Children's services chiefs are taken to see small-scale study support projects from which they could learn a thing or two. Alison Shepherd reports
Small can be beautiful when it comes to projects which transform children's lives. But those thousands of low-profile, school-based projects are also most at risk of being overlooked as education, social services and health come together to create unified children's services.
If new children's service directors do not have an education background, will they recognise the wider impact of schemes developed with school input, often in school buildings? If the directors come from health or social services, will they appreciate that such projects often keep children out of their particular in-trays?
Determined to ensure that innovative study support schemes get the recognition they deserve, the charity ContinYou has embarked on a new campaign to take local health and children's services managers out to see what is on offer in their area.
"Professionals don't necessarily know what is out there, nor what study support can look like," says Tony Apicella, the charity's national programme director for study support.
"There are myriad things that can be pulled together. It may be that an activity set up to tackle youth crime between 3pm and 6pm is not considered study support, but it is. It is to do with young people choosing to be somewhere that improves their self-esteem and skills and has a positive impact on their lives.
"We need the professionals dealing with children's services to understand the value of these activities and ensure that the funding and support is there so that they can continue to make a difference to children's lives."
In a pilot Seeing Is Believing scheme, seven managers from services in Poole, Dorset, spent a day touring three schools in the town's most deprived wards, which rank among the bottom 20 per cent nationally, to see for themselves what was on offer for young people after school hours.
Headteachers hosted the visitors, who included Neelam Bhardwaja, Poole's then head of children and family services, plus managers from the local learning and skills council, Connexions, Sure Start, and the primary care trust. Participants later told ContinYou consultants that the rare opportunity to spend most of a working day sharing ideas with so many different agencies was the distinct bonus of the Seeing is Believing project.
At Turlin Moor first school they joined pupils in the breakfast club and spoke to a group of seven-year-old mediators who help keep peace in the playground.
They then dropped into Carter community sports college to watch a pupils'
film of an interview with the school-based police officer and to talk to members of a football club run by Bournemouth AFC. They also saw a skipping club and a street dance group in action.
"All of us could see the powerful benefits for the children from the activities on offer," said Peter Cotton, Poole's school development officer. "It was also instructive to see the involvement of adults from different walks of life, not just teachers but the police, the footballers and the dance instructor, which helps form strong community links."
The unanimous highlight of the day was the trip to the seaside to see the Harbour Challenge in action. The scheme was set up by teachers, including Mr Cotton, to provide pupils at Turlin Moor middle school with adventurous, outdoor activities. Teenagers are taught how to sail and canoe and then encouraged to take courses to allow them to train others, including adults.
"This scheme is simply amazing," said Mr Cotton. "It is now run as a charity by parents and continues to make a huge difference to many teenagers' lives. Several boys from problematic families with pretty bleak futures have since joined the services, thanks to being involved with Harbour Challenge."
Now the emphasis is on how each service could have an input into such activities in the future. "We all realised that we could look at being more creative with funding. The Connexions people realised that they could offer support to some of the activities, particularly through Harbour Challenge, as they coincided with their own brief," said Mr Cotton.
Ms Bhardwaja, now head of Cardiff's children's services, was also impressed with what she saw. "It was a very exciting day. I had a fragmented knowledge of what was available to children, but didn't realise the impact such schemes could have on the children and their communities. Involving active communities is an excellent complement to council services."
The success of the day in Poole was echoed in the other pilot areas of Somerset and south Gloucestershire, according to the ContinYou report, in which participants overwhelmingly agree with the sentiments of Mr Cotton.
He says: "We are not very good at sharing our successes. We don't make a song and dance about those things we get right. But this was one way to celebrate what can be achieved and to show others what can be done."