There is a lot of talk about mental health issues in children and young people and what schools should or shouldn’t do and whether or not we can train up teachers to deal with the complex issues of children who are suffering.
I am no expert in these issues but each time the matter arises I remember a few incidents in which I immediately asked for SLT support who, when I was a Head of Department and then Faculty in the 80s and 90s, seemed to me very human and kind. I learnt so much from them.
I know we can all tell stories but these three stories will never leave my mind. I ask what would happen to these children now. All three stories are from 2 different Inner London comprehensives.
As HoD I was always on call on Friday afternoons for my Department – reward for having a couple of free periods last thing on a Friday. Ha! One particular Friday a notorious Year 7 character was yet again sent to the Departmental office to spend time with me. Disrupting in French again. Quelle surprise!
He was a scrappy little thing. Unwashed hair, unwashed shirt and filthy bandages on both wrists. He kept playing with them. I asked him if he wanted me to take him to the medical room to get them changed. Amazingly he agreed. Something was obviously distressing him as he was as tough as old boots normally.
On arrival at the medical room they removed the bandages. Festering, weeping wounds on both wrists. His mum had held his wrists down on a two bar electric fire. She was at the end of her tether. She and her other children were all living in B and B accommodation. Evicted from their council flat. The dad was in prison for attempted murder.
A lovely year 9 girl kept covering her face with her hair in my lesson. Then she cried. She was in my tutor group. At break I managed to talk to her quietly and privately. The night before her mum had burned her face with an iron. Why? She no longer wanted to have sex with the older men her mum brought home.
Three and this is the one that I still think of most weeks…
Every year for 11 years I took a trip to France at Easter. For me this was a vital part of my role. It was the 80s and 90s and somehow we managed never to exclude any child on financial grounds. Thank you again SLT and Governors. One boy in my Year 10 French Class really wanted to come to Paris and the Loire Valley. He was a quiet boy – a bit of a loner. He came. We all had a great time. He laughed a lot and joined in. Apart from the fact that the hotel owner’s very elderly dad accidentally put about a dozen passports and an envelope of our pocket money in the wheelie bin to go the tip. That’s another story that involved me going to the municipal tip in the hotel owner’s car to try and retrieve things. Too late but staff at the British Embassy in Paris were great.
Once back at school the young man started to disappear for days at a time. Staff did their best to find him and coax him back; to little avail. Then one afternoon he appeared in my classroom asking if he could pay his deposit for the French trip. I reminded him gently that we had already been. He was distressed. He really could not remember. And was so insistent that he needed to pay or he would not be allowed to go. I got a nearby colleague to cover my class and went straight to HT. Social Services were brilliant. No it was not drugs. Severe mental health problems.
All three of these fragile young people got the help they needed quickly and calmly. As a middle manager I knew who to go to. The HT knew what to do and did it. No, none of it was a bed of roses but things happened. I would never have known what to do without a vast network of support. And actually I don’t believe that any training would have helped me. These children needed professional support from experts who had time, training, knowledge and understanding. And what about the teacher who takes all of this home?
Why am I writing this? There has never been a golden age. But sometimes I think it is easy with all the demands made on schools to lose the vision that at the heart of a school we need not just systems to support both students and staff but humanity for all. That’s all. I know many schools are still like this. Lets hope it’s the majority. Thanks for reading.