Headteacher Anne Clark looks at why it is so important for schools to establish effective links with outside agencies

The Children’s Act of 2004 has put the child at the centre of the community. It encapsulates the Every Child Matters agenda, in which the DfES obliges schools to ensure that children are healthy, safe, enjoying and achieving, able to achieve economic wellbeing and making a positive contribution to society.

I am not suggesting that all schools have failed to take the whole child into account but the above agenda emphasises the need to do this. In fact, you could say it makes it of paramount importance. Coupled with societal changes, this means that schools must be engaged with outside agencies.

Societal changes
Times change and society changes. Pupils in schools nowadays are different from the generations that preceded them. Not worse or better – just different. An increase in divorce rates has led to variations in the family unit. Schools have to be mindful that children may be experiencing difficulties as the family undergoes changes.

Many schools are multicultural institutions and have to cater for different languages, religions and mores. In some areas, refugees and asylum seekers now form part of the school population. With the reduction in the number of special schools, children with physical disabilities and behavioural problems are now taught in mainstream schools, whereas previously they might have accessed alternative provision in a special school.

As an exponent of inclusion, this comment contains no intended criticism but serves to highlight the fact that schools now have to cater for pupils who might not hitherto have crossed their portals.

Also, without being alarmist, the media tell us that more and more young people get involved in crime, and this cannot be ignored, as being in trouble with the law does not preclude children from receiving an education. One might argue that education is even more important if the cycle of crime is to be broken.

On top of all this, there is pressure on schools from the DfES and from local authorities (LAs) to reduce the number of exclusions, or avoid them all together. If schools are to achieve this goal and to address all the issues that surround children, as detailed above, to meet the demands of the ‘Children’s Act’, then they have to find ways of engaging with the plethora of outside agencies which exist.

Outside agencies
There are many outside agencies that schools can access to help them to deal with the changing pattern in school populations as outlined above:

  • education welfare officers
  • social services
  • child protection
  • health services, including mental health
  • drugs teams
  • community police.

This is not a comprehensive list, but the main ones that my school, Benton Park, deals with.

Education welfare officers (EWOs)
The education welfare service was traditionally provided by the LA to support schools in chasing its worst attenders, whether they are truants, have health problems, or family issues. Now that league tables of schools’ attendance figures are published, the pressure on schools to improve attendance has increased.

The services of good EWOs can be of great benefit to schools. They have the remit to visit pupils’ homes, whereas schools may not wish to cross this divide between school and home. It is a debatable point, but once teachers enter a pupil’s home, they can enter dangerous waters. It can be acceptable for a teacher to go and give extra tuition to a sick child. The purpose is clear, and the teacher is not there as an investigator.

Personally, I would suggest that it is better for schools to use the services of the EWO if a sensitive investigative home visit is required. An effective EWO builds up a good relationship with the school, and with the families who require their assistance. It can be that EWOs are only assigned to a school for a short period of time and move on. This makes for a tenuous link and an inefficient service. Longevity has its benefits.

At Benton Park we have employed our own attendance officer to supplement the work of the EWO and this has proved to be a most successful appointment. This attendance officer does not visit homes, as she is not a trained EWO or social worker. However, she is able to contact home as soon as there is an absence. In fact she phones on the first day of any absence. This not only checks on absence, but also ensures pupils are safe. It could be that parents think their child is at school and they are not. If the child’s whereabouts are in question then quick action can be taken.

Our attendance officer is the manager of our computerised registration system, so has all the data at hand. In the league tables published in 2006 our attendance figures were only 0.4% (national is 1.2%) for unauthorised absence. What further evidence would be required to prove the worth of such a post?

Child protection
Schools have to have a child protection policy, a designated officer in school, ie a named teacher, the head needs to be fully trained and the staff need to have had the one day’s training every three years. Ofsted will check on this. It is incumbent on schools to meet these requirements to fulfil the tenets of the Children’s Act. Staff do not make a choice on this one. If a child makes a declaration, then the named officer has to be informed and the child protection team informed.

