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If we care, we have to work together

Professional barriers get in the way of doing our best by troubled young people, says Ewan Aitken

As a school chaplain my name would be on a list offered to pupils by the guidance team as someone to listen to them in a time of crisis who was "in the system but not of the system". I offered not solutions but simply time and listening without judgment. These sessions would last for an hour and go on for around six weeks. I was rarely without someone who needed to talk.

One day a name was given to me that I recognised. The person had been referred by social work to the one-to-one service offered by the community project run out of my congregation. In the interests of co-ordination, and with the young person's permission, I rang the social worker.

I tried to explain the situation, but I received an angry response that I had been asked to take on this role without the social worker being consulted.

When I probed, I was told that I was the eleventh organisation involved with this young person, none of whom had consulted the social worker.

Sympathising, I suggested that we might make a more co-ordinated response.

I was then told that such an idea was out of the question because of "client confidentiality". Then it was my turn to get angry.

Yet I don't blame the social worker. He was merely reflecting the embattled culture of his profession; one that remains utterly undervalued in almost every aspect of its work. Social workers are undervalued in particular because of the blame culture that obsesses some sections of our media, which equates finger-pointing with scrutiny and resignation with progress.

That particular social worker's fears about "client confidentiality" were rooted in a defensiveness borne of the aggressive desire to blame that pervades much of our attitudes to issues about young people in danger or those who are a danger to others. Desperate to follow all the rules all the time, and despite the fact that those rules are often in conflict with each other, social workers feel forced into a course of action which is intended to protect a young person's rights but which actually fails to protect the young person.

It is a culture we must challenge head on. It is a culture that is not unique to social work but hinders all professionals concerned with the care of young people. The Caleb Ness inquiry in Edinburgh exposed a serious inability of all involved in the care and protection of young people to make collective decisions and then weave the consequences into their working patterns, while continuing to account to and communicate with each other.

We need to get to the stage where those involved in the care of a young person gather to reflect on their needs, professional sensibilities are laid at the office door. Each should bring herhis particular insights but not professional boundaries, with decisions made on the basis of the young person's needs and clear monitoring of those decisions agreed.

That means change for teachers as well as for everyone else. They are not separate but integral. The role of other agencies isn't simply to support young people in staying at school or to cope with those who can't be in school. Working together is about meeting the needs of young people, not the agenda of one or other agency or institution.

One of the best examples I have seen recently in supporting young people with difficult behaviour involved a teacher and social worker working together in the classroom and group room. They are a team, both engaging at all levels with the young people. They each bring their professional skill and wisdom in ways that are greater than the sum of the parts. They communicate, lead, support and challenge as equals. One person manages them.

This kind of integration is a huge and challenging agenda that will not be achieved without some pain. But it cannot be ducked. And in many places it is already happening. The annual Edinburgh Conference today (Friday) has as its theme "The Child in Focus". The paragraph on the information flyer on "who should attend?" indicates "senior staff from education authorities, schools, further and higher education, social work, health, police, parent bodies, national agencies and the business community". Wonderfully the conference is full, with delegates from all these sectors.

I hope that one day those who work with and for young people will see themselves as belonging to one sector. Perhaps in every place young people will be nurtured and cared for by professionals who will feel freed to engage with each other around the needs of young people and their needs alone.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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