This essay will be an analysis of my social work practice in my recent placement at Murston Primary School in Sittingbourne, Kent. This piece is a reflective piece on my time at this school and the issues I encountered while I was there. In order to accomplish this, this essay will be broken down into several sections.
The first section will serve as an introduction to the placement setting. It will provide a brief overview of the school and the area of Sittingbourne. The next section will move on to look at some of the issues that I encountered during my time at the school. Schools offer an interesting area of study for social workers because as a colleague of mine argued, “every issue comes through those school gates”. This essay will consider some of those issues and how they are resolved in this setting. It will consider some of the theories at play in this environment and examine what works well and what doesn’t work so well when it comes to practicing social work in schools. I will reference specific examples from my own time there to illustrate this. The third section of this essay will then turn to take a wider view of some of the issues at play in terms of having social workers in schools. Although social work placements in schools are fairly commonplace these days, they still do raise some fairly specific issues.
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Throughout this essay, the focus has to remain on the service users, in this case the pupils at the school and to a lesser extent their parents and how their needs are being met. It will consider how anti-oppressive practices are at play in this setting and how successful they are. I want this piece to be a reflective piece. Reflection is a key component of learning within the caring professions as it forces you to critically analyse and evaluate what you may have done differently and what you will do differently should you encounter the same or a similar situations again. It would be useful to apply my experiences to a particular model of reflection as it will help me greater understand what I have learnt and help me to be critical about certain aspects of the experience as a whole. The reflective model I have chosen to use for this essay is Borton’s (1970) Developmental Model for Reflective Practice. It is one of a number of models I could have chosen (John’s model of reflection,1994; Kolb’s learning cycle, 1984; Atkins and Murphy’s model of reflection, 1994; Gibbs’ model of reflection, 1988 ) but Borton’s model best suits my purpose.
The model that Borton devised is based on 3 separate elements that work in a sequential, cyclical order. The first stage is the descriptive stage, or the ‘what?’. It makes the practitioner consider what the issue was, what their role in it was, and what the response was to the actions taken? The second stage is the ‘so what?’. This forces the practitioner to consider the theory and knowledge building that is an essential part of reflection. What do the events tell or teach one about the service user, about myself and about the model of care that I am applying. What was I feeling at the time and did these feeling affect my actions? What could I have done differently if presented with the same situation again and how has my understanding changed as a result of what I have been through. The final stage of this model is the ‘now what?’. This stage looks at how the situation can be bettered in the future. This is when broader issues may come into play.
Murston Primary School in Sittingbourne, Kent is a mixed, non-denominational school with approximately 140 students. Because a nursery school was opened last year, it now caters for students aged between 3 and 11. The majority of the students are white British but there are a few students from minority ethnic backgrounds. The population which it serves is fairly stable but temporary housing in the local area means there is some degree of transience and some pupils joining in Years 1 and 2 have had no previous experience of school. A high proportion of pupils at this school have been identified as having learning difficulties and/or disabilities. Their needs relate mostly to learning, speech and language difficulties, behavioural, emotional and social needs, autism and physical disability. A recent Ofsted report rated the school as good. The report stated that the school, “provides a good standard of education within a very safe, caring family atmosphere” (Ofsted, 2008: p. 4).
The school is in the Borough of Swale. While much of this borough is fairly affluent, there are a few pockets of deprivation. Sittingbourne is one of these areas. This is reflected by the well above average take up of free school meals.
This essay will now focus on three issues of the many issues that I encountered in my time at Murston Primary School. These are bullying, the inclusion of children with autism and finally self-harm. I have chosen these three areas to focus on because they are three quite diverse issues. Bullying is one that is widely covered and is a common problem in most schools in the UK. The inclusion of children with autism is a growing area of study as more and more is found out about this disorder. Self-harm among young children is an area that is often ignored because of the stigma that it still holds in our society. However, it is a very real problem and one that I encountered during my time at Murston Primary School.
