A new age of mix and match

1st March 2004 at 00:00

Legislation to protect children means heads must team up with health and social services. Nic Barnard reports

It is billed as the biggest change in the way schools operate since heads and governors took charge of their own budgets 15 years ago. Last week's Children Bill set out a vision of an education system in which schools work hand-in-hand with social workers, health teams, youth workers and a wide range of other agencies.

For many school leaders that will require a new approach to running their schools, addressing the needs of the whole child after more than a decade of tight focus on the standards agenda. The question is, are they ready for it?

Maggie Farrar of the National College for School Leadership says heads are beginning to be aware of the new agenda. Since last May, the college has been piloting a series of initiatives to improve the collaboration between services and ease the transition towards so-called "extended" schools.

"If schools are going to transform the life chances of young people in this country, they really can't do that on their own," says Ms Farrar.

The college's community leadership strategy is an attempt to spread good practice from schools already engaged in multi-agency work, and to find ways of building capacity in schools, local authorities and other services.

It includes programmes to involve pupils in the planning of local services and initiatives to develop the skills of community leaders.

But at its heart is a series of national seminars on extended schools, backed by support for heads who are trying to develop multi-agency teams.

Sharing practice is seen as the key to bringing this agenda to life. Heads working in extended schools say there may be technical aspects to grasp about how other agencies operate, how they fit together and their legal contexts - but in the end it will come down to making contact at a local level.

This is a high-profile agenda. Last year's precursor to the Bill, the green paper Every Child Matters, carried the personal imprimatur of the Prime Minister, and the Treasury is taking a lively interest. It perhaps requires of local services the kind of joined-up thinking which ministers have not always shown themselves. The message from schools in the vanguard is that staff on the ground may be keen to collaborate, but structures and hierarchies can get in the way.

Opening up communication with other service providers - particularly health and social services - will call for energy, Ms Farrar warns (see Carers become sharers, page 33).

"At the moment, the way we work is only loosely connected," she says. "The language we use is different and that creates a barrier. We work very hard on our own agendas but don't work very well at connecting them. It takes time to build up trust."

Heads will have to negotiate turf wars. Social services can be sceptical about schools' capacity to reach problem families, and argue that these children are often disaffected and their parents have a poor relationship with schools.

Neil Wilson, acting head of Newall Green community school on Manchester's Wythenshaw estate - one of the country's most deprived wards - disagrees.

Newall Green has its own education welfare officers, social workers and health workers. Mr Wilson says: "We've got evidence that parents will not go to social services because they feel ashamed and embarrassed. But they will come into school because it is socially acceptable to support their sons and daughters.

"By doing low-level work at a fairly early stage, you're saving an awful lot of time, effort and money later on."

Schools can also provide continuity and a quick response, he says: "If they go to social services, they might be seen five times by five different people. We can set up a case meeting in a day, whereas social services are likely to take three weeks, unless it's an emergency."

Mr Wilson adds that social workers have been keen to work in the school.

"They tell us it's much more cost-effective than working in teams at social services," he says.

Mr Wilson says that the school has already experienced funding tussles with social services, and believes heads will need to take their staff on board with them.

"The head will lead and take the initiative - but it's a team approach and it needs committed people. Identify your lead practitioners; send them to see good practice elsewhere; set up twilight training to look at their own practice and say,'This is what we intend to do, this is what we're doing now, and this is how we move towards it'."

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, says training will be needed but warns that precedents are not encouraging.

"The history of joint social services and education training after the 1989 Children's Act was lamentable," he says. "It just didn't happen and they still don't know what each other does."

Governors are already getting on board. Susie Hall, chair of the National Co-ordinators of Governor Services, says the national picture varies but most authorities have made a start.

"Most LEAs have done briefings on the legal implications and opportunities - but I think that will be developed further to work through what it might mean in practice."

Janet Sheriton of Hampshire governors' services says well-informed governors will be aware of the debate taking place but that it is too soon to say what the training implications will be.

"None of the government documents has given much insight into how this is intended to impact on the ground," she says.

"Clearly, governors' involvement will be to address the strategic implications for their work. They won't be involved in any of the casework, and good governing bodies already work around child protection issues."

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, says heads must not take their eye off standards. But perhaps the leap isn't as big or daunting as schools fear. Ms Farrar, at the NCSL, says the proposals fit well with two existing trends in leadership: networking and individualised learning.

Heads are already developing collaborations, encouraged by the leadership incentive grant. This has given secondary schools in Excellence in Cities areas or with GCSE A*-C pass rates below 30 per cent an extra pound;125,000 for developing leadership teams. The extended school must now spread those networks wider, she says.

"To take personalised learning seriously, we have to look creatively at working with all adults who help young people.

"Heads tell us that there is a direct link between well-being and learning."


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