A big helping hand
School staff are taking a leading role in sorting out pupils' personal lives. Susannah Kirkman reports
We have four children in our school whose progress has increased beyond measure because we managed to get things sorted out in their personal lives," said Bob Pavard, head of Durrington middle school, Worthing.
Mr Pavard is one of an advance guard of lead professionals who will co-ordinate support for children and families with complex needs, playing a crucial role in their learning. This extra responsibility has been taken on enthusiastically by heads and special educational needs co-ordinators in some of the 12 local authorities taking part in a government pilot, despite concerns over increased workload.
"Some children have huge barriers to learning and we have to deal with these before pupils can reach their potential," said Helen Middleton, head of John Randall primary school in Telford. "It is difficult for heads because we are used to focusing on standards and waving Sats scores, but we have to look at the whole child."
She talks about a pupil at her school whose behaviour suddenly deteriorated. Staff discovered that his parents had separated, and suspected abuse. Social services were alerted and the boy went to live with his father. Ms Middleton was chosen to act as the lead professional and Telford's "team around the child" approach swung into action, with a series of joint meetings involving different services.
"We have seen a tremendous change in the father and child," Ms Middleton said. "The father has now taken on responsibility for his family, and the boy's attitude to school has improved because he has seen the friendly, supportive relationship between his father and school staff. Otherwise, that family could have fallen apart."
Ms Middleton believes the school's lead professional role has definitely improved relationships with parents. "They are seeing us as more human and understanding as we are looking beyond their difficulties to the underlying causes," she said.
One of the main functions of the lead professional is to help parents make good choices and show them how to navigate their way through the system.
Marianne Phillips, head of Newport junior school in Telford, believes that the sharing of information between services has been very positive.
"Before, we used to depend on parents giving information to the school; now, we know whether other agencies have ever been involved with the family and we can support them much sooner," she said.
The new co-ordinated approach has many other advantages for schools, according to Georgina Glenny, a senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes university, who has evaluated an Oxfordshire pilot project. "Previously, schools felt that there was a huge number of children with needs affecting their education who weren't receiving enough support," she said. "There was felt to be a no-man's land between the support which schools could confidently offer and that which other agencies had the resources to provide."
A common assessment, which can be initiated by a school at any time, avoids duplication and means that children causing concern can be picked up more quickly and given help.
Helen Smith, senco at West Park middle school, Worthing, has found it beneficial to take on the lead professional role as she says parents sometimes find it easier to work with teachers than with other professionals.
"In the past, some families have not engaged, missing appointments when help has been offered by social services or the child and adolescent mental health services, but we have managed to gain their confidence," she said.
The lead professional's responsibilities, liaising with outside agencies and parents, sit easily with Ms Smith's work as a senco, but she agrees that her part-time colleagues might find it harder to cope with all the demands.
The downside for schools is the extra work and responsibility involved, without the incentive of more resources or salary.
"While some staff have taken on the role with gusto, others are struggling with the concept," admitted Ian Vinall, the strategic manager for partnerships in children's and young people's services in West Sussex.
"Some have found that it supports what they already do and makes their job easier; previously, they would have had to make two or three referrals to different services who might or might not be able to respond. Now services have a responsibility to work together."
But heads and sencos can be daunted by the idea that they will be held responsible if none of the extra support a child needs actually materialises.
But lead professionals should not be left to the carry the can if things go wrong. In West Sussex, each school belongs to a "cluster" with its own joint access team. Every team includes staff from social and heath services, alongside youth and youth justice workers, and is managed by an integrated services manager. If services do not deliver as promised, the lead professional can rely on the integrated services manager to chase them up.
A similar system operates in Telford.
"The lead professional is not a case manager," said Sara Tough, senior manager of Change for Children in Telford and Wrekin. "It is a co-ordinating and information-sharing role, and the integrated services manager will help to bring the team together with parents, share information and decide on a plan."
How will school staff cope with the workload? In Telford "team around the child" meetings take place every six weeks and the common assessment form takes a long time to complete.
Helen Middleton thinks school managers will have to plan more flexibly. She shares the lead professional duties with the learning mentor, who carries out the common assessment. "Heads may need to reorganise their time; they may have to be creative with staffing to manage the extra workload," she said.
Mr Pavard is restructuring management posts at his school to create a new assistant headship with responsibility for special needs, gifted and talented pupils and the integrated working demanded by the Children Act.
Mr Vinall says schools may also share the lead professional role with a health visitor or a social worker, removing the burden of case management and enhancing co-operation between different services. He also argues that the general recognition of children's holistic needs will ultimately have a highly positive impact on schools.
"One of the challenges is persuading a range of different agencies that education is a collective responsibility, but other services, including housing and leisure, are already willing to work much more closely with schools to support families," Mr Vinall said.
WHAT IS A LEAD PROFESSIONAL?
Children who need the support of several agencies must have a lead professional.
That individual should :
* act as a contact point for families;
* ensure that services provide well-planned and effective support;
* reduce overlap and inconsistency.
In schools, the role has so far mainly been taken by primary heads and sencos, occasionally by school nurses and learning mentors. All authorities must begin to introduce lead professionals by next September.