Many hands make help hard work

6th December 2002 at 00:00
How often are schools advised to deal with any problem involving children using a multi-agency approach? This recommendation seems to imply that the greater the number of agencies involved the better the outcome will be.

Involving multi-agencies means having case conferences, discussions, reviews and reports. Reports have to be shared with the child and the parents. Minutes have to be circulated, usually the day before the next meeting.

At Kilsyth Academy our experience is that the more numerous the agencies involved the less co-ordinated the approach to resolving problems becomes.

At any one time a child with difficulties at home, in school and in the community may have the attention of a form teacher, a guidance teacher, a member of the school's senior staff with responsibility for that guidance team, learning support staff including a special needs assistant, a school psychologist, a health board psychologist, a social worker, a behaviour support teacher from the authority, an attendance officer, members of the attendance council, the Children's Panel, a community police officer and a general practitioner. This is all in addition to his or her class teachers and co-operative teachers.

Many children with problems have extended families and stay with different relatives on different days of the week. How can anyone co-ordinate these efforts?

In effect, no one does. Each agency sees the child in an isolated situation and each from a slightly different viewpoint. Each sees the needs differently and has a different solution to the perceived problem.

From my observation, the first thing another agency does when a meeting has been scheduled and reports asked for is to contact the school. To my cynical eyes it would appear that some of the agencies then formulate their report based entirely on the school report but with amended emphasis to accord with their own agenda.

The greatest continuity comes in the school situation. The child sees his or her form teacher daily and if there are problems is also likely to see his or her guidance teacher on a daily basis.

In a secondary school, each teacher is seen several days a week. Opportunities for support and encouragement occur many times each day, as do opportunities for criticism and complaint.

Most guidance teachers spend huge amounts of time and effort on small numbers of children. Indeed, the temptation is to allow those youngsters who have few difficulties to coast through the guidance system with interviews taking place only at important transition points.

When meetings are called outwith school the guidance teacher is often invited to attend. The pressures on other agencies would appear to be less than those on teachers because these meetings seldom seem to start on time and can sometimes overrun substantially. Meanwhile the guidance teacher is fretting about the pupils who have had to be left in school, possibly untaught.

The formality of these meetings varies considerably, as does their management. A growing feature is the openness and transparency of all statements and discussions. Many teachers feel very uneasy at suggestions that the pupil use a teacher's first name in their input. The teachers also often feel uneasy when the social worker uses his or her first name.

Once the child raises the words "bullying" or "clash of personalities", the teacher knows the direction the discussion will follow. The pressure is then on the school to quickly work out strategies to support the child, to identify the other person, to stop the alleged bullying, to change the child's curriculum to avoid facing the teacher he or she does not like, to provide extra work or, conversely, to reduce the workload, to work out a plan to tell the class teachers how to solve the problems, to provide extra learning support and to have even more meetings to report back on the success of these measures.

It is to the credit of guidance staff that they respond positively to all of this and make every attempt to satisfy each agency that the school will convert the difficult child into a good citizen.

Changes under the post-McCrone agreement look likely to lead to significant changes in the number of guidance teachers. Can we have a multi-agency approach without the input of a "guidie"?

John Mitchell is headteacher of Kilsyth Academy, North LanarkshireIf you have any comments, e-mail scotlandplus@tes.co.uk

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