Three children bounce up to me in the classroom. “Hi!” each one says, thrusting forward hands for me to shake, telling me their names, laughing and larking about.
They are all wearing crazy wigs and fancy dress. It’s dressing-up day at Gloucester House and this is the entire class. “That’s my drawing,” says one boy, pointing to a piece of paper on the wall. It’s of a person wearing an ice hockey goalie mask. “Ooh, do you like ice hockey?” I say. “No, I like that man and I like horror movies,” he says.
I suddenly grasp that I’m looking at a scene from the Halloween film franchise. “Yes, well, we won’t talk about that,” says headteacher Nell Nicholson, steering me out of the classroom.
We go next door. “This is Panda class,” says Nicholson. “Hi! Hello man!” shouts one of the students, a teenage girl. “W****rs!” She leans over her desk. “I’m 13 and I’m really tall! I have behavioural problems!” Nicholson merely smiles. “Let me show you the Nurture Room,” she says smoothly.
11-year-old Josh, in his final year at the school
Gloucester House accepts children as young as five all the way through to 14. Nicholson says it’s unique in the UK, in that it has clinical staff working alongside teachers.
It’s funded by the Tavistock NHS clinic, and is a full-time school for children with complex mental and emotional health difficulties. The classes are tiny; seven is the maximum.
The entire school numbers just 18 children, many of whom have been excluded from mainstream schools. “Children who come here are often traumatised,” says Nicholson.
“They might have been in seven foster homes. They may have been put up for adoption, but once they are in the adoptive home and feel safe, difficulties start to come out. They often come from a lot of… fragmentation.”
Based in a large house in north London, the facilities are homely but also tailor-made to help deal with mental health issues. Each classroom has an annexe where children can go to be on their own.
Each class has a teacher, a teaching assistant and a therapeutic support worker, plus additional support from a team including clinical nurses, psychotherapists, occupational therapists, and speech and language therapists.
This is not a private enterprise or a holding pen for naughty kids – this is an NHS facility for traumatised and mentally challenged children who found they were unable to cope with main – stream school.
But of course it doesn’t come cheap. There’s an acute sensitivity about revealing just how much per child it does cost, but we can be certain it’s more than the £36,000 a year you need to educate a child at Eton.
Whether it’s money well spent can be judged, in part, by a documentary on Channel 4 this week, Kids on the Edge, that follows three children at the school. They include 11-year-old Josh, who was adopted at the age of six and is now in his final year at the school before moving back into mainstream education, and Danya-Leigh, also 11, who has just arrived.
Danya-Leigh, aged 11
But surely bringing TV cameras into such an environment is a fraught enterprise, I say to Nicholson. Scenes in the programme include one where a girl is seen raging in a foam-lined room, shouting and screaming. It’s upsetting and challenging.
“This show has been three years in the making,” says Nicholson. “We allowed access because we think it’s really important to show that we maintain hope for these children, and that they can recover from their difficulties.
“There is a lot of stigmatisation around mental health. Once children have a label of ‘behavioural problems’, people find it hard to believe they can change. So it feels important to tell the story that there is hope for them.”
Nicholson says that Gloucester House is both sanctuary and school. Children take Sats, like their peers. “They have home work, they do maths, English, science, and PE. They go through the curriculum, but in a slightly more bespoke way. Some have short attention spans, so you might have to break it up a lot.
“You have to give enough experience of ordinary school to allow them to go back, but you have to provide something different, because ordinary school didn’t work.”
Each pupil has strategies to use if things get tough, and special therapy rooms give children a quiet zone to work through problems, aided by a psychotherapist and a box of toys.
Every child at the school has been given a statement of special needs; every child has had local authority support and funding to come here.
And their prognosis is good, says Nicholson: “We did an audit a few years ago of kids who had been here and the results showed that 82 per cent of them were stable, and a lot of them had sustained their progress in mainstream schools over five years.”
It’s long haul, though – Nicholson estimates the average stay at Gloucester House is between two and three years before they go back into the mainstream.
Is the mental health of our youngsters getting worse? She smiles wearily. “I’ve worked in children’s mental health for a long time. There are certain risks now, around sexual safety and internet safety, because there’s so much access to social media. But inappropriate things happened in the past.
“Electronic devices and gaming is a problem of our era, but is it just a different framework? Jimmy Savile was quite busy in the 1970s, wasn’t he?
“Awareness about mental health is important, and maybe with awareness comes the thought that it’s much worse than it used to be. It’s probably just different.”