Schools and GPs are working together to check parents' claims that children are too unwell to attend lessons, under a safeguarding system developed by a primary headteacher.
The scheme also makes it easier for schools to tell GPs about side-effects they are noticing in children who are taking medication, or for doctors to highlight possible mental health concerns relating to bullied pupils.
The Learning Well Partnership is a collaboration between more than 30 West Cornwall schools and eight local GP practices. It aims to remove barriers in exchanging information about pupils, in an attempt to improve safeguarding - without breaching patient confidentiality.
The initiative came about after Martin Higgs, headteacher at Alverton Primary School, had a chance conversation with a GP about a pupil with a notorious attendance record.
He felt frustrated by the lack of communication between the two professions, which he felt limited the effectiveness of local safeguarding procedures.
Now, each school and surgery involved in the initiative has a named contact, and there is a commitment by all parties to return calls within two days and to hand over any information “pertinent to safeguarding”.
A protocol has been drawn up, stipulating that if either a school or surgery has signiﬁcant safeguarding concerns about a young person, requiring intervention from multiple parties, they can call designated contacts for conﬁdential advice or information.
Mr Higgs, a headteacher for 19 years, said the new system allows schools to check, for example, when a pupil has poor attendance and a parent says their GP advised them not to let their child go to lessons. Previously, trying to get through to GPs was often difficult, he said.
He stressed that teachers are not being given confidential medical information.
“We wouldn’t say, ‘Please tell us what’s wrong with Sally’," he said.
"All you are saying is, 'We’ve got a few concerns about Sally, she’s not been in school for a few weeks, or is coming in with bruising, which mum tells me she is seeing a GP about: can you tell me whether or not that’s the case?'”
The information flow is two ways, so a GP concerned about a young patient struggling with mental health issues, due to bullying, could contact the school.
Mr Higgs said: “The GP could telephone the designated person at the school and say, ‘I’ve got this child who’s presented to me three or four time over the last month. I’m really quite concerned by what mum's telling me about what’s happening, could we have a chat about it?’"
Sometimes, a communication gap "leads to the possibility of schools being played off against GPs [by parents] and vice versa," said Mr Higgs.
Trialled for six months to address initial GP concerns about breaching confidentiality of patients, the feedback was very positive, said Mr Higgs.
The initiative, now in place for 18 months, has made safeguarding by professionals “much tighter” and is having a “direct positive impact on individual children" and has “closed a loophole", he added.
He cited one example of a local school that raised concerns about a young pupil with a fairly serious medical condition whose behaviour had changed after a spell in hospital.
The school approached the mother, who said her child was on new medication to help the condition. Under the new partnership arrangement, the school contacted the GP to say they were worried that something wasn’t right, given the pupil’s lethargy.
“It led to the GP calling the pupil back in and doing more tests and finding that the medication was having an adverse effect on the child and needed to be altered,” said Mr Higgs.
He added: “Without that connection, which was a genuine safeguarding concern about a pupil who was simply not themselves, the GP would have never known.”
Another problem the initiative seeks to address is that, while schools often know which GP surgeries children attend, doctors rarely know which school their patients go to.
Now, doctors can contact Mr Higgs - the main contact point for the scheme - if they need to find this information.
Mr Higgs said: “It’s often not appropriate [for the GP] to ask the parent [which school their child attends] because if you’ve got a safeguarding concern, it puts the parent on alert, and sometimes you just want to have a professionals' conversation.
"I can find out which school that child goes to, let the surgery know, and the surgery contacts the school and invites them into their meeting, which would never have happened before. So it’s opened things up. It’s really simple and it just works.”