A school in Staffordshire has seen pupil exclusions fall after hiring an on-site social worker. Camilla Pemberton reports
Rachel Mulcahy, a qualified social worker, has been working at Wolgarston High School in Staffordshire for the past four years. After 18 years in the sector –where she noticed a "need and demand" for school social workers – Mulcahy wrote to four local schools offering to work as a dedicated on-site social worker. Wolgarston was the first to reply.
Phil Tapp, headteacher at the large secondary school, was determined to drive improvements and reduce exclusions. He recognised the value of having a social worker on the school's student support team, then in its infancy. "We wanted a broad range of skills to support our young people and their parents," Tapp says.
Mulcahy now works at the school three days a week. "The beauty of being on-site," she says, "is that I can pop into a lesson at any time to borrow a student and make sure they're ok. I also make sure they know how to find me if they aren't." Mulcahy also visits students at home, where necessary, which Tapp says has proved a valuable way of building relationships and trust with parents.
He says the support service is now seen as an inclusive, accessible and "normal" part of student life. A more positive culture has also developed, reflected in a dramatic reduction (98%) in the number of permanent exclusions.
This is largely due to a model of working with children that Mulcahy developed three years ago. Based on her own experiences at school, and as a parent and social worker, she developed the Aspirations, Encouragement, Realism and Openness (AERO) model.
It consists of a word chart (The Words), containing a number of trigger words, and a personality chart (The Scale) on which children score themselves. "It offers a neutral starting point for discussions with young people," Mulcahy says.
"Children can choose a word - such as image, expectations or gender - which illuminates how they might be feeling and steers discussions, or describe themselves according to the scale - bubbly, outgoing, shy, introverted. There's no right or wrong answer."
A short-term intervention, AERO is designed to improve students' confidence through knowledge, self-awareness and self-reflection, which Mulcahy says allows young people to develop their aspirations "in a strong real world."
"AERO is grounded in realism. Young people have been told they have choices, but the reality is that they don't have as many as they might like. If they want to stay at school they have to behave, attend lessons and take every subject. If they want a professional career they need to get the grades. AERO is about peoples' aspirations, but also about whether they can achieve them," she says. "We don't want to set people up to fail."
Mark Doel, professor of social work at Sheffield Hallam University, describes AERO as "a creative method...that young people quickly understand and enjoy".
"It helps them to understand themselves and plan a different future; one where they have more control of their feelings, thoughts and behaviours. The model also means that [Mulcahy] can spend the large majority of her time in direct work with the school's students - as well as providing helpful liaison with parents. This is good for the profession of social work as well as the people we work with," he says.
He also praises the service for succeeding without extra resources or pilot status. Tapp believes this is achievable for any school, pointing out that they simply refocused money so it was spent on teaching assistants. "It's worth it because problems can be tackled before they reach the classroom. We've never looked back."
Tapp says he was "lucky" that Mulcahy contacted him because "there are few mechanisms for headteachers looking to strengthen their services in this way". "Often there's a distance between social work and teaching, yet there is real value when we work together. After all, we're all working towards the same goals."
Social work in schools
Mulcahy, believes all schools should have a social work service to improve students' school experiences and reduce the number of school exclusions. "It's simple," she says. "Social workers should not be based in area offices, but in places where children go naturally, such as schools. That way we can proactively offer support and tackle problems early, rather than reactively respond to crises."
By the same rationale, the government aims, under the Children's Plan, for specialist services, including social workers, to be co-located in schools by 2010. But as yet there are no official figures to suggest how many social workers are currently working in UK schools.
Doel believes the practice will become more widely spread, as seen in schools across the USA. He is convinced of the efficacy of school social work services, having recently evaluated Wolgarston's student support service and its dramatic drop in school exclusions.
Over the last three years the number of annual school exclusions has fallen by 98%, from 251 to just six. The rate of persistent absences have also fallen during this period, from 8% to 2%. A 2009 Ofsted inspection found the school had "significantly improved" and called pastoral care "outstanding".
This article is published in the 28 January issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Back to school: a lesson in social work flexibility