Where welfare works
Chasing up truants, dealing with excluded children and handling child protection brings education welfare officers into daily contact with the seamier side of life where drink, drugs and violence are common. North Somerset, centred on the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare, just south of Bristol, is a prosperous part of middle England. But it includes pockets of social deprivation and high unemployment. Last week it was awarded one of the education action zones under the Government's new scheme to raise standards. Clearly its welfare team has its share of challenges.
North Somerset's education welfare service was singled out as a model of good practice in the Government's consultation paper outlining its funding plans. The service had "shown what can be done", it says.
The commendation followed a glowing report after North Somerset became the first local authority to come under the critical eye of the Office for Standards in Education last year. Its educational welfare team of eight with two administrative assistants provided an efficient and highly-regarded service, said OFSTED. It reflected the core concerns of attendance, child protection, exclusions and juvenile justice. The cost of the service - Pounds 11.17 per pupil per year- was close to the national Pounds 10.90.
The creation of North Somerset's unitary authority in 1996 gave officers the chance to start from scratch constructing a cost-effective service.
In the Eighties many authorities had cut back on education welfare. Colin Tincknell, principal welfare officer, recalls: "It was important to decide what the service was about. It had to be clear we were carrying out our statutory duties and targeting provision. With a small service, we had to make sure we were doing it right."
Officers are pleased the number of pupil exclusions in their schools remains stable while the national total is rising; attendance figures are near the national average.
The key to the relationship between the service and its clients appears to lie in its high degree of accountability. A 16-page service agreement with schools details the functions, roles and responsibilities of the service David Dennis, chair of the education welfare service advisory group and head of Priory school in Weston-super-Mare, says: "You need officers out in the community working with different schools and families to make sure attendance is as good as it can be. It means they see the whole picture, which individual schools wouldn't be able to do. Heads want maximum financial support for their schools, and the Government is trying to give us more money and more responsibility. But I would draw the line at the education welfare service (being given over to schools) because it is more effective being run centrally."
Jane Wreford remembers her previous experience at Somerset county council where the service was delegated to schools and then, after pressure from the schools, taken back under the authority's wing. "They don't want all the extra work and they're worried smaller schools couldn't afford to pay for the service. The general feeling around here is that delegation is a dangerous thing."