Where the ideal is reality

5th December 2003 at 00:00
The Thomas Coram centre in London is a model for integrated childcare services, reports Diane Hofkins

The Green Paper, Every Child Matters, was a response to the death of Victoria Climbie, and child protection is an important focus of the proposals. "But the problem of children falling through the cracks between different services goes much further," it says.

"Too often children experience difficulties at home or at school, but receive too little help too late, once problems have reached crisis point.

Child protection cannot be separated from policies to improve children's lives as a whole."

The paper wants schools and early childhood centres to serve as one-stop shops for families with difficulties. Social services, health, childcare and advice for parents should be brought to stressed parents, rather than expecting them to go looking for what they need.

"Professionals will be encouraged to work in multi-disciplinary teams based in and around schools and children's centres," says the paper.

"They will provide a rapid response to the concerns of frontline teachers, childcare workers and others in universal services."

What would such a place look like? In an ideal world, like the Thomas Coram Early Childhood Centre in Camden, north London, with its cornucopia of outdoor play equipment ranging from music-making recycled dustbin lids and pipes to a mini-Stonehenge for quiet contemplation, its spacious baby rooms, its welcoming parents' room and its smiling headteacher, Bernadette Duffy.

The job, she says, demands a lot of knitting things together. "If you're good at crochet it's probably good experience for being the head of an integrated centre - that and plate-spinning."

The children's centre is part of the Coram Community Campus, near King's Cross, which comprises the headquarters of the august children's charity, a parents' centre, a homeless centre, another nursery, and an after-school club particularly for vulnerable children.

It is involved in Excellence in Cities as well as Sure Start, and also receives a grant from the Coram Family charity. Altogether the campus provides an integrated service for about 600 children, parents and carers a week. The children's centre nursery has 106 places, for children from six months to five years, including 21 funded by social services for children in need and five for children from homeless families.

The Thomas Coram Early Childhood Centre, which has many children with complex needs, benefits from close working not only with other public services but with the other centres on the campus.

Tree House, for instance, is a school for children on the autistic spectrum, providing support, advice and advocacy, with help for families and a siblings group.

"It's very good having that sort of organisation at the bottom of the driveway," grins Bernadette.

Meanwhile, Lucy Draper, head of the parents' centre, takes the lead on parents and community matters. Her expertise is invaluable to workers at the children's centre. Staff go to her to talk about family dynamics.

Bernadette and her team work closely with Camden's child development team, whose members, such as speech and occupational therapists, visit the centre most days to meet parents and children.

Health visitors arrive several times a week, and social workers are often on site. It means that parents tap into services in an informal way, chatting with health visitors in the parents' room about nutrition, for instance. It also gives staff at the centre a chance to talk to social workers and other specialists about children's needs.

How does the head manage this diversity? "You have to let go as a head of a combined centre," says Bernadette. "You can't hold on to everything in the way you can when you are head of a straightforward school.

"You can't possibly know about everything. As a head you have to feel comfortable about having an overview, but not being directly involved all the time."

The deputy head, Janice Marshall, for instance, liaises with social services and keeps tabs on children who have been referred to the centre by social workers. She sets up networks, meets with parents and serves on the local children in need panel.

"Children's centres are crucial because they're seeing the child every day," says Bernadette.

When key decisions are being made, such as whether children should stay with their families, children's centre staff have a rounded picture to contribute.

Children's centres are also where problems are often first spotted. Staff there can have a significant relationship with families in need.

"Sometimes what's called for is just giving parents encouragement when they get the children here on time, clothed and fed. That's a real achievement in some families," says Bernadette.

"Parents say it makes a difference when you come in and someone's smiling.

"Sometimes a parent just needs someone to say, 'have a cup of coffee and tell me about it'."

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