Schools fail to give pupils a guiding light

26th August 2005 at 01:00
Guidance teachers should be kind and build trust. But pupils do not believe this is the case.

These are among the varied responses of young people who were consulted as part of the Scottish Executive's "21st century social work review", the first since the Social Work (Scotland) Act of 1968. They are the results of intensive discussions on a wide range of topics at two workshops in Midlothian and South Ayrshire, involving 48 young people aged 11-15.

A report on the consultation, Everyone needs to know someone is there for them, published today (Friday), reveals some deep-seated disaffection with school on the part of pupils.

Willy Roe, who chairs the review group, told The TES Scotland: "While young people said that schools have a role to play in offering guidance and support, they also acknowledged that help should be provided in lots of different ways to meet individual needs."

Mr Roe said it was a key aim of the review to strengthen the contribution social work can make in delivering integrated services that are easier for children and their families to access.

He was backed by Colin Maclean, headteacher of Auchinleck Academy in East Ayrshire, who represents education on the 13-strong review group. "Schools need to work much more closely with social work, particularly in preventative action and early intervention," Mr Maclean said. "We have really got to get at the 'born to fail' kids, tackling the problems at the roots."

The youngsters in the consultation put a premium on caring professionals.

While guidance teachers were seen as a key support, one of the groups commented: "It never helps to talk to a teacher. It can make things worse.

It depends on the teacher maybe."

One pupil said: "Teachers don't notice. They're too busy. They're not paid to care." But another thought that "young teachers are more caring and have a better idea of things". A third advised: "You need to pick a teacher that cares."

The groups all agreed that there should be better personal and social education covering issues such as jobs, housing and managing money.

"There's too much repetitive stuff about drugs," one reported. Better preparation for work, rather than just college or university, was another demand.

The young people concluded their discussion with a series of key messages for Peter Peacock, Education Minister, who has responsibility for social work and set up the review group. These included more support from school and from outsiders such as social workers. Bullying was a particular concern.

Mr Maclean says an important aspect of the review group's brief is to reform social work provision in a way that aligns it more closely with other services. This has been the intention and, he believes, increasingly the outcome of the nine learning partnerships set up by East Ayrshire's education department, centred on each of the council's secondary schools.

This not only involves primary and nursery schools, but other professionals. There is a full-time social work assistant on the Auchinleck campus, and a social worker delivered an in-service session on child protection for all the teachers last session. "The future of social work lies in integrated settings," Mr Maclean comments.

But he counsels against becoming "hung up" on structures. "What we need are clearly defined outcomes for all services, working in teams. In isolation, schools cannot solve all of society's ills. But working in teams can pay dramatic dividends."

Mr Maclean has been greatly encouraged by the way in which agencies he has been involved with have collaborated more closely since the learning partnerships were established in 2002.

East Ayrshire trod a unique path by combining education and social work in one department, under John Mulgrew, who was then director of education.

While there has been no evaluation of the impact this has had on the ground, Mr Mulgrew believes it has led to "a relaxation in professional boundaries, perceived or otherwise, over a period of time - and it does take time".

He also says there has been a greater understanding among professionals of each other's roles. It has been easier to respond more effectively to the needs of the most vulnerable youngsters, because there is no "departmentalism" or friction over who does what.

Mr Mulgrew is a firm believer in bringing together the range of professionals working with children from the moment they begin training.

East Ayrshire, along with Edinburgh City Council, is trying to kick-start the process and has put in a bid to the Hunter Foundation to fund development work involving teachers, social workers and community development students.

"This really would be mould-breaking," Mr Mulgrew commented. Mr Maclean believes such joint training will be an inevitable result of joined-up service delivery. The social worker who trained teachers at Auchinleck is just the start.

Local authorities generally are taking a "pragmatic" line on the review.

They have expressed concern at the "direct criticism of elected members and social work managers in respect of leadership and management of social work services". Councils fear the Executive wants to weaken local government's responsibilities for social work but has failed to deal with "the critical issue of resources for social work services".

The review group expects to finish its deliberations and report to Mr Peacock by October.

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