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Places with pupils at their heart;Schools and Society

Biddy Passmore looks at a new report which says schools should ease off the national curriculum and put children first.

The welfare of the child is the business of the school. That used to be the accepted view, according to Mog Ball, author of a new report on school inclusion for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

It was accepted by her aunts, for instance, who were redoubtable heads of West London elementary schools, forever marching off to do battle with families or social services on their pupils' behalf.

More recently, Ms Ball says, schools have become so preoccupied with internal matters, such as delivering the national curriculum, that the welfare of the child seems to have taken lower priority.

But in her trawl of theory and practice on links between schools, families and communities in Britain, she has found encouraging signs of schools working more closely with the social agencies that support families.

One of the main reasons for this, she says, is the growing relationship between primary schools and pre-school learning.

The logical extension of these links would be a restructuring of schools as a base for meeting all the needs of families, she suggests, especially in areas of high stress and disadvantage - the "full-service" or "holistic" schools being piloted in Manchester.

But Ms Ball warns that teachers have neither the time nor the training to develop or co-ordinate all these links themselves. The solution, she says, may lie in offering a home within schools to other professionals who can offer support services as part of a multi-agency initiative.

She cites as an example a school nurse in Bath who has arranged a drop-in clinic at a girls' school at 8.30 on Monday mornings for pupils worried about having had unprotected sex over the weekend - and who has persuaded a local GP to see any who need emergency contraception.

Speaking at the launch of her report at the Royal Society in London last week, Ms Ball said schools were often tempted to "buy in" nationally developed programmes for young people on subjects like parenting and drugs.

But these programmes could interfere with the school's ability to develop its own relation-ships with local agencies and the local community.

Howard Williamson, of the University of Wales Social Research Unit in Cardiff, said reforms that had raised standards for the majority had been "catastrophic" for the minority - the 20 per cent of young people who were not achieving academically.

He says that young people faced a more and more difficult transition from dependence to autonomy. "Children get a lot of attention in the early years but feel abandoned at the age of 11. They have to go through a very quick learning curve."

The school must be the central building block of a strategy to combat disaffection. "Inclusion is imperative," he adds.

"We must keep young people as close to education as we possibly can. Otherwise all our initiatives become holding operations and lead to the exclusion of young people."

Welcoming the report, Rob Smith of the Department for Education and Employment stresses that if schools developed closer links with families and the community, children's performance in the classroom would rise. "That's the deal for schools," he says.

The question of whether the Government should lay down rules for developing such links, or encourage their organic development, remains.

Margaret Bond, head of the Malory School in Lewisham, south London, a failing comprehensive that she was appointed to turn around, agrees that teachers lack the time to co-ordinate allservices themselves.

Filling in all the forms needed to apply for help from outside agencies "would drive you mad", she says. And getting the separate services together to write a transition plan for a 14-year-old with special needs is "a nightmare".

"The school year is 195 days long," she said. "What about the other 170? I'm very happy to work with other agencies but I can't doit all."

At times, she said, she had almost committed the ultimate heresy of saying: "Can I have an education action zone please? - then I'd get a bit of coordination."

'School inclusion: the school, the family and the community' by Mog Ball is available from York Publishing Services, 64 Hallfield Road, Layerthorpe, York YO31 7ZX (01904 430033), price pound;11.95 plus pound;1.50 p amp; p. A summary of findings is available free from JRF at The Homestead, 40 Water End, York YO30 6WP or from the JRF Web site:

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