'We've been getting it right for years'

19th October 2012 at 01:00
Everyone talks about Girfec - Getting It Right for Every Child - but what does it actually mean for school staff, pupils and their families? Douglas Blane visits one of the pathfinder authorities to find out

When you look at smart, articulate secondary schoolboys, it is never easy to see the struggling lads they once were - and still might be if they hadn't had the right support at the right time.

"I was struggling in just about every subject," says Alistair Wilson. "Most teachers talk all around things. I need them to get to the point quickly. I used to get quite angry."

"I have a really bad memory," says his brother Colin. "So it's hard to remember what the teacher tells me. My behaviour in school was pretty bad."

Both brothers were diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome in the upper primary school, says their mum Christine Wilson - and that was when South Lanarkshire support kicked in.

"Their teacher studied Asperger's to find out the best way to teach them. When they came up to Stonelaw High School they started getting a lot of support," says school support assistant Jackie French.

"When they came here at first their behaviour was out of sorts, to say the least. It was a challenge."

The school rose to that challenge and so did South Lanarkshire, says Alan Russell, depute headteacher at Stonelaw (below).

"In this authority we've been getting it right for every child for years. What Girfec did was give us a sharper focus on the needs of the child and a culture of shared responsibility among education, health and social work. Nobody refers a difficulty on now. We own it together," he explains.

"The school nurse and family support worker are part of the fabric of the school. Staff drop in and chat to them about a family's circumstances and what we can do to get it right."

Those lines of communication on the ground are a good indication that Girfec's high-level aims are being achieved, says Andrea Batchelor, South Lanarkshire's head of education (inclusion). "It's a network of support. It means that people get a really quick response to concerns or even just little worries about a child. They don't have to go through a long, formal process."

A good example was when the family support worker based at Stonelaw High came out to her house to discuss the boys' sleeping problems, says Mrs Wilson. "They aren't great at sleeping. Interesting facts come into their heads in the night and they have to tell us about them.

"She put us in touch with Sleep Scotland, who gave us good tips, such as keeping a journal. So now if one of the boys suddenly thinks about an athlete who ran a personal best in 1969, he writes it in his journal and tells us in the morning."

Occupational therapy also got involved and showed the boys how to use techniques like theraputty to aid coordination. The speech and language therapist worked with them on several issues, including anger management.

"Alistair would be cheeky if a teacher asked him to take off his iPod in class," says Miss French. "We gave him a number of techniques to manage his stress and worked on helping him recognise facial expressions. We also worked on sarcasm and irony, which he found hard to understand."

Smooth communications with the family were hindered for a time, says Miss French, because the boys wouldn't let their parents in their school bags.

"I'd give them a letter to take home and their parents wouldn't get it. We had a lot of disagreements at the start - didn't we, boys?" she says.

"Definitely," Alistair responds with a smile.

Progress was slow at first, says Miss French. "But my own son has epilepsy and autism, so I knew what I was dealing with. I knew it would take time."

Cutting the time it takes to respond to a child's difficulties is one of the big benefits of Girfec on the ground, say South Lanarkshire professionals.

"We have a shared agenda and paperwork across the agencies," explains integrated children's coordinator Kevin Mullarkey. "We speak the same language now.

"So when health or social work talk about `well-being indicators', people in education know what they mean - and use the same words. We provide plenty of professional development and self-evaluation to embed that common agenda and language in the thinking of staff across agencies. It's about early and proportionate intervention for the benefit of the child."

A key change in achieving that central aim was the appointment of team leaders in health and social work to liaise with schools, says Frances Swinburne, senior manager of pupil support for Cambuslang and Rutherglen education area.

"As part of integrated children's services in South Lanarkshire, we had co-located family support workers and school nurses. But if the social worker was off, say, the school would have to phone up and go through the duty system. You wouldn't necessarily get the person you wanted. You probably wouldn't even know who that was. Now we know exactly who to ask in other agencies for advice and support for children and families."

