Pioneering centre with a mission: to break the cycle of school exclusions, gangs and knife crime
27 June, 2019 — By Leo Garib
AT 9am a couple of weeks ago, something remarkable happened in King’s Cross.
A group of children walked into a new school in Rodney Street, just off Pentonville Road, perhaps the first of its kind in the world.
The school is at the centre of a bold experiment to solve the crisis of school exclusions, knife crime, self-harming and even suicides among young people. The 30 children – some as young as five – have all been excluded from schools in Camden, Islington, Westminster and Brent.
When they walked into Kantor Centre of Excellence – five storeys of pale stone and smoked glass – some gazed in awe at its wood-panelled reception, the classrooms kitted out with the latest equipment and its open-plan spaces with sofas in calming colours, carpeted reading areas and kitchenettes.
But what really marks out the £41million school as unique is that children attend with their parents.
Over the next few school terms, the children and their families will work with a handpicked team of teachers, psychologists and researchers to break the cycle of school exclusion, gangs and knife crime.
By early next year, the Kantor hopes the children will be ready to return to mainstream schools.
Over the next year, it plans to expand to 48 children, with the results of the experiment reported to experts around the world.
Part of a project funded by donations, Whitehall and local government, the Kantor is one of four centres being rolled out across the country. Run by the world-famous Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families, in Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, Bloomsbury-based University College London and Yale University, in the US, the Kantor centre is the flagship.
Children began moving into the school earlier this month from the Anna Freud Centre, where they had been studying since being excluded from school. Had they not been chosen for the Kantor experiment, they might have expected to be dumped into an education authority referral unit – widely lambasted as sink schools linked to poor academic results.
Last year, a record 7,000 children were excluded from schools nationally, most ending up in referral units. In Camden, one-in-10 secondary school pupils were excluded, latest figures show – a problem so serious the Town Hall set up an investigation into links with knife crime.
Meanwhile, a record 1.25 million children across the country – about one-in-eight – have been diagnosed with mental health problems. Half of refugee children, often victims of displacement, violence and isolation, have diagnosable mental health disorders.
Around two-in-every-five secondary school students have problems, a recent study showed. Up to one-in-six pre-school infants are reported to have a mental health disorder.
Illnesses include depression, obsessive compulsive disorders, phobias or anxiety. Only a third get any professional help, often after waiting months or years. More children are cutting, burning or poisoning themselves with over-the-counter drugs than ever before – some as young as five. Girls are even more prone to self-harming.
A Camden Council investigation found the borough has a higher than average number of children with mental health problems and that those in social housing are twice as likely to suffer. Among children in care, 70 per cent are reckoned to suffer from a disorder.
The Kantor is the crowning glory for Professor Peter Fonagy, leading child psychologist at UCL and the Anna Freud Centre. An expert in the causes of knife crime and the man behind the Kantor experiment, Prof Fonagy might have ended up a suicide statistic himself had it not been for the work of psychologists at the Anna Freud Centre.
A teenage refugee from post-war Hungary, he arrived in London in 1967, alone and unable to speak English. Sinking into deep depression, he was planning ways to kill himself when a friend put him in touch with the centre.
During a session, the young Fonagy was boasting about his new car – a rusty old banger he was proud to have saved up for. Turning from the window overlooking the car park, his psychologist remarked that it was indeed a strikingly handsome car. The simple gesture opened the door to a therapeutic relationship that helped save his life.
The key to tackling school exclusions, gangs and knife crime, and the mental health crisis is intervening early and working with families. Excluding children, dumping them in referral units and criminalising them when they go off the rails simply will not work, said Prof Fonagy.
“My mission is to stop people thinking child mental health problems can be solved by specialists alone,” he said. “We need to start thinking in a completely different way. Children’s mental health and the other problems are for everybody in the community – for teachers, schoolfriends, families. At this school we are bringing them together. There has been nothing like it before.’
“The children we’ll be working with are kids the schools are desperate about,” he explained. “You can understand why because you can’t have a kid so disruptive that the class can’t do its ordinary work. But if these kids simply get sent to some other place where they are not engaged educationally, as well as not being helped behaviourally, they end up in the dustbin, in an elephant’s graveyard.”
Children, he said, are naturally at their most violent when aged between two and six. Mostly, they grow out of it but when social circumstances are against them, they can find themselves in a downward spiral leading to school failure, violence and mental health problems that dog them for life.
