The nightmare of finding Jenny a school

When the Stones failed to get their daughter into a school of their choice, things began to go badly wrong. Sarah Strickland reports
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It is a story you hear every year: parents fail to get their child into their first, even second choice of school. What becomes of them then? For Joan and Eric Stone, it was the start of a downward spiral that has left them in despair of ever finding a school where their daughter will be happy. The two secondary schools they had chosen for Jenny were heavily oversubscribed, so they were hardly surprised when neither offered a place. The other schools they visited had horrified them. "They were full of kids rampaging all over the place. To me, there was never any choice," said Mrs Stone. "It would be fairer to have a lottery."

While pondering their next move, they heard that a friend of Jenny's was going to a state boarding school as a weekly boarder. The Stones and Jenny visited the school and were fairly impressed. Jenny started at the school and the first year went smoothly. "But last October she was put in a different dorm and things began to go wrong," said Mrs Stone. "She obviously wasn't happy." Jenny was being left out by the three other girls in her dorm. She was also losing sleep because one of the girls was working after lights out. "She became more and more reluctant to go back on Sundays."

Mrs Stone raised the issue with the school and was told something would be done, but Jenny remained in the same dorm. She became so miserable that she started dragging her mattress into the adjoining dorm at night. Then one Sunday she simply refused to go back to school.

At this point, some parents might have put their foot down. But with stories about unhappy schoolchildren committing suicide, the Stones were too worried to insist. Jenny stayed at home and Mrs Stone made an appointment to see the head and ask if Jenny could continue at the school as a day pupil. She was quite happy during the day; it was only the evenings she dreaded.

The answer was no, however. Jenny could not even attend as a day pupil for three weeks while the Stones found an alternative school for her.

So Jenny stayed at home. Her mother took one week off work, but after that had to leave Jenny alone at home and rush back at lunchtime to see her. "It was absolutely horrendous." Mrs Stone wrote to one of the parent governors of the school asking him to intervene but never received a reply.

They began trying to find another school. One had room, but Jenny was overwhelmed by the size of the place, so they plumped for a smaller school. "There were hints that it had problems because of the catchment area, but we thought at least the staff might be more motivated."

Jenny started in the second year last March. She knew no one and was still slightly traumatised by her experience at the previous school, "but she was determined to give it a go, did all the work and was pleased to be living back at home again." However, things soon began to go wrong again. "It took a while to get it out of her, but she finally told us one of the girls had hit her while another held her down and others stood and watched."

Jenny stayed off school again but agreed to give it another try. "A couple of weeks after that she suddenly became very agitated one evening. It turned out that the same girl had warned her she was going to be beaten up outside the school. She was terrified." The girl's mother was called into the school and her daughter admitted hitting Jenny, but she remained at the school. Jenny was too scared to return.

The deputy head was sympathetic but could only suggest that Jenny come into school but to work on her own. To her, that was an open invitation for further taunts. The Stones began to look for help elsewhere. They contacted the Advisory Centre for Education and were sent a list of counsellors and psychologists. While they wait for an assessment by the social services next month, they are paying for Jenny to see a specialist in anti-bullying techniques at a private clinic. Mrs Stone, meanwhile, has been prescribed Prozac by her doctor.

"We are beginning to fray at the edges and I'm now terrified that Jenny won't go to any school. We tried insisting she go back and overcome the problem rather than run away, but it was like talking to a brick wall. She's a bright girl and it's all going down the drain. When we get to September, there are going to be legal problems if we haven't found her a school."

Jenny says: "I don't think they liked me at the last school because I got higher marks. I was always the odd one out, I felt so lonely." Whether or not Jenny would have suffered at one of the schools her parents originally chose is something the Stones will never know. But they can't help feeling she might have stood a better chance.