Helping hands for every child
The next two years will be critical for the new children's agenda. Bringing together more closely the agencies and individuals who work with children makes good sense, if every child really does matter, but it offers a tremendous challenge to school leaders. How can each school play a central part? What does collaboration with key people in health, social services, the police and voluntary bodies really mean in practice? And should each school now be appointing a director of external relations, as it would be called in other contexts, to ensure the best possible results?
Schools have always worked with outside agencies. Sometimes it is inevitable, if a child gets into trouble with the law, or a family falls on hard times. When different professionals work together, it can prevent problems. For instance, the early detection of a hearing or mobility problem brings health professionals and educators together.
The Government's new agenda for children is enshrined in last year's Children Act and its Every Child Matters guidance attempts to formalise this collaboration through children's trusts which bring together all local services for children and young people.
"Every child matters" is the saying that drives the trusts. Like many initiatives it is a good idea on paper, bringing together the agencies and individuals who work with children, but how it works out in practice will depend on what these key people actually do in the next two or three years.
As chairman of the Devon children's trust I can see ways in which schools can not only benefit from closer co-operation, but can be a driving force. Imagine you are the parent of a child born with some kind of problem. Parents feel guilty. Before long the mother in particular develops backache, from endless lifting and turning, while other children become mobile and learn to be independent. Any help these parents can get from educators and medics from the start is going to be vital.
The children's trust cannot run matters in every single community. Our job is to operate at the Devonwide level to set policies that will ripple out to every town and village. When young offenders were placed in Devon by other authorities, private care homes did not notify anyone. Suddenly the rate of car thefts and breaking and entering soared. The police raised this issue and the trust ensured that services were notified.
Looked-after children often get a raw deal. The trust ensures that they get a proper education and health care by monitoring what happens to them in each region. Schools sometimes have good ideas about improving what they do with vulnerable children. From next year the children's trust will have control over budgets that will allow it to finance practices, rather than just monitor them, so such work can be properly funded.
Schools have a massive role in the new children's agenda. In some cases it is a part they play already, while in others practices will no doubt change. Is it obvious, for example, who is the key person inside a school for other agencies to talk to?
Suppose a police officer needs to call at a school. Who does the liaison? The deputy head? The head? A named senior teacher? Whoever happens to be available? The teacher with an arm twisted firmly up a back? The police tell me that their job is dead easy in many schools, but in others no one seems to want to step forward.
From a school point of view there are two important angles: initiating and responding. Schools deal with children every day. Doctors only see them when they are ill. Often a teacher may detect illness, abuse, or simply discover a need before anyone else. Parent power is all very well, but sometimes the parent is the problem, not the solution.
Being willing to take a lead in the interest of the child, therefore, is crucial.
A 14-year-old girl I worked with had to share a bedroom with two younger siblings, a boy and a girl. It caused many problems, as it is not very nice to have no privacy when you are effectively a woman. Schools can't improve the local housing, but they can ask social and family workers to help.
Medics and social workers can only go so far, treating and prescribing.
Pupil behaviour is a classic example. Many children whose behaviour is poor in school have a significant medical or social problem that the school is powerless to address on its own. Closer liaison with the health and social services may make a difference.
It is important never to lose sight of the "ordinary" child. If every child really does matter, then those young people who simply get on with their work, and appear on the surface to have no problems are also to be valued.
Above (see box) are just five ways in which schools can play a full part in the children's trust agenda.
Ted Wragg is professor emeritus at the University of Exeter.
Five tips for schools
1 Find out as much as possible about what various external agencies can do to help.
2 Appoint a named person to be in charge of external relations.
3 Encourage people from these key bodies, and from the voluntary agencies as well, to come into school so children know what they do - valuable citizenship education.
4 Without being syrupy, make helping each other a central part of daily life, brilliantly done in good schools.
5 Use some in-service training time to bring in a social worker, police officer or health professional, or to hold an inter-professional conference.