'Children first' aim in council reshuffle

10th March 2000 at 00:00
Education and some social work functions are being merged in Stirling's mould-breaking initiative, reports David Henderson

ANNE STEWART, headteacher of Raploch primary, is unequivocal in her praise. "Everyone in education I have spoken to is 100 per cent behind this idea," she says.

Her primary serves one of the most disadvantaged areas anywhere. It is already a new community school pilot, and pupils such as hers will benefit most if greater inter-agency liaison can help to break the cycle of poverty, deprivation and lost opportunities.

Ms Stewart's acclamation is shared by leading reformers behind Stirling's drive to establish a new pattern of local government service from April 1, merging about a third of the social work service with education to form an overall children's service. It will swallow 53 per cent of the council budget.

Gordon Jeyes, Stirling's current children's director, and general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, will continue in charge. But he also will have 70 social workers under his command, staff who provide vital services for several hundred looked-after children.

In Stirling Council, there is no such word as "department", only "services". Clients, including pupils, are meant to come first, professionals second.

Ms Stewart chairs the council's new community school project and shares the vision. She says: "I have already seen by talking to colleagues how important it is that we're working towards the same goals - that children and families achieve their potential. If everyone's in their own doocots we won't achieve so much."

Ms Stewart adds: "In the past there have been tensions between education and social work. Teachers would ask what social workers were doing all day, and social workers would ask why teachers could not see why homework was not in on time."

At a practical level, Raploch primary is identifying families receiving social work support and arranging inter-agency meetings. Issues of confidentiality have already been raised, but Ms Stewart says: "The more information we have about a child and family and the pressure they're under, the more likely we are to deal with the problems in school."

The new community school initiative is forcing professionals to collaborate in new ways, says Mr Jeyes: "Stirling always said all schools should be new community schools, not as an initiative but as a way of working. The children's service is new community schools writ large."

Mr Jeyes accepts that Stirling is a small council and that what works for it may not work for other authorities, which are watching closely. Around a third of Scottish councils want to emulate the integrated structure. But the cross-over between social workers and teachers will not extend to conditions and professional standards.

"The service does not want teachers to be social workers or vice versa. Each should work in circumstances where they can make the most effective contribution on the basis of their knowledge and skills," Mr Jeyes says.

Pam Viney, Educational Institute of Scotland local secretary, acknowledges existing barriers between teachers and social workers but is hopeful they will vanish.

She says: "It is going to be quite difficult as in some ways we are pretty entrenched. If you have a social worker assigned to a scool or cluster of schools, then the inter-agency approach should be easier. It has often been difficult to contact social workers. They have a big caseload and you wait until they are available."

Ms Viney believes only a small number of teachers are going to see a difference. Questions remain over whether social workers will be entering classrooms.

From the social work side, Peter Bates, acting director of housing and social services, talks about "complementary skills". Mr Bates enjoys an estimable pedigree, having been assistant director of social work in Strathclyde, director in Tayside and Dundee and the social work directors' association secretary before taking early retirement.

He, too, is unequivocal in his support of the new service. "We should not underestimate the degree of bureaucracy, buck-passing, paperwork and administrative bunk that got in the way of education and social work getting their acts together for children. This is very significant. People across all disciplines want to be able to use the excuse that 'it's all education's fault', or 'it's all the bloody social workers'," he says.

Mr Bates continues: "This is about team working for children, it's not a take-over. This is not a bolt-on to a powerful education service, this is a new service with a new sense of purpose. The starting point is children and Stirling is saying 'we could do it better'. Structures do not resolve problems, what makes the difference is the commitment staff bring."

A single service for children is not new, Mr Bates points out. In the late 1960s, Lord Kilbrandon proposed one education and children's service but his suggestion was thrown out. However, the issues have never gone away.

Mr Jeyes adds: "The educational attainment of the most vulnerable children remains a disgrace. If we do not raise the life chances of looked-after children, we have failed. We are doing this for all children but we're targeting the most vulnerable first."

Social workers, says Mr Bates, see the new service as a positive opportunity for looked-after children, defined as those in foster care, residential units and children's homes or children under protection measures.

Research showed social work staff to be deeply unhappy with their previous experience of housing and social services. Morale was rock bottom. Now there is another new beginning. Mr Bates believes full consultation helped to smooth the transition.

Margaret Innes, Unison branch secretary, says social workers are embracing the new direction after "upfront" assurances about their role. "This is more like an internal reorganisation, although no one knows how it's going to work. We have had working groups in tandem for three years and this has its foundations in good working practices. But there will be a need for lots of training and development for both sides. It's quite exciting and comes at a good time with the new community schools concept."

One change introduced by Mr Jeyes was realigning social work teams to school catchment areas and the reinstatement of service managers to social work.

And if anyone thinks this a complex reorganisation too far, Stirling is planning within three years to integrate the bulk of social work on the community care side with local health services. "Now that's even more radical," Mr Bates notes.

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