Helping children and families in hardship

Written by: HTU | Published:

As austerity continues to bite, the UK's primary schools have developed a major role in supporting struggling families in some of the country’s most disadvantaged communities. Nick Bannister looks at the inspiring work of two schools

Blackpool seems a hopeful destination in the springtime. “We get a lot of families moving into the town who don’t have a previous association with the area,” explained Julie Fleckney, family support officer at Hawes Side Primary Academy.

“They move in because they believe that there are jobs going here, especially in the run-up to the summer season. People see it as a nice place next to the sea but there is a lack of jobs here like many places. Blackpool’s streets seem paved with gold to many people. Unfortunately they’re not.”

Newly arrived families are just part of the picture for Ms Fleckney. As part of the school’s inclusion team her role is to work with the families of the school’s 600 pupils, supporting them in any challenges they may have and ensuring that they get the support they need that will help them help their children to attend school.

She has been family support officer at the school – in one of the most deprived wards in the UK – for the past four years. She works closely with headteacher Michael Shepherd to identify children who might need additional support.

“It means that we have a good grip of our families that we might otherwise not have had. I will signpost them to various children’s centres – there are four children’s centres nearby and we are in the middle of all of them. I will refer them onto a children’s centre depending on where they live.

“This will be for support such as parenting classes, or maybe to introduce a new mum to a social circle so she doesn’t feel isolated. The children’s centre will provide them with that support.”

For Ms Fleckney the core of the role is about developing a personal connection and breaking down the barriers between school and family so that the child can come into school and be open to learning. “Trust and relationships are absolutely key,” she said. “Trust is the biggest thing. Once the family gets trust in me they will sometimes come into the school and just chat.

“One of my families is a mum and her son. Mum is on a methadone programme. She comes into school now whereas before she would not come anywhere near. We were the big baddies. From my point of view I go in as a parent myself. I have three children. That breaks down the barriers and we can talk as parents.”

A subtle approach is vital for building those relationships, says Ms Fleckney. “Everyone wants to think of themselves as a good parent doing the best for their children. You can’t just go in and say that people need parenting classes. You have to do it by tiny steps. You have to be diplomatic and not question their intelligence.”

Family support roles like Ms Fleckney’s have become increasingly common in primary schools in recent years, particularly those serving challenging areas. “Many heads find family support workers very useful,” explained Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT).

“Schools find it is important that they are seen to be reaching out to the families and recognising barriers to attendance or success, rather than expecting them to sort things out alone. Many schools are being proactive and recognise that it’s harder to succeed in class if there are issues at home.

“The home-school liaison work is amazingly powerful. It can ensure that the parents and school are working together to solve problems and it facilitates a relationship of trust.”

In Leicester, family support workers have become a crucial element in raising pupil attainment at Samworth Enterprise Academy, an all-through academy with pre-school, infant, junior and secondary provision for children aged from three to 16 which serves estates to the south of the city.

It is vital that the academy forges strong relationships with parents so that they can better support their children, explained principal Pat Dubas. “If we don’t get parents raising aspirations then they are not helping us. There is that barrier,” she said.

“They want to be better parents at home. They want that help. If we did not deal with this the children would come to school with emotional needs that hadn’t been met at home. There might not be food in the house, or there could be child protection needs. If we are going to meet these needs this has got to be a school for this community at all hours of the day.”

The academy has an assistant principal for extended services. Libby Wiggington is a non-teacher who joined the academy following extensive experience of running extended services at Ms Dubas’ previous school.

Her remit includes family outreach and support, adult learning, safeguarding and the running of a wealth of after-school provision – holiday activities, parenting and community projects. In order to deliver all of these services the academy opens its doors 13-hours-a-day for 51-weeks-a-year.

A three-strong team of family workers are part of Ms Wiggington’s department. They help parents to find strategies that will help improve their children’s home lives, such as creating boundaries and helping to develop consistent routines.

They meet the family every week, either at school or at home during the school holidays, and liaise with social services if they have particular concerns. The essence of their work, Ms Dubas explained, is to encourage parents to work in partnership with the academy to improve provision for their children.

As well as the outreach work, parents are also encouraged into the school as much as possible. Once they have brought their children into school there is tea and coffee on offer. It is regarded as valuable time to meet and socialise with other adults. It is also an opportunity for the academy to develop a relationship and encourage parents to use their extended provision.

“We get to know them through this and we can also encourage them into adult learning programmes such as literacy, numeracy and parenting skills,” said Ms Dubas. “We want to get parents back to work and if we do that they can encourage their children and raise their aspirations as well. This has also had an impact on pupil attendance as encouraging parents to get up in a morning has also helped our pupils – our attendance is above the national average.”

Reaching out to struggling families either at home or in school allows schools to work in partnership with parents and look at any schooling issues a child might have through a very different light, continued Ms Fleckney. Hawes Side is typical of many with family support functions in that it uses this extra information to devise extra support for that pupil, such as bringing in a learning mentor or pastoral support.“You do get to see things from a different perspective,” she said.

“A year 6 pupil might not be doing his homework but when you look closer you’ll see that the child has had to get himself up on his own, change his baby brother’s nappy, give him some breakfast and then get himself into school. Then the homework issue doesn’t look quite so important.”

Free breakfast scheme targets hungry pupils

Blackpool local authority has piloted a free breakfast scheme to offer all 12,000 primary-age pupils across the area free breakfasts. The £700,000 scheme was launched in January in response to a growing concern that many children were attending school hungry.

The pilot – due to complete at the end of March – provides children with free milk, fruit juice, cereal or toast. Blackpool is England’s sixth poorest local authority and it is estimated that a third of children there live in poverty.

The initiative has been described by council leader Simon Blackburn as “a bold and ambitious move, but one which is founded entirely in fact, and one which research clearly demonstrates will be of huge benefit to children across the borough”.

He continued: “Some have questioned the need for universality – providing free breakfasts to everyone. But restricting breakfast to those on benefits massively stigmatises the recipients and loses all of the benefits of communal eating.”

Hawes Side Primary Academy was due to begin the trial at the end of February and headteacher Michael Shepherd said that he welcomed the initiative.Around 350 of the school’s 600 pupils were scheduled to be involved in the scheme (the school asked parents if they wanted their children to be involved).

“We do have a lot of children who come into school and have not had breakfast for one reason or another and this will be a real benefit to them,” he continued.“Anecdotally I’ve heard that the scheme is having a real impact on punctuality.”

Blackpool local authority says that the effectiveness of the scheme is being monitored by academics and their findings will determine whether it continues in the longer term.

• Nick Bannister is a freelance education writer.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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