Having an in-school social worker offers informed on-hand support to children and families all year round, says headteacher Neil Wilson, who here discusses the multi-agency teams that his school uses

Newall Green High School (NGHS) is a very successful urban 11-16 comprehensive serving the Wythenshawe estate in south Manchester. It is oversubscribed and for the past three years has been in the top 1% of contextual value added schools in England. Against a background of very challenging circumstances it has gained a grade 1 ‘outstanding’ from Ofsted (May, 2007), has three subject specialisms in arts, science with mathematics and, most recently, applied learning. It is currently coming to the end of a £18m Building Schools for the Future programme and has gained an additional £4m for the development of a sixth form.

Extended provision
The extended school operation at the school consists of a social worker and assistant social worker, a school nurse who also delivers a CAMHS programme, five learning mentors, a school attendance and improvement officer and a team of special needs teachers led by an assistant headteacher. In addition, the senior manager for finance and administration, deputy headteacher, pastoral, and five heads of year also form part of the core delivery model.

The school has outstanding links with three main partner primary schools and currently is entering a hard federation with one of the primary schools. The full service school team that operates at the school will, therefore, be able to offer even more intensive early intervention support than before. Currently, the three main feeder schools enjoy the services of the community aspect of the subject specialisms and the services of the assistant social worker. Once the governing body of the federation is established, a three-to-19 plan can be put together that will deliver a detailed and wide-ranging service that will support the needs of the families in its broadest context.

I am very determined to deliver the community cohesion dimension of the school and have the full support of the governing body. I believe that the extended school is a partial replacement of the extended family which, in years gone, by supported families. Grandparents, aunts and uncles would frequently support the family both economically, socially and emotionally. The majority of families do not enjoy such support nowadays, with many families forming a small nucleus of relations. In addition, the complexity of modern life puts a number of the support mechanisms required very much in the hands of specialists who are able to engage a variety of agencies. That is not to say that the extended school is replacing the family as frequently the support required is common sense. However, the challenges and pressures of the 21st century imply that to educate a child outside of the social culture is very difficult. In essence, the education provision at Newall Green embraces the whole child and the family. The Ofsted report put it bluntly: ‘This is a school where every child does really matter.’

A further point needs to be made about the complexity of educating and preparing young people for life. Schools are frequently criticised for the poor standards of young people leaving school. This criticism is endemic and can be found in educational literature from the middle of the 19th century to the present day. A very simple point needs to be made here. If a child attends school and never misses a day then the total amount of time a child is under the influence of the school is 16% of the calendar year. The rest of the time they are at home or in the community. Where in industry do you find a company held to account for an end product when they only have a 16% influence over the final commodity? However, the other side of the coin is that there is a significant recognition that schools do have an enormous influence and, in essence, do produce outstanding young people.

A very important aspect of the extended school programme is that families will engage with multi-agencies within a school setting. However, they will frequently not engage with agencies outside school because they have personal pride and do not want others to know that there may be a crisis in their family. Coming into school to discuss educational issues is socially acceptable. I am driven by academic standards and improving the life chances of the pupils; the social workers support this philosophy in their practice. At all times the school is driven by the standards agenda and the extended school team supports this in their practice. Consequently, far from negating school and pupil progress, it manifestly supports and improves educational outcomes.

The in-school social worker
The school-based social worker and assistant social worker are paid for out of the school dedicated budget. The main purpose of the job is to offer, all year round, a social work service to children and families in need, and to be part of the full-service school team. Attendance at full-service school weekly meetings brings the school social worker into very close professional working relationships with key coworkers, such as the school health adviser, learning mentors and other pastoral staff.

Cross-phase strengths
The work in primary schools helps to gain the early confidence of families. If they know that good support was made available to a younger sibling, for instance, families are more inclined to seek help when they have older children at NGHS. Dealing with the same key worker, rather than two different ones, is usually more effective and certainly less stressful for the family concerned.

An information leaflet is sent to parents stressing the support available to families. It offers a listening ear on issues such as relationship difficulties, problems in getting young people to go to school, the stresses of being a parent or carer, and worries about bullying, bereavement or low self-esteem.

Young people are able to self refer to gain support from the social work service. Referrals otherwise are channelled through the relevant head of year to full service school meetings. A wide range of information on the young person and the family, including siblings at primary school, can be shared and a team view is taken as to the best course of action.

Where the social work service is the most appropriate form of support, one or sometimes both, members of the social work team will be allocated as the key worker. The social worker constructs a plan of response to the particular need or situation, with as much involvement as possible of the young person, her or his family and any relevant outside agencies.

Role of the social worker

Communicating aspects of that plan to the staff with whom the young person comes into contact in school is a key part of the social worker’s role. This might involve a particular approach to behaviour management, for instance, when the focus could be on developing a young person’s understanding of the notion of responsibility for her or his actions and the consequences that flow from them.

The school social worker, before her appointment, had worked a number of years as a qualified social worker in the social services children and families department of a neighbouring local authority. In terms of working protocols the following are important elements:

  • A requirement for detailed record keeping – to the same high professional standards that hold for statutory social work.
  • Full access to the school’s very effective communications networks.
  • Clear definitions and explanations of the social worker role widely published to all staff, young people and their families.
  • Maintenance of strict confidentiality, applying the ‘need-to-know’ principle.
  • Accountability for impact of the service, with the expectation that individual student case studies will be drawn up periodically that illustrate how attendance, progress and behaviour, or other aspects of personal development, are improving.

