The force is with you
It's 5pm on Friday. Concerns about a problem child in school would seem badly timed even to the most compassionate social worker. It might be inconvenient, but a head can do little to prevent problems with children's behaviour and family life occurring outside office hours.
Such situations have inevitably created tensions and even hostility between schools and local government departments. Peter Nye, a school improvement officer in Blackburn with Darwen council in Lancashire, says: "As a former head, I know it can feel as though social services are sometimes unresponsive, that they don't give an issue its due significance, or is overly bureaucratic. Other services do not necessarily understand that schools are in a unique context.
"There are massive rifts and gulfs in the ethos and practices of different services. They are suspicious of each other because of professional differences, different perspectives, and sometimes the need to meet different government targets."
However, Every Child Matters requires a change of attitude. Introduced in 2004, it outlined five objectives for every child: be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution, and achieve economic well-being. To meet these objectives, schools have to work in close collaboration with social workers, police, nurses and local government officers.
Mr Nye has been working on a project that brings together headteachers in a team with an education welfare officer, an education psychologist, a school improvement officer and other representatives from local government . There are two of these integrated networks of children's services in Blackburn with Darwen, each involving eight heads who meet every two weeks and set their own agenda. The networks have a self-selecting membership and are not localised so as to encourage diversity.
"Our networks are not essentially about delivery, they are about overcoming differences in culture and understanding. People come together to learn about contexts rather than targets," says Mr Nye. "Networking will be more successful if the networks have established a common ethos and culture and, most importantly, relationships and trust."
His multi-agency team is one of many initiatives encouraged by the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) to explore how schools can effectively collaborate with communities. Another is the Community Leadership Network (CLN), which involves 20 local authority networks meeting twice a year.
George Green's mixed secondary in Tower Hamlets, in east London, is one of the schools involved. It ran a survey of 365 stakeholders in its community two years ago to devise a plan for developing the school. Headteacher Kenny Frederick says: "We find working with others in similar situations to our own is helpful. As a learning organisation, we are always looking for new ideas and solutions - the network has helped in this way. The ECM agenda is huge - we see the big picture and NCSL is helping to document it and think through the issues."
The National College for School Leadership has also learnt some lessons from the Community Leadership Network about how to network effectively.
Maggie Farrar, its operational director, says: "We have learnt from the CLN that trust and common ground take a long time to build and are fragile.
Short-term funds and job changes mean groups have to allow for a fluid membership and fluctuating circumstances. It helps a group to have quick and early successes so that it feels it is making progress."
Equality between members in the networks is also essential. "They are about sharing, not just joining to meet one representative's agenda," says Ms Farrar. "It is important for people to feel ownership and for schools to realise they are just one contributor. There is a risk, otherwise some participants, such as voluntary organisations, might see ECM as a takeover bid for the work they have been doing for years."
However, for other schools, joining networks has been far less important than creating one-to-one partnerships. During the past six years, Thomas Bennett community college in Crawley, West Sussex, instigated partnerships locally that place the school at the centre of the community. "We felt we needed to take the initiative and not lose that. The school draws on other stakeholders to meet its needs," says headteacher Yasmine Maskatiya.
"Unless we made ourselves the centre, the effect could be dissipated. A school has to be clear about what it wants and needs.
"Most heads would say that schools are drawing together resources in this way because here at school is the best place for the ECMagenda to start.
This is where they can have a direct impact on students' progress and where parents naturally meet to begin having conversations about their child's all-round wellbeing."
One of Thomas Bennett's most successful partnerships has been a network of 10 schools and West Sussex police. A full-time police officer has worked on site for two years. "We cannot imagine not having the officer here now,"
says Ms Maskatiya. "She brings confidence and security to the school. It also helps teachers because she has access to other databases to keep them informed."
The network is part of the Safer Schools Partnership, a national initiative to place police in schools with a view to building up trusting relationships with pupils and a safe environment for staff. West Sussex is one of a few rural communities to have successfully established an SSP.
Paul Rigglesford, a community safety officer, appreciates the broad impact of a large-scale network. "The increased presence of police officers in schools seems to have had a significant impact," he says. "When I was a youth worker 20 years ago, it was rare for me to speak to a police officer and when I did it was in defence of a young person. Now I work closely with the police and young people don't appear to feel threatened by them."
As well as improved relations, there is a cost-benefit equation for schools to consider. Researchers at York university have calculated that an SSP could increase earning potential for each student by pound;276,000. They surveyed more than 1,350 schools and found that there are fewer absences and higher GCSE exam results where the partnership existed.
The key to successful networking for some schools appears to be retaining a strong sense of ownership. Over Hall community primary school, in Cheshire, is one in a network of 17 schools and it runs a children's centre. Simon Kidwell, acting head, says: "We have led this initiative as a school; we wanted a centre and have invited people in. It might be different for other schools if they feel changes have been thrust upon them."
However, meeting the various needs of individual schools requires flexibility and patience from professionals in other services. The Primary Care Trust in Bath and North East Somerset has a system for nurses to make regular visits to schools in the area. Students can even contact them by text message to fix emergency appointments.
Viv Crouch is a young person's sex health worker in Bath and with 25 years experience as a school nurse she welcomes the scheme: "When teachers and nurses train alongside each other they develop understandings and friendships. That rolls out into school and they can sort the problems out and benefits of working together."
However, implementing the scheme has meant understanding the individual contexts of different schools. Faith schools in the area do not wish to circulate leaflets on contraception. Some teachers feel uncomfortable talking about sex and have not been trained for it. Also, timetable constraints sometimes push PSHE off the agenda. Ms Crouch is sympathetic:
"Some teachers will feel that a confidential service onsite might go against their own views."
Nonetheless, she strongly believes in the benefits of community collaboration. "The ECM agenda has focused everybody's minds and it makes good sense, but it has to involve a change of attitude for everybody.
Nurses need to show that we have something different to offer and a lot of us have started going to curriculum planning meetings."
School networks make demands on all community members for new levels of trust, leadership, hard work and commitment. However, it appears that the underlying agenda to focus on the needs of each child has unanimous support.
Ms Farrar summarises: "The climate is changing where schools choose not to associate with others. They feel a moral responsibility to improve the life chances for all youngsters in their locality. Most schools see this as a tremendous opportunity."