No wonder Debbie was unable to cope in class

Pupils with chaotic homes are desperately in need of help from school mentors, says Michael McMahon, while Katherine Blueman believes one parent can definitely be better than two when it comes to some of her pupils
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Fourteen-year-old Debbie had often been late for school, but nobody was telling her off for it when I met her in the office as I handed in that morning's register. She was sitting silently in the corner, staring blankly into the middle distance. One of the secretaries was making her a cup of tea; another was on the phone to social services.

Debbie hadn't arrived on time because, when she had got up that morning, she had found her single mother, a heroin addict, lying dead on the kitchen floor. She had come into school because she didn't know where else to go.

I got to know Debbie well in the following months, for she was one of the many children I found myself looking after when I stood in for the full-time pastoral care worker at our inner-city school during his two- term sabbatical.

Doing his job was an eye-opener. Children told me things as a counsellor that they would never have told me as a teacher. When I heard their stories, met their fragmented families, and visited their wretched homes, I understood why some of them behaved as they did, and why others just couldn't cope with school.

And sometimes - but not always - I could help.

The post I covered was funded by a charity, but it is the Government that will be paying for people to do jobs like it as part of a pounds 500m package of initiatives to keep children in schools and at their studies under its new scheme for learning mentors. With truancies running at a million a year, and exclusions at 100,000, a lot of education is being lost, and many kids who aren't in school when they ought to be, are up to no good.

Sixty-five per cent of juvenile crime is committed by children who are truants or who have been excluded from school. If these new mentors get it right - that is, if they present themselves as mediators rather than enforcers - they will win the confidence of young people and the gratitude not just of schools, but of society at large.

The problems disclosed to them will be various. Underclass children fail to engage in, disengage from, or are formally removed from schools for any number of reasons.

One boy refused to attend because of persistent verbal bullying. "They say I stink," he tearfully told me. He did. He always smelled as if he had wet himself, and it fell to me to tell him what to do about it. A home visit revealed why nobody there had not noticed: the whole house stank like an unventilated urinal. The bullying stopped, and the boy stayed the course. Another boy revealed why he never returned to school after lunch: his step-father came home drunk every afternoon, and the boy knew that if he left his mother alone, she would probably be given a beating. We arranged support and protection for her, and the boy returned to school.

A 15-year-old girl had been hovering on the verge of exclusion for years because of her increasingly aggressive and hysterical behaviour in class - she would, by turns, scream obscenities at her teachers, start fist- fights with her neighbours or sit sullenly sucking her thumb, refusing to speak. Then she told to me that she'd been persistently sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend. After social services and police interventions, and extended counselling, she finally settled into school.

The 14-year-old boy who had got himself to the point of being thrown out for good by repeatedly molesting girls in the corridors, turned out to have been the victim of a different kind of sexual abuse. He eventually confided that a neighbour had been showing him hard-core pornography regularly. We persuaded him to tell his mother, who told the police. With counselling and support, the boy's behaviour returned to normal and he remained in school.

In the six months that I worked with these children and many more like them, I found myself doing things that should properly have been done by their mums or their dads - offering a shoulder to cry on, brokering peace-deals with teachers, or giving advice about everything from homework to relationships. Many of their difficulties arose because they - and their (usually single) parents - just could not cope with the business of life. For them, school is a big part of it. By creating these "learning mentors", the Government has acknowledged how tough this can be, and is doing something to help. It is an honest, imaginative and radical response to the realities of inner-city education, and the schools lucky enough to be given a mentor will welcome such help with open arms.

Provided, that is, that they're given the freedom they need to operate. The Government has declared that truancy must be reduced by a third by 2002. If mentorship, like everything else in education today, is to be managed through the setting of targets, then meeting those targets will at least sometimes matter more than meeting the needs of the kids.

Hard-pressed heads will inevitably ask their mentors to concentrate on groups of children identified as statistically significant - those who, perhaps, can increase the school's GCSE passes at grade C or above. Valuable though that work might be, it is not necessarily more urgent than patiently counselling a child whose next suicide attempt might be successful, or who has been traumatised by abuse or neglect.

Poor, orphaned Debbie was not on any kind of borderline in any of the subjects she was nominally studying. Like many of the children I counselled, she was on the borderline of survival itself. Despite all our efforts, she couldn't settle with her foster parents, and she ran off several times to live rough. But she always came back to us, because she knew that we cared about her.

Good mentors will get kids back into the classroom. But the best of them will know that some times, for some children, there are things more important than that.