Cluster of co-operation

Phil Revell

A group of eight primary schools is making joined-up thinking a reality, writes Phil Revell.

The publication of the Childcare Bill has made the vision of schools as universal hubs for children and families that much more real. Teachers may feel they are in the front line in the battle to offer joined-up services at a neighbourhood level, but schools don't have to provide all this by themselves. They can work together.

In Lancashire's Pennine hills, eight Blackburn primary schools are experimenting with such a model.

"Primary schools already work together - the willingness to share was already in place," say Keith McDonald and Peter Nye, school improvement officers for the Blackburn with Darwen local authority.

The two former primary heads began to contact people in Blackburn's network of children's services - social services, health, early years, educational psychology - and that led to the integrated networks for children's services, or INCS.

Based on existing clusters of primary schools, the INCS is an attempt to create multi-agency teams that will operate as close as possible to the children and families they serve.

"We knew that primary heads were under a lot of pressure and that the average primary didn't have the capacity to deal with everything being thrown at them," said Mr Nye. "But a cluster of primaries could share that burden and work together.

"It starts with the school making its needs clear, and all the agencies that support the school working to meet those needs," said Mr McDonald.

"It's an inverted pyramid."

Alison Taylor is one of the heads involved. Her school, the Redeemer Church of England primary, is a building site at the moment, but the vision is for an extended school that will serve as the hub of a network of family services.

"I've always tried to work this way," she said. "This has been a brilliant opportunity."

She rejects the idea that teachers should focus only on educational standards and leave the childcare agenda to others.

"There's no tension between standards and care," she said. "I don't feel I can raise standards unless children are healthy and feel safe. My job is to remove barriers for these children and families."

Even in the collection of huts and old buildings that is currently her base, Ms Taylor is offering a patchwork of services from 8am until 6pm, including a breakfast club and after-school clubs ranging from music to computers as well as opportunities for parents to become involved and extend their own learning.

Are schools the best places for services like these? That question underlines one of the tensions intrinsic to multi-agency ventures.

Gillian Kitchen is the district manager for Blackburn's early-years services. Her job is to ensure that families have the help they need, whether it be childcare or health advice and support.

"It's not necessarily about money," she said. "It's about who is best placed to offer the service. Sometimes that is the local school, but not always, and heads need to consider the possibility that a better provider might already exist.

"When we were looking at running an after-school care club, we were told there was already good provision in the area," said Ms Taylor.

"We now refer people on to that. I don't want to provide something that is already provided elsewhere. But there wasn't good quality before-school care, so we now offer that."

The project began this term, and the eight schools in the INCS cluster now intend to appoint a co-ordinator to make partnership working easier. They also plan to buy a minibus to allow teachers, parents and children to travel from siteto site.

The schools already work together on training, with Ms Taylor's school offering expertise in ICT, and Wesley Fold primary acting as the in-service training centre for extended school developments. The vision is for a smorgasbord of local services.

Families are keen to see services offered closer to their homes. When Blackburn's primary care health trust carried out research into immunisation for young children, it found that parents wanted the jabs to be offered in venues that were family-friendly, such as children's centres or schools.

Blackburn sees the children's agenda as so central to school improvement that it has created its networks with primary-strategy funding - money that is available to all schools and local authorities.

In the long term, the hope is that the highly pressured acute services will see fewer "blue light" cases as family problems are identified and dealt with at an earlier stage.

In the meantime, face-to-face contact between professionals is already having an impact.

As David Fleming, from Blackburn's social services team, says: "When you step outside your own agency you see how complex and difficult it can be for people to access the help they need.

"Understanding that has been the major benefit for all of us so far."

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Phil Revell

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