Meet the human alarm clock

13th October 2006 at 01:00
Her job is to get pupils to school on time and to help parents tackle their children's behaviour. Now pound;40 million is to pay for an army of school-home support workers

Drug addiction, extreme poverty and domestic violence are just some of the issues which school-home support workers such as Theresa Higgins faces every day.

Ms Higgins is one of 125 people employed by the charity School-Home Support to liaise between teachers and parents and try to resolve problems with pupils' behaviour and attendance. Sometimes the solution is as simple as providing an alarm clock; more often it is dealing with the difficult home lives of the children.

The Government now hopes to employ hundreds of go-betweens for its own version of the scheme, which it will be trialed in the new year at a cost of pound;40 million.

Ms Higgins, 40, works with two primaries in inner London: the Blessed Sacrament in Islington, where children are mostly Roman Catholic, and Culloden in Tower Hamlets, where pupils are predominantly Muslim Bengalis.

"I've had some children not come to school because they've got no shoes,"

she said. "I've bought everything from winter coats to a week's food shopping for some families. They are living below the breadline and often they don't see the importance of sending kids to school."

On a typical day, she will check the register of the school she is visiting and make between three and 10 phone calls to parents to find out why their children are absent.

She makes about two home visits a week to see children and their families.

"I find out a lot of information the school doesn't know," she said.

"Teachers and heads are too busy running the school to spend time with families. It's my job to be that friend and find out the nitty-gritty of why a child was off. Sometimes it's as simple as giving someone an alarm clock to make sure they wake up on time."

Other times it is less simple. Domestic violence and drug addiction can make it difficult to meet the parents.

One of the childrenk she works with has a mother who is addicted to cocaine, so he is brought up by his grandmother. "I give the mother leaflets on courses, but it's hard," Ms Higgins said. "There are days she turns up and days she doesn't."

Last week Parmjit Dhanda, the children's minister, met Ms Higgins at Blessed Sacrament, where she has been working for a year, to see the charity's work. He joined her at the school gate where she was welcoming pupils and parents.

Norah Flatley, the headteacher, said: "It's a holistic approach. The children come to school happier because their families are better supported, and they learn better.

"Sometimes people just want a chat and a coffee in confidence. They don't always want to talk to the head or teacher."

Kent and South Yorkshire run similar schemes and the Government is about to appoint dozens of parent support advisers in a pilot scheme of its own.

They will work in 600 schools in 20 local authorities from January.

School-Home Support has worked in schools since 1984. Last year it helped 37,799 children in 133 schools and their families.

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