Your part in the war on abuse

7th February 2003 at 00:00
An experiment in Great Yarmouth shows schools can play a vital role in protecting children - so why didn't the Climbie inquiry mention it?

THERE was a glaring omission in last week's report into the death of Victoria Climbie: the role of schools in child protection. Lord Laming's failure to look at this vital issue was all the more surprising because several local authorities are already making schools the centre of the child protection system - a strategy that the Government endorses.

Lord Laming said that teacher training should include child protection. But he failed to appreciate a crucial fact: that the childcare professionals most often in contact with children and families are teachers.

Teachers at a French school which Victoria attended before coming to England were the first to raise concerns about her.

Though Lord Laming spotted the need for better inter-agency links, he glossed over the difficulties. Heads with experience in this field know that case conferences are often frustrating. Vital information is denied to schools because of data protection laws and the confidentiality of medical records.

Other agencies can also be unco-operative: doctors are notoriously reluctant to talk to schools, while social workers have been accused of being less than honest about the history of children they want to place in mainstream schools.

These were familiar issues in Great Yarmouth, where education action zone director Carol McAlpine faced seemingly intractable problems, with poor behaviour and attendance, and low achievement in the town's schools.

Her answer was a "full-service" school - an American concept - that would be the point of contact for a range of children's services.

Since last term, professionals representing social services and the psychological service have been working with teachers to provide a family-centred support service in 11 local schools. From the end of this month, doctors and nurses will also be based in the schools for part of the week. The schools are divided into two clusters grouped around two high schools - in Great Yarmouth and nearby Caister. Clustering allowed a single point of contact for a family with children at different schools, explained Ms McAlpine.

Schools within each of the Norfolk clusters are working to build curriculum links and ease pupil transfers as well as provide family services. A combined assessment team meets every two weeks to consider how best to support families.

Barriers to inter-agency working were dismantled early on. "The first thing we do is ask the parents if they have any problems with us sharing information - so far nobody has objected," said Ms McAlpine.

The aim is to have a single case file for each family run by a lead agency.

"The most appropriate agency takes the lead," she said. "Each family has a lead worker."

The new way of working has highlighted former absurdities. "We had a case where a family had three youngsters, all with different social workers," said Ms McAlpine. "We've cut out all that nonsense."

But the initiative has sparked an explosion in referrals, as children report their own problems. "Until recently I would deal with three child-protection cases per year. This year we have dealt with 80," said David Brunton, head of Great Yarmouth high. Problems range from headlice to serious abuse.

But exclusions are down at his school - from 180 fixed-term exclusions a few years ago to 13 so far this year. And teachers are making contact with parents they had never seen in school before.

Ms McAlpine says that in the long term, helping children to stay in school and with their parents produces huge savings for social services and other agencies.

A research evaluation of full-service schools is heading for Education Secretary Charles Clarke's desk and he will visit Great Yarmouth this month.

Carol McAlpine believes that the project offers a model for other areas.

Involving the school allows early identification of any problems. "It's when they aren't identified early, that's where you get the disasters," said one primary head in Great Yarmouth. "You protect the few by protecting the many."

Details on full-service schools at www.infed.orgschoolingf-serv.htm

E-mail: phil.revell@ukonline.co.uk

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