Dewar's legacy

27th October 2000 at 01:00
Today the Edinburgh Conference, organised by the city's education department and TES Scotland, was to have been addressed by Donald Dewar. The subject of the conference is social inclusion. A key strategy for achieving it is the new community schools progamme which was launched by Dewar in 1998. Raymond Ross reports on its success so far and the benefits that will endure.

At Baldragon Academy in Dundee they have an abiding image of Donald Dewar; a very fitting one to remember him by. "He might have seemed a bit of a stiff politician on television," says Marion Neil, the integration manager of this new community school, "but he was marvellous with the kids. He was so at ease, so genuine.

"I'll always remember him being interviewed for the school magazine. There he was, chatting with the pupils, sitting on a bean bag with his knees up around his ears."

Perhaps this is the way the late First Minister, who was buried last week, would like to be remembered. He was very much a champion of social inclusion and of the new community schools programme which he launched in November 1998. This now has 37 pilot projects running, involving 30 local authorities.

The three-year programme, in which pound;26 million has been invested, was seen by Dewar as "a radical initiative to modernise schools, raise attainment and promote social inclusion". A "team approach" is the key to an integrated provision of services involving teachers, social workers, community education workers and health professionals. Each project is different and each has been designed locally to meet local needs.

At Baldragon Academy, a strong emphasis on health education led to the setting up of The Edge, a drop-in centre run by senior pupils. This has expanded so that the pupils are now being trained as a peer support group to help spearhead health education initiatives, which include a healthy breakfast club at the school.

The Edge developed from work being done by the school nurse, Veronica McEwen. What she initiated as a weekly drop-in lunchtime facility has now become so popular that it runs three lunchtimes a week, with S1 and S2 pupils attending on Mondays, S3 to S6 on Thursdays and an open door to all pupils on Wednesdays.

The Edge provides a range of health education leaflets as well as group sessions (and individual confidential advice) on issues ranging from sex education, alcohol and drugs (including tobacco) to mental health and aromatherapy. "Mental health became an issue because of discussions about exam-related stress," says headteacher George Laidlaw.

"The Edge is very much pupil-driven. In fact, it's become so popular that it's the place for pupils to go at lunchtime."

At Baldragon Academy the new community school ethos has grown to embrace other initiatives, including an alternative curriculum aimed at pupils with behavioural difficulties or who are at risk of becoming school refusers.

"We welcome the social inclusion agenda of this government," says Mr Laidlaw. "The integrated approach benefits all pupils."

The pound;200,000 budget which each school in Dewar's NCS programme receives means not only that a school such as Baldragon Academy can now employ a social worker, a family support worker and training care assistants, but also that the school nurse is available on a daily basis and so can go into classes to promote health education.

"Outside of emergencies or special requests, previously I would only have been here once a month," says Ms McEwen. "Now I'm available every day.

"I run two groups of special educational needs pupils, one male and one female. With the boys I'm doing male image at the moment. It's something that's very important regarding mental health."

The integration manager, a former guidance teacher at the school, also believes health education is important. "Take the breakfast club, for example," Ms Neil says. "Quite a high uptake at the morning interval tuckshop alerted us to the fact that a significant number of pupils, especially girls, were not having breakfast. Eating in the morning is 'uncool' for a lot of adolescent girls.

"So the breakfast club became something we had to promote. Now 50 or 60 pupils come every morning to eat with their mates.

"It has a lot of benefits. It's impacted on attendance and lateness. Some of the staff come too, including the rector, and they eat with the kids. So, it's a chance to sit down and chat informally. It's a community thing."

Community spirit is clearly benefitting the school, says Mr Laidlaw. Baldragon Academy has a varied catchment area, with more than 50 per cent of pupils receiving a clothing grant, he says, and the school is using its NCS status to increase not only pupil involvement but also parental and wider community participation.

As an example of this, Ms Neil relates how one pupil with behavioural difficulties organised a summer charity football festival at the school, with the help of parents and friends, involving 12 five-a-side teams. It raised pound;500 for Imperial Cancer Research.

"That is part of what's developing here in terms of community and family links," says Ms Neil. "We have a family support worker and an educational psychologist who are helping to develop these links."

Illustrating how the NCS programme is boosting social inclusion, Ms Neil says: "We have taught two school refusers in the local neighbourhood centre. One has gone on to college to do child care, and college is the long-term aim for the younger one.