There is an improved understanding of roles and responsibilities, she says. "We are all clear about ours. But now we are equally clear about the roles of social work and health, what they bring to the table and what we can expect of them."

Very often a little advice is all a school needs, says Mr Russell. "Girfec is about brief inputs to a problem as well as high-level strategy - easy access to a professional in another agency who can say `Try this, or that's the person to phone'."

There was a time when multi-agency meetings to discuss the needs of a schoolchild could be frustrating, says Lynda Henderson, principal teacher of additional support needs at Stonelaw High. "You would get together and agree what needed to be done, but by the next meeting it wouldn't have been. There is more accountability now. Things do get done."

Even with the added speed and effectiveness that Girfec brings, it can take a long time to help children with difficulties. The persistence and patience of the professionals over the years has made a big difference to the Wilson family, they say.

"I used to feel really stressed in school," says Colin. "But the stress has all gone. I know what I'm doing now. I feel focused."

The system in Scotland for children with difficulties is far better than in the States, where Mrs Wilson went to school, she says. "Kids who are struggling there are stigmatised and made to repeat. The support we've had here and the difference it's made to our boys - and to the rest of the family - has been wonderful."

The lads have been gradually coaxed, cajoled and occasionally coerced into focusing their Asperger's attention to detail on schoolwork and athletics - in which both lads perform at the highest level and which both aim to pursue as a career. "When they enjoy something, they totally focus on it," says their dad, Peter Wilson. "They have control of their lives now. It has taken a lot of stress off their shoulders and off ours."

It's a success story for Girfec in South Lanarkshire but by no means the only one, says Mr Russell. "We're seeing improved outcomes as a result of all this joined-up working. Young people's needs are being better met. Pupils are presenting for more exams and when they leave school they're going to positive destinations that they can sustain."

Lower exclusion rates and better attendance can be seen in the statistics, says Mrs Batchelor. "Positive destinations too, but whether we can sustain those with the economic situation so awful I don't know.

"I do know that we can sustain Girfec, because it's not about money. It's about willingness and conviction on the part of our professionals. We no longer have a programme team to make Girfec happen - it's built into our systems now. It's part of the thinking of everyone who works with children in South Lanarkshire."

Pupils' names have been altered at their request. For more information, visit www.girfecinlanarkshire.co.uk

`We learned how to help her grow through play'

Support for South Lanarkshire children can start even before they are born.

"We had to move when I was expecting Sophie and we were in homeless accommodation for a while," says Tracey Allan, 21. "That's when Lynda got in touch with us."

"We wanted to ensure the best possible start for this young family's child," says Lynda Findlay, the family support worker in integrated children's services. "They have been engaging really well with us."

Miles Fuller, 24, learned a lot from the child development course, he says. "We found out that a baby needs much more than food, water and nappies. We learned how to help her grow through play and that she'll pick up on atmosphere. Did you know that every time you smile at a baby, there's a new connection made in her brain?"

The 10-week, two-hour course teaches new parents about everything a child needs, says Mrs Findlay. "It's based on the Shanarri well-being indicators - safe, healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, responsible, respected, included."

All those pieces have to be joined together, says Ms Allan. "If one part's missing, the child won't develop as well. I was in children's homes and foster carers' from the age of five. So what I hadn't learned from my mum and dad I learned on these courses. They have a nice creche too. I've also been on Young Mums and Handling Children's Behaviour courses."

As the adults talk, little Sophie toddles around the room, closely watched, sharing her soft toy with people and showing, with her eyes and smiles, her good development and social skills.

As she grows, Mrs Findlay and her colleagues will monitor progress. "This family are doing really well now, but we will stay in touch. We will continue to liaise and be available when Sophie goes to school, so her teachers can come to us if she needs more support," says Mrs Findlay.

"Schools used to be very focused on teaching. But if a child hadn't had her breakfast or just didn't have a pencil in her bag, she wasn't going to learn as well. We're all trying to get it right for every child now. Teachers talk to us much more about what we can do together to make it right."

Photo credit: David Gordon


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