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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 March 2008, 14:21 GMT
'Toxic cycle' of family breakdown
By Gary Eason
BBC News, at the ATL conference in Torquay

Teenage boys
Research suggests more children are self-harming
A "toxic circle" of family breakdown and educational underachievement may outstrip society's ability to improve, teachers have warned.

Delegates at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers annual conference said chaotic home lives and poverty made children unable to learn.

The conference in Torquay also called for a more co-ordinated approach in schools to preventing suicides.

Some delegates want a Royal Commission to investigate childhood unhappiness.

The debate comes as ministers outlined plans to tackle the poor behaviour of some children from difficult backgrounds.

And the delegates' concerns are reflected in the findings of a survey for the teaching union which suggests self-harming and eating disorders are on the rise.

Damaging impact

A Wiltshire teacher, Phil Whalley, said it was clear from research in Europe and the US that family stability - or the lack of it - was an important determinant of a child's education outcomes.

"This means we already have a significant problem in Britain because we already have worrying levels of social dysfunction and family breakdown and the situation is getting worse."

Poverty was likely to lead to family breakdown which in turn created more poverty.

"For the child caught up in these circumstances there is the damaging impact of both poverty and the distress caused by parental separation," Mr Whalley said.

But also those who underachieved in childhood were more likely to have dysfunctional lives and be unable to support their own children.

"In short, as a society we are in danger of creating an expanding, perpetuating and toxic circle," he said.

"If we are not careful we could reach that crossover point when no matter how much we invest in education and no matter how hard schools and teachers try, they will not be able to overcome the negative impact of broken and dysfunctional families."


Doncaster teacher Lesley Ward said that as each school year began, she and her colleagues had to check what surnames they were now to use for the children.

"Some of our girls - and I have been there 32 years - have got babies to six, seven, eight different chaps," she said.

"They don't think they are dysfunctional at all. But when you look at it from an educational point of view some of them are very dysfunctional."

She added: "Quite often it's not the men who are in work it's the mums who have got three or four jobs on minimum wage, with the oldest child looking after four or five others, and they are still failing to make ends meet.

"They are lovely, lovely children but they are losers before they even start. It's a shame."

A survey of ATL members suggests they feel children are under more pressure now than 10 years ago, with testing and exams and family breakdown causing the most distress.

While most children released the pressure by crying or becoming withdrawn, some teachers reported that self-harming and eating disorders among pupils were on the increase.

'Loss of community'

The union's general secretary, Mary Bousted, said recent "shocking" teenage suicides had focused attention on children's mental health and well-being.

But services to support distressed children seemed to be overburdened by demand, with teachers having to "pick up the slack".

John Harkin from Londonderry said each year in the UK some 600 to 800 young people aged 15 to 24 would take their own lives - equivalent to the population of a smallish secondary school.

"Are we a society where 'every child matters' when children's lives are being extinguished in this way?" he asked.

"Young people in our care are dealing with issues and problems in a scale which earlier generations have never known."

They might be materially better off, but he warned that with televisions in bedrooms, they risked becoming more isolated.

The conference backed his call for education ministers to co-ordinate work on suicide prevention to develop "robust programmes for all schools".

Another resolution seeks a Royal Commission to ascertain the reasons why children appear "unhappy and anxious".

The Department for Children, Schools and Families said all too often teachers said schools found it hard to get the specialist help they needed.

This was why ministers were looking at ways to make schools provide integrated services.

A spokesman added: "Schools play an absolutely central role for children, but we can't expect them to do everything on their own.

"What happens outside school is as important as what happens inside when it comes to driving up standards.

"We don't want to turn teachers into social workers or housing officers. We want teachers to be able to focus on teaching."

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18 Mar 08 |  Education
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19 Nov 07 |  Education
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05 Jul 07 |  Education

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