Education: Personally Speaking - `It seems common for adoptive children to underachieve or drop out of school'

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My son Tom was a sociable, energetic and verbally adept little boy. He started school brimming with confidence, yet by the age of 14, he was school-phobic and a drop-out. What went so dreadfully wrong in the intervening years?

There are several contributing factors. Tom is dyslexic. He also hit adolescence early, reached six feet tall at 12, and looked like a 16-year- old. Most crucially, though, Tom is adopted. His deep-seated feelings of loss and rejection make all other problems harder to bear.

Tom came to us as a young baby, and had a secure, happy childhood. We embraced the extra dimensions of adoptive parenting, but never anticipated the nightmare of Tom's educational decline. And, while open about Tom's adoption, we were wary of dwelling on it in school. We feared that any excuse would be seized on, rather than addressing his dyslexia.

Tom's first year in secondary school was very happy. Then he hit adolescence with a vengeance, and class sizes soared. Mornings became a nightmare as he refused to get up for school, subjecting us to a barrage of expletives. Despite repeated attempts to communicate our desperation, he received little support from the school, and Tom refused to consider a move. He was convinced that all schools were useless - only he put it rather less politely.

The education welfare officer eventually threatened Tom with our prosecution. Her shock tactics had a short-lived effect but, finally, he could no longer cope. A temporary suspension was the final straw. School was destroying Tom, and we told him he was never going back. His relief was profound, although he remained frighteningly vulnerable.

We visited a unit attached to the local further education college, which ran a "flexibility" course for disaffected pupils. The tutors agreed that Tom was suitable, but his school head teacher refused permission for him to go on the course. An educational psychologist backed us, and we took Tom's case to the Director and Chair of Education. It was finally agreed that he could begin the course.

From the outset, Tom has been happy and motivated: his tutors say he is a star. Liberated from the constraints of mainstream schooling, he is once more a happy, confident lad. Above all, the affirmation of his tutors is enabling him to cope with growing up as an adopted person. At 15, he has passed GCSE Design a year early at grade C - just 13 months after being a school drop-out.

An American therapist, and adoptive mother, Nancy Verrier, believes that all adoptees carry within them a primal wound caused by the loss of the birth mother. This, she claims, applies not only to those adopted late, after traumatic experiences, but to those like Tom, adopted as babies. I have been converted to her view by Tom's experience, and by contact with other adoptive families and post-adoption workers. It seems commonplace for adoptive children to have concentration problems, disorganisation and hypersensitivity to criticism. It is common for them to routinely underachieve or, worse, drop out from school completely.

Some 3,000 children are adopted by total strangers each year. There must be recognition that adopted children come with an agenda which, if denied, can end in disaster. Even in this enlightened age they are all too often regarded - even by teachers - as lucky to have good homes. It is simply not acceptable to blame the child for throwing away educational opportunity, and letting down their loving, committed parents.

We are not yet out of the woods. Our 11-year-old daughter is considered extremely able, but her last primary school teacher found her endlessly frustrating because of her distractibility and underachievement. She has just started secondary school.

`The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child' by Nancy Newton Verrier, published by Gateway Press.

Parent to Parent Information on Adoption Services, Lower Boddington, Daventry, Northants, NN11 6YB, or fax to 01327 260295