SEMH Provision – who is it really for? A reflection on Chapter 5 of ‘Boy who was Raised as a Dog’

It was really lovely to see familiar faces as well as a new one (good to finally meet you Mark Goodwin!) during this period of social distancing. The pleasing symmetry of Dr. Perry’s book, about the importance of human connection, being the inspiration for our get-together was not lost on any of us. It’s fair to say that the relational rewards of gathering as a like-minded group, albeit virtually, were felt more strongly than usual this time, so we made the decision to move to weekly book club meetings. They’ll be every Wednesday, 6.30 to 8.00pm, if anybody else wants to zoom in. (Just @ me for how)

The discussion was, as ever, fascinating and we over-ran. I’m not going to attempt to capture all of it here but will rather focus on one element, which is whether the segregation of children with behavioural difficulties into specialist settings is the right way to help them. With perspectives from mainstream and special ed colleagues, there was rich debate about this.

Leon’s story, summarised below, does raise some difficult questions with the DfE’s stated aim, to ‘remove the bias towards inclusion’ (Gove, 2010), very relevant to this discussion. We have seen the proportion of secondary pupils with EHCPs educated in mainstream secondary schools drop by a third since 2010 to barely over a fifth in 2018 (O’Brien, 2020), with no sign of this particular curve flattening and high needs blocks across England struggling to fund the demand for special school places.

Now more than ever, as we confront the abyss of deep pandemic-driven recession, we must demand very good evidence for any political choice to invest public money in specialist provision, be that alternative provision or SEMH Special, without first adequately resourcing mainstream inclusion. It is fair to say that there has been no deliberate focus on the latter in recent years, at least not from the top (DfE) down, with official DfE guidance on behaviour the cause of real dismay within the SEMH community. Quite clearly, a department that is capable of translating the Timpson review of exclusions, which recommends trauma-informed practice, into a 10m ‘crackdown’ on behaviour, is one that has no vision for inclusion. That needs to change.

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Leon’s Story

This is the most troubling of all of the case-studies in Boy Raised; the only one that has nothing to say about survivorship and recovery but everything about how much damage parental neglect can inflict.

In an alcohol-fuelled rage, 15 year old Leon sadistically murdered and then raped the dead bodies of two barely pubescent girls. Dr. Perry was engaged by Leon’s defence lawyer to determine, pre-sentencing, whether there were any mitigating circumstances, such as a history of mental health or abuse. Initially taken aback by Leon’s lack of remorse, his ‘breathtaking’ coldness, the psychiatrist found an explanation for his emotional deadness upon exploring his formative years.

The boy’s mother, Maria, was mentally impaired and relied heavily on the unstinting support of a large family when her first child, Frank, was born. However, she was forced to move to a new and very deprived neighbourhood when her husband changed jobs. Leon was born soon after the move and Maria found herself quite unable to cope with the new baby single-handed. Her daily routine involved leaving the apartment early in the morning with her three year old and returning at night. ‘He stopped crying so much’, she said – indicating that she thought that this strategy of systematic neglect had worked.

When Maria had taken Frank for walks. Leon had wailed in his crib at first. But he soon learned that crying would bring no aid, so he stopped. He lay there, alone and uncared for, with no-one to talk to him and no one to praise him for learning to turn over or crawl (and not much room to explore anyway). For most of the day he heard no language, saw no new sights, and received no attention.

Deprived of critical stimuli throughout a critical period of development, Leon never developed the normal associations between human contact and pleasure. “What he learned was that the only person he could rely on was himself.” As he grew older, he was indifferent to his parents, whether he hurt them or pleased them, and avoided physical contact. He was bright and leaned to mimic socially appropriate behaviour and to use flattery and other forms of manipulation to get what he wanted. But if he didn’t get what he wanted, then he took it anyway.

Trouble at school inevitably followed and the worse Leon behaved, the more he confirmed to those around him that he was ‘bad’ and didn’t deserve their attention. This vicious cycle ensured that behaviours escalated from bullying into crime. By the fifth grade, he was a regular in the juvenile justice system.

Of course, severely neglected children do not inevitably become sociopaths and indeed Dr. Perry’s book is a celebration of neuroplasticity and recovery through nurturing relationships. There are virtuous cycles too and these can completely change the trajectory. However, many decisions and events conspired against Leon, including but not limited to his experience of education, which we turn to now.

Leon was first placed in specialist provision as a pre-schooler but exposure to a group of other disturbed children only worsened his condition. According to Dr. Perry:

Research has repeatedly found that surrounding a child with other troubled peers only tends to escalate bad behaviour.

Leon’s school career from thereon was spent within these special settings and Dr. Perry posits that this only amplified the harm. His impulsivity was reinforced by a negative peer group who modelled to one another that the best way to solve problems was through violence.

Implications for policy and practice

Now we have no way of knowing whether or not Leon was ever placed in what we would refer to in the UK as high quality SEMH provision. In recent years, we have seen within the sector (and beyond it) the introduction of trauma informed practice and this approach might well have enabled Leon to learn to trust and to form the social bonds that would have saved him (and his victims). We also know that high quality SEMH settings are not characterised by violence, bullying and disorder. On the contrary, they are singularly calm, therapeutic places often much loved by families.

However, despite the nurturing and expert support that is available within such provision, it is highly unusual for children to make enough socio-emotional progress to ever return to mainstream. It is important to ask why this is the case, when the miraculous promise that is neuroplasticity should facilitate healing and recovery, at least for a good proportion. Is it because Dr. Perry remains right and that even the best, most trauma-informed specialists can never quite counteract the influence that troubled peers have on one another? Could the stigma associated with the special setting constitute another barrier? What impact does it have on self-esteem and how is that communicated through children’s behaviour?

Our SEMH book-club members acknowledged all of these challenges, citing the environment that young people are immersed in outside the school as another. If Dr. Perry’s book teaches us anything, it is just how sensitive to the environment the child’s developing brain is; how it is literally sculpted and shaped through interaction with the outside world. Which returns us to the central question. What is the optimal environment, from a schooling perspective, for growth and recovery? Is that to be found within special or mainstream sectors?

The answer is of course both simple – it depends – and complex – it depends on a multitude of interplaying factors, from how inclusive the mainstream setting to how complex the needs of the child. Ultimately, it has to be right that parents, as experts in their children, make the decision. It is not right, however, when such decisions are made with deep regret. For example, a child should not have to be educated in a special school to be protected from the ravages of undifferentiated  ‘behaviour management’ or because consistency means rigid inflexibility in their local school.

Of course, the choice between special and mainstream need not be binary. Resource-base provision within mainstream can be a very positive option when staff are appropriately trained (Mike Armiger’s regulation framework provides an excellent model) and pupils are also included within the wider school community, accessing those lessons they can manage – the range of which increases as social and emotional skills are learnt. We know that children impacted by trauma recover in the context of unconditional, nurturing relationships and resource base staff can offer those. In large secondary settings, where children are not generally so well known as they were in primary (and the movement out into special school accelerates) the resource base is a solution.

However, the conditions for their growth don’t currently exist with the haemorrhage of vulnerable children out of mainstream continuing unabated. Two things need to change for us to level this curve. First, cash-strapped schools need more funding for enhanced pastoral care and the recruitment of specialist staff, such as OTs. Second, the accountability framework needs to be reformed such that a headteacher’s moral purpose and a commitment to every child is no longer career-threatening but rather richly rewarded.

Until these things happen, then it seems to me that SEMH provision is not actually for vulnerable children at all, though it may serve them well. Segregated provision is much more about the maintenance of a narrowly defined mainstream sector that is simply not designed to tolerate diversity or to include all children.



Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

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