Social Work in Schools: The post-Covid challenges of a junior school head

Social Work in Schools: The post-Covid challenges of a junior school head

Clare Jerrom speaks to Headteacher Paula Derwin about supporting children in a deprived area to have dreams and aspirations.

Being a headteacher is no walk in the park in 2022 with a strong focus on post-COVID educational catch up, as well as the impact of the detrimental effect which lockdown had on many families including neglect, abuse, increased substance misuse, more domestic abuse, a surge in mental health problems among children and adults alike as families tried to navigate the various lockdowns with the pressure of financial woes, health fears, isolation and home-schooling.

But being a headteacher is even more challenging when you are based in one of the most deprived areas of Colchester, where 90% of the 222 pupils have safeguarding records, there are several families receiving support on Child Protection Plan, Child in Need plans, through Family Solutions or much lower level support through a family support worker.

At Hazelmere Junior School, in Colchester:

  • Persistent absenteeism is at 20%
  • 55% of pupils are eligible for Free School Meals
  • 20% of pupils have SEND needs.

It is against this backdrop that Paula Derwin, Head of Hazelmere Junior School in Colchester applied to WillisPalmer’s offer for a school in the area to benefit from a pilot of our School Social Work Service, where a highly qualified and experienced social worker is based within the school for around one day per week to support school staff who may have concerns around the safety and emotional wellbeing of children.

“To launch WillisPalmer’s School Social Work Service, we wanted to offer a pilot free of charge to a deserving school in Colchester in order to give back to the local community,” said Lucy Hopkins, WillisPalmer’s Head of Practice who was based at Hazelmere Junior School for one day per week throughout the last term.

Hazelmere’s Headteacher Paul Derwin, who has been teaching for 30 years and been at Hazelmere Junior School for 14 years – 9 as deputy head and five years as Headteacher, said the school staff really benefitted having Lucy based in the school to provide a social work perspective on the many issues the staff face regarding their pupils.

“One of the challenges we face is engaging with parents who can be hard to reach. We are constantly trying new ways of trying to engage with parents, but it has been particularly difficult since COVID. We want to gather their views on what we are doing and our plans for September are to get out into the community to try and engage with more parents,” said Mrs Derwin.

Have a dream

One of the reasons behind the reluctance to engage from some of the parents is their own educational experience which may not have been a positive one and therefore they do not value education.

“The parents who do come into school will say ‘I hated maths’ or ‘I was never any good at English’. We have got to give these children aspiration, to have a dream, be the best they can and have options,” added Mrs Derwin.

Hazelmere Junior School is based on the Greenstead estate, one of the most deprived areas in Colchester. While 55% of pupils are eligible for Free School Meals and had received them in infant school as all children are eligible there, the take up at junior school is not as high, meaning parents of children eligible for Free School Meals are either paying for them or sending children with a packed lunch.

This is despite the criteria being highlighted to parents while children are still at the infant school as well as when they move to the junior school. Ms Derwin attributes the reluctance to sign up for FSM to parents being wary of signing up online and, as a result, the school has printed the form out and given it to parents to complete and return and the office staff then make the official online application.

“With the cost of living shooting up we are also looking at the variety of food we can give our pupils at school. Currently children can have a hot meal or a vegetarian option but from September we are introducing a scheme whereby there will be a hot option, vegetarian option or children can have a jacket potato or baguette each day. We have introduced this due to 20% of our pupils having Special Educational Needs or Disabilities as often, parents don’t check the menu in the morning, the children get to lunch and don’t like the meal that is on offer which can cause a meltdown which impacts on their emotions, mental health and ability to learn. So we are going to be looking at better options,” said Ms Derwin.

Happy child

Swimming, sailing and music

The school has a number of initiatives in place to support pupils, all funded by the school so they do not have to ask for parental contributions.

“Pupils in Years 5 and 6 are funded to go swimming. We also fund Year 6 to go on a three-day residential trip. We used to ask for a parental contribution, for example, 10% of the cost from parents and we would fund the 90%. However, some families could not afford the 10% so we spoke with the governors, we have a healthy budget and we decided it was worth funding the residential trip for the pupils to benefit from three days away learning new skills, team building and gaining confidence. Pupils in Year 5 are funded to go sailing for three days at Brightlingsea,” explained Mrs Derwin.

