Study praises initiative

Community schools are improving professional collaboration, according to new research, reports David Henderson

Teachers, social workers and health specialists are after all working more closely because of the Scottish Executive's drive on professional collaboration through new community schools, according to researchers from the Institute of Education at London University.

In a study of 37 projects, involving 170 schools over the first phase of the initiative between 2000 and 2002, the researchers conclude that despite obvious difficulties in multi-agency working, the scheme is beginning to prove its worth.

But the Scottish Tories claim there is no conclusive evidence that attainment is rising, despite the millions injected into the Executive priority.

Extra funding has helped various initiatives but there is less progress where there is no additional cash, for example, in the development of personal learning plans. On a positive note, many projects have launched health promotion campaigns, including breakfast clubs, approaches to healthy eating and food co-operatives.

As ever, the troops in middle management and frontline classrooms are less aware of new community school activities and their impact than senior school managers and learning or behaviour support staff. In some instances, relationships between headteachers and integration managers are "problematic".

The larger the project, the less likely it is to succeed since more effort goes into bureaucratic procedures. "Although perhaps necessary for developing a new infrastructure, they make it more difficult for professionals working 'on the ground' to see development and benefits in the short-term," the team states.

Findings from in-depth case studies suggest that "multi-agency working is often very difficult to achieve". Tensions or barriers are created by the school timetables, holidays and line management structures; by different dress codes and levels of formality; and by professional etiquette such as confidentiality procedures.

The researchers emphasise: "Cultural and attitudinal barriers are perhaps best exemplified by varying approaches to exclusion and inclusion, particularly between education and social work staff."

But the evidence appears that schools are more involved than they have ever been in education, health and social policies initiatives with other agencies. Twice the number of primaries and secondaries report being involved in health initiatives.

"Joint ways of working, bringing together education, health and social work in the delivery of services, have substantially increased following the start of new community school work," the London researchers state.

On the pupil front, the projects led to more extra-curricular activity and more ways to express views, for example, through circle time sessions and pupil councillors in primary to surveys of pupils' views.

Meanwhile, projects offered more adult learning and parenting courses, linked particularly to nurseries and primaries - anything from numeracy and literacy classes to aromatherapy and first aid.

Cathy Jamieson, Education Minister, said new community schools are at the heart of the Executive's strategy for closing the attainment gap. By integrating services, agencies would ensure the needs of all children were met.

"These interim findings confirm that, even in the earliest stages, significant benefits for children, schools and agencies can be secured," she said.

Brian Monteith, the Tories' education spokesman, said the study was meaningless as it provides no evidence about attainment. The schools he had visited were doing good work in alleviating social problems but "let's not pretend pupil attainment is any better than it was before millions of pounds was spent on these projects".

He added: "I welcome any increase in extra-curricular activities but, frankly, an increase in partnership activity and an ability to attract more government funds is meaningless bureaucratic flannel. The real test is whether pupils are doing better."

All schools over the next three years will eventually be expected to pick up the practices of those involved in the first stages. Ministers injected pound;37.2 million into an initiative that now covers 62 projects and 400 schools and a further pound;30.6m is available over the next three years.

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