Schools could turn into family centres

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Schools due to shut their doors in Norwich this summer should be turned into family centres to help forge better parenting skills and help slash the bill to send vulnerable youngsters into care.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Schools due to shut their doors in Norwich this summer should be turned into family centres to help forge better parenting skills and help slash the bill to send vulnerable youngsters into care.

Children's services chiefs are set to launch a consultation about what to do with six school sites when they close at the end of term.

The schools; Wellesley First, Woodside First, Dowson First and Mile Cross Middle, Lakenham First and South Harford Middle, are all due to close following the abolition of middle schools and the building of five new primary schools to cater for youngsters up to 11.

Parents and residents are to be consulted on what to do with the buildings with one option being a sell off to developers to build new houses.

But Sue Whitaker, Labour leader at County Hall, said the schools should be turned into specialist 'family centres' offering a range of support to youngsters and their parents.

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And she urged the council to use more than £2m in government grant to kick start the new centres.

The council received the so-called 'LAGBI' money, (local authority growth and business incentive) earlier this year and has created a special “invest to save” reserve”.

Historically the council has been forced to spend millions on expensive care placements to help problem youngsters and there is cross party support for more preventative services to be put in place to help before things get out of control.

Ms Whitaker said instead of sitting in the bank, a slice of the money should be proactively used to help kickstart the projects.

“If you put the money in there, you can save money,” she said. “If parents were given help at a very early stage it might not reach a crisis.

She said a perfect model was the charity Families House, a specialist contact centre based in the city, which is also looking to expand because of the high demand placed on its preventative and support services. The charity would be ideally placed to run a new centre on the council's behalf with grant funding, she said.

“At the moment we finish up spending a lot of money further down the line with expensive out of county placements and more children in care,” she added.

Rosalie Monbiot, cabinet member for children's services, said the authority was keen to find out the views of local people about how the sites have benefited their community and how they could be of value to them in the future.

“Ordinarily, in this situation, the first port of call would be children's services,” she said. “However, one possible option might include selling a site but I must stress that the money we get from any sale of any site is always ploughed straight back into county council services for children in the city and the county.”

Ministers have asked for more information before agreeing if a controversial selling of a school playing field can go ahead. Norfolk County Council has applied for permission from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) to dispose of the playing field at Blackdale Middle School in Norwich. The move, which will see the land sold off to the UEA, has sparked widespread opposition in the area and a decision was expected at the end of May.

But it is believed the DfES wants more information from the council before reaching a decision.