James Bulger: The difficult pupils schools cannot afford

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SHOULD schools have done more for Robert Thompson and Jon Venables - both persistent truants, one of them described as barely literate, the other as hyperactive and disruptive? The straight answer is that schools are preoccupied with the national curriculum and with exam league tables, where results are vital if they are to show up well in a competitive market. Exceptionally disruptive and difficult children can be an expensive distraction from the main objectives that the Government has set.

Severe cutbacks in all budgets, and new legislation in the education, health and medical services mean that the last vestiges of any coherent or consistent policy of support for disruptive or disturbed children are close to collapse. Schools now have responsibility for their own budgets. Few feel that they can afford to buy in special help for difficult children. The alternative is to follow the official procedure whereby the child is referred to an educational psychologist so that a statement of special educational need can be prepared. Statements detail not only the child's special needs but also what help the local authority should provide to meet them.

But Brian Harrison-Jennings, general secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists, says that the psychologists now have an intolerable workload. Referrals are up by 40 per cent over the past three years. Once the child is referred, the law requires that he or she is assessed within six months. So psychologists are forced to make hurried and dubious assessments. They may also be called in when a school wants to exclude a child for disruptive behaviour. Exclusions, too, are rising. The result is that there is precious little time for educational psychologists to offer individual help to boys who, like Jon Venables, reach the early stages of referral but are then moved to another school.

Liverpool is considered comparatively well-resourced for providing schools with special help. Nevertheless, a typical educational psychologist will have to cover two or three secondary schools and 10 primaries - about 7,000 children. The city also has 60 welfare officers - sometimes called educational social workers - for its 213 schools. But their prime function is to check on attendance. They may also give support and counselling but, when unemployment is high, most of their spare time is taken up arranging free uniform vouchers.

What of child guidance clinics? These used to be part of an all-embracing service under the local education department. Now, they come under the health authority. Some have disappeared; some have changed their names. Parents can still refer their children direct to the clinics or go through their GP. But those GPs who have responsibility for their own funds under the Government's health service reforms are reluctant to refer children because the practice would have to pay. Mr Harrison-Jennings said that he used to fight to persuade GPs to co-operate. Now they pass children back to the psychology service because that, at least, is still free.

The provision of child guidance is variable around the country. Frequently, schools have no idea what is available. That is perhaps as well. The clinics are already overstretched; without this crude form of rationing, they would be overwhelmed. 'Getting child guidance is the luck of the draw,' said one Newcastle primary school head.

Children who show severe psychiatric problems are referred - either by the education or health services - to clinical psychologists or psychiatrists. 'Their situation is absolutely dire,' says Dr Danya Glasser, a child psychiatry consultant at Guy's Hospital. 'Up to 85 per cent of our referrals are in bad trouble at school, and at least 70 per cent are significantly under-achieving.' The hospital waiting lists are at least three months, with less urgent cases pushed again and again to the bottom of the pile.

Both Robert Thompson and Jon Venables had been doing so badly at school that they were kept down a year. Yet still they missed school persistently without anybody taking action. 'What the hell is happening?' asked one child psychiatrist. 'It isn't truancy; it's school nonattendance.' Only now will the two boys get the kind of intense counselling and one-to-one tuition that might have helped them earlier.

A social worker who has helped disturbed children for more than 20 years paints a bleak picture. 'It's reaching the stage where no one wants to teach these kids or get involved with them because their problems are so profound that the chance of chalking up success is virtually nil.'