Agenda risks creating overwhelming workload

1st April 2006 at 01:00

I have just finished a term as an advisory senior manager to the Charter School in the London borough of Southwark. I have had the luxury of a little bit of extra time to observe, as well as participate, in a school's response to the Every Child Matters agenda.

Filling in the Ofsted self-evaluation form, the Charter's leadership team have thought long and hard about certain aspects of their practice in relation to the Every Child Matters cornerstones of how the school supports healthy lifestyles, personal safety, enjoyment of learning and future economic well-being. Clearly, Ofsted has made schools sit up and take notice by incorporating this agenda into inspections.

I can see that for the Charter, the legislation has rubber-stamped many of its already good practices and encouraged them to fine-tune others, rather than create from scratch. It is a new-build school, replacing a failing boys' comprehensive, and always conscious that "social inclusion" was the key to meeting the needs of its very diverse community of pupils.

A walk from the gate shows how challenging the variety and diversity of making every child matter is going to be here. Turn left and you are in Dulwich Village, with some of the most magisterial detached villas in London. Go right and you descend to Loughborough Junction and Denmark Hill, with some of the most impoverished and overcrowded estates in the country.

Significant numbers of pupils go home in both directions to worlds apart.

As Betsan Williams, a deputy head, explains, the "careful planning" and boundless enthusiasm that started this community school, rather than any specific government agenda, is at the heart of its creative and detailed pupil-centred approach. Since September 2000, the Charter has grown by one year group a year, and her role as deputy in charge of "safeguarding" has grown with it.

From day one, the Charter employed permanent trained counsellors and brought in a professional theatre company to lead high-quality workshops on homophobia, drugs, bullying and sexuality. It is a tradition to take the whole of Year 7 away for a weekend to build their sense of community.

Ms Williams believes the Every Child Matters legislation is beginning to make it easier for her to find practical solutions to some pupils' complex difficulties, through increasingly effective multi-agency work.

"I have a list of phone numbers for a wide range of new and highly specialised children services teams, like the Family Support Services," she says.

The police have a much more regular role in the school, with a community officer who has her own office in the building. The local education authority says police are taking domestic violence issues more seriously as a result of Every Child Matters. Ms Williams also feels the external agencies she works with have a greater sense of being held accountable than ever before.

But the Every Child Matters agenda threatens to create an overwhelming workload for schools.

Is it realistic for schools to take a lead professional role in complex child multi-agency work when their overall raison d'etre is to be held accountable for an annual improvement in exam results? Where should the deputy head, form tutor and subject teachers' roles stop in terms of being involved in every aspect of a young person's life? How many hours should instead be prioritised in marking books, setting exams and planning lessons?

I can see why teachers begin to ask why schools are always at the centre of all government initiatives for the overall well-being of the young. Why shouldn't the library host extra reading tuition? Couldn't the leisure centre provide parenting classes?

Ultimately schools like the Charter have to set priorities within the Every Child Matters agenda that benefit the greatest number of pupils.

Chris Bowler, headteacher since September, has decided that "no child can be said to matter" unless behaviour in the classrooms is such that teachers can always teach with minimal disruption.

The school's solution to maximising pupil learning is by creating a team of three behaviour officers, who patrol the corridors all day and remove any disruptive youngsters. Mr Bowler has set up a variety of alternative educational provisions to make sure that pupils who really find it hard to cope in mainstream have alternative curriculum offers.

So my experience in this large urban comprehensive is that it has chosen to back emphatically the Every Child Matters theme of "enjoyment and achievement" in lessons and single-mindedly resource systems that support this. This comes to life in a key stage 4 assembly, when a pupil with very severe speechlanguage difficulties proudly makes his very halting contribution. The pupils listen respectfully and patiently before giving a spontaneous cheer and round of applause which brings a smile to every teacher in the room.

Clearly Every Child Matters works best when the school is confident enough to develop its own priorities around creating the best possible lesson environment. From this, all other goals flow. Without this, the breath of life never enters the policy documents and they will only gather dust on the shelves.

Paul Blum has just ended a term's secondment at The Charter School in Southwark, south London

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