Bullying is, “an unfortunate reality which occurs across disparate cultures and educational settings at about the same rate” (Carney and Merrell, 2001: p. 364). Hazler (1996) defines bullying as, “repeatedly (not just once or twice) harming others. This can be done by physical attack or hurting others’ feelings through words, actions or social exclusion. Bullying may be done by one person or by a group. It is an unfair match since the bully is either physically, verbally and/or socially stronger than the victim”.
Bullying has been identified as one of the top concerns that parents have about their children’s safety when at school. In response, the government has made tackling the problem of bullying a top priority. The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCFS) recently published, Safe to Learn: Embedding Anti-Bullying Work in Schools (2007). This report sets out a framework for schools to use in formulating anti-bullying strategies. A certain amount of leeway is given to schools to formulate their own responses to bullying but there are certain elements that all anti-bullying programmes should contain. The victims of bullying should be able to be heard; they should know how to report bullying and get help; they should be confident in the ability of the school to deal with the problem; they should feel confident that steps are being taken to help them feel safe; they can receive help to rebuild their confidence and they have to know that they can receive support from others. Those involved in bullying have to be aware that there are sanctions and learning programmes that will hold them to account for their behaviour and help them realise the harm they have caused. These pupils have to develop their emotional skills so that they can learn to behave in ways that won’t cause harm to others. They also have to learn how to repair the damage they have caused. The school as a whole has to be clear about the anti-bullying stance. There needs to be a collaborative effort between staff members and pupils to develop the anti-bullying work in the school. All pupils have to be clear that they can prevent bullying. Most importantly perhaps, anti-bullying has to be regarded as a collaborative effort not just within the school but with other schools within the area and with other agencies.
Not as much attention is given to the problem of bullying in primary schools as much of the focus is on the transition that pupils make when they move from the smaller, more personal environment of a primary school to the larger, and much less supportive secondary school environment (Eccles, Wigfield, & Schiefele, 1998). Pellegrini and Long (2002) argue that bullying during this transition is, “a deliberate strategy used to attain dominance as youngsters enter a new social group” (p. 260). However, another cause of bullying is the rapid changes that occur in body size. This is especially the case for boys. Pellegrini and Bartini (2001) argue that these changes lead to a reorganisation of social dominance hierarchies. The bigger the boy is, the more dominant he becomes over his smaller peers. This change is usually witnessed in secondary school as puberty doesn’t occur in males until the early years of secondary school. Hazler (1996) argues that bullying is most common between the ages of 9 and 15. There was a child at Murston Primary School who was much physically bigger than many of the other boys in the school who had had a history of fairly violent behaviour towards some of the other boys in the school.
I will refer to this boy as John. John is 11 and is in year six, so he is in his final year at Murston. He is from a minority ethnic background and he only joined the school the year previously. John has been identified as having some learning difficulties as his reading level and language levels are well below what they should be at his age. He is also a recipient of free school meals. John has had difficulties in adjusting to Murston and has been bullying two students in particular. Murston has a well developed anti-bullying plan which is especially important considering the high proportion of vulnerable students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities. The school has a teacher who is in charge of the anti-bullying programme. She is well known to all the other staff and pupils. She is a well liked member of staff by the pupils and she has an open door policy where students are made to feel welcome. This policy may be so successful because as Smith and Shu (2001) argue, younger children are more likely to tell someone when they witness bullying. Other teachers are required to tell her if they suspect anyone of being bullied or bullying. In most cases she is able to successfully mediate between the two parties with parental involvement in all cases. However, in extreme cases she will contact the LEA who will first send a social worker to work with the two parties and then an educational psychologist. I was able to observe one of her sessions with John and also his educational psychologist who had been involved from when the problem had first been identified.
Olweus (1993) argues that sometimes staff at school can model bullying behaviour by belittling and threatening students. This was certainly not the case at Murston. John had not learnt this behaviour from his teachers. John was not a popular member of school. This is supported by Carney and Merrell (2001) who state that, “in early grades bullies tend to enjoy average or somewhat below average popularity among peers” (p. 370). John also bullied alone which is contrary to many of the theories of bullying that suggest that bullies tend to bully in groups (Smith and Shu, 2001). It became clear that John was acting out because he was having feelings of inadequacy due to language levels being so much lower than many of the other children in the class. He felt excluded from many of his peers and bullying was a way of getting rid of his frustration.
