Among the usual stuff - the Spanish holidays, the parties - there was this. Paige wrote for me about herself and her sister Taylor.

"Mum and Dad used to fight. Me and her used to cry ourself to sleep and hide under the stairs or behind the sofa while my mother would get beat up or things would get broke and would be very frighteningI I would like to change the past or help my mother but that would be a miracle and a dream that I wished for many years. Then I found out that my mother was on drugs."

She decided to keep this from her sister because she was "too young to understand". Paige is 11. The two girls now live with their grandparents, and their mother visits them. Paige has also discovered that she and her sister do not share the same father and that the man she thought was her dad doesn't know this. "I still act normal around Taylor's father but it's not the same like before but that is life for you."

Is it? Is it really what life is about?

Whereas Paige's story is a very modern tale, John's story is almost mythological. He wrote about how he was asked to choose between his mother and father. His parents got divorced when he was 18 weeks old. His mother was kicked out and she lived with John and his brother Nathan in some poverty. She did her best to keep them all together, but it was very difficult. "So my mum made a deal with my father and said, 'Right we will see who wants to live with me and who wants to go and live with you'."

On a weekend visit to Dad, he asked the boys if they had decided. "Come and live with me or you will never see me again." They decided that they would stay with Dad. "My mam burst out into tears so I said I am staying with my mam and so did my brother." In the face of their mother's pain what else could they do?

What pictures they paint. I have no doubt that they are true stories and, as I stand there in front of the class, full of unconsidered little scraps, I am in awe of the emotional strength they have had to acquire. Here I am in middle age, struggling to remember family birthdays. And yet these 11-year-olds act as confidantes to drug-ravaged mothers, or are asked to choose whom they want to live with.

The effect of these experiences must be huge. Will these children ever be able to commit themselves to anyone else or will they always be wary? Or will they seek out commitment as compensation? I cannot accept the burden of trying to put this right; my duty as a teacher is to improve their English. But it does seem a particularly irrelevant issue. How important are core subject indicators and key stage assessments in such circumstances?

In a tragic reversal of normal values, school is often a sanctuary from home. I can see this in some teachers, too, but in the children themselves this is something much more hurting because they have fewer choices. Who is going to put their young lives back together? Anyone? Is it possible?

They know more about emotions and relationships and frailties than they should. They have developed a strength that they should not need at their age. Their childhood has been sullied by the fall-out from the adults who should be protecting and sheltering them, not using or abusing them.

When they arrive at school, children are not blank tablets upon which teachers will etch failure or success. They carry things that have a much greater influence, things that cut and wound for a lifetime. You and I might think that school is a means of transformation, a way of escaping from such hardship. But there are those for whom home is a weight that drags them down. And all we can do is to listen.

Geoff Brookes is deputy head of Cefn Hengoed community school, Swansea

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