Fembots to the rescue

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Stephanie Northen follows two more of our 2025 family to work. Susi is deputy head of a primary school where technology can identify the teacher who eats too many chips, and her daughter, Eleanor, a senior special needs manager, attends an inclusion meeting

Susi winced. If another five-year-old spilt apple juice over an exercise suit, she would insist that snacks were eaten in the school cafe, although that would mean persuading the secondary pupil staff to work until 7pm. It was all very well supporting Kent's perpetually struggling apple growers, but they had no idea what havoc the stuff played with the suits'

calorific sensors.

She sneaked a look at her watch-phone. Quarter to seven, it said, and flashed a reminder. She put it to her ear. "Lights, loos, and locks", her pre-recorded voice chided her. Nearly time for this deputy head to go home, she thought. The fembots, as the men insisted on calling the cleaner robots, were moving off down the corridors. The 100 or so children who stayed until 7pm were relaxing on the huge indoor climbing frame that formed the centrepiece of the three family "pods" attached to Prescott primary. It was mainly intended for the under-fives, but the older children loved it too.

So, secretly, did Susi. She had worked hard to raise the money for it and had to battle to convince the sustainability adviser that it should be inside. Put it outside, she'd said, and the children will have to wear concrete boots, given the gales we get these days. The frame was state-of-the-art. Rustech they called it. That weird mix of hi-tech and rustic recycled materials that 67-year-old Susi still found strange.

Spaces changed colour and asked philosophical questions such as "Is there a fourth way?" when the youngsters entered. Walls emitted perfumes and displayed patterns generated by moving bodies. The older ones loved the secret corners, monitored by CCTV - when it worked - and the platforms they could use as stages.

The 10 local primaries in Susi's federation swopped round the free-standing play equipment. This was their month for the giant inflatable balls, one of which was being rolled at speed towards Susi by three chortling boys.

"Heh," she said, before realising they were the new Polish pupils. She picked up her translator. "It's time to get your coats," she spoke into the machine, holding it out to the boys so they could hear the instant translation. They grinned and laughed - and rushed back on the climbing frame.

The parents were arriving now. Susi, after 13 years at Prescott, knew most of them reasonably well - and some of them far too well. Some had come from work, some had already been in the school attending that evening's classes in English, debt management (called shopping studies) and hip-hop.

Susi recalled the days when lessons had finished at 3.15pm and the children had gone home. She remembered when one-stop, open-all-hours schools had started, and how eager she had been to run one. In deprived areas such as hers, she felt they could be a haven. Now she sometimes felt she was working in a kibbutz, attending to all sorts of needs - like a mother to a huge extended family. When it worked, it was brilliant.

She was always pleased when a nervous, surly parent was tempted to attend a class, then to help out in lessons, and then maybe to get a qualification and a job at the school. On the other hand, the challenges were huge. The staff bickered almost more than the kids. The family "pod" educarers were better since their wages had been brought up to those of a starting teacher, although, as they pointed out, they still worked longer hours. The doctors always seemed to demand pupils attend appointments with no thought for the timetable, but they were never able to help out in health lessons.

Still at least the new X-ray machine meant no more tedious visits to casualty.

The lawyer, surprisingly, was no trouble. She visited once a week to advise parents with problems and lead a primary workshop on the new citizenship.

Clearly, the recent reforms had cut the legal profession - and its salaries - down to size.

Sometimes Susi worried that the children were becoming institutionalised,with their lives centred round one set of buildings. But there wasn't a lot for them outside. Prescott Parks wasn't a terrible place, but it had been built in a rush without involving local people in the design.

At least that hadn't happened at the primary. Susi knew of schools where the after-hours activities, still first in line when cuts were threatened, were little more than holding bays for bored and neglected youngsters.

Technology helped of course. She could call up a child's records and find out when they had last been to the dentist, the last book they had checked out of the library, what they had eaten for lunch. and if any of the school's partners were worried about them.

That thought reminded her of tomorrow's meeting of all the partner services based at the school. Led by Robert, the Prescott co-ordinator, with seniority over even the headteacher, it would be a progress check on children with problems. A quick run-through of the files had revealed serious issues with the child of a disaffected alcoholic mother, and three pupils suffering from depression. But the discussion Susi was looking forward to would be the one about the teacher whose ID card revealed he had exceeded his allowance of chips for that week.

Eleanor took her seat at the meeting. It was the big monthly get-together of all the school's partners. Everyone was there including Gillingham's child nutritionist, the boss of the gaming addiction charity, and the early-years representative from Brown's - named after the former prime minister. Also present, of course, were most of the school's teachers who had lead responsibility for the children despite their union's protests.

Fortunately the session was limited by law to an hour, so Eleanor didn't have to worry about missing lunch. It was always awkward attending a meeting with her deputy head mother, but the pair had got used to it.

Susi had warned her daughter that working in special needs could be frustrating, but the 37-year-old had paid no heed. And she had been right.

Eleanor was still pleased by her promotion to assistant director: special needs with Lea Ltd, the not-for-profit company that organised many support services and had a seat on the Gillingham Partnership board. Her job supplied variety, challenge and - just about - a living wage. OK, money and staff were always in short supply, but technological and medical advances in areas such as dyslexia and hyperactivity meant youngsters were progressing more rapidly than would have been believed 20 years previously.

Child depression was the big problem these days. It was still on the increase, but at least diagnosis was quicker and less judgmental than before. Eleanor had persuaded Prescott to buy in a mental health adviser - and he was now complaining of stress.

On the plus side, the number of youngsters born with multiple and serious handicaps was slowly falling as doctors began to win the quality-of-life argument. Those that survived generally went to the special schools that had survived the ideological buffeting of the previous decades. As the costs of inclusion had soared, people had come to realise that mainstream schools did not suit all disabled children. Now, generally, parents got their offspring where they wanted them to go - and quite a few went to Prescott which had built up an impressive portfolio of support over the years.

Eleanor often thought its success was due to Gillingham Partnership's pioneering of grass-roots involvement, encouraging parents to say what they wanted and then to help deliver it.

On the agenda today was the expansion of the new arrivals mentoring scheme.

Older students were paired up with young immigrants to help them settle in.

Effective, cheap and, importantly, a scheme they had been able to sell to other partnerships.

One of the few remaining traveller families was also up for discussion.

Forced into an estate bungalow a few months ago, six-year-old Niamh's unhappiness at home was translating into violent behaviour at school.

Eleanor had met her and her mother briefly, bringing the LEA Play adviser with her. They had lent the girl a cheap MovieMaker and asked her to make a personal diary. Hopefully, when - and if - they had her resentments on screen, they could use them as a start for computer counselling. People, particularly those under stress, were more honest when talking to a machine. It was second nature for kids these days, even travellers.

The meeting started. Eleanor realised she was being asked a question:

"Sorry, what was that?" What did she propose to do about the breakdown in communication between her staff and LEA Immigration over the new Polish pupils? How did they find out about that, she thought. She hadn't told anyone about the row between herself and that self-opinionated adviser who wanted children with no English assigned to her budget.

"Er, we've scheduled in a video-conference next week, to iron out our differences," she said .

"Can you copy me in on that please," asked Robert, Prescott's co-ordinator.

"Sure," said Eleanor. "Shit," she thought.

Her mother winked at her across the table. Lunch suddenly seemed less appealing.

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