Education: Where the angry ones can play

The pupils are outcasts, many have been abused, and they fear rejection. Diana Hinds visits a school where the emotionally retarded are given a warm welcome
Click to follow
In the "early years" classroom at the Mulberry Bush School, near Witney, Oxfordshire, the children are learning to play. One girl is making jam tarts; a boy settles, for the first time, to look at a book with a teacher; and three more, one guarding his money fiercely under his leg, learn the rudiments of Monopoly. For this is no ordinary reception class: these children, whose ages range from six to eight, entered the school with emotional ages of between eight and 24 months.

Almost all of them have been permanently excluded from mainstream schools as "ineducable". Because of severe emotional deprivation very early in their lives, these children are distressed, bewildered and lacking in trust, with little or no foundation on which to build a sense of self- worth. In their previous schools, as a result, they have been angry and highly disruptive, out of control and impossible to manage.

But discipline is not the answer to these children's problems. Electronic tagging or secure units will do nothing to foster the sense of a whole self they so desperately need. The Mulberry Bush School, an independent special residential school for children aged five to 12, founded in 1948 and one of only two in England to work therapeutically with small children, is committed to a non-judgemental, non-punitive approach, helping children to rebuild their trust in the world and to form healthy, warm relationships with those around them.

"Many of these children are excluded because of what schools describe as `attention-seeking' behaviour, which drives teachers to distraction because it is continual," says Richard Rollinson, director of Mulberry Bush. "But we try to understand it instead as `attachment-seeking' behaviour. The problem these children have is that they use inappropriate strategies; you can feel unsafe, but do things which make you feel even more unsafe. What we have to help them learn is that you can let a grown-up look after you, and then you can feel safe."

Tragically, these are not children who have ever felt "looked after". Their parents, even if physically present, may have been emotionally absent, or unable to cope, unable to set boundaries for their children. The parents may have suffered mental illness. They may have sexually abused their children. The children may have grown up in a climate of physical violence, transforming their own fear into aggressive behaviour.

Despite their early trauma, such children still have the potential to lead healthy and wholesome lives, the Mulberry Bush School believes. But this takes time, of course. Most children spend three or four years at the school, returning to their families, or foster families, several weekends a term as well as in the holidays. All are of average, or above-average, intelligence. Boys outnumber girls by 2.5 to 1 - not because girls experience less severe problems, but because they often resort to behaviour which is depressive rather than disruptive; ideally, Mr Rollinson would like to take equal numbers of boys and girls.

The fees, of around pounds 48,705 a year, are met by local authorities: this is cheap, however, compared with the estimated pounds 2,500 per week it costs to keep a child in a secure unit. At present, up to 34 children, with a staff/child ratio of 1.1 to 1, live and work in an institutional, Sixties building. But with an initial government grant, the school is raising funds for new accommodation so that children can live in separate households, reflecting its change in emphasis to working in small groups.

Rather than simply dealing with the superficial behaviour of difficult, vulnerable children, the therapeutic approach of the Mulberry Bush School is always to attempt to understand why a child is reacting in a certain way, to penetrate what the communication is really about. On my visit to the school, the most distressing incident I witnessed was a boy writhing on the floor and having to be restrained by a member of staff. He kicked and spat at the director as we passed, shouting at the same time, "I like you, I like you!"

This is very typical, Mr Rollinson explained, of children wanting a relationship but fearing rejection, and possibly feeling, too, that in their wild, angry state, they are unworthy of you, that they may even contaminate you.

"What we have to do is demonstrate that we can survive the assault, and that we will still care about them. We need to hold them emotionally as well as physically. They use their disruptive strategies to test us out. We have to say to them, try to manage - you don't have to be perfect all the time; and when you need it, get help from a grown-up."

The strain on the staff is, inevitably, considerable. The children frequently project their own feelings of despair, anger or helplessness on to their teachers and care workers, and it is the job of the head of education, Andy Lole, to make sure that they are all coping with these difficulties, and getting the help they need, from the school's consultant therapist, as well as, in many cases, from their own private therapists.

But there are rewards, too, not least the children's evident joy when they achieve something. "You know you can learn how to make this better," says the girl in the early years class, beaming over her pastry mix. And in a class aged between seven and 10, there is jubilation, shared by staff and pupils, because just since the beginning of term, several children have learned to read, and another couple have begun to write.

Only a small minority of these children will be able to return to mainstream schools, because of the reduction in the resources needed to give them the required help; the majority will transfer to special day schools near their homes, and the remainder to weekly boarding or other special schools. But, as Mr Rollinson says, given their very poor start in life, it would be unrealistic not to expect these children to have continuing special needs.

What the Mulberry Bush School can offer them is more vital than a mainstream education: it is the chance to form real and lasting relationships, to become part of the community, and to be better parents to their own children than, sadly, their parents were to themn