Neil Munro reports from the spring conference of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland at Airth
THE leader of one of Scotland's five pathfinder projects for the new community schools initiative has cautioned ministers against excessive expectations.
Alastair Struthers, headteacher of Lochend Secondary in Glasgow's Easterhouse, warned fellow heads during their spring conference at Airth last week: "New community schools alone cannot remedy the ills of the environment or of society. My fear is that, in three years' time, someone will come along with the slide rule and say that this is not working or that is not working."
A key determinant of success will be whether the initiative leads to better exam results and attendance patterns. Lochend's Standard grade performance in particular has been improving steadily, with 78 per cent of the fourth year gaining five or more passes at levels 1-6 last year, compared with 65 per cent three years ago. The figure is now creeping up on the Glasgow average of 85 per cent.
Mr Struthers said there had to be a concentrated focus on exams and attendance if new community schools are to notch up distinctive gains beyond what they would have achieved anyway. The school has an absence rate of one in five pupils on any given day.
He echoed the words of Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector, that, whatever other expectations there might be of new community schools, "they mustn't take their eye of the ball which is to raise attainment". The Government wants to set up 64 new community school projects within three years - two for each authority in Scotland - covering a large number of schools.
An investment of pound;26 million will pay to house social work, health, psychological and other child professionals in the selected schools. Mr Struthers said, however: "An integrated approach cannot just exist on paper; it must be in people's heads, taking a holistic approach to the needs of young people."
He acknowledged that, as services are integrated, staff might feel the responsibility for dealing with challenging pupils is not theirs but somebody else's.
The scale of the wider social challenge facing Easterhouse is immense - 80 per cent of pupils are on clothing grants, 60 per cent are entitled to free meals and 60 per cent of families are on income support. In addition, 34 per cent of the adult population are classified by the health board as being permanently sick which can impat on attendance as children stay off to look after parents or siblings.
Mr Struthers described as "pernicious nonsense" any view that children from deprived backgrounds are unable to learn or unintelligent. "But we have to recognise that they do face barriers to learning which we have to combat," he said.
Lochend has been able to use its extra funding to create an "integration manager", who is paid as an assistant head but has a social work background. Three social workers based at the school are paid for out of education funds, there is a careers officer dedicated full-time to the school and a full-time youth worker. A health co-ordinator has yet to be appointed
The school also aims to address the Government's agenda of reducing school exclusions by a third by 2002, for which the Excellence Fund has provided pound;23 million to develop alternatives. Two teachers work full-time on behaviour support and reducing exclusions, there is enhanced psychological and attendance back-up, and key liaison has been established with the Young Carers' Development Agency.
Mr Struthers said the school now copes more effectively with problem pupils on a day-to-day basis because there are more staff and better structures to deal with them. There was also a much better relationship with the community education service which ran courses last summer for schemes such as the Duke of Edinburgh's Award and St John Ambulance training courses.
Better exam results, improved attendance, fewer exclusions and encouraging pupils to move into post-school education will be significant indicators of success, Mr Struthers said, but not the only ones. Others, which are more difficult to define, require answers to questions like:
Have the new integrated services and patterns of collaborative working been successful?
Have there been changes to
the work practices of different professionals?
What has been the contribution of new community schools to lifelong learning?
What impact has there been on the area's health problems?
What should the time-scale be before an assessment is made? * Alastair Struthers made clear this week that, although new community schools faced problems with the teachers' contract and conditions of employment (TESS, last week), eight teachers had agreed to help with this year's summer school along with four other professionals. "I recognise and value that contribution from staff," Mr Struthers said.