Nurse's care is the best medicine

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
New community schools are showing they can work as ministers underline their commitment, reports David Henderson

TEACHERS, social workers, welfare officers, police and psychologists are among the professionals involved in Peterhead Academy's new community school project but one figure is pivotal - the school nurse.

Terry Duncan, project leader and former assistant head, told a national conference in Aberdeen last week that Debbie Smith had the "most crucial role in the network" linking the 1,500-pupil secondary with 10 local primaries and one special school.

The network, involving some 4,000 children in the north-east, is one of the first seven new community school pilots and has been running for a year.

Mr Duncan said the appointment of a nurse to work alongside a first aid auxiliary was vital. "The number of children who have problems and are starting to confer with the school is increasing. It's difficult for teachers to drive up attainment when there are so many problems."

As many as 10-15 per cent of Peterhead's roll come from vulnerable families. Mr Duncan said that Mrs Smith's confidential counselling service had uncovered "a dam-bursting" increase in cases of abuse.

"We thought we were providing for social, emotional and health needs, but since she has been here the number of children who have come forward with details about physical and sexual abuse has substantially increased," he said.

Mrs Smith arranges half-hour interviews with all S1 and S2 pupils and runs an open door counselling service at breaks and lunchtime. Other duties include individual healthcare plans for children, contributing to sex education programmes and helping to ease exam stress. She also helps at the breakfast club and is about to start a parenting programme.

Other tasks include core nursing, monitoring eyesight, weight and height, and staff training on health problems in class, such as asthma attacks.

Mr Duncan said: "There is a lot of counselling and the school nurse works one-to-one. She does not have a timetable and has the freedom to do it. Guidance teachers have become pseudo-social workers in the past and that's to the detriment of other duties."

Two other secondaries, Inverurie and Turriff, are part of the three-year pilot with the local health board but only Peterhead is running as a new community school, testing inter-professional working to the full.

As the lessons from Peterhead filter through, primaries are keen to provide a similar service. But pay and conditions for school nurses are considerably lower than for teachers and other nursing staff. Mrs Smith is only employed for 40 weeks a year when the school is open.

The Peterhead network is doing nothing unique but it is attempting to provide a comprehensive support system for families, Mr Duncan said. An extra pound;200,000 a year over three years has been allocated to kick-start initiatives such as the health-promoting school, but tying in funding with other programmes has been essential.

"Nothing could have been done without additional funding," Mr Duncan said. "But we need to sustain our level of development in the early stages and look to long-term sustainability. All the people I am working with are on temporary contracts."

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