Life and death issues

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Joining up children's services brings a culture change for education workers. Martin Whittaker reports.

Shropshire's new director of children's services should be used to jargon, given her education background.

Liz Nicholson, formerly the county's director of education, now heads a children and young people's services directorate which embraces education, health and social care.

She admits there are challenges ahead - and one of the issues for the different professionals to overcome is that of language.

"I will say SEF (self-evaluation form) and somebody will say 'what on earth are you talking about?'," she says. "What does it mean to a school nurse, to a youth worker or to a police officer?"

The issue of jargon may seem trivial, but behind it is the more serious question of how the professionals - including teachers, social workers, youth workers and educational psychologists - will work together in the new integrated services brought in under the Government's Every Child Matters agenda.

A multi-agency approach to supporting children and young people will become common in schools. From this term new inspection arrangements will quiz schools on how they ensure pupils' health and well-being.

And the shake-up is already well under way at local authority level. Most authorities are expected to have appointed a new director of children's services by next year, well before the 2008 deadline.

In Shropshire, Liz Nicholson and her staff began laying the foundations last September. She has been busy meeting heads and school governors to talk about the Children Act and how it affects the new Ofsted framework.

She says her good relationship with the county's schools is a major advantage, but admits the social care side of her remit has put her on a learning curve.

"You have to work very hard at it," she says. "The stark issue is that perhaps before you could say that your life wasn't about life and death, and it is now."

A major challenge for Shropshire is the sheer scale of supporting children and young people in a large rural county. It has 142 primaries - 100 with fewer than 100 pupils - and huge transport issues.

Ms Nicholson gives the example of Ludlow, a market town renowned for its fine ancient buildings, but not commonly associated with rural poverty.

Ludlow C of E school is a specialist technology college whose rural catchment area covers 250 square miles, including areas of acute deprivation. Many children come from low-waged families and nearly a quarter of its 850 pupils have special educational needs. Some have issues at home, baggage that they bring into the classroom.

Yet in the past two years the school has only had one permanent exclusion.

Its secret weapon is its pupil support centre, which offers help from a range of agencies.

"I believe that if we didn't have the measures in place that we do have, our permanent exclusion rate would be much, much higher," says headteacher Phil Poulton. "There are children in our school who certainly would be out of the system by now."

He says the different agencies work well together, though there were teething problems to do with different professional protocols.

While the aims of joined-up services for children are laudable, the Government's expectation that most local authorities will have Children's Trust arrangements in place by 2006 has raised fears that it is all happening rather too quickly.

Another worry is tension between government policies. On one hand, money is increasingly given directly to schools and the five-year strategy says they should become more autonomous. But for Every Child Matters to work, there have to be local partnerships between schools and other agencies.

A report to MPs voices fears that, as schools do not have to take part in such partnerships, some may choose not to do so. With the pressure to raise standards, they may focus on that at the expense of inclusion and local co-operation.

So far around half of English local authorities have appointed directors of children's services.

According to a survey by the Confederation of Education and Children's Services Managers, three-quarters were previously directors of education, prompting concern of an "educational takeover" of the new services.

Romi Bowen is one of the minority of new directors whose background is in social care. She has taken the helm in the London borough of Southwark.

The LEA was failing five years ago and put into private hands, but is about to resume control of its schools after an independent review panel found its education department had improved.

Southwark has two clusters of schools using multi-disciplinary teams for early intervention, helping heads with children who may be getting into difficulty. Ms Bowen says the school pilots have involved professionals - including youth offending teams, social workers and mental health specialists - getting to know each other and learning to work together.

But there are other, more delicate, issues to be ironed out. How, for example, would a parent react on hearing that their child's difficulties at school involve social workers - a profession associated in the public's mind with serious child protection cases?

There are also barriers to break down between the agencies, says Ms Bowen.

Her department also has a director of education, although she has ultimate responsibility for education and children's services.

"I'm quite inspired by the scale of the heads' job," she says. "I have shadowed a couple of heads quite recently and have just begun to understand the scope of their world. I think it's really crucial to understand how the other services can add value to schools, but equally how schools can add value to the community."

Solihull was one of the earliest local authorities to join up services for children - Kevin Crompton was made director of children's services three years ago. He is very upbeat about the changes. By joining up services and sharing information, his department identified 43 children who were missing from education.

"Within a month they had all been taken by schools through concerted effort and partnership work," he says.

The borough is currently building on its extended schools programme, creating children's centres on school sites, and looking at a regeneration project that will rebuild its primaries, but building in facilities for their communities.

Mr Crompton, who is also chair of the Association of Directors of Education and Children's Services, says there are great benefits for children and young people in Every Child Matters. But there are also great challenges.

He cites the tension between school autonomy and the need for co-operation.

And he says there needs to be more investment in preventative services, which will ultimately bring savings.

Then there are the barriers between professionals. "There is what I would call the perceived professional stuff, which is about 'this is my territory, that's yours'. We have to break that down.

"The biggest measure of change for me is if you asked anyone in my directorate who do they work for, today they would hopefully say education and children's services. Two years back, they would have said social services or education.

"I want them to say: 'I work on behalf of children and young people in the borough.' " new approach to pupil support 29. Sustainable Self-evaluation : Down to Earth supplement this week

Children Act changes

* This year, under the new inspection arrangements, schools are supposed to show in their self-evaluation how they contribute to pupil well-being.

* The Government expects children's trust arrangements to be developed in most areas by 2006, and all areas by 2008.

* For schools this means involvement in local partnerships, contributing to local service planning, and if they wish, providing services individually or in partnership with other schools.

* Children's trusts and schools are expected to work together to find places for hard-to-place pupils.

* A Common Assessment Framework has been produced to help schools to identify pupil needs and to ease referral to specialist services.

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