An educational charity is increasing its number of support workers. Penny Cottee reports
Aconstant dilemma for teachers is finding the balance between teaching and pastoral care. The demands of league tables and attainment targets force teachers to focus more on results, leaving little time to look beyond the classroom. But when external circumstances hamper a child's ability to learn, it becomes vital to take a wider view.
That's where the educational charity School-Home Support UK (SHS) comes in.
Its staff work to provide a link between school, home and child, in a bid to overcome barriers to learning.
"It's a simple concept," says director Amelia Howard. "Our support workers are based in schools, and build relationships with school staff, children, parents, and outside professionals, to help resolve the difficulties which can interfere with a child's education."
Support workers act as an information resource. "We are enablers, helping people to solve their own problems," says Ms Howard. "It could be a mum having trouble with benefits, a family made homeless by a fire, issues around bereavement, asylum seekers with language problems, bad housing, or poverty - all affect a child's ability to attend school, focus clearly and learn."
Resolving such complex difficulties takes time. "As part of a school's pastoral team, our staff can take this workload on and give the teachers back the time to teach," Ms Howard adds.
The charity's roots are in inner-city London, where it has been placing staff in schools for 19 years. Set up by the East London Schools Fund (ELSF), it became a charity in 1989. Working in 99 schools across nine London boroughs, it now employs more than 100 field staff. In April, the ELSF will become part of SHS as it expands to other areas of the country.
Support workers are funded either from a school's own budget or via initiatives such as Excellence in Cities.
One of the keys to the service is to match the staff to the school. SHS and the school agree on the priorities for that institution, and then it recruits the person with the skills to fit those needs.
Mandy Milsom, headteacher of Northwold primary school in Hackney, which has a school-home support worker, recognises the value of this. "At my previous school we also had a support worker, and there attendance was a real issue," she says.
"But here at Northwold a call-divert system takes care of tracking down absentees, leaving our support worker to deal one-to-one with children and families on a wide range of issues."
Support workers are from many different backgrounds, and include former headteachers, social workers, education welfare officers and health visitors. All are trained in issues of attendance, cultural diversity, behaviour and child protection, and are supervised weekly.
A prerequisite for the role is understanding the communities in which the schools operate. SHS also has cross-school project workers specialising in supporting Turkish, Bengali and Somali pupils. The focus of the SHS is on early intervention and Ms Milsom believes this is invaluable: "It's about giving children space to talk in a safe environment and trying to stop the situation escalating," she says.
"Without a school-home support worker we would have seen more exclusions, withouta doubt."