Universal and specialist secondary student support was made more accessible to students at the Duchess’s Community High School in Alnwick, Northumberland by the development of specific support structures. George Adamson outlines them

Duchess’s Community High School, located in the market town of Alnwick, Northumberland, is a 13-19 comprehensive school serving 1,097 students. Our fundamental philosophy is about recognising the contribution of every single child in school. We focus not only on academic achievement but also on the development of personal qualities and attributes, including honesty, empathy, ambition, respect and tolerance (our acronym – HEART), in addition to communication, teamwork and creativity. We want to make a difference and believe that we can strive for success for all.

We also recognise that many young people have a range of needs and know that if a child is not safe, secure and happy in school, they are not going to learn. For that reason, extended services and Every Child Matters (ECM) are at the core of our strategy, to ensure that the underlying factors that manifest as barriers to learning are being addressed. An important part of the extended services core offer lies in ensuring that there is swift and easy access to specialist services and that good support structures are in place in school. Through effective communication and collaboration with partner agencies, and with children’s services, we are confident that we can offer timely and accurate assessment, referral and intervention for all students requiring support.

Our support structure
Vision is important, but structures, roles, responsibilities and processes were necessary to turn this into reality and ensure that appropriate levels of support were available to young people when they required it. We had to be proactive to get the structure and staffing right, and work in a way that informed strategy and avoided firefighting. We realised that a whole-school approach was needed so that all staff – including senior management, teaching, administrative, clerical and support staff – were attentive to the wider needs of young people. We were already effectively using internal expertise from our SENCOs and school nurses, and knew there was scope to build on this and improve communication channels with colleagues in schools and in partner agencies. For us this has been a three-year process.

The development of our support structures for the school and district came about through discussions between me and the lead person for children’s services in the local authority (LA). This way we were confident as a school that our work would link with the Children and Young People’s Plan and thus the LA-wide arrangements for prevention and early intervention. Also, by working together in this way we were identifying ways to more effectively meet the needs of children and young people in Alnwick. We thought carefully about which service providers we would be collaborating with at different levels and what referral mechanism would work best. We mapped all our planning against the three-tier support structure whereby universal services for all children and their families are available at level one; targeted integrated support is on offer at level two and specialist integrated support is provided at level three (see below).

The three levels of support

Level one
You can see from the diagram that level one provision consists of school-based intervention, invariably with a single practitioner. In addition, this involves classroom-based work such as citizenship education and assessment for learning, and particular sessions from colleagues in partner agencies: for example, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) have delivered awareness sessions on autism. Work with families at this stage includes courses and group work: for example, family support workers have run various parenting sessions such as one on supporting children through adolescence, and have provided one-to-one support when needed. Some of our services at this level are ‘drop-in’ for all students but this level of support also includes students referred by directors of learning (these are heads of year) and cases that have been identified through fortnightly pastoral strategy meetings and weekly SEN meetings.

Level two
At level two, integrated support is offered to students from a range of multi-agency practitioners working in and from school. At this level our education welfare officer (EWO) comes in weekly to work with students requiring support around attendance, and students might also work with colleagues in our student support services team. At this stage, a referral form is used, which can be completed by young people and/or any staff in school (when the Common Assessment Framework is fully operational in the LA, we will be using this in school). Before agreeing upon an appropriate intervention we always seek consent from parents/carers.

After making an assessment we appoint a lead professional – this ensures that our approach is coordinated and cohesive and means that children and families are not being pulled in different directions. Progress of all students receiving support is discussed at monthly student services meetings attended by members of our multi-agency team, which includes family support workers, our school nurse, the EWO and educational psychologist. We also hold half-termly school liaison meetings that are attended by me, the EWO, an inclusion officer (who is also our child protection designated teacher), a parent support worker and other colleagues as appropriate. Monitoring is extremely important in verifying that young people are getting support tailored to meet their specific needs and are benefiting from it.

Level three
Regular and open communication ensures that we are geared up and prepared to refer for specialist assessment (level three intervention) any students with more pressing needs. The structure enables us to be proactive and have the mechanisms in place to be swift. This is so very fundamental, as frequently we cannot wait six weeks or longer (as, like many schools, we have had to do in the past). If the need arises, we will call an emergency planning meeting, followed by child-in-need planning meetings and child-protection conferences as appropriate. It is simply not in the best interests of the child or young person to wait; and we do not lack the confidence to say when the support needed is outside of our remit. For this reason we engage children’s services and all the support and services that they can bring, and do not hesitate to refer to a multi-agency group (MAG) meeting steered by children’s services and attended by CAMHS and relevant health professionals. This seamless process is focused upon early intervention and ensures that appropriate support is in place for students from Duchess’s and from all the first and middle schools in our partnership.

