Caring in the community
How will hard-pressed primary headteachers be helped by the Government's childcare reforms?
By 2008 ministers hope to have 2,500 children's centres in England, of which 1,700 will serve the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Most will be based in or near primary schools; places like the Wren's Nest in Dudley, where headteacher Ruth Wylie would like the promised cavalry to gallop over the horizon as soon as possible.
"What I'm looking for is a strategic vision for children's services. That's what we desperately need," she says.
Dudley may not feature in the kind of "top 10 most deprived" list that ministers are so fond of, but the Wren's Nest estate is a pocket of real disadvantage, with predictable effects on its school.
Head Ms Wylie spends about two-thirds of her time on social issues: liaising with social workers, dealing with parents' problems, finding the right support service for children with multiple needs.
"When I took on this job I didn't know what a school with 59 per cent free meals looked like," she says. "I had no idea of the magnitude and the intensity of the problems."
When she arrived the key stage 2 test scores were poor. "We had figures of 18 per cent getting maths level 4; last year we had 42 per cent and we are hoping to see that move to 54 per cent, but there is a significant way to go," she says.
The "Renner", as it is known to locals, is not an easy place to work. Ms Wylie employs an internal relief team to cover staff absence, with the cost met by the local education authority. "Supply teachers can't cope here," she says.
One day last year a mother arrived at the school with her child in one hand and all her possessions in the other. Having finally summoned the courage to escape an abusive relationship she ran to the only place of safety she knew - the school.
The school works closely with the local health adviser, who runs drop-in sessions for families, but the current service only scratches the surface of what is possible.
"I keep meeting the health visitor at case conferences; we deal with the same families. It would be wonderful if she could come into school on a more formal basis," says Ms Wylie.
For a vision of what the Wren's Nest will have in place in a couple of years time we need to move south to Cheltenham, where a children's centre will open later this month on the site of the Gardners Lane primary school.
Gardners Lane services a big housing estate behind GCHQ, the Government's secret intelligence listening centre. Cheltenham may have a quintessentially middle-class image, but the catchment area is challenging.
"We have an average free school meals figure of 53 per cent," says head Charles Welsh.
Similarities end there. Mr Welsh has had a social services family centre on site for several years. The centre's manager Lin Fitzsimonds co-ordinates a network of services and partnerships which all have the aim of supporting the area's children and families.
Ms Fitzsimonds is following a new course to help her fill this role: the national professional qualification in integrated community leadership. The training is useful because managing a community resource is a complex task.
"We have health professionals who work from the site, including child psychologists and two health visitors," she says. "The school nurse comes every week and is available for parents, there's a nursery, an adult education programme, parenting classes."
There is day care for children up to the age of five from 8am to 6pm for 51 weeks of the year. Paediatricians run an assessment clinic once a month.
The centre employs a child minder network co-ordinator. These services are not just based at the school, they are seen as part of it.
Mr Welsh said: "The job changes, initially the workload increases, because you have to go through the process of building relationships with people."
The focus of centres like these is on the pre-school child, but Mr Welsh stresses that the services benefit all the family, not just the youngest.
And when children do come into his foundation class the school already knows them - and their family.
"Which makes a huge difference," he says. "Between key stage 1 and 2 you can see the extra progress they make: you can measure the 'value added'."
More information available at www.surestart.gov.uksurestartserviceschildrenscentresThe national professional qualification in integrated community leadership is offered by the National College for School Leadership, www.ncsl.org.uk