The school looks like an ordinary primary set in Anywhere, UK. But the well-kept houses in the surrounding tree-lined streets belie the fact that this is the sprawling Wythenshawe estate in south Manchester, notorious in parts for poverty, unemployment, violent crime and all the other social problems synonymous with deprivation in mid-90s Britain.
Sandilands primary both reflects those realities and works against them to create something better for its children and their families. As an embodiment of the recommendations of the recently published Championing Children report, produced by the National Children's Bureau for Manchester City Council, you could say it is more than half-way there.
The report calls for the establishment of multi-disciplinary children's support services, probably to be based in the city's schools, which would co-ordinate education, social and health services for families. Sandilands and nearby Newall Green primary have both been working for years to break down the barriers between the services by making them more approachable and by giving parents the information and confidence they need to make that initial approach.
It is help the Sandilands families undeniably need. With nearly 30 per cent of pupils on free meals, a high proportion with special needs, including emotional and behavioural difficulties, a large number of single-parent families, substantial unemployment and some cases of domestic violence, the need for support for families in trouble is immense and never-ending.
Headteacher Judi Marsden, like so many primary heads in deprived areas, combines compassion with pragmatism. She views the education of children holistically, acknowledging that the best teaching in the world means nothing if a child is emotionally troubled or physically in need. "For these children, " she says, "this is their only chance. We have to do everything we can to make it work for them. The demands are very great, but we keep bashing on."
At Sandilands, "bashing on" means a number of carefully thought-out projects and programmes designed to draw parents into the school either as helpers, as learners, or, as is often the case, as both. Manchester's adult education service runs courses at the school, given by parent education tutor Lin Eden, herself a Sandilands parent who started with no qualifications.
Many parents begin by choosing the Parents as Educators course to get a grounding in basic child development, for their own sake and their children's. They can move on from there to do a variety of courses to develop their parenting skills or courses to enable them to work or enter further education.
In addition, parents are invited to come into the school to help out in the classroom. "We don't want them just coming in and washing out paint pots, " says Judi Marsden. Parents are asked what they'd like to do. Some help out with maths or science, others play games or listen to children reading. Every week, two or three parents will be working in each of the school's seven classes. Mum's and Dad's army maybe, but it allows parents to keep in touch with what their child is doing, helps settle the children and serves as an often vital lifeline for otherwise isolated parents.
"We stress that there's always something for parents to do. Some parents may be having a bad time at home and use this as a bit of a bolt hole," explains Judi Marsden.
Just as crucial as parents coming in is the staff's interaction with them when they drop off and pick up their children. "We try to set things up so that parents tell us when they have an appointment with, say, the clinical psychologist or speech therapist. That way, the class teacher can remind them about the appointment the day before. It's hard for people, especially when they're in crisis, to go somewhere where they've never been before to keep an appointment. Our involvement can make it just that bit easier."
While Sandilands is committed to using the school as a community resource on some levels, there is a long way to go before the recommendations of the National Children's Bureau are fully realised (see box above left). Judi Marsden's ideal scenario is this: "I'd like to have more contact with other agencies. So if a social worker, for instance, was involved with a family, I'd like to meet them or at least to know that they're involved.
"I'd also like to know that if parents needed help, I could tell them to come along to the school on the third Tuesday of every month to see the appropriate professional. People get ground down not only by their poverty but by not being able to access what they need. If parents had one-stop, multi-agency support in the familiar, friendly setting of their child's school, they would get the help they need where they didn't feel stigmatised."
Not every headteacher is as upbeat about using schools in this way. When Championing Children was launched, the Manchester Evening News reported that the council was planning to put a social worker in every school, alarming and angering some city teachers. "That was a travesty," says Andrew Cant, head of the education authority's schools division. "What we're trying to do is move support of families nearer the mainstream - and schools are in the mainstream - to combat the stigmatising effect of dealing with social services."
As yet, the NCB report hasn't been discussed in schools, though three half-day conferences next month for all Manchester headteachers are being planned.
Richard Leese, deputy leader of Manchester council and chair of the review panel dealing with the report, has no illusions about the work ahead. "Multi-agency work generally has the support of those concerned. But there is a gap between principle and practice in the form of professional jealousies, protectionism and the like. We have to persuade heads to recognise that they will get additional support - not extra load.
"Teachers' primary role should be about teaching, but most of our primary heads are dealing with social problems that aren't educational problems. The expectation that schools can solve all the problems in the world is bad for teachers and bad for children."
He says the details of how the multi-agency approach will work will have to wait until after the evaluation of the "four or five" pilots which should be running by next April. But he does say that "schools wouldn't necessarily be the sole point of access. But if parents know that they can get access to services from the schools, they would be inclined to use them."
For Jim Murphy, director of Manchester's social services, the idea of basing the integrated services in schools means retaining a child-centred focus while trying to develop a community base. "From the social services' point of view, this is an opportunity to develop family support with a child protection element to it. This will involve resources being unlocked and allowed to trickle back into support services," he says. This is a reference to the NCB's potentially controversial proposal to eliminate the need for expensive residential places (running at Pounds 7.7 million for fewer than 300 children) in order to free up money to support children and families in their communities.
The implications of the proposals' success or failure will go beyond Manchester. As Gillian Pugh, who wrote Championing Children with John Rea Price, says: "What we've tried to do is create models and visions that can be applicable to other local authorities.
"The bottom line is that these recommendations will only succeed if the elected members of councils see children's services as being high priority. If you don't have the political commitment, it is difficult to ensure that children get the priority they deserve and that people will work together rather than against each other, holding on to their bits of empire."
THE NCB'S MAIN RECOMMENDATIONS
* Bring together education, health and social services into a comprehensive and integrated children's support service, in line with the Audit Commission's Seen But Not Heard report. Services to be planned collaboratively rather than separately with the aim of providing child-centred services in the community, rather than in traditional settings that create alienation and stigma.
* Focus on prevention in the form of family support, which would lessen the need for direct intervention such as child protection. The shift of emphasis from intervention to prevention would bring with it a shift of resources from residential to community, together with Pounds 7.7m, the current cost of residential provision.
* Base the new family support services in the city's schools. * Set up multi-agency pilot projects as soon as possible to explore new approaches to working with families.
* Put children with disabilities (excluding EBD and those with challenging behaviour) on a register linked to co-ordinated social services, education and child health initiatives to ensure continuity and coherence.
* Preventative family support work should be given the highest possible priority. Money to achieve this should be made available not only to social workers, but to professionals in the education and health sectors under Section 17 of the Children Act.
* Excluded pupils should be given special education provision, as required by the 1993 Education Act.
* Social services should be brought in earlier to help children with behavioural difficulties, whether at school, at home or in the community.
* Nearly 30 per cent of Manchester's children under the age of 15 live in single-parent households.
* More than one-third of children in the city live in households where no one has a job.
Manchester ranks 14th out of the 366 local authorities in England and Wales for numbers of under-16s; nearly 15 per cent of its population are under five.
* Exclusion figures over the past three years:1992-93: 126 (26 primary, 3 special and 97 secondary); 1993-94: 150 (24, 5, 121); September-December 1994: 73 (11, 9 and 53)
Lynne Bradbury has been helping in her son Daniel's reception class since the beginning of term. A single parent with another baby at home, she is unemployed.
"I come in to help once a week and come to the Parents as Educators course every Friday. I've had a bad time with Daniel's behaviour and I'm doing the course for me and for him, to understand him better. I moved up here a few years ago and have never been able to settle. So I started coming in to help and to meet new people. I come here for the children's sake, but I benefit from being out of the house, too."