United for the good of all

New Community Schools are about bringing people together, education for all and integrating local services. We have much to teach each other, writes Tricia Illsley.

Local authorities will be occupied in the next few months with ensuring that the Scottish Executive's aim of every school becoming a New Community School takes effect. For me, as an NCS co-ordinator in Perth and Kinross, the main questions are what makes an NCS different? and what are the lessons to learn from the pilots?

Having evaluated the pilot in north Perth at the end of its first year, it is clear that various factors have ensured its success.

Initial intensive consultation with school staff, pupils, parents and the wider community helps detailed planning to meet wide-ranging needs. Continuing consultation allows feedback and new ideas to be followed through.

A multi-disciplinary team working with school staff and other agencies allows the all-round needs of pupils and families to be met. A family may have one member attending a small nurture group run by a family support worker and a learning assistant, another attending a lunchtime club with a behaviour support teacher and community learning worker, a youngster in a cr che and a parent going to a self-development or adult learning group run by a college tutor and community learning worker.

All can benefit from health promotion through the school breakfast club, healthy tuck shop and nutritional school meals. Story, numeracy or interest sacks taken home can encourage parents to help children learn as they play.

It is effective to offer children's activities, such as a youth club or lunchtime drop-in centre, with some targeted support and also offer adults activity or learning opportunities as well as individual support by specialist workers.

Lunchtime clubs can be taken by teachers, classroom assistants, youth workers and support for learning assistants. Parenting information groups can be led by health visitors, social workers or family support workers. Parent drop-ins can be facilitated by community learning workers, teachers and family support and health workers. For these activities, professional skills are complementary. Relating to people, of all ages, is what matters.

It may seem Utopian but it can be attained with the resources and desire to make every school inclusive. Local authorities can ask the Scottish Executive for funding related to their pupil population. More can often be gained through bids to the many companies or government-funded initiatives with particular interests.

The NCS team is part of a large network of professionals with the same aims. Joint training and projects have brought teachers, community learning workers and social workers together during holiday activity weeks and given them a better understanding of each other's different roles.

Partnerships work well when there is willingness to offer time, accommodation, administrative support, knowledge of local networks and skills.

All staff can develop from knowledge and experience gained through different professional training, provided the barriers are cast aside. Teachers would surely gain from training on attachment theory and learning more about the resilience of children, while social workers can learn from educational initiatives such as circle time and the Learning Game. Community learning approaches to including parents are useful to all workers. Planning, monitoring and evaluation approaches used in education could enhance social work, while child protection research can inform education staff.

Many teachers are unaware that recent research indicates their importance as attachment figures for children and that they add hugely to children's resilience by providing security, warmth and actvity-led skills where there is little of these at home. Teachers sometimes do not notice when social, health or voluntary workers help a family cope with poverty, depression or alcoholism so that a child stays with its parents.

The lasting effects of the New Community School initiative should be in addressing the needs of the whole child and the whole family. For too long professionals have thrown one intervention after the next at children without looking at the whole picture.

Integrated support teams or joint assessment teams help to meet vulnerable children's needs but there have to be enough social or health workers available to attend meetings regularly. Where services are under-resourced and overstretched, integrated work falls apart.

Large-scale interventions such as balanced school meals, breakfast clubs and toothbrushing promotion in schools can be tackled by the Scottish Executive but the NCS approach is needed to help families to feel schools can support them in encouraging healthy lifestyles. Teachers cannot do this on their own; development workers are also needed.

They are also needed to support parents starting out-of-school-care clubs in disadvantaged areas. Otherwise the possibility of good childcare facilities to enable parents to return to work may be lost.

Schools that are provided with extra but different workers can enhance the protection of children and help them reach their potential. These workers may be available to a local authority already but their remits need to be realigned to provide the general support which families need.

It is not difficult to show through the pilot NCS evaluations that they can make a difference to children and families. But to move towards equality for all in state education, radical changes have to be supported to allow all an authority's schools to become New Community Schools.

This is an opportunity to begin changing working practices. Priority has to be given to integrated working at all levels in a council and to exploiting available joint funding. I hope that authorities continue to share their plans and experiences with the support of the Scottish Executive so that from each other we can learn the most effective structures.

Tricia Illsley is the New Community School co-ordinator at Goodlyburn Primary School, Perth.

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