How school-home support charity can help children before trouble even starts, reports Anat Arkin
For one particular parent struggling to cope with massive debt, the last straw landed on the doormat in the form of a letter from her daughter's school. It was asking for some dinner money that she owed. The distraught mother stormed into the school and threatened to keep her daughter at home to avoid further demands for money.
In many schools it would have been up to the headteacher to somehow try to deal with this situation. But at Whittingham community primary in Waltham Forest, home-school liaison worker Sylvia Webster was able to offer practical support.
The former social worker, who works part-time at the school, sat the mother down, went through the family budget with her and arranged for her debts to be rescheduled. That meant the dinner money could be paid and that her child felt more confident about coming into school.
Whittingham has had a home-school liaison worker since it opened 10 years ago, and headteacher Christine Barry says she would not be without one. She believes that having someone on hand to help parents deal with problems affecting children's ability to learn is one of the reasons why, despite being in one of the most deprived wards in the country, her school gets value-added scores that put it in the top 20 per cent.
Whittingham's experience suggests that having a home-school liaison worker doesn't just free teachers to concentrate on teaching. It also helps schools communicate with outside agencies and do the kind of preventive work that lies at the heart of the children's agenda.
"I think that's what Every Child Matters is about," says Ms Barry. "It's saying that we shouldn't wait until things go wrong but that we need to ask what we can do now that will make a difference to this child so that things don't go wrong in the future."
School-Home Support, the charity that employs Sylvia Webster, charges the school around pound;13,000 a year for her services. Christine Barry recognises that not every school would be able to afford this, but adds:
"As funding becomes available to support the Children Act and the aims of Every Child Matters, I think it's certainly something schools would want to think about."
If the Government implements one of the less widely-publicised recommendations of Sir Alan Steer's task force on pupil behaviour, schools will have to do more than think about this. The 13 heads and teachers on the task force proposed in their report last term that all schools should appoint workers to support pupils and parents. But individual schools could find it difficult to give these workers the training and professional supervision that an organisation such as School-Home Support is able to provide. "Schools are just not financed or resourced to provide that level of support and training for workers who aren't teachers or teaching assistants," says Helen Bickley, deputy head of All Saints RC secondary school in York, which has been working with School-Home Support since early 2003.
The school's part-time support worker does some work with parents. But she is there first and foremost to respond to the needs of pupils who often aren't known to social services but are still troubled in some way. "We know our students are now getting a level of support on a variety of levels that previously wasn't available to them," says Helen Bickley. "For many of them that means that their school life is more successful."
School-Home Support grew out of the East London Schools Fund, set up more than 20 years ago by former education welfare officer Bridget Cramp.
Today the charity employs around 120 workers in schools across London, Yorkshire and Humberside, and is planning to expand into other regions.
Its workers run anger management courses and mentoring schemes, as well as providing one-to-one support for children from families affected by anything from domestic violence, or even murder, to lack of funds to buy a school uniform. They do a lot of work around attendance, but unlike education welfare officers, do not decide whether to take the parents of persistent truants to court.
"Our great strength is that we aren't statutory," says Jan Tallis, chief executive of School-Home Support. "We are not teachers and we are not social services, so parents and children can speak to us in confidence.
"What one headteacher always says, when he is asked why he wants a school-home support worker, is that schools need to deal with all the baggage children bring with them. Otherwise it gets in the way of their learning."