Our very own social worker

6th October 2006 at 01:00
One head thought it was the most cost-effective way to help pupils, says Fiona Leney

The head of Charlton school in south-east London has found an effective way to make multi-agency working run more smoothly. He's appointed his own social worker. Charlton, which caters for children aged 11 to 19 with a wide range of special educational needs, has more cause than most schools to work closely with other government agencies to ensure the welfare of its pupils. It should be an obvious beneficiary of the integrated children's services being established by children's trusts.

But Mark Dale-Emberton, the head, appointed the social worker shortly after his school opened four years ago following the reorganisation of special schools in Greenwich. It was a move designed to improve relationships with parents as well as to ease the administrative burden on his teachers of multi-agency working.

The initiative has proved so successful that it offers lessons for any school leader struggling with the nuts and bolts of integrated services.

Jeanette Webb, Charlton's educational social worker, smooths contacts not only between school and parents and children, but "meshes", on behalf of the school, with health and social workers. She attends education and statement reviews and can refer for occupational or speech therapy. She knows the children and their families, and is readily available for the teachers to consult.

"Jeanette has released the time of senior staff," says Mr Dale-Emberton.

"It's cheaper for a school to employ their own social worker than to employ a teacher to try to do the same job without the social worker's expertise."

Beyond making financial sense, both the head and his acting deputy, Janet Bradford, who doubles as special needs co-ordinator, say that having a social worker has immeasurably improved relations with parents and communications with health and social services. All schools with delegated budgets would have the freedom to make such an appointment, although whether it would be worth it for them would depend on whether their local authority funding was already at a reasonable level and what mix of children they had.

As well as having special needs, around one-third of Charlton's pupils are looked-after children. Mrs Webb, who used to work for the central social services in the borough, still has excellent contacts with social and health service colleagues. Because of her previous job, she already knew many of the families whose children attend Charlton.

"Because she straddles the divide between pupils and services, she is seen as an honest agent, bringing together professionals and parents in the interests of the child," says Mr Dale-Emberton. "She picks up any problems early, so we can mobilise help to prevent them developing. I can say to the council, 'Unless you provide more support for so and so now, it'll cost you more in the long run.'"

Mrs Webb says that many of the problems that arise between schools and social services boil down to the high turnover of social workers, which makes it difficult for teachers, already busy with school work, to develop strong working relationships with constantly changing staff.

"It can be incredibly frustrating to share important information with a social worker who is gone within three months, meaning you have to start again with their replacement. Information can simply not get passed on,"

she says.

Another problem can be differing expectations between teachers and social workers.

"Sometimes staff get annoyed because a child comes to school dirty," says Mrs Webb. "I have to tell them it's a miracle that he's got to school at all. They need to come to terms with the concept of 'good-enough' care. The key is for professionals to talk to each other,"

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