In a large school like Benton Park we have a number of staff who have done the full training, so that in the event of the absence of the ‘named teacher’ we are fully covered. In our last Ofsted report, our child protection policy was rated as excellent.

Social services
As with child protection, schools have to work with social services for the good of the vulnerable children. As schools, for example, try to cater for ‘children in care’, the contact with social services will increase. Such children will be known to social services and when decisions about their future are made, social services need to be involved.

Health services, including mental health
As part of our work on Extended Schools, Benton Park has many agencies operating during and beyond the school day to offer extended services to pupils and parents alike. The local health services provide a drop-in health care session one lunchtime a week to give advice to pupils on such matters as diet and sexual health.

Schools, at times, have concerns about the mental health of some of their pupils. Schools will, of course, have to have discussions with parents. Parents themselves may choose to take action and consult their own GP. However, they may consent to a referral to an educational psychologist or a branch of the health service dealing with mental health problems in adolescents.

Drugs teams
Alarmingly, we are told by drugs education experts that many of our young people in schools will have experimented with drugs. We have invited into school a local drugs education team to talk to both staff and parents about the drugs available to our young people and their effects, so that they know what to look out for. We have also asked them to talk to our youngsters about the dangers of drug abuse. This is part of our personal, social, careers and health education programme, and our Healthy Schools Standard.

Community police
The pastoral team at Benton Park find the regular visits of the community police to be invaluable for several reasons:

  • they keep the school informed of local crimes and of gangs operating in the area; this provides the school with a profile of the problems in the locality into which our pupils may be drawn, and which will affect their school performance
  • the police can make a home visit if a pupil has reported an incident in school that the school feels is beyond its jurisdiction, for example someone behaving strangely within the school’s vicinity
  • the police have also given talks to pupils on topics such as carrying dangerous weapons to discourage their use, as there is a growing concern in society about young people possessing dangerous weapons. Hence the DfES’s recent guidelines allowing teachers to search pupils suspected of having knives (May 2007). See www.teachernet.gov.uk/docbank/index.cfm?id=11454 for full document.

The school is well aware that much of this work is done in general terms and not on an individual pupil basis. In the latter case parents would be involved and have the right to be present at any interviews.

The police, the school and individual cases
When might the police be involved in an individual case? The media in recent times has regaled us with accounts of ‘internet bullying’. Certainly with Facebook and MSN messaging, pupil-to-pupil interactions do not cease at the school gates. Technology’s benefits to learning are multifold, but with every advantage there is a downside. Pupils now have the means to publish invective, or indeed unsolicited images of their classmates on the internet. Sometimes this reaches such proportions that the groundswell flows into school life. Where does the school draw the line if the online attack has taken place in the evening?

In a recent case, I called upon the services of the community police. It was a case of out of school internet squabbling which eventually involved parents. I talked to all parties concerned, adults and pupils, in school, and agreed to do all I could to prevent any further unpleasantness.

Drawing the line
However, I categorically refused to deal with any problems surfacing in the evening and parents accepted this. I am in loco parentis during the school day and have a ‘duty of care’ for the pupils in my charge, but you have to draw the line. I contacted our community police officer, who had already been involved by the parents, and explained my situation. He reiterated his commitment to working with the families to solve the problems out of school, and appreciated what the school was doing during the day.

In meeting the needs of all the pupils on roll, schools have to deal with a wide variety of outside agencies. In some cases, as with child protection (CP), there is no choice. Schools would be deemed negligent if they did not refer a reported case of child abuse to a CP officer. In other cases, schools may wish to supplement the work of outside agencies, as Benton Park has done by augmenting the work of an external EWO with an internal attendance officer.

Finally, schools may find a solution of dealing with the problems that spill out of school by working skilfully with outside agencies, as my school has with the community police. Parents can expect schools to deal with what happens during the school day but incidents which occur in the evening are, in my opinion, beyond the auspices of the headteacher. It is not unreasonable, however, for the school and the police to work together. Outside agencies and internal pastoral teams working cooperatively can provide a 24/7 service.