The in-school social workers welcome the high level of expectation placed on their work. They know that what comes with it is a high degree of autonomy. There is also considerable room for flexibility, so that initial plans of action can be adapted quickly when they are overtaken by events in the lives of the young people and their families.

The sense of professional autonomy – of being a decision-maker, capable of making things happen – seems to be an important source of job satisfaction in the role. This contrasts with the frustration that might be felt in a different setting, one where decisions have to be referred by frontline workers to a higher level and perhaps seem more geared to spending decisions than to the needs of the clients. Among further sources of job satisfaction and high professional self-esteem are:

  • The opportunity to build up relationships with young people and their families over an extended period of time, particularly as children move from partner primaries to NGHS.
  • The strong element of continuity inherent in a school setting, with the chance to pick up on a problem at a later stage, as the young person moves through the school.
  • The high value that families place on the social work service provided by NGHS.

The school sets great store by this high level of confidence expressed in its work. Staff report that families are much more willing to access the school social work service than statutory services. Through their direct experience – and through word of mouth from other families – they know that school social workers are empowered to make decisions. They also know that high professional standards (eg not cancelling appointments) will be maintained and that there will be continuity in staffing. Word certainly gets around: ‘I know you sorted my sister-in-law’s family out. Now can you help me, please?’ is a not untypical comment.

As the roles of in-school social workers have become more embedded, other staff too have reached a clear understanding of their methodology and impact. The social worker and assistant social worker perceive that their job is well supported by their NGHS colleagues. Observers believe this is related to the particular attitudes and qualities of the staff.

Perhaps foremost among these are the high staff morale and sense of optimism, which are apparent to outsiders as well as members of the school community. These seem to be linked to high levels of peer support, inspiration from senior leadership and a climate where getting things wrong from time to time can be openly admitted. Secondly, there is strong belief in the young people and in the local community – that they can do well, despite all the challenges that face them. Any hint of condemnation of the locality from whatever source, including agencies coming into the school, would be immediately challenged by staff members. Thirdly, staff understand that quick fixes attempting to deal on a knee-jerk basis with symptoms (such as inappropriate behaviour or attitudes) are likely to bring about only temporary solutions. At NGHS, staff appreciate that diagnosing and then tackling underlying causes takes longer but has a better chance of leading to more permanent results. Part of that professional patience includes accepting that a young person’s behaviour in class might worsen before it begins to get better. Fourthly, there is a wealth of local knowledge about families, through staff living locally or having served for a long time at the school. This can often provide a route into a hard-to-reach, or difficult-to-engage, family for a social worker. Fifthly, the different backgrounds and expertise of colleagues on the full service school team gel well together. There are neither professional jealousies nor any guarding of territory, eg between health and social work. Any solutions are focused on the young person and her or his family environment, with the prime aim of removing barriers to learning and personal development.

The in-school social worker still maintains good professional relationships with colleagues in statutory social services teams. She reports that they value the quality of in-school work that has gone into the initial assessment of the young person’s needs and the thoroughness of the referral process when help is sought from the statutory services. Because the school has the in-house expertise to manage cases even of relatively high risk, it is confident that outside referrals represent only its most genuinely pressing cases. It notes with some frustration that the nature and speed of response from the statutory services can still fall short of what the school feels is needed when well-argued cases for referral are put forward.

The post of social worker is line-managed by an assistant headteacher who also fills the role of Senco. This arrangement deals with day-to-day matters such as leave entitlement or mileage claims. The nature of the role means, however, that there is no one senior colleague in school to whom the social worker could readily turn for advice on professional matters, in the same way that a subject teacher could go to a head of department or faculty. Special arrangements have been made therefore for the social worker to link to a local, independent social work agency. In addition, there is a statutory requirement for the social worker to attend at least 15 days’ training and updating over the course of a year, in order to maintain her registration. The school funds these training opportunities, and facilitates other aspects of professional development, such as release for the social worker to join a local fostering panel.

There will also be the critics who say that this type of provision is required in the urban schools but in the leafy suburbs and more affluent areas the provision of extended services is not really required. They get all the support they need from parents and have plenty of economic resources to compensate. Some interesting national data would therefore be appropriate to note at this point. In a typical high school of 1,000 pupils, which is about the average size of a secondary school, 50 are seriously depressed, 100 will be suffering significant distress, five to 10 girls will have an eating disorder and 10-20 pupils will have obsessive compulsive disorders. The big question for school leaders is this. Do you know who they are? What are you doing about it?

While a full-service extended school is not a complete panacea, managed jointly through a school-based provision multi-agency teams become a very powerful body that can deliver the quality of care and guidance required. In my opinion schools have a duty to respond. It is a core principle of educating the whole child and putting the school at the community centre of gravity.

Supporting a student to live independently

Student C was a Year 11 student, cared for by a grandparent, who came to NGHS from another local high school. He had no contact with his parents.

Through the referral system, low-level concerns were identified as to how C was coping. The social worker made contact with C, but he felt he did not need support at that time. However, the initial contact meant that he was made aware of the availability of support if needed at a later time.

At the next referral C came to school in crisis. The placement with the grandparent had completely broken down, due to the grandparent’s mental health issues. An intensive involvement then took place on a wide range of fronts, including:

  • finding and supporting temporary accommodation
  • mediating with grandparent
  • making application for supported housing
  • moving into supported housing
  • obtaining financial support from statutory social worker
  • supporting with all aspects of independent living
  • supporting in continuing to access his education
  • supporting in personal issues
  • supporting in completing GCSEs.

C has made a success of living independently. He has been able to maintain a relationship with his grandparent. He successfully completed his GCSEs and is now in college.