Schools for disturbed children are closing fast: Hundreds of children are losing the chance of a crime-free life offered by special boarding schools. Mary Braid reports

SERVICES FOR the country's most disturbed, disruptive and criminal children are in crisis because of financial cuts and a backlash against residential care.

Fifteen independent and charitable schools, which provide residential education for some of the country's most difficult children, have closed in the last 18 months. According to the Association of Workers for Children with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (AWCEBD) and other charities, many other private schools which operate therapeutic-style regimes are in serious financial trouble.

Many local authorities are now 'doctrinally committed, beyond reason' to the principle of care in the community, according to Marion Bennathan, the AWCEBD chairwoman, who said current trends were creating problems for disturbed children similar to those now recognised in community care for mentally ill adults.

It costs between pounds 27,000 and pounds 40,000 a year to send a child to a school such as Warleigh Manor, near Bath, which takes more than 30 boys aged between 6 and 16. Pupils as young as eight have been involved in paedophilia, arson and burglary. Many have spent their childhoods shuttling between foster families and children's homes and most have been victims of abuse and deprivation.

But Warleigh has experienced a dramatic drop in referrals which has halved its roll in the last few years. Mark Richards, the school's chief education officer, said the cost of sending a child was an investment against prison and psychiatric bills later and was significantly lower than costs involved in the Government's plans for secure training centres.

Ms Bennathan, a former principal educational psychologist who is consultant to Warleigh Manor School, insists the 'rundown' of therapeutic services and the closure of famous special schools such as Peper Harow, in Guildford, Surrey, makes no sense when the Government is planning to invest 'colossal amounts' in the new secure training centres for 200 persistent offenders aged between 12 and 15.

Many local authorities are instructing education psychologists not to recommend private residential schools for disturbed children, she said. While recent abuse scandals legitimised concern about residential care, 'grossly disturbed' children would always need specialist residential help.

'Some of the kids we have here would definitely be considered suitable for these new units. We believe they would do nothing for our children,' Mr Richards said. While new arrivals continue their 'addictive delinquency', occasionally breaking into local homes and staff accomodation, Warleigh claims its therapeutic approach succeeds with most children.

Ms Bennathan said there is little appreciation of the level of damage suffered by some children and the reasons for their delinquency.

'It's not bed-wetting and nail biting that we deal with here. All the children have had extremely disruptive and disturbing lives. We have one child here who came into care at three after spending his early years totally confined to a cot. He then went to foster parents who could not cope with his behaviour and then went to a children's home which found him totally unmanageable.

'When he came here four years ago he could not keep still or sit in a classroom. He was about nine months old emotionally. It would have been impossible to teach him in a mainstream school. He needed a school like this. With care and therapy he has improved tremendously.'

The school employs psychologists, psychotherapists, psychiatrists and social workers, as well as teachers, in the care and education of its


'When each referral is worth around pounds 25,000 it doesn't take a great dip in demand to close a school,' said Peter Wilson, director of Young Minds, a charity for young people with behavioural and emotional difficulties. 'The Government's answer is that we should market ourselves better but it needs more than a market economy to keep these places going.'

Even the Caldecott Community, in Ashford, Kent, with a distinguished 80-year history of working with disturbed young people, is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain its 78-strong roll. Mike Jinks, the community director, said its work was growing steadily more difficult. 'We are increasingly in a rump situation where the policy of keeping children in the community means we get them late, when they have been through the system again and again.'

(Photograph omitted)