The best approach

4th November 2005 at 00:00
Martin Whittaker on how different agencies are tackling behaviour together

Tackling poor pupil behaviour has been high on the Government's agenda and has become a subject of much public debate. The issue has even had the reality television treatment, with "the class from hell" in the recent Channel 4 documentary, Unteachables.

In his last annual report, the chief inspector of schools, David Bell, voiced concerns about disruption in the classroom. Inspectors found that some primary and secondary schools regarded up to half their pupils as showing challenging behaviour.

And although behaviour in primary schools has improved since 1997, there has been no reduction in low-level disruption of lessons in secondary schools.

Behind these findings are some deeper issues concerning children's mental health. One in 10 children in the UK has a clinically recognisable mental disorder, according to surveys by the Department of Health and the Scottish Executive.

And the chief inspector's report indicated that pupils who show withdrawn, anxious and depressed behaviour could be under-identified in all settings.

One measure to help schools cope has been the introduction of behaviour and education support teams, or Bests, part of the Government's strategy to improve pupil behaviour and attendance.

Behaviour and education support teams are groups of professionals from the fields of health, social care and education who work closely with targeted schools to help pupils who are at risk of developing emotional, social and behavioural problems.

There are 80 such multi-agency teams working with primary and secondary schools under the Department for Education and Skills' behaviour improvement programme.

But how do behaviour and education support teams work? According to official guidance, they aim to offer support on three levels: whole-school support, group support to children and their parents, and intensive support to individual children and families.

As well as identifying children and young people at risk of developing problems and offering individual support, their aim is to help schools to develop strategies for promoting pupils' emotional well-being, positive behaviour and attendance. They also work with teachers and support staff to develop their skills in managing behaviour.

In Liverpool, the multi-agency approach has been praised by inspectors.

Liverpool City Council, the authority responsible for children's services, has built on established links with child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs).

Mental health provision was one area identified by schools and the local education authority as essential in tackling poor behaviour and attendance.

Because of this link, the city's three behaviour and education support teams are managed by health professionals, an unusual model as most Bests are run by education.

"The focus of the teams has been to improve children's mental health and emotional well-being," said Elspeth Bromiley, a consultant family therapist who oversees the teams. "We didn't want managers just to be managers and give more of the same. We wanted to have a different way of looking at it."

As well as mental health service workers, the teams include social workers, school nurses, youth workers and police officers.

"When you think about young people, you think about the kind of groups they operate in, what they are like as people, their families, their schools, the community and their peers," she says.

"So what we wanted to do was provide a team that could intervene at all those different levels of a young person's life."

The teams work with four secondary schools and their feeder primaries in areas of Liverpool identified by Merseyside police as crime hot spots.

And they operate in different ways. While one team will go into a particular primary school as part of a whole-school approach, another may have a single team member meeting regularly with the school to talk over any issues.

Much of their work also involves training teachers and support staff, running parenting groups, and working directly with individual referrals, as well as working with schools on any strategic or management issues, for example looking at behaviour policies.

"What we hope to do is boost the school and how they are managing pupils,"

says Ms Bromiley. "And then, hopefully, there would be fewer and fewer of the pupils we need to deal with, becausethe schools are dealing with behaviour more effectively."

The impact of behaviour and education support teams on attendance and exclusions in Liverpool's schools is being assessed. But Elspeth Bromiley believes the teams are definitely making a difference.

"I think the schools where we have had an input are much, much, more emotionally literate," she says.

"And I think teachers have liked having people from different agencies around, because previously they have only ever met them when there has tended to be a crisis.

"So having those people on site means they can consult them and think with them about how best to deal with particular children. We have made a huge difference to a number of children. And the training of staff has made a difference also."

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