Schools and carers must work together

Schools must look out for children with an unhappy home life. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Schools must look out for children with an unhappy home life. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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CHILDREN need support seven days a week, writes Alistair Gaw.

In debates about child protection, people often think about social work as the profession which is most involved.

That’s true – eventually. But in reality, teachers do much of our child protection. Even the most neglected children from the most troubled families are known to nurseries and schools.

Social work gets involved where there are serious concerns about a child, but schools are places all children go five days a week, 40 weeks a year. Staff are in the ideal situation to pick up signs that things are not going well and make sure children get help before problems escalate.

Schools are also a great place to see real, measurable improvements. When things are difficult for a child at home, schoolwork often suffers. When things at home improve, children can concentrate on learning.

For years there has been (well justified) criticism of the educational attainment of our most vulnerable children, children who become looked after. The Scottish Parliament has had inquiries into it, successive governments pledge to improve it, but still children in our care system can struggle much more than other children.

While schools have a vital role in improving attainment of looked after children (often most effectively by keeping them in school) we know children’s outcomes are mainly influenced by the circumstances of their home life – the quality of the care they receive. And it is looked after children who remain at home with their parents who fare the worst. Children in foster care or who are adopted do much better.

The recently enacted Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 provides an opportunity for a step-change in outcomes. Young people who had experienced public care persuaded government and parliament that, if they had good quality services and stability at home or in a care placement, their life would be better and they would achieve more, at school and therefore in life. They persuaded the parliament to extend care provision to young people well into adulthood to give them just that stability.

This was real recognition that, while schools play a hugely important role in educating children and young people, a stable and reliable home environment into adulthood is key to gaining the confidence and skills necessary to lead the life they aspire to.

The act promotes a holistic approach to supporting children and their families. If they work together effectively, teachers and social workers can transform the learning outcomes and life chances of our most vulnerable children. While this is a real step forward, we still have much to do to break down barriers between care and learning.

But an opportunity has arisen. We now have draft legislation to bring new duties on local authorities to reduce inequalities of learning outcomes. The Scottish Government has announced a £100 million investment as part of the Scottish Attainment Challenge. This fund will be targeted at areas of greatest need and it builds on the work of the Raising Attainment for All programme launched in 2014.

This opportunity must be used creatively. It is not just what happens between 9am and 4pm, five days a week that makes the difference. Learning happens seven days a week. It is social workers and carers just as much as teachers and learning support workers who can make the critical difference.

Having a parent to read with you and help with homework has a huge impact. Having a parent who is often not around, is unwell or disengaged, has problems with drugs or alcohol, or who doesn’t provide you with clean clothes, food and a warm, safe house can be devastating to a child’s chances. And more and more we are seeing the impact of poverty on parents’ ability to cope and support their children to learn.

These problems are understood in schools – schools can support children and young people by being alert to their needs. But these problems cannot be solved by schools alone. Children need the environment, at school and at home, where they can thrive and learn. That requires a holistic approach, including active partnership between teachers and social workers.

Good teachers recognise signs of vulnerability or distress. A good social worker will know just how a child for whom they are responsible is progressing across the Curriculum for Excellence. Learning and care working together to achieve the education all our children deserve.

• Alistair Gaw is president of Social Work Scotland


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