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Anti-truancy teams break the mould

Integration of children's services is much talked about. Phil Revell reports on one council turning words into action.

Teachers and social workers in Milton Keynes will soon be teaming up to tackle truancy in a scheme which could serve as a model of cross-departmental co-operation in the organisation of services for children.

The Close to Home project follows repeated demands for such integration.

After the murder of two-year-old Jamie Bulger in 1993 a national commission of inquiry called for joint budgets and provision of children's services. And in 1996, an Audit Commission report entitled Misspent Youth, highlighted the waste inherent in a having a fragmented system to look after children's interests.

Milton Keynes Council gave the go-ahead last week to the Close to Home programme. From this autumn teams of social workers, youth workers and teachers will go out into the community from their school base.

Paul Sutton, Milton Keynes's head of children's services, believes that Close to Home could reduce truancy and exclusions.

"Local management of schools took people's eyes off children," he said. "People's preoccupations were about structures and relationships rather than about the best ways of meeting the needs of the child. Exclusion is a problem which needs to be tackled."

The teams could also include careers staff, educational psychologists and education welfare officers. They will operate in the catchment areas of two local secondaries, the Leon School and the Sir Frank Markham Community School.

Bruce Abbott, Leon's head, said existing children's services were overstretched, often only dealing with serious cases of crime or abuse. The system had to be reversed.

"Most truancy arises from a whole complex of problems in which the school is but a part," he said.

"If you are having a bad time at home, worried, lacking sleep - pressure in school is the last thing you want. Someone getting help in earlier could prevent problems spiralling out of control."

Mr Sutton knows that teachers and social workers often see children's problems from different perspectives, but said that in Milton Keynes there is a real will to work together.

Mr Abbott is confident that the new structures will help: "We need to build to the future and not nit-pick over the past," he said.

The Government has accepted the need for integrated services in other areas.

The new youth offender teams proposed in the Crime and Disorder Bill would require schools to work with social services, probation officers and the police. A total of 70 per cent of young offenders are either regular truants or have been excluded.

A report will go to ministers at Easter which will highlight the benefits of inter-agency co-operation.

The Milton Keynes scheme is likely to one of several considered. "Working together creates a platform for the development of genuinely preventative care," said Paul Sutton. "It will make a difference."

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