The eternal optimist

It's 8.30 on a dank, grey morning, and Sue Bowler is knocking on a door ready to begin her first job of the day. She doesn't wait for an answer. After all, this is the second time in the last 15 minutes that she has called on this small, terraced house. She is one of Barnsley's 11 educational welfare officers, and she has come to take two brothers to school.

She breezes in. "Oh you're up now, are you," she says, surveying two young boys with coats and bags standing in a room that is squalid beyond measure. The carpet is coated with a sticky grime, used crockery is scattered around the floor (it has been there for a week, says Sue), and the curtains are drawn. The boys' father, shrivelled, thin, and looking far older than his 60 years, is sitting in the only chair in the room.

"I told 'im that his big brother would come and beat shit out on 'im if he didn't get up, " the father announces. "You see, wi' being ill I just can't do anything wi 'em."

Philip Turner, the older boy, aged 14, looks at the ground. He is the one who had been refusing to get up. Michael, 13, smiles at Sue; he is evidently pleased to be going to school. "All right, then! Come on scrapboxes! Let's be getting you there! " says Sue, jollying the boys out of the house.

We set off for Worsbrough High School some two miles away, through a ribbon development of Victorian terrace and 1950s council housing stretched along the valleys of south Barnsley.

I look at the fresh faces of the brothers behind us, faces that belie their state of bereavement and confusion; their mother, aged 42, died of alcoholic poisoning before Christmas. Their father has emphysema, a serious lung disease that affects many ex-miners. Philip is not coping with his grief, and has been refusing to get up and misbehaving in school.

Sue has made an urgent referral to social services for a care assessment on the father and has organised bereavement counselling for the boys in school, so she needs to get them to attend.

The father had got behind with the rent and been forced to move from Worsbrough to their present home, a tortuous journey from school. In order to ensure the boys' regular school attendance, Sue has agreed to take them in every morning until Easter.

This is her third day. When she called yesterday Philip was still in bed and the father had asked her if she would go up to the bedroom to coax him out. "The boy was lying on top of three mattresses," she says. "They were filthy and there was no bedding, no sheets, pillow cases. He was sobbing with his head turned away from me and I couldn't get him to talk."

Worsbrough has the lowest attendance record in the authority, taking children from some of Barnsley's poorest housing estates. Tom Megahy, the school's head for the past year, has been working hard to turn things around. He has established a strong pastoral system and is supportive of his welfare staff. In a recent OFSTED report, the school was praised for its work with the education welfare service in improving attendance.

As we walk down the drive Sue greets a passing boy: "Hi Thomas, nice to see you here!" Thomas, one of her hardened non-attender s, has been coming to school every day since Christmas. "You have to be an eternal optimist to do this job," says Sue. "You have to come back every morning and think, 'Let's try again'."

She is based here for three and a half days of her week, spending the rest of her time in Holgate School, which has a more mixed intake further north. Her work consists of pastoral meetings with staff, home visits, and liaison with outside agencies. The last decade of child welfare legislation has meant that the role of EWOs, formerly truancy officers, has broadened considerably.

Sue has been an EWO for six years. Before that she was a swimming instructor for the local authority. She has always worked with children and is highly regarded, a natural for the job. "I play down the school bobby bit," she says. "I'm very informal. I'm tactile. I hug the kids, I get close to the families. That's my style. Once I got too close. The mother became too dependent on me. I learnt a lot from that." Her relationships with families are helped along by her warm humour.

She enters her office, a cramped space with one phone that she shares with Malcolm Fletcher, a member of Barnsley's Education Support Team, and one other welfare officer who shares some of the Worsbrough work.

The phone rings constantly for the next hour. Social services call to say that 15-year-old Andrew Hogan is working for a roofing contractor with his older brother.

"Well, at least he's not sticking stuff into his arms," says Malcolm. Needless to say the office humour can at times be very black. While Sue is on the phone trying to get insurance for Andrew on a work experience scheme - she knows she'll never get him back into school - Malcolm explains the severity of the drugs problem around Barnsley. "Drugs are in all the villages around here," he says, "but we don't get the resources to deal with it."

Sue can't get Andrew insured for any work that takes him higher than six feet above ground. She is desperate to keep him in work and off drugs. The boy has problems: his father died recently, and his mother is laid up with an acute heart condition. Sue makes a note to visit the family.

