Community agenda is here to stay, says McConnell

David Henderson

NEW community schools will feature prominently in education policy no matter who the Education Minister is in the reshaped Scottish Executive, Jack McConnell pledged on Monday, shortly after announcing his decision to seek the top post in government.

The distractions of the day were cited for the surprising omission from his speech of the extra funding of pound;30.6 million the Executive is providing over the next two years to expand these schools. The sum, for which authorities will have to bid, was confirmed later in the official press release.

But in a frank admission, the Education Minister warned a national conference organised by East Renfrewshire: "We cannot deliver pound;200,000 packages for every new community school project across the whole of Scotland, but we can get the principles right in every school." These principles should become normal practice.

The pound;200,000 was a reference to the Executive's support for the 62 pilot projects over three years involving more than 400 schools. Funding for the pilot phase, which will end in March 2004, will run to pound;37 million.

Mr McConnell said new community schools were central to closing the "opportunity gap" between advantaged and disadvantaged and revealed that pilots would be rolled out to all schools from next spring. It may have seemed like yet another initiative but evidence from abroad showed it was effective.

"What we need in children's services are complex solutions to complex problems. It's not going to be an overnight change, it's not going to make an immediate difference by next summer. It needs patience, consistency and a strategy, and all agencies pulling together," he said.

Mr McConnell, in effect sketching out his manifesto for First Minister, pledged to bring about a "cultural change" in the way that public services are delivered.

"We need a Scotland where there are not 60,000 young people referred to the children's hearings every year, 100,000 children living in homes with domestic abuse, 2,500 children on child protection registers and 11,500 children formally looked-after by the state," Mr McConnell said.

Meanwhile, an Amsterdam-based specialist has praised Stirling's work in promoting inter-professional co-operation as part of its new community schools initiative. Gerard van de Burgwal said that the authority was doing "wonderful work" by bringing together social workers and teachers on joint courses and by its work shadowing programme.

Some 300 of 500 local authorities in the Netherlands were involved in community school projects following an initiative in Gronigen six years ago. The town realised that despite heavy investment, problems with children and families remained and established networks of services based on schools.

Picking up Mr McConnell's theme, Dr van de Burgwal said: "We want to try to get people to think in a different way. You have to be sure they are willing and in favour of change."

Like the minister, he believed it would take some years before communities saw the benefits of improved inter-agency working for children and families at risk.

Pamela Robertson, a Scottish-based researcher for London University, which is carrying out the national new community school evaluation, echoed views about inter-professional working. "Work shadowing with social workers, youth and community workers and teachers begins to open eyes to the overall experiences of young people in different positions. That must be helpful," Mrs Robertson said.

The evaluation would look at the experiences of children in and outside school and was not just about attainment. The study of the 37 first phase pilots will report its interim findings in the spring and publish a full verdict a year later.

Viewpoint, page 20

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David Henderson

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