During IMPOWER’s most recent Early Help Learning Set (where we gather children’s services practitioners to discuss some of the most pressing issues around early help for children, young people and families. You can read our previous posts on these sessions here, here and here), the discussion focussed on partnership working – a subject that had popped up on a regular basis throughout the previous three sessions.
The discussion gave particular focus to schools. We know they are a critical partner but we also know – from IMPOWER’s experience on projects and feedback from our clients – that they can be the hardest to engage with. (Don’t get us wrong – there are some schools who really engage with the Early Help agenda and we all have experience of great teachers who go above and beyond to help children).
Why are schools critical? Two main reasons: Firstly, they have the greatest contact with children, and if they can access Early Help services at the right time then they are the best route to effectively dealing with a number of issues. Secondly, with more evidence emerging of shrinking budgets in Early Help services (a recent news story a fall in spending of 26% since 2010), engaging with partners – including schools – is more important than ever.
So what’s the issue? It seems to me that schools are a fairly independent bunch who prefer to do things on their own terms. There are lots of different types of schools (maintained, academies, special schools, independent schools). As a result there are differing incentives and interests that need to be addressed.
The collective wisdom and experience at the Early Help Learning Set talked about what can be done. Our conclusion was that successful partnership working with schools is about understanding their behaviours and motivations; what is in it for them, and what they will respond to.
Behaviours for positive engagement – some ideas:
- Work collaboratively – don’t tell them what to do but offer them services and support to choose from, and invite schools to contribute to your strategy so that they feel a sense of co-ownership.
- Keep them in the loop – make sure they are up-to-date, and consulted on any changes or new initiatives.
- Understand the network – who are the key influencers in the local schools and teacher community?
Understanding motivations (slightly more complex) – some ideas:
- Link objectives to education – for example, attendance levels and other school priorities
- Evidence the impact – for example through the outputs of the Troubled Families cost calculator
- Prioritise services against schools – for example by linking Tier Three to Secondary, Tier Two to Primary
The final question raised was ‘how do we get schools to do more themselves?’ The key to this is to move away from a referral culture. You can do this by bringing Early Help directly to schools; either through staff visits or even basing staff in schools to work with teachers and children. Children’s services could also tap into existing school groups to provide them with a forum to discuss issues and concerns.
The final point is about language. Schools work with children on a day-to-day basis, dealing with all the challenges that come with that. In a very real way they feel like they are doing Early Help, so referring to your own ‘Early Help’ service doesn’t make sense. Instead, Councils need to publicly acknowledge the role of schools as part of the wider Early Help system.
There is no silver bullet that will fix working with schools, but there are a number of ways Early Help and schools can work together more effectively. Given that it is in Early Help’s interest to work with schools, and that schools are on the frontline of working with children and their families, anything that helps both parties make the most of each other is worth pursuing.