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Who cares if children are sad?

Inspectors say schools are missing the signs of mental illness.

Michael Shaw reports

SCHOOLS are often doing too little to support the growing numbers of children suffering from depression and other mental health problems, according to inspectors.

The Office for Standards in Education found the majority of schools and councils were not complying with statutory guidance about pupils with medical needs, issued by the Government two years ago.

Schools frequently did not take responsibility for absent children's learning or took too long to refer them to other services.

Ofsted studied 12 local education authorities all of whom appeared to have increasing numbers of children suffering from anxiety, depression and phobia. These conditions were more common than physical illnesses and were sometimes not easily identified by schools, inspectors said.

In a third of authorities pupils lacked opportunities to work in groups and many spent months at home receiving only one-to-one tuition. When they were educated with others, it was often in pupil referral units. This could be an intimidating experience as the units mainly cater for students with behavioural difficulties. "In some units this works well but in others it is inappropriate for the pupils with physical and mental health illnesses," the inspectors said.

Generally, however, the inspectors found that the quality of teaching for sick children was good, whether it was provided in schools, hospitals or pupil referral units. Nearly all the parents and pupils interviewed said they were pleased with the service.

Ofsted concluded that schools and local authorities needed to pay closer attention to the 2001 guidance published by the Department for Education and Skills. The watchdog also recommended that schools have a member of staff responsible for sick pupils who cannot attend lessons.

Peter Wilson, director of the children's mental health charity YoungMinds, said parents frequently complained that pupils with depression and similar illnesses were placed in units for youngsters with behavioural problems.

The social taboo on depressed children was part of the reason why teachers and other adults found it difficult to spot them, he added. "It is not very comfortable for any of us to recognise and admit that children are depressed and despairing."

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