Take-off time for a pilot

31st August 2001 at 01:00
The integration of outside specialists is helping a new community school to grow strong, reports Judy Mackie

Like any birthing process, the creation of a new community school provokes mixed reactions. On the negative side, those involved experience natural feelings of apprehension, anxiety and impatience as their embryonic project struggles to see the light of day. However, far outweighing those is the prospect of a new era in educational and community development, bringing hope and high expectations.

For Smithfield Primary, the benefits associated with becoming one of the city's two pilot new community schools are proving well worth the effort made by the school, its partner agencies and its surrounding community.

Among the many positive reasons for investing time and energy in establishing the new school structure are that it raises the self-esteem and expectations of its 230 nursery and primary pupils; supports the children and their families through sometimes challenging periods; provides new opportunities for creativity and self-development; strengthens relationships with the community and encourages good health and citizenship.

It could be argued that most of these aims are shared by every primary and secondary in the country. The difference for Smithfield is that it now has the in-house expertise and the community support to pursue them well beyond the school gates.

Working with a range of partners from the public and voluntary sectors, the school has a team of specialists based full or part-time on site. An integration manager, an administrator, a Barnardos project worker, a social worker, a community education worker, a health promotions specialist and a police constable make up the core team, which swells during holidays to include part-time staff from a range of backgrounds - teachers, school auxiliaries and social work and community education students.

In the two years since the pilot began, these people have become well-known faces in the school, engaging with individuals or groups of pupils mainly during lesson breaks, after school and in the holidays, giving advice and sharing ideas.

Pat Calder, Smithfield Primary's acting headteacher, says she and her staff value the relationship that has developed. "It has given us more choices in how we deal with issues such as challenging behaviour in the classroom," she says. "Because we have informal contact with specialists from a range of backgrounds, our approach and solutions can be far more imaginative and the issues can be worked through in situations such as after-school clubs or one-to-one support sesssions."

Pam Simpson, the integration manager, believes that now the foundations are firmly embedded, the project has reached a particularly exciting phase.

"There were a lot of frustrations in the early stages because there were general expectations of something happening very quickly. But we were quite clear that we had to put the structures in place to enable people to work effectively together before we could start developing all the different areas of work. Now I feel we are at the stage where the project can really take off. There are all kinds of possibilities."

One activity already well established is the work carried out with individual children and families. Barnardos plays an important role, with project worker Robin Coleman supporting families in and out of school on a variety of relationship issues. The approach is therapeutic and systemic, focusing on bringing out the positive attributes of a child.

Outreach team leader Kathleen Clark says the experience of having someone working as part of a team within the school brings several benefits. "As an organisation, we are learning so much from Robin's experience in mixing with specialists from different backgrounds," she says. "In turn, he is sharing his knowledge and experience with others.

"I think the Smithfield team is working cohesively and succeeding in developing a true holistic approach."

Among the many other areas being developed are an anti-bullying group - The Jedis - to be supported this year by anger management and assertiveness groups, a range of informal holiday activities, including outdoor education to develop teamwork and positive relationships, and parent support groups. Other plans include playground painting to encourage healthy activity in breaks, led by Laura Willison, a Grampian Health Promotions specialist, and Kindercraft, involving parents and children working together on crafts.

"Parents are building up their own confidence by getting involved at school and the promotional work they're doing for us in the community is very important in terms of attracting more parents into school," says Ms Simpson. "Also, training provided for cr che workers is supporting adult education and offering part-time local employment."

Ms Simpson and Mrs Calder agree that they've learned many lessons. "People's expectations early on were very high and we've had to stress that this is a long-term investment with no magic wand to help us through," says Mrs Calder. "We've also learned the importance of constant communication between all parties, particularly the support team and the teaching staff.

"Evaluation is another ongoing issue which involves a lot of paperwork for everyone.

"But, having said all that, with the positive feedback we've had from the community, I believe the project has enormous potential."

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