Public school heads told of dark age of childhood

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Public school heads, including those from exclusive fee-paying schools such as Winchester and Eton, heard yesterday of the daily battle against poverty and emotional neglect waged by teachers in inner city schools.

Dee Palmer-Jones, head of Brackenhoe School, a Middles-brough comprehensive for 11 to 16-year-olds, told the annual Headmasters and Head- mistresses Conference in Glasgow that many of her pupils were two years behind their contemporaries physically and emotionally. They were two inches shorter than average, weighed less and had vitamin deficiencies. Fifty eight per cent were on free school meals.

The school's counsellor, who visited several schools, had told her of a boy who was very thin and whose behaviour was poor. He told the counsellor that his mother was very ill with cancer. When the counsellor visited the mother, it turned out she had made up the story that she had cancer. If he was naughty, she said the cancer would come back. In fact, she had an eating disorder and never cooked the boy a hot meal.

Then there was the family visited because of concern about school attendance where seven children had only one bed. Six slept on the floor on piles of clothes. Social services had provided beds but the father, before he left, sold them for cash.

The school was within eight miles of the coast yet there were pupils in the first year who had never seen the sea.

Brackenhoe School was far from unique, she added. She knew from other inner-city heads that drug dealers were now giving children drugs on credit. When they could not pay back the money, they were threatened with violence and, in the case of girls, forced into prostitution.

Inner city heads were afraid to speak out for fear of alienating the few parents of children at their schools who were not deprived. "There is a belief, often articulated by politicians, that poverty isn't an excuse for poor achievement. Research shows that there is a correlation between deprivation and low educational achievement."

Her staff, however, were working hard to overcome pupils' disadvantages. There was a homework centre after school, residential visits for outdoor pursuits, the arts and for pupils who have difficulties forming relationships. There were 12 lunchtime supervisors trained to befriend pupils and listen to their problems.

She said: "We cannot afford to have an underclass with so little surrounded by images of prosperity and materialism."

Canon Peter Hullah, head of Chethams School in Manchester, said: "It was very impressive because it was for real. It gave me many ideas about how to cope with children from a great range of backgrounds."

Earlier, Professor Richard Whitfield, head of St George's House, an independent think-tank at Windsor Castle, urged heads to jettison some academic subjects and teach pupils to manage relationships. Boys in particular, he said, suffered from emotional illiteracy.

He said we had entered "a new darker age of widespread child emotional neglect", with too many parents neglecting children because they were too busy or under too much stress. The problem applied as much to pupils in independent schools as those in inner cities.