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The `luxury' that becomes indispensable

Why do so many primary schools now feel that they need their own social worker? Clare Jenkins reports On one Tuesday, the headteacher of a primary school in a rural market town had to:

* deal with a complaint from a mother accusing another of bullying her son; * physically restrain a boy from leaving school; * make his mother a cup of tea while she poured her heart out about the recent break-up of her marriage; * organise a visit to family counselling; * deal with another complaint about a girl who had broken her leg on sports day.

She also had to teach, observe a probationer, and attend a tech-nology challenge workshop.

Meanwhile, in a primary school in the East End of London, the head got on with her teaching and administrative work relatively unhindered. Her school has its own part-time school-home support worker.

School-based social workers are a rarity. Apart from one or two schemes around the country, most schools rely on the local authority education welfare service (EWS) and social service departments. But, with continued cutbacks, both services are overstretched. The result, as a recent report for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) revealed, is that many schools in England and Wales "appear to have become an unfunded branch of the social services".

Author Rosemary Webb of York University called for the Government to provide funds to place social workers in schools serving deprived areas, or attach them to clusters of small schools.

Both the ATL and the National Association of Social Workers in Education (NASWE) have en-dorsed this call. According to ATL assistant director Sheila Dainton, "What we need is shared funding between schools and social services so the money doesn't come from ever-diminishing education budgets."

NASWE said: "Many EWSs have been reduced and forced to concentrate resources on non-attendance in secondary schools, which fails to address preventive intervention where patterns can be established with primary school children and their parents."

In the past, some LEAs employed home-school liaison officers to assist with pupil and parental needs. Under local management of schools (LMS), however, these have become "an unaffordable luxury", according to Dr Webb. So has the wider social work aspect of the education welfare officers (EWOs). Financial constraints have forced some authorities to abandon their policy of seconding EWOs on to social work courses. Others have cut or frozen jobs.

In addition, under local management EWS budgets have been delegated to schools, which can choose whether to buy back the service - with the result that some haven't, or have bought a reduced service. From next year, however, the EWS will be part of the mandatory exception, so money for the service will once again be centralised with the local authority.

While all this has been going on, the East London school has opted to buy in its school-home support worker from the East London Schools Fund. Set up in 1984, the fund is an independent and charitable agency "to help children benefit from education and make the fullest use of school". To fulfil this remit, it employs 17 qualified and trainee social workers within 29 schools, some part, some full-time.

One head who benefits from the service says: "In two-and-a-half terms, our support worker has already made a significant difference to the lives of many small boys and girls.

"The families in this area, their lives and homes so greatly disrupted by the new roads and building works in this area of major redevelopment of the Docklands, need a deal of extra help. There are many needs that can only be met by the building of a better understanding between home and school."

In another school, over the past three years the worker has run the toy library and a second-hand clothes shop, both of which she opened. She also attends case conferences; joins in educational visits; arranges holidays for needy children and their families; visits the homes of all incoming nursery children and makes the timetable for enrolment; escorts children and non-English speaking families to hospitals and clinics; ensures the attendance of parents and children at medicals; and attends special needs meetings with the head.

"The list of her activities seems to be endless," said the head. "It's hard to think how we ever managed without her. The support she gives to families and children has transformed the lives of so many, from depression and near despair to hope for the future and there is a real and lasting link with school for the parents, and a very marked improvement in the children's interest in their education."

Before her school participated in the fund, this head reckons nearly half her time was spent on listening, counselling and advising. This was a major finding of Rosemary Webb's report: that heads are spending more and more time acting as unofficial social workers, not just to pupils but to parents: being asked to solve problems such as drug abuse, unemployment, alcoholism, family breakdown and crime. "Schools," she says, "often provide the most readily available and accessible source of counselling and information."

And heads, having encouraged parents to participate in the life of their schools, understandably find it difficult to refuse them attention. "To many people," said one, "a head, especially a woman head, is often the only professional they have such easy access to."

Sheila Dainton of the ATL believes teachers need to take a harder line if they are to do their own job. "Given that you won't change the world tomorrow, you have to be very clear about setting boundaries. But you have to, in order to survive. It's easy to go beyond them, especially with younger children. "

Grace Cheese, general secretary of the National Association of Social Workers in Education (NASWE) agrees, though from a different perspective: "Teachers are doing our role and they shouldn't be. However, our hands are tied because of limited resources. We sympathise with teachers, but we would rather do that work.

"They wouldn't expect us to come in and start teaching, so why should they do social work with our clients?" The difficulty, as another head says, is that "any caring person knows full well that if the parents have got problems, it inevitably feeds down to the children".

Another difficulty is the blurring of demarcation lines between teachers, EWOs and social workers. And a certain lack of information and communication between the different agencies about who does what, and what less institutionalised outreach projects, such as the East London Schools Fund, are available.

Traditionally, EWOs have been seen as "school bobbies", policing children's non-attendance. Many EWOs would argue, however, that the preventive approach is more successful - and ultimately cheaper - than threats of court action, and that their remit has inevitably expanded as social service budgets have contracted, although only 20 per cent of them hold the Certification of Qualification in Social Work.

Says Grace Cheese: "It's no good forcing a child back into school if they're unhappy or not going to learn - if they're worried about mum being drunk every day, or that the police might move their caravan on while they're at school. "

However, over the past decade, the EWS, too, has been reduced. There are now just 2,500 EWOs for the whole of England and Wales - in Scotland, there's a joint education and social services department system of guidance teachers and attendance officers.

The Ralphs (1973) and Elton (1989) reports recommended a ratio of 2,000-2, 500 pupils to one EWO. The latest NASWE survey shows that, at best, the ratio is 4,000 to one. At worst, 7,000 to one.

Before LMS, the EWS was very much a service of the school: now it's a service to parents and pupils.

"And some schools don't like that changed role," says Grace Cheese. Don Pennock, principal EWO for Sheffield, agrees: "We act as an advocate for the parent, which can be interpreted as being on the parent's side. But what we're doing is facilitating the process, breaking down barriers."

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