How should social services work with education

Although the government wants social care professionals to work more closely with education, a new book suggests there is still a long way to go. Janet Snell visits the east London high school featured in author Fran Abrams’ account

Schools, especially extended schools, seem very much on board these days with the Every Child Matters agenda. But are social care professionals sufficiently engaged with schools in a way that helps achieve the green paper’s aspirations?

There are those on the education side who say they are not, although this is changing as the new organisational structures
following the split between adults’ and children’s services begin to bed in.

One person who believes there is still a long way to go is author and education expert Fran Abrams. She has published a book detailing the year she spent at a comprehensive school in Ilford, east London, shadowing seven children and four staff. But it was the time she spent with the Seven Kings High School head of welfare, Angela Cassidy, that caused her to reflect on the role of social care staff working with children beyond the school gates and the way they responded when school staff tried to reach out to them.

Abrams says: “When Angela had serious concerns about a child she would refer the case to social services but in the full  knowledge that nothing was going to happen. And this went on day in, day out. In one incident (see In the author’s words panel), a boy disclosed serious abuse by his parents.

Angela drove him to the local authority offices pursued by an angry father. But social services persuaded the boy to go
home and Angela felt she had let him down and had failed to protect him.”

The school’s head teacher, Sir Alan Steer, agrees that much needs to be done to achieve fully joined-up working. “I accept
we don’t know what pressures our local social workers are under, but we do know that when we have a crisis we don’t always
get the response we want.”

Steer, whom the press dubbed “behaviour tsar” after he became chair of a government task force on school discipline, believes
that Every Child Matters and the Victoria Climbié case have driven the change. “But I would like to see a wider recognition – in social care and elsewhere – that we cannot deliver the Every Child Matters agenda without raising standards in schools.

“In the 1970s and 1980s we saw a lot of warm, woolly words from people in local government about the importance of caring
and making children happy but vast swathes of youngsters achieved damn all academically, setting them on a path to social exclusion.”

Seven Kings is one of 3,000 extended schools (by next year that number should have doubled). It has initiatives such as a
breakfast club and it offers courses to parents, including an IT programme aimed at boosting the confidence of Asian women.

There is an on-site Connexions officer and the school is part of a pilot for the government’s parent support programme and now employs new pupil-parent support workers.

Steer says: “We will need to take on teams of school-based staff, including more non-teachers. We don’t have the funding
for a social worker on site now but that may well come. A good school has to look at the whole breadth of the child’s experience but people must understand we cannot take our eye off the ball when it comes to raising standards of educational achievement.”

Much of Seven Kings’ success comes from setting the right tone the moment children walk through the school gate. They are welcomed by Sir Alan or another senior member of staff and any breaking of uniform rules will be brought to the child’s
attention – but with a smile. Staff show respect to the pupils and they expect respect to be shown to them in return. That is not to underestimate the school’s problems but the head teacher and his staff do their best to create something of an oasis of calm and order for the children, particularly those who have a chaotic home background, to help them achieve their potential.

In many ways, staff working with children inside and outside the school gates may share many of the same ideas and goals but they don’t always share a common language or even understanding. But there is a growing acceptance that there is no longer a need to debate which agenda is more important, Every Child Matters or school standards, because clearly the answer is both.

‘Seven Kings counters tabloid myths’, says ex-pupil Holman
Social care commentator and former children’s worker Bob Holman went to school in the same building that now houses Seven Kings High. Fran Abrams’ book prompted him to visit his old school. Here, Holman describes what he found.

In the 1940s, because it had only just been upgraded from Beal Secondary Modern to Beal Grammar, they had to take a few 11-plus failures and one of them was me.

My dad was delighted. Working class parents in those days recognised that education was the means to social mobility and
job security. Today’s parents seem to regard it more as a route to affluence and the professions.

On my visit I was very impressed. The staff are outstanding and Seven Kings has a great academic record. In my day we had six people in the sixth form and three of us went to university. Now there are 460 pupils in the sixth form and last year 185
went to university. And Sir Alan Steer has turned things round in his 20 years at the school. Fifteen years ago 29 per cent of its pupils gained five good GCSEs. Today it is 93 per cent.

Tabloid papers like the Daily Mail create the impression that state schools are out of control, full of drugs and crime, have teachers who lack commitment and ability and parents who take little interest, resulting in low academic achievement. Seven
Kings counters these myths.

The pupils are from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and religions and many hold values that appear strongly influenced by their faith, which seems to help counter some of the adverse effects of youth street culture.

Religious diversity appeared to unite the school and contributed to its smooth running. This experience of diversity in my view strengthens opposition to faith schools, which emphasise religious divisions.

The one reservation in both my and Abrams’s view, is that pupils seem to lack interest in politics and show no signs of radicalism or even supporting charities. They accepted their parents’ materialistic values and Abrams describes them as “the new traditionalists”.

If the Seven Kings traditionalists do become more radical it may be linked with the very factor that makes them conservative – religion. Both Islam and Christianity in particular are becoming more radical and promoting the idea of a duty to oppose the injustices that the state tolerates.

In the authors words
Angela Cassidy is head of welfare. A small boy is hovering uncertainly outside her door. “My teacher sent me, Miss.”

“And what can I do for you, er…” She looks at him expectantly. “Aaron,* Miss. I was upset…in registration.”

“I see. And why was that?”

“I had an argument with my stepmum because I tore my school trousers. And then she hit me. And my dad locked me in my room and made me stay on my knees all night, praying…I’m not going back…”

It seems so incongruous. Here is this boy, with his London street accent, his sculpted hair, the same uniform as everyone else, yet he goes home to a father and stepmother who believe he has demons inside him. A regularly administered punishment
has reduced him to this clenched state. It makes her angry…

* Not his real name

  • From Seven Kings. How it Feels To be a Teenager by Fran Abrams, Atlantic Books, £9.99

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    Seven Kings

    Contact the author
    Janet Snell
    This article appeared in the 2 November issue on pages 28 & 29 under the headline “New school ties”

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