Your guide to multi-agency working

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School staff can make a real difference to improving attendance but they may need to access people with additional skills. Ben Whitney helps schools find the balance between internal welfare approaches and referral for outside support.

Summary

  • Most attendance issues can be resolved by working with parents and children, following normal pastoral procedures.
  • Some children have more complex needs which will require the involvement of other professionals under local early help or child protection procedures.
  • Such work will be led by the local authority where the child lives, not the one where the school is, if this is different.

Some children will present problems that cannot be addressed by their school alone. All schools need to develop good working relationships with other external partners such as the police, school nurses, social workers, child mental health services and family support workers. This is essential for safeguarding, but it is also important that attendance at school is kept as a constant focus. It should have a high profile in ‘early help’ and other interventions to which school staff must have access in order to make referrals.

Other professionals may be more focused only on what is happening within the family and may not necessarily see the implications for the child’s education unless they are alerted to it. Equally, however, a request for a prosecution should always involve a careful assessment of whether some other action, perhaps by another agency, is more likely to be effective.

Keeping involved

Schools have to make sure that they have a seat at the table when important decisions about their pupils are being made. This is particularly important when children are looked-after or undergoing a social care or health-led assessment.

Changing a child’s place of residence, for example, may have a significant impact on their attendance and attainment if a change of school will be required. Schools often do not know about such decisions until after they have been made.

Even family courts do not always seem to show the awareness that they should, despite the requirement of the welfare checklist in the Children Act 1989 to always consider the child’s educational needs.

Educational decisions including, for example, exclusions or other changes of provision, have to be made in an inter-agency context. There are wider issues involved, not just in the educational context, and these must be taken into consideration.

Casework

Casework interventions are mostly on a voluntary basis but also might include action under child protection procedures and the Troubled Families Programme. They will normally be led by the local authority (LA) where the child lives, whilst attendance enforcement will always be the responsibility of the LA where the school is.

If more than one LA is involved, it can be difficult to ensure that there is proper communication between them and with the school. If this communication isn’t maintained, then it is more difficult to identify the correct action as all the facts might remain unknown. Maintaining communication between the different agencies is a challenge as each has its own focus and protocols.

Social care

Social workers primarily deal with issues of child protection and looked-after children. Lack of school attendance is not included in the definition of significant harm. Therefore if you are looking to involve them because of non-attendance, you will need to stress the effect that the absence is having on the child’s social and intellectual development as well as on their safety or welfare.

Health professionals

Health professionals, including those dealing with pregnancy and mental health, tend to have a much keener view of confidentiality than schools. Be aware that they may not be willing to share information about their client with school staff.

The client might be the child or the parents and they may seek specific consent from them, even if this results in difficulties with relationships and subsequent absences. There should be a local information-sharing protocol to help with this.

The police

Only the police have the power to force an entry to someone’s home, based on sufficient concern to conduct a ‘safe and well’ check. If you are seriously worried about a child who has not been seen, they are the best place to go once routine attempts at contact have been unsuccessful.

In the event of an ongoing serious concern for a child’s safety, headteachers will have the right under the Local Safeguarding Children Board procedures to request a child protection conference, but this power must be exercised responsibly.

Establishing dialogue

If any local inter-agency procedure isn’t working, get your manager or headteacher to take it up with other senior managers. There should be professional dialogue and procedures about managing this at the highest level, not just a frustration on the ground.

Expect other agencies to share any information that you have given them about the child or family with the parents. It is not usually possible for the source to be kept from them, so make sure all information in reports is factual, evidenced and accurate.

Other agencies will not expect to fit their work around school terms so be prepared for key staff to be required to attend meetings in holidays. Decisions cannot always wait until schools return.

It is important to remember that dealing with absence is not just a statistical exercise. The key indicator must be that the intervention actually improves the educational experience and the participation of individual children.

Training and development

Multi-agency working can be stressful and demanding. Other agencies tend to be much more robust in providing proper professional supervision than schools have traditionally been.

It is important that there are procedures in place to look after those who are involved in this kind of work. Your school leaders should consider the following questions:

  1. Do those carrying out this work need more formal support and advice from colleagues?
  2. How does someone who is newly-appointed to a pastoral role gain the knowledge and confidence that they need?
  3. Do you know exactly what other local professionals do and what they can offer to help you?

Multi-agency working is an important part of the attendance officer’s role. It is vital that those on the frontline are equipped to carry it out effectively.

About the author

Ben Whitney is an independent education welfare consultant and trainer, with over 20 years’ experience in attendance management for two local authorities. He is the author of several books on both attendance and child protection. More information on his current training and consultancy services can be found at www.ben-whitney.org.uk

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About Author

Ben Whitney

Ben Whitney is an independent education welfare consultant and trainer, with over 20 years’ experience in attendance management for two local authorities. He is the author of several books on both attendance and child protection. More information on his current training and consultancy services can be found at www.ben-whitney.org.uk.

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