How far should school extend?

20th October 2006 at 01:00
A challenge for those piloting the Government's new project has been to balance child care and education

The vision of the Full Service Extended School, with wrap-around care for children together with a menu of on-site family services - seems easy enough to understand. What's not so clear is what the Government thinks it's all for - or at least what the balance is between child care and education. Is it primarily, for example, about enabling parents to go to work? Or is it to do with laying good foundations for learning? The reality is, I guess, that it'll be up to each individual school to find a pragmatic local answer - to build a vision, a philosophy and a practice that suits its own community's needs.

Colin Harris, head at Warren Park primary in Havant, Hampshire, one of the pilot schools, is certain that the only proper direction this initiative can take is ground-up. "As managers we're good at thinking for ourselves and about the needs of our communities," he says. "We're not so good at being told what we have to do by a certain date. If we can step outside that and think what the children need and what the community needs it becomes easier."

So, like many schools, Warren Park has its breakfast club not in response to any sort of policy, but because the families want it.

"There's a hall full of children here now at half past eight," Mr Harris says. "And we set it up because children weren't having breakfast."

That's the fundamental message - that the essential starting point, even before any formal implementation of an extended school project, is to build relationships with the parents and the community. It's very noticeable that successful extended schools had home-school relationships high on the agenda long before the "extended" label was thought of.

Tracy Wearn, community co-ordinator at Wychall primary in Birmingham soon found that you can't just invent projects and services that you think the community needs and then publish them in a menu. "We know there are lots of teenage mums in the area, for example," she says. "So we decided that it would be a good idea to set up something for them. Unfortunately, we don't know many teenage mums personally so trying to set up a group for them without making contacts first wasn't successful."

Wychall primary, serving a pocket of extreme deprivation in the Northfield area of Birmingham, won the What We Do 4children organisation's award for extended school team of the year. In every way, the school bears out Colin Harris's insistence that a successful extended school must grow from its roots.

The Wychall story begins in 2000 when the school was formed from the amalgamation of neighbouring junior and infant schools under a new head, Ther se Allen. The junior school, particularly, was at a low ebb, and the management team's immediate priorities were centred on the related issues of behaviour and community links. Reaching out to parents in this challenging area wasn't easy. Deputy head James Allan says, "It took two or three years to get to the point where they were prepared to walk in the door and chat. We'll drop everything if parents want to come in and meet us."

Gradually, as parents were won over, results improved into 2003. Then, two related barriers were reached, both recognisable to other primary colleagues. One was the difficulty of breaking through into further improvement after early successes. The other was the amount of time teachers and the leadership team were giving to matters outside the direct business of teaching and learning. Ms Allen reviewed the time she spent on social care, housing queries, advice on parenting, finance, health - all the issues with which many a primary head, particularly in disadvantaged areas, will identify. She discovered that she was spending more than half her time as a social care adviser.

That kind of auditing is important for schools moving in this direction. It enabled Wychall to demonstrate, for example, that during one short period of time, the school had been visited by nine different social workers - perhaps, then, there really was a case for an on-site social worker. So, in 2003, the decision was made to join the Full Service Extended Schools pilot, a move that seemed fully in line with the school's strategy of improving the life chances of its pupils.

The aim was not that the school would become a provider of health or social care or housing advice but that it would host these services within its building. At the same time the people delivering the services would, although managed by their own agencies, be very much part of the school - "paying into the coffee fund".

Ms Allen was involved in initiating contacts and developing extended discussions with a range of external agencies, setting up working agreements, job specifications and management structures. "It was important from the start to have all parties in agreement on their roles and responsibilities within the extended school umbrella," she says.

There were all kinds of challenges - professional cultures are different - ICT information systems don't talk to each other for example. Then there are the practicalities you don't think of, such as how a nurse or social worker will feel about being uprooted from a base among familiar colleagues and resources and plonked into an office surrounded by primary school teachers.

With the head driving the strategy, an early decision was taken to appoint someone to manage the day-to-day work - keeping in touch with the agencies, juggling the diaries, organising the details. For the head or another senior teacher to try to do it would be counterproductive, and it's clear that this is a new kind of job for an able and resourceful organiser who needn't be a teacher, says James Allan, "It's key to have someone specifically employed for that. It wouldn't have worked otherwise." Hence the arrival on the Wychall scene of community co-ordinator Tracy Wearn.

Another crucial decision, Mr Allan says, was not just to start with health and social services, but to look for services beyond that intense problem-based core. "We had two quick wins," he says. "One with the charity Positive Parenting and the other with adult education. Both came into school with their own people and their own funding."

From there, other services followed - a full-time social worker, a part-time nurse, a tenancy adviser, a child-care professional overseeing the wrap-around care.

And the effects on the head and the school? Nothing but good, explains Mr Allan. There are some added management responsibilities, but the social care aspects of urban headship have, at Wychall, largely moved to the appropriate professionals. The teachers, too, now have professionals in school to whom they can make quick referrals when they have the kind of worries about children familiar to primary teachers ("What's going to happen to him tonight now his dad's back on the scene?"). "They're more confident that the children they worry about can be helped," says Mr Allan.

"The evaluation of the first year of having a social worker here showed that staff are no longer distressed about unmet needs."

The Wychall story is an optimistic one of a good school, running on goodwill and driven by excellent professionals in the service of a community that badly needs what's on offer. That should not distract from the fact that there are still unanswered questions about the programme as a whole, as the teaching organisations rightly point out.

How robust and sustainable is the funding regime, for example? How clear is it that the extra management responsibilities remain aligned with the school improvement agenda? What we learn from people like Ther se Allen and Colin Harris, though, is that good primary school teams can - if they're allowed to, and are given the right support - find new and innovative ways of working that improve life chances for their families and, crucially, for their children.

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