While every school in Essex gets a peripatetic music teacher for a term for free, Hazelmere buys in the service for the other two terms to enable children to learn through music. The younger children learn how to play the African Djembe while the older students get to grips with the Ukulele.

Local trips to the library or the local farm to pick strawberries are also organised and funded by the school.

Furthermore, Hazelmere operates the Forest School initiative where pupils go to Ghost Woods once a fortnight. A trained member of staff works with the children to teach them a variety of skills such as fire building, making pictures out of nature found in the forest, digging, tying knots and den building.

“The Forest School runs in two year gaps so every pupil will be able to benefit from outdoor learning for two out of their four years at the Junior School. It has huge physical and mental health benefits as well as learning skills such as team building and boosting confidence and self-esteem,” said Mrs Derwin.


In fact, looking after your physical and mental health has been a key focus at the school since pupils returned following COVID.  Some kind of physical activity is built into the curriculum every day and the whole school practises yoga to concentrate on mindfulness, breathing, stretching and time for reflection.

“All pupils have a Happy-Self Journal, which is a bit like a diary, and the children make entries three times a week to write down thoughts around their emotions. There might be entries around ‘three good things that have happened today?’, ‘what made me happy/sad today?’, ‘what do I want to achieve?’ or ‘what is the hardest thing I have done today?’ to equip them with resilience and encourage them to talk about how they are feeling,” added Mrs Derwin.

Hazelmere has also adopted the Thrive Approach based on nurturing and support.

“There may be children who have experienced trauma and therefore have gaps in their development. We assess the child using the Thrive criteria, and it may be that that child needs 1:1 support, or helping learning how to play, or counselling. We have three trained Thrive practitioners operating large groups, small groups or 1:1 support and it means that if children are overwhelmed in the dining hall, then they can take time out and eat in a smaller group. Or if someone is struggling with their emotions, they can take time out to navigate their feelings in a quiet space. These spaces are open all day so the children can access them at any time,” explained Mrs Derwin.

For children and families who require low level support, the school shares a Family Support Worker with several other schools through Child First and buys the service in on a needs basis. The FSW may support families requiring assistance with establishing routines, helping to manage behaviour or even filling in online application forms.

The school also operates Lego Therapy, a quite rare form of therapy, where trained Teaching Assistants can work with small groups of children who have communication difficulties. The children work together on a Lego project working together, helping each other and communicating politely while carrying out the task.

Furthermore, play therapy is available at Hazelmere for small groups of children who may be experiencing similar problems, for example, loneliness or friendship issues.

“For pupils who have experienced significant issues such as bereavement, or their parents have separated, we can also access 1:1 counselling through Child First Trust,” added Mrs Derwin.

'Safeguarding takes up 50% of my time'

However, one of the greatest challenges for Ms Derwin is safeguarding given 90% of pupils have safeguarding records. She is the designated safeguarding lead and has three deputy safeguarding leads yet safeguarding work still takes up “at least 50% of my time, if not more”.

Often families will not engage with social care and so the case is closed with no further action meaning the school is left trying to manage the issues.

Mrs Derwin gives a “big safeguarding push” at the start of the academic year in September, reiterating policies and procedures and informing staff of any updates to government guidance. She regularly keeps staff updated of any changes to guidance and staff frequently come to her to talk through any concerns about a child.

While the school currently operates a paper system, Hazelmere is moving to CPOMS – Safeguarding Software for Schools which means all phone calls or communication about behaviour, safeguarding or any concerns will be logged and it will form a chronology which, Mrs Derwin hopes, will help staff and give them more confidence.

“That is why it has been great having Lucy (Hopkins, Head of Practice at WillisPalmer) at the school to provide us with a social work perspective and staff have approached Lucy to gain advice on concerns they may have,” said Mrs Derwin. “Lucy has also signposted me to resources which can help us but which I knew nothing about which has been a great help.”

The challenges that Mrs Derwin and Hazelmere are experiencing are similar across the board. “We are all in different boats but in the same storm. This is a societal problem and schools have more and more responsibility for safeguarding,” said Mrs Derwin.

“We are at crisis point but we just have to do the best with what we’ve got,” concluded Mrs Derwin.

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