Phil Revell looks at how effective the extended school idea is as part of the Government's vision of integrated help for children
The Government's vision of schools as the hub of a network of integrated children's services could fall foul of its standards agenda.
Ministers want more schools to become bases for a wide range of agencies serving children, including health and social services. But Alan Dyson, professor of education at Manchester university, says the proposals ignore the impact of changes that have taken place in education since 1988.
"In a target-driven system, different agencies have different targets. If we remain with a system in education where the targets are the headline attainment figures, we shouldn't be surprised if schools and teachers see those as the priorities and pursue them relentlessly - even if social workers, health workers and the police say, 'Shouldn't we be looking at a different set of targets?'."
Professor Dyson heads a research team that has been evaluating schools piloting the "extended" schools model for the Department for Education and Skills. The team's report details the potential benefits - including improvements in attendance, attainment, and relationships with parents. But it also warns that schools are tempted to "impose their view of local needs on communities". Other research, carried out by Professor Dyson for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, questions whether schools are the best focus for services targeted on the neighbourhood.
There is no single model of an extended school. At its simplest, it is about breakfast clubs and after-school childcare. But some schools have gone for the "full-service" version, undertaking a portfolio of activities encompassing health, sport and community services such as Sure Start.
Norham community school in North Tyneside is one of these. It is part of an area-wide project to offer joined-up services to some of the North East's most disadvantaged communities.
"Young people and families have problems, challenge comes in different shapes and sizes," says Cathy Gillespie, assistant head. "I don't see how you can be in education and remain in isolation from these things."
Sylvia Aynsley is a public health nurse who works from Norham. She runs a sexual health clinic and a health drop-in session.
She takes part in the school's personal, social and health education programme and is a familiar face at the breakfast club. She also carries out the health assessments for the school's "looked-after" children.
"I cover the primary schools as well and I know many of the families," she says. "The local primary care trust provides a doctor and a nurse. At the sexual health clinic we supply contraception within trust guidelines."
Norham has an attached police officer, Ian Moss, and the indications are that crime in the area has nose-dived since he became a familiar face around school.
Beyond the inner city it might be thought that there would be no need for a full-service school. But Haydon Bridge high school serves 700 square miles of Northumbria and has been working as a rural extended school in all but name for more than 10 years.
"Our youngsters come from a huge area," says deputy head Barbara Mansfield.
"In that context you are not going to find sports halls, swimming pools, youth centres or anything else. So we think it's up to us to provide what other youngsters could expect to find in an urban area."
And that's more than just sport and recreation. Haydon Bridge links to social and youth services and aims to meet adult and community needs as well. There are five non-teaching staff employed to deliver these programmes, including Anne Lambert, the school's community support co-ordinator.
"My job is 30 hours a week, of which the school funds five to cover child protection and looked-after children, and to develop multi-agency links for the school."
The rest of her time is funded by Connexions (the careers advice service) and the local authority's youth service. She is not a teacher and, in her first few days in the job, was described as "support staff" - a perception she has worked hard to change.
"One of the things that it is really important for schools to understand is that people coming in from different backgrounds with different qualifications come in as professionals," she says. "We have to be very clear that partnership working is a relationship of equals."
Norham and Haydon are community schools committed to the extended vision.
But Alan Dyson argues that many schools have moved away from that community focus.
"Prior to 1988, schools were wholly owned by their local authorities. We have moved to a situation where, to a large extent, schools are floating free. Some schools welcome a more collaborative approach, but in many areas that isn't the case. Schools have definite priorities of their own, relatively little knowledge of what other agencies are doing and what the priorities of those agencies may be."
Professor Dyson is not opposed to the Government's project.
"A wider role for schools is long overdue and there is enormous potential in what some schools are doing with their communities. If what we are into is a period of experimentation, where different models are tried and evaluated, that would be very positive."
But he warns against the Government's model of local solutions within existing national frameworks, with no changes to national education targets, no reduction in school autonomy - and no additional funding.
"That will produce more disasters than successes," he says. "What we need is some sort of middle ground, where the school has the freedom to control what it manages best, but where it is locked into something bigger, so that the issues that go beyond its concerns can be managed."
He also says that there is no international evidence to support the Government's view that focusing social services on schools will radically improve outcomes for children.
"Much of what has been published in the United States consists of breathless and enthusiastic descriptions, with lots of assumptions built in about how this must be a good thing, with anecdotes to support the research," he says.
He says a proper evaluation would need to look back after five or 10 years - "and that hasn't been done anywhere".
Extended Schools Pathfinder Evaluation, DfES research brief RBX18-03, see www.dfes.gov.ukresearchSchools and Area Regeneration, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, see www.jrf.org.ukbookshopdetails.asp?pubID=559