Alison Boulton talks to John Turbeville, director of pioneering Mulberry Bush School

It is worth remembering at this festive time of year that not all children’s memories of family life are happy ones.

Oxfordshire leads the way in being home to one of the most pioneering and ground-breaking organisations in the world in the understanding, education and treatment of children who show challenging and disturbing behaviour.

The Mulberry Bush School at Standlake was founded in 1948. Its current director, Alvescot resident John Turbeville has been with the school for over a decade.

The son of a nurse and a businessman, Turbeville’s first experience of working with disturbed and difficult children was as a Venture Scout in Harpenden, Hertfordshire.

“We used to organise outdoor camps for children from Tower Hamlets in London. The children would love the freedom, and the life outdoors. They learnt bushcraft and self-reliance. Many of them had never spent time in the country before. It was hard work, but rewarding. I think that’s what gave me a small glimpse of what was possible in difficult and complicated young lives.”

After training as a surveyor, Turbeville began working at the Mulberry Bush Organisation (a not-for-profit charity) as a volunteer. He found its approach compelling, and wanted to join its large, professional team who sought to understand, educate and treat children in their care, before they reached the milestone of adolescence.

“After that the most likely trajectory is exclusion from school, drug addiction, gangs and a high probability of a prison sentence: the beginning of another cycle of difficulties,” Turbeville said.

The Mulberry Bush is a leading proponent of psychodynamic theory: changing a troubled individual from within. Following Freud’s theories of the unconscious, the school believes that it is internal psychic conflict which goes on to manifest itself in unwanted behaviour. Early problems with attachment to a mother or mother figure, in which a strong bond of mutual trust and enjoyment does not develop, lie at the root of many subsequent behavioural problems.

Instead of treating the symptoms of disruptive behaviour due to early childhood trauma, staff at the MBO seek first and foremost to understand the child’s inner world.

“Building trust, and helping a child find the words to describe how they are feeling is an important first step. When a child arrives here, they frequently have no other way of communicating their distress except by an outburst of anger,” Turbeville said.

With a ratio of three staff to every child and a wide range of professional skills employed at the school, it is often the first time a child has experienced consistent attention and appropriate support. Their lives have frequently been, by contrast, chaotic and unpredictable.

The circumstances in which children are referred to the MBO are the toughest imaginable: poor or absent parenting, witnesses to domestic abuse or adult violence, victims of physical or sexual abuse – often both. These would be hard to bear as an adult, but children as young as five are admitted to the MBO. Although a family setting is widely believed to be the best place to raise a child, often the 38 weeks of residential care a child receives at the MBO can be their first step towards recovery.

“It’s the challenge which keeps me here – the knowledge that there is so much we have to offer, but more is always needed if the most vulnerable children in our society are to benefit from the support they need to continue into adolescent and adult life better equipped for its challenges,’ Turbeville said.

“Building up a child’s confidence through play is a vital part of our work here. Understanding the boundaries of safe play, for both yourself and others, is a key step for some of our children, whose behaviour on arrival is often dangerous or anxiety provoking’, Turbeville said.

A quiet, softly spoken man who thinks carefully before he speaks, Turbeville oversees the three-year residential programme which 31 children between five and 13 from all over Great Britain will enter, after referral from their local authority, which finance each place at a cost of £187,000 per annum. That’s £561,000 over a three-year period. However, keeping a child in care with none of the therapeutic skill base of the MBO costs at least £200,000 per annum and the likely eventual entry into the prison system without this early intervention, costs society even more.

While fees and residential costs are paid by the local authority, everything else which enriches a child’s time at the Mulberry Bush School is paid for by voluntary donation.

“One donor pays for an annual outward bound experience for every child in the school. Play equipment, educational visits, books and DVDs – all the things which you might want to give your own child as a valuable addition to their development and enjoyment is gifted by the public,” Turbeville said. Along with working with children, the MBO offers three residential weekends a year to families and siblings.

“Gaining the support and understanding of families who have found a child’s behaviour too challenging at the point they come to us is vital if that child is to return to a family setting later on, in the hope that they will join an appropriate mainstream secondary school after they leave the MBO. Many birth, adoptive and foster families are astonishingly forebearing during this time, and 93 per cent of children are successfully re-integrated with families after their time at the MBO.”

However, this is not always possible. According to Turbeville: “Some children aged under seven have had up to 70 failed foster placements. Some have lost touch with their birth parents long ago. For these children, there is nowhere to go when school finishes. They are utterly alone.”

It is for these children that the MBO’s latest and most ambitious project is intended: the construction of a house within the grounds of the school where children can stay when others move on."