Support service forum

Prior to the introduction of our student services structure, we already had some very good relationships with partner agencies. What was needed, however, was a forum to discuss the needs of young people and joint strategies to address these. Now we have what we call our student support service, comprised of a multi-agency team of professionals working in or from Duchess’s. These colleagues work closely with our pastoral and special needs teams. We meet formally on a regular basis to share information, discuss referrals, identify key workers and provide feedback. Essentially, we collate information and together identify the best strategies for supporting our young people. There is also the daily ongoing dialogue between colleagues that is so important and we have core team meetings in between student support service meetings. Our meetings are always well attended and the work that takes place during them demonstrates multi-agency working at its best.

Currently, membership of the support service includes myself as director; our pastoral staff and pastoral administrator; our school nurse (who makes sure that all young people are looked after physically and emotionally); Connexions; a mental health worker for Child and Adolescent Mental Health, who provides early identification and intervention at tiers one and two; an education welfare officer for most of the schools in our cluster; a community police officer; youth service managers; an educational psychologist (who provides a consultative service to staff, families and pupils and is a valuable member of our support service group in the assessment of student need); a representative from the Behaviour Support Service in Northumberland; and a behaviour manager who runs the inclusion room in school. There is additional representation when required from CAMHS, social services, EOTAS (Education Other Than At School), parents/carers, and other specialist agencies such as Sorted, a substance misuse support agency.

We now have a core team to work with students and a key worker to work with individuals. The team works as a partnership to ensure that provision is joined up, and we regularly monitor progress to ensure that wider needs are being met, at the same time as monitoring academic attainment. We have a provision management structure with the names of all the students who are receiving support in school for whatever reason and this gives us a profile of need linked to learning targets.

Facilitating factors
There are key factors that have facilitated our work:

1. We identified that at the universal level, one student may require many hours of work and that it is not possible for one person to take on responsibility for all students with additional needs. Therefore we appointed an inclusion manager to work with students with behavioural and emotional needs, which has released some of the time of the directors for learning and our SENCO.

2. Early on, we recognised the merits of multi-agency collaboration and the benefits of drawing on the expertise and experience of colleagues from different statutory and voluntary services. Networking and open, honest communication has helped with this. We also involved partner agencies in the design of protocols and structures so that they felt like an important part of the equation, which they continue to be, and this contributes to building a joint understanding and focus. We pride ourselves on our working relationship with other agencies, which is very strong, powerful and fluid.

3. We have a good understanding of how all the young people in school function and a good awareness of what is going on in the school as a whole. This has been made easier as we all (directors of learning, pastoral mentor, pastoral administrator and inclusion manager) share both office space and thinking. We have an open-door policy so that partner agencies can easily find us and talk with us.

4. Regular meetings with clear agendas are important. In addition to the meetings I have outlined by the use of arrows in the diagram on page 5, the extended services team have half-termly meetings focusing on the ‘swift and easy access’ aspect of the core offer and they inform the work of the wider extended services team across the cluster partnership. We do not work individually or in isolation. We formalise intervention at our fortnightly pastoral meetings and also have regular informal meetings.

5. The extended schools agenda, ECM and the healthy schools initiative are all highly significant in our thinking and we use the frameworks to structure the support that we offer. Swift and easy access links with other parts of the extended schools core offer, such as parenting support and the range of positive activities that we offer young people.

6. We work together with children’s services in the local authority in the delivery of preventative and early-intervention focused work. This has helped us to more effectively meet the needs of children and young people in Alnwick and the wider cluster.

Developing our student support service has been, according to all involved, an excellent strategy for dealing with tier one and two child health and/or emotional problems. Multi-agency colleagues strongly believe that the needs of children and young people are everyone’s business, and we give children and their families support early on, plus ongoing appropriate and productive intervention.
Internal and external evaluations have shown that students and their families value what we provide. We talk to young people about the need for them to open up and, in turn, young people are opening up and sharing. They know that we will not criticise or condemn but are here to help them find a solution. They know we care and want to do our best to help them find their own way forward and now come to us and talk about sexuality, drugs and any issues causing them concern, knowing that we have the structures in place to support them.

We have worked closely with many young people and their families, and as our structures are as cohesive as possible, we are confident that we are making a positive impact. Indeed, Ofsted identified the support, care and guidance we offer our students as ‘outstanding’; and in a recent Kirkland Rowell survey, 81.5% of students said they were happy in school (an increase of 13% from 2006) and 89% felt there was a sense of community spirit in school (up 21.7% since 2006). Moreover, two randomly selected samples of Year 10 students were involved recently in an online survey for Oftsed and 100% of those surveyed said they felt safe in school. Students are happy to come into school and this is reflected in our attendance data (currently at 94% in July 2008), which has increased year on year.

We believe our work has also had a positive effect on exclusions, as the most vulnerable young people are receiving appropriate support. Our fixed-term exclusion figures have plummeted from 411 days lost in 2005 to just 97 days lost to fixed-term exclusions in 2007, a reduction of 75%. What’s more, our work with young people has also generated a wide range of important soft outcomes, such as raised levels of self-esteem and confidence. 

The fruits of our efforts are apparent for many students in the short term, and yet we believe our work is also about improving life chances. We commit time to resolving the problems that young people face and are here to do whatever we can to make a difference to young people not only during their school years, but hopefully their future.