There are problems : drugs, prostitution, crime, poverty . . . But Manchester has a vision of what can be achieved when education, health and social services meet under the nursery-school roof. Stephanie Northen reports on an unusual community project The parents at Vicky Morton's nursery and infants school have been known to drive her up the wall. Particularly when they turn up, unknown and unannounced, on her office doorstep with two toddlers in tow and not a word of English between them.
It's not anger that makes the headteacher climb the wall, of course. It's the only way she can reach the clock that hangs above her desk. And without that clock in her hands, Vicky can't explain to a mother, fresh off the plane from Libya, what time school starts in Manchester.
For her finale in this mimed welcoming ceremony, Vicky draws the woman a picture. It is of the passport she needs to bring in to prove her children's dates of birth.
The Libyan mother is, in one way at least, lucky. She may be setting up home in a poor area of a poor city whose language and culture are alien, but she has chosen a good school for her children .
Manchester is known for its progressive attitude to the under-fives. Back in 1991 it was one of the first (and is still one of the few) to combine the management of its early-years education and social services departments in a children's services division. Such "integration" often involves painful breaking down of inter-departmental barriers, but Manchester persevered, going on to set up six children's centres - the success of which can be judged by the fact that the staff give guided tours to visiting education officials roughly once a week.
Now the city wants to go further, and Temple nursery and infants school is a thriving example of what it wants the future to look like. This future has already got a name - "Championing Children", the title of a radical report on the city's services published late last year by the National Children's Bureau. Manchester is spending Pounds 750,000 on the NCB's recommendations and intends to launch pilots in three schools in September.
The aim is, broadly, to work towards a unified and universal children's service with its emphasis on the under-fives and, crucially, their parents. Prevention of problems is seen as preferable to the current system of crisis management which can often come too late - even for a five-year-old.
There is a determination, says Maggie Smith, head of children's services, to "redress disadvantage in the face of a market culture" and to build on a "vision of child and family getting effective support when they need it".
So what will all this mean for the Libyan mother? Maggie Smith says parents whose four-year-old needs speech therapy will no longer have to "knock on nine different official doors". Vicky Morton dreams of "a drop-in centre for parents with social services there on a Monday, education welfare on a Tuesday, benefits advisers on a Wednesday, counsellors on Thursday, the health clinic on Friday..."
This "unified" source of help would not just be for the parents at her school but tailored to suit the local community. When Vicky took over at Temple six years ago, she had trouble persuading parents, more than 90 per cent of whom are from the ethnic minorities, through the nursery door to discuss their child's progress. Their hesitation arose mainly from the fear that their homes would be burgled if they lingered. So she would add crime prevention advice to the services on offer at her ideal drop-in centre.
This illustrates a key recommendation of the NCB report. Primary schools, it said, should be the base for the new preventative service because they are almost as common as post boxes and visiting one is as commonplace an activity as posting a letter.
"The NCBreport stresses that everything is linked, that we should all be working together," says Vicky.
In an area troubled with drugs and prostitution, many of Vicky Morton's parents would be reluctant to call in to their local constabulary for a chat about window locks. Similarly, Muslim mothers do not always find it easy to seek advice on health and family planning. So, base the source of advice at the infants school.
Another example Vicky cites is that of the child whose squabbling parents have packed him off hungry and alone to school. "Having counselling services based at the school might just help him - and perhaps his parents - to learn and not just to re-enact the violence he has seen at home." It would also be better for the service, says Vicky, "because they could see at first hand what the problems are".
While she dreams of a one-stop centre - awaiting confirmation that her 1930s split-site school is to ae replaced - Vicky has not been idle. Next-door to Temple is the local health clinic, and pupils benefit from the connection - they have just completed a project on teeth, for example. Health is a troubling issue in parts of Manchester. A recent height-and-weights survey found quite extreme deviations from the norm and, as Maggie Smith says, hungry, sunken-eyed children are just not going to learn.
"Championing Children" em- braces the voluntary sector, and Vicky is building up links with local childminders and playgroups.
Temple has a parent-and-toddler group and is starting its own playgroup to provide continuity for the nursery. It has run workshops for parents on every aspect of under-fives' learning - though not without a qualm. "We've shown parents what we want them to do at home with their children, but to make it successful takes staff and time. There's a fight going on in my own mind about the quality of education being provided - that perhaps I'm doing too much for the parents."
Vicky hopes that "'Championing Children' will mean more resources, more people, more appreciation of what we already do".
Sixteen schools applied to pilot "Championing Children". The three that were chosen proved that they had a good track record on collaboration with health, social services and the voluntary sector. Each one is in a very different area of the city and will conduct a baseline assessment of children - who may be under 12 months old - and their parents. "We will look at what parents' and children's expectations of life are," says Maggie Smith, "and measure them during the pilot to see if they are raised."
Vicky Morton's school is not a formal pilot, as it is already putting many of the ideas into practice. It has been conducting baseline assessment in the nursery, and Vicky intends to introduce a "value-added" element in September so that staff can tell if a child is progressing satisfactorily.
She says: "We'll use any method, any technique, anything that works for the children." The recent Panorama programme on the success of whole-class teaching methods in Taiwan had her "shouting at the television".
"OK, I'll stand in the playground in a peach suit with a megaphone and I'll shout at the children. But will they all arrive at school on time, will they all have had breakfast, will they all be wearing uniforms? God forbid that they would be wearing numbers. I'm sorry, but this is Manchester, and it's a different world."