"It's maybe too early to say how the NCS initiative is impacting in statistical terms but the number of pupils staying on is increasing, by a third from last year.

"We have five or six pupils from different families who would probably not have remained in mainstream education but for our extra resources and staff, and we have put two girls into college who would never have gone had it not been for the leadership courses we were able to access, run by the Abernethy Trust at Ardeonaig on Loch Tay."

She continues: "We have a multi-disciplinary team contributing to social education lessons, which impacts lower down the school. It's very much a team approach, the benefits of which we'll see in time.

"The parental feedback has been good and we now have an adult learning worker who is going to start computing classes for parents, which is what they have requested, and we are going to run an adult guidance course in the new year to find out what their learning needs are."

"For us, the community school issue is based on the fact that what is changing is not short term," says Mr Laidlaw. "A lot of our initiatives are dependent on the extra funding. They need resources and they need to continue to be resourced.

"It's a rolling programme with other schools about to come on board. It doesn't make sense for the funding to stop in 2002, after three years. Put it this way: we have no exit strategy."

In Alloa, Clackmannanshire, Park Primary is part of a new community schools initiative bringing it together with its feeder nursery (Tower Nursery, for three to five-year-olds) and the Alloa Family Centre (with facilities for new-borns to three-year-olds) to form the Park Community Learning Campus, which was set up last April.

Half of the pound;200,000 budget has gone on employing campus staff, including the equivalent of a full-time teacher to support the management team, as Park Primary headteacher Anne Pearson is also the integration manager, a full-time social worker, a home-school liaison worker, a care worker and nursery school assistant, a speech and language therapist (two days a week) and psychological services (two and half days a week).

More than 60 per cent of Park pupils receive free meals and the school is in the top 10 per cent of poverty areas in Scotland.

"We need to make the families more confident and happier to come into the school," says Mrs Pearson. "This is an area of poverty and ill health. To have emotionally healthy children, you need emotionally healthy families.

"The self-esteem of the children goes hand in hand with the self-esteem of the parents and community. If a bairn grows up in a house where the parents feel failures, what chance does the bairn have?" The family centre's manager, Jane Rough, agrees. "To meet the child's needs, you often have to meet the family's," she says.

"We have a breakfast club. Fine. But that raises the question, can the parent cook? So, we run cookery classes.

"We also have to teach our parents how to enjoy their kids, how to have fun."

Nursery headteacher Marie Macaulay says: "A lot of our children need to be taught how to play. We have some young parents who don't know how to play with their children. They don't know nursery rhymes.

"If there's a lack of language development among some parents, then with the child you're trying to solve a problem that goes back a generation.

"If kids don't know security, if they don't know fun, or rhythm, how can you set about trying to teach them to write or count?

"They have to be stable emotionally. They have to be relaxed. And they have to be happy."

The approach adopted by Park Community Learning Campus is bottom up, says Mrs Pearson. "It has to come from the community. We could have ticked all the boxes saying we were a community school years ago. That's not the point. It's about process, a real change, not a cosmetic one."

Beginning with the parents, Park CLC runs classes about coping strategies with children ("Getting Through the Day"), modules on childcare, certificated first aid classes as well as keep fit, aromatherapy and arts and crafts classes.

"We do a lot of individual work with parents, especially men," Ms Rough says. "Fathers tend to avoid group activities and we have a lot of single dads. We're going to start a support group for parents soon, because it has been asked for."

Listening to the community has also led Park CLC to create a safe play area. Set in the centre of the three buildings and in full view of the surrounding houses, the fenced playground was the first priority expressed by parents.

The day-to-day running of the campus now means that staff know each other a lot better and transition from baby and toddler playgroups at the family centre to the nursery and from there to the primary school is better as often staff work in all three buildings.

Specific programmes include a class for P6 boys on "How to Succeed" and a "Seasons for Growth" series of classes to help children to deal with bereavement or loss.

Nursery children can attend the family centre during the summer and parents' sessions at Park Primary are supported by a cr che, courtesy of the family centre.

Mrs Pearson says that such strategies are improving attainment at Park Primary and it is now in the top 10 per cent of similar group schools in the country.

"I want the kids who are doing quite well to be doing very well. I cannot see this as a three-year project. It's a generational thing. In fact, it's not a project at all. It's about people."

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