It would be useful to briefly apply Borton’s (1970) Developmental Model for Reflective Practice to this experience. This essay has adequately covered the ‘what?’ so far. I felt that the school was handling the problem well and were recognising that some cases require outside help. Because it had taken the educational psychologist many sessions to build up trust with John, I wasn’t able to participate fully as the school felt they were at quite a delicate stage with John. However, just from observing I learnt about the frustrations that cause bullying. Murston Primary School is in quite an advantageous position when it comes to bullying. Being so small, it is easy to identify problems when they arise and it is possible to deal with problems more effectively. I don’t think they can do much more in their anti-bullying programme.
The second issue this essay will look at is the inclusion of children with autism spectrum disorder in schools. This term covers a range of developmental disorders from autism to Asperger syndrome. This essay will focus on autism because there were several children at Murston Primary School with autism. There are three distinct behaviours that characterise autism. The first is that autistic children have difficulty with social interaction. Secondly, autistic children experience problems with verbal and nonverbal communication. The final characterising characteristic of this disorder is unusual, repetitive and very limited interests. Barnard (2002) states that the rate of autism spectrum disorder reported by teachers is three times higher in primary schools than it is in secondary schools. Autism is classified as a mild learning disorder and because of this, children suffering form it are encouraged to go to mainstream schools such as Murston.
Inclusion is a contentious issue in educational circles. It implies, “Inclusion implies a restructuring of mainstream schooling that every school can accommodate every child irrespective of disability” (Avramidis and Norwich, 2002: p. 131). The idea first came to the public attention with the publication of the Warnock Report in 1978. Croll and Moses (2000) state that, “support for the principle of inclusion of all children in mainstream neighbourhood schools has achieved widespread support, at least at a rhetorical level” (p. 4). It is often seen as the ideal but an ideal that is not fully achievable. The critical element to inclusion is how the teachers respond to it. Avramidis and Norwich (2002) argue that, “teachers’ beliefs and attitudes are critical in ensuring the success of inclusive practices since teachers’ acceptance of the policy of inclusion is likely to affect their commitment to implementing it” (p. 130). The view in the UK was fairly positive. Clough and Lindsay (1991) found that on the whole teachers were fairly happy with inclusion, provided the support was in place for them. However, inclusion is now widely seen as somewhat of a failure. Schools want to seem like they are inclusive, but they have yet to make adequate provisions for pupils with special educational needs. A 2004 Ofsted report entitled, Special educational needs and disability: towards inclusive schools, supports this view.
There are many issue surrounding the inclusion of autistic children in ordinary state schools. Murston is an inclusive school and an inclusive school that unlike many other schools is able to cater to the needs of students with autism. Barnard et al. (2000) state that inclusive schools, “must ensure that appropriate learning or other positive experiences take place. It is not simply about where an individual is educated or receives services or support; it is about the quality of such a service or support. Inclusive education is a process involving the restructuring of the curriculum and classroom organisation” (p. 6). Murston is certainly well equipped to deal with the demands placed upon them by these pupils. The school has realised that to adequately meet the needs of its service users it needs to involve the expertise of other agencies. Input has been sought from a number of specialist professions including educational psychologists, speech, language and occupational therapists. Teaching assistants have received extra training in dealing with children with autism and there are regular workshops for teachers as well. Not only are the teachers well trained, but there are a range of intervention programmes in operation to help not only the students with autism but also without autism. The 2008 Ofsted report made special mention of the provisions that Murston offers these students by stating that, “outstanding care, guidance and support mean pupils are exceptionally well looked after. Staff cater for everyone’s needs very well, including those children who are particularly vulnerable” (p. 5). Barnard et al (2000) argue that parents are happiest when schools recognise the individual needs of their child. From my time at Murston, I would say that this is a priority for the school.