Saving children is “not a behavioural thing, it is an educational thing. It’s about getting the kids back into normal education,” he said.
At a time of unprecedented government spending cuts and the collapse of public services, as well as competition between schools that encourages them to dump problem children who affect league tables, the need for Prof Fonagy’s initiative has never been greater. The resources to roll it out, however, have never been scarcer.
But he hopes the Kantor will pave the way for a change of approach so that schools use mental health experts to work more closely with children and their families before they end up on the scrapheap, or worse.
“This is what we really believe deeply at Anna Freud,” he said. “If you intervene with a problem early enough, you massively increase the chance of dealing with it effectively. The complications these problems create for a child – in terms of disrupting their education, their relationships – if you can deal with it early enough you can prevent all that happening. It starts with very young children, sometimes as young as six. The big window is between six and 14. We also work with children younger than five, but that’s a different set-up. At the Kantor, there’s an awful lot we can do between five and 14.”
He refuses to pin the blame entirely on school cuts, overcrowded classes and overstretched teachers, but warned that booting out children is likely to make emotional problems even worse.
In north London, the crisis is particularly acute, with about one-in-four teenage girls between 15 and 19 having a diagnosable mental health problem – even higher than the national average.
“They have problems with eating, sleep, anxiety, work, self-harm. Self-harming is prevalent. For example, north London has a self-harm prevalence of about 16 per cent. I don’t want to create a panic but it’s quite common.”
The problems, which start in early childhood, are made worse by the lack of available help, the absence of professional help in schools and wall-to-wall social media.
“These problems can’t be taken lightly,” said Prof Fonagy. “They’re not just things children grow out of. Something like three-quarters of adults with mental health problems had them when they were younger.
Prof Fonagy with Kate Silverton
The major problems are depression and anxiety – kids feeling bad about themselves and looking at social media, at people in the media. We need to deal with it rather than saying: ‘Oh, they’ll grow out of it’.’
And for refugee children, the problems are often even worse, he warned.
“It’s not just that they have experienced unimaginably bad things, had traumatic experiences, it’s also that the family and community relationships that would have protected them are no longer there,” he said. “They are often alone or isolated. It’s a double whammy: you have traumatic experiences but the connections that would have protected you are not there. The importance of the community helping them is enormous.”
About two-thirds of refugee children overcome their problems while a third suffer mental health consequences. What makes the difference is the level of support they receive, he said.
“It is to do with relationships, with people they can trust. If you feel alone facing your problems, they will have much greater impact. We have to educate the community in how to help them. That’s the other kids in their school, the teachers, it’s you and me. The problem is so large, we all have to take responsibility. Remember, we are talking about children.”
Similarly, Prof Fonagy is an advocate of helping children already in trouble with the law. During a recent visit to a young offenders institution, he spent time chatting with a 16-year-old jailed for a knife offence. The teenager was, he said, “a really nice chap”.
Violence, he explained, is “ubiquitous” in childhood. While most children grow out of it, up to one-in-seven do not. Problems at school, home or the influence of gangs can normalise violence, he said.
He is not averse to using medicines to help deal with difficult behaviour, despite insisting violence is definitely not a mental illness that can be treated with drugs.
“You can do a great deal to change the life of children in a way that reduces the risk of violence, which is where psychologists can help, but you can’t simply cure violence with a mental health treatment,” he said.
The trend to prescribe behavioural drugs for children with attention problems such as ADHD, linked to unpredictable outbursts, is deeply controversial. The widespread practice in the US is widely condemned. Yet Prof Fonagy is a surprising advocate.
“We have to insist it is not the only solution, but there are some disorders that are probably under-medicalised,” he said. “For example, ADHD. I don’t want us to be like America, but compared to over there we are prescribing much less. And there are probably kids who could benefit.”
There are, however, many children for whom medications are not appropriate, he added. “We do have to be very careful that we don’t over-medicalise those kids who are depressed and anxious.”
And it is not what will happen at the new Kantor centre, he stressed.
Prof Fonagy said: “It’s bringing together high educational standards, the best behavioural management, and the parents so they get an idea of what they need to do so that their kids gets the best education. This is not a behavioural thing, this is an educational thing. It’s about getting the kids back into normal education.”