A call to social services reveals that despite her urgent referral of the Turner case, nothing has happened. She says: "Because of staff shortages they have to prioritise child protection cases, and sometimes it is difficult to get hold of anybody." Social services visited the Turners the next day, but did not consider them an urgent case. However, a home-help and bedding have since been provided.

Although she could spend all day "sorting out the Turners", Sue has other pressing appointments; normally she will make about 12 visits a day. She picks up her case notes and we make a quick exit. We drive to the Lewis's, a family on Barnsley's large Kendray council estate, with two children in Worsbrough High and two in Kendray primary school, one of its feeders. They are being threatened with court action over the children's poor school attendance. "This family needs some help with living skills," says Sue. "The children's hair is often alive with lice, and one day I found the mother washing them with dog shampoo. 'This will do the trick,' she said. So I went down to their surgery to get some Derbac."

It is 11.30am, and none of the children is dressed. We enter a house with bare floorboards, very little furniture, a hamster and a goldfish. The mother is in her dressing gown, the father is ill in bed. They are waiting for the doctor. The youngest, Sian, who is obviously poorly, buries her head in Sue's shoulders. Sue promises to return after lunch to pick up Joshua - who is merely there in sympathy with his siblings - and take him to school.

Next stop is the Roberts's. We come to a halt outside a prefab with a rotting three-piece suite in a garden full of litter. A young mother comes to the door, paintbrush in hand, grappling with a house that is as barren and filthy inside as it is out. There are three small boys still in night clothes; one of them is hiding behind a chair, semi-naked. Sue has to tell Mrs Roberts that she is being taken to court for the children's non-attendance. The woman says that the children have been ill.

Simon, aged seven, says: "I want to go to school but Mum won't let me." Sue seizes her moment. Within minutes the boy is dressed, in the back of Sue's car and on his way to Kendray primary. Once there, Sue makes sure he is given lunch (he hasn't eaten all day) and his teacher gives him a big welcome. Simon, apparently, is very enthusiastic about work - when he turns up.

Sue informs Will Andrews, the head, that Simon is in school. He despairs that these two families, the Robertses and Lewises, significantly depress his attendance figures and that children who attend so intermittently are bound to suffer educationally. "It also makes the management of their schooling, in teacher terms, far more difficult, especially if it's a pupil with special needs," he adds.

After a quick lunch Sue is back to the Lewis's to pick up Joshua. He is dressed but hungry; once out of the house he tells Sue he has had nothing to eat but a piece of bread all day. She ensures he is fed at school, before moving on to her next calls - a couple of cases where an irregular pattern of attendance has raised cause for concern. Both calls confirm her suspicion that the children are being bullied at school.

Driving back through Kendray we see Simon Roberts running through the streets alone. It is

the end of afternoon school, but

his mother obviously hasn't collected him. He disappears into a corner shop. We move on to another branch of the Roberts

family, living on another street in Kendray. This time it is the home of the grandmother, who has recently returned from living in Rotherham and who has a younger daughter plus a fourth grandchild under her roof. She too is being taken to court for the children's non-attendance at school.

Grudgingly invited inside, we are met by an extraordinary sight. Rooms are stacked from floor to ceiling with tinned food, bedding, clothes, crockery in boxes, animal cages and knick-knacks of every description: the belongings of a family of hoarders, used to being on the move. Sue is faced by a surly woman in her dressing gown (Mrs Lewis), a man who is her partner and his teenage son. There is no sign of the two younger children, who we are assured are in the house but are ill.

Sue asks if the children have friends or play outside. No, they never play out, says Mrs Lewis, they just want to stay at home. Sue suggests they ought to be going to school to meet other children, but she is resigned to the fact that she isn't going to get the children to school - not today, anyway.

Mrs Lewis has already heard that Sue has taken one of the other grandchildren to school. She is angry with her daughter for letting him go: "I'm going to knock her block off when I see her," she says. "Simon wasn't fit to go to school." At this point Sue makes her excuses and leaves. It is the end of the day.

And what about the paperwork? "Oh, I do that at home," says Sue lightly, "when there are no interruptions and my head is clear."

It's been a hard day but, for Sue, not an unusual one. For those unaccustomed to the routine, however, it is shocking. "A teacher who recently spent the day with me said she would never forget the things she had seen."

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