As with the issue of bullying, Murston is in a fairly advantageous position due to it’s size. It is able to offer such fantastic support because it has a relatively small number of students. Although it does have a higher proportion of students with autism than many other schools in the area, most of the teachers I spoke to seemed very positive about the work they were able to do.
It is possible to apply Borton’s (1970) Developmental Model for Reflective Practice to my experience of inclusion. I got to assist in a few classes and on a number of instances helped out the children with autism. I didn’t feel sufficiently trained to deal with some of their more specific problems. However, my experience did teach me the importance of treating each child as an individual. I feel that Murston has a good system in place, aided by the fact that it is a very small school. It would be useful for them to be able to share some of their knowledge with other schools in the local area. This essay will now consider the final issue that I encountered in my time at Murston Primary School.
Deliberate self-harm is when someone injures or harms themselves on purpose. This can take many forms. It can range from taking an overdose to cutting or burning oneself. Gunnell et al (2000) claim that it is a problem that is growing and affecting more young people than ever before. Because of the social stigma attached to it, it is often a problem that goes unreported and as such there are no hard statistics about it. However, a 2004 report published by the Office for National Statistics estimates that about 1 in 12 children and young people deliberately self-harm. This leads to well over 24,000 hospitalisations every year.
There are numerous reasons why children and young people self-harm. If the individual is feeling worried, trapped and helpless by a problem they may be having, self-harm is a way of regaining control of the situation. Self-harm is also a way of relieving tension. Children sometimes lack the necessary language skills to truly express their emotions. This leads to them bottling up their feelings. The only way of releasing these is through self-harm. Thirdly, self-harm can be a form of punishment if the child or young person is feeling guilty about something they may have done or witnessed. Finally, self-harm may be a way of helping the child to feel connected after the emotional numbness that often follows a traumatic event.
Self-harm is often seen as something that girls do. Young et al (2007) do not go along with this assumption. They argue that while women are more likely to take this behaviour forward into later life, levels are similar between young girls and boys. Boys tend to favour the more violent methods whereas girls are less violent. One might expect that this activity is higher among people from lower socio-economic backgrounds as well but West and Sweeting (2004) dispute this. They argue that in actual fact this is not the case. Levels of health are the same across all groups of children and yond people in today’s society.
While I was at Murston Primary School, there was evidence that a girl in year 6 had been deliberately self-harming. I felt that the situation was dealt with very well by the staff at the school. The problem was identified quickly and guidelines based on a Royal College of Psychiatrists fact sheet were followed. The student was made to feel comfortable and it soon transpired that her mother had been quite seriously ill for some time. Her case was referred on to social services and her GP but again, the value of treating this girl as an individual meant that she was able to open up to staff in the first place. Self-harming behaviour is an indication that something is going seriously wrong in the life of that young person. There are no quick fixes to this problem. I feel that the school has a more than adequate care structure to deal with this problem.
Overall I felt my experience at Murston Primary School was very positive. I got to witness firsthand a wide variety of issues that affect the students on a day to day basis. I only chose the three examples above as I felt they gave an indication of the wide variety of issues that exist in a school setting. Having social workers in school is still a relatively new concept in many parts of the country. I felt that maybe this school was not set-up to have a full time social worker on the staff but I don’t think it needed one as it was a very small school. However, I do realise the value of schools working with social services, especially in areas such as Sittingbourne that do have fairly high levels of deprivation. There are a number of issues that arise from this and schools, working in collaboration with social services and other local agencies are best equipped to tackle these problems of social exclusion.
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Most of the staff in the school were happy to allow me to shadow them but I felt a certain amount of hostility from some staff because it felt like I was looking over their shoulder and questioning their methods. This was not the case, for the most part I was simply observing. I did not feel it prudent to get involved in most cases because I had no knowledge of the background and in many cases the pupils already had a number of people from the caring professions already working for them. I was able to offer my help and expertise when it was required but for the most part I was happy to observe the interactions within this complex and challenging environment.
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