Ask the Experts: Address suspicions over legal highs

Our panel offers advice on the dangers of legal highs, child protection changes, building a bug hotel and holding a winter bazaar.

Q: I work with a 15-year-old girl who attends a pupil referral unit (PRU). Her mum thinks she's been using legal highs with some older pupils at the unit but she denies it. What should I do?

Jeanie Lynch: Start by talking directly to her and asking her what is happening. Ask what legal highs she has been using, if any, and find out if she feels pressured into taking them by others.

Help her understand you are concerned about her. Talk to her about the potential consequences of using legal highs and the dangers involved. If self-esteem is an issue, think about ways of helping her feel better about herself. This will also give her the opportunity to open up.

I would speak to the PRU and check their policies on drug education and drug use. Young people attending PRUs may be more vulnerable to substance misuse and it is essential that staff have the right support to work with young people.

Many children wish they could talk to their parents about sensitive subjects such as this but are too scared to. There may be a local family support service who could work with you to help both mum and daughter.

Jeanie Lynch works for Barnardo's and has 25 years' experience of working with vulnerable children and families

Q: The Prime Minister has announced major changes for child protection work. My elected members want to get ahead of the game and do it straight away. Is that wise?

Peter Lewis: What is it they want to do? The PM's vision of engaging the private and third sectors doesn't seem to recognise we do that already. Most of us have used Barnardo's and the like for some time. Private sector engagement usually comes when resources are needed for something urgent or very problematic and we need temporary input.

Major or wholesale engagement of other sectors to do our work for us assumes there is a plentiful supply of high-quality social workers just waiting for us to call. But the fact is there are not enough for the number of jobs available. Getting someone else to run things for us simply means transferring staff to them - and that means transferring weak as well as strong staff. Plus it will cost significantly more.

Get your lead member to explain exactly what they want. At the end of the day, that's what they can have if they are willing to pay for it and work through the commissioning issues.

Peter Lewis is a freelance providing interim local authority children's services leadership, and a former DCS in Haringey

Q: Staff at my nursery want to build the children a "bug hotel". Where do we start?

June O'Sullivan: A bug hotel is basically some sheltered, purpose-built accommodation for insects. It is a great way to engage children in an outdoor experience while teaching them about mini beasts. You could make this a family event. It is a great way to get parents, especially dads, more involved in the setting and show how the outdoors can provide stimulating learning experiences. But remember - not all adults are comfortable with creepy crawlies.

Use wooden planks or pallets to build your hotel but don't build them too high or deep. Stuff the structure tightly with straw or mud. If you pack it too loosely you risk attracting visiting rodents. You can also use flowerpots lying on their side. Dead wood attracts beetles and woodlice while dry loose leaves attract ladybirds and stones and cool areas may lure a frog or two.

Have a science tray nearby with magnifying glasses and some laminated information sheets about the insects. The Royal Horticultural Society is a great source of information as is the RSPB's Book of Bugs.

June O'Sullivan is chief executive of the childcare charity and social enterprise, the London Early Years Foundation

Q: We are holding a winter bazaar at our youth centre to generate some income to buy new equipment. Our young women have been making things to sell but the boys have dismissed such activities as "girly", which is de-motivating. Any advice?

Tracie Trimmer-Platman: There must be a way to engage the boys in a project that will benefit them too. Everyone enjoys good food so get them to think about what kind of food they could make to sell, perhaps inspired by the example of high-profile male chefs.

Alternatively, they could source unwanted items for recycling - toys, games, DVDs or even small bits of furniture that could be spruced up and sold for a profit. Or they could print T-shirts and make the kind of clothing they would be pleased to receive as a gift. You need to find an activity they feel comfortable doing, something they can be proud of.

Get them to think about the kind of equipment you might be able to afford if they pull their weight.

Tracie Trimmer-Platman is senior lecturer in youth and community work at the University of East London

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