Against the national trend of integrating children's services within local authorities, Glasgow is taking a different direction and making changes directly within school clusters, writes Raymond Ross
In the late 1990s, under the directorship of Ken Corsar, Glasgow created clusters of secondary schools and associated primaries to improve administration and share resources, including school bursarsmanagers.
These were very much education communities. However, since last October when Ronnie O'Connor moved from being director of social work to take over as education director, there has been a marked shift towards integrated services - but on the ground, not at the directorate level.
The result is New Learning Communities, which go a step further than new community schools and bring together key agencies from the state and voluntary sectors.
"We've combined the concepts and the language by calling them New Learning Communities," says depute director Richard Barron. "NLCs bring together and enhance planning, not only within education but also in partnership with social work, health, culture and leisure services, police, Careers Scotland and the voluntary sector."
While other authorities, such as East Ayrshire and Stirling, have sought to pull together their children's services at directorate level, Glasgow sees NLCs as their key vehicle.
"It's sensible, coherent and co-ordinated," says Mr Barron.
One pioneering learning community is that of Eastbank in Shettleston, an area of high multi-deprivation in Glasgow's east end. Here Eastbank Academy is partnered with six primaries, six nurseries and an associated special educational needs school to cater for more than 3,000 pupils aged 3-18.
"Other local authorities have made a structured change at directorate level, but if Glasgow had done that, we'd be one of the biggest departments on the planet, the size of the old Strathclyde," says Jim Dalziel, principal of Eastbank NLC and head of Eastbank Academy.
"What we are doing is retaining the strengths, the professional support and the identities of the established departments while evolving an integrated service.
"As a learning community we have a budget of pound;135,000 from the Scottish Executive, but through links with these other services we've almost doubled these resources."
There are 12 NLCs now. By 2005 there will be 29 covering the whole city. It should lead to a better and more flexible sharing of resources across departments.
While NLCs are supported by the City NLC Strategy Group (depute and assistant director level) and at senior management level by Area Strategy Groups (local service managers), the practical, everyday inter-agency approach effectively kicks in at NLC level.
A key part of Eastbank NLC's structure is the child and family support team, which includes representatives from pre-fives, primary and secondary education, social work, youth development, child and adolescent psychiatry, educational psychology, pastoral care, health development and the NLC's community police officer.
The child and family support team meets fortnightly and shares information and resources to help individual children, says depute headteacher Ann Pettigrew.
"It's a free-flow of information on issues and on individual children so that we are working towards a one-file child.
"This provides a good, robust database and makes it less likely that a child will slip through the net in terms of education or care," she says.
Senior educational psychologist Brendan Gerrard believes the support team is the engine of the learning community.
"Only if you know what the child's needs are can you intervene appropriately," he says. "In my view this is more focused and less haphazard because the team allows us to look at our own processes and data.
It allows us to plan and intervene and look at the resources we need.
"It means I'm part of a team and not just a visitor. With everyone else, I can influence policy and be more effective on a broader level."
Senior social worker Brian McKenna believes working together on the support team is a big help.
"The fortnightly meeting is a great boon," he says. "It leads to regular contact on a less formal basis. We can phone or meet each other for a less formal talk about a young person and so we're more likely to pick up on something earlier."
Mr Dalziel gives several examples of integrated services at work. Access to health funds has helped the learning community to set up parenting classes in pre-fives centres, primary schools and at Eastbank Academy.
"These help parents in challenging and stressful circumstances," he says.
"If this helps them negotiate their way back into education, all the better.
"Having a community police officer means we are improving relationships between children and the police. It helps them see the police as friends not foes, an understanding we would see as a development for life," he says.
The learning community has also set up a nurture group for pre-fives who are emotionally and behaviourally unready for Primary 1. They are taken in smaller groups to work with a teacher and a classroom assistant.
There is also a Seasons for Growth group which supports young people who have experienced loss through death, separation or divorce.
"We are planning now to use the Real Learning Centres in local libraries, which have a lot of information technology access," says Mr Dalziel. "If we can't get one or two of the disappeared back into school, we'll get them into the REAL learning centres and hope to encourage them back into education or training," he says.
The NLC also has a community club system which is financed by the New Opportunities Fund and run through the council's culture and leisure services. For six months it has been running evening sports and leisure activities and has been known to attract more than 250 young people into Eastbank Academy on a Friday night.
"That makes an impact on the kids and makes school somewhere they want to come," says community club development officer Alasdair Sinclair.
"It's fantastically important. It gives primary kids a crossover experience, becoming familiar with the big school before they reach secondary age. It covers the health and social agenda and it gets them off the streets," he says.
"We have mini-kickers (football for the pre-fives and early primary), aerokidz (a variation on kick aerobics), team combat, hockey, basketball, karate and football and we're expanding into dance, athletics and pre-school gymnastics, as well as restarting our disability group.
"We do mini-competitions with other clubs and I can use the facilities here to help established local clubs with their junior sections."
After-school clubs symbolise the ethos of the learning community.
Ms Pettigrew recalls a pupil once defending her right to hang about street corners at night, saying: "What else is there, Miss?"
"Now we try to show them that the NLC is here to support them," she says, "and what we want to support is young people being pro-active in their own communities. That would make it really worthwhile."
But for many children Glasgow's east end is a divided community, an area of territories and gangs.
"Some children have to cross boundaries to get here. It's not necessarily the school - or something that's happened at school - that can put a pupil off coming. It can be about territorial aggression - gangs - or about something that happened at the weekend," says Mr McKenna.
"We have a community support team offering support to individuals and groups. The groups tend to be issue based, about truanting or gang problems."
Social work has established growing links with Eastbank Academy over the years and Mr McKenna believes the NLC is a qualitative step forward.
"The barriers are down and we can build on this," he says. "Early intervention is more likely due to better communications and earlier referrals are possible.
"Working more closely with teachers means that some teachers have been motivated to become counsellors. We draw on each other's expertise," he says.
Although it is early days at Eastbank NLC, it already gives the impression of an integrated and dedicated staff ethos with people willing to try new ways of working as well as learning from each other.
"Inclusion is more than education," says Mr Dalziel, "and co-ordination at NLC level offers us tremendous flexibility. It's energising and empowering.
"As NLC principal, I'm here to co-ordinate. All the headteachers need to remain in charge of their schools.
"The word 'new' will have to go eventually," he concludes. "I think we'll be called something like integrated learning communities.
"We have to be about sustainability. It'll take a generation to see the impact."