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The kids are all right

Surrey' is merging its schools with those social services that deal with children to give them a better deal. Phil Revell reports.

Quality protects. This simple concept is at the heart of the Government's agenda on child protection. Get the basics right and the high-profile tragedies become less likely. In Surrey the principle underpins a move to a joined-up system of children's services.

"We had a lot of very good but single-focus services," says Ashley Ayre, Surrey's head of children's services. "Everybody thinks they are doing their bit, but the child slips through the system - this is rare but it happens."

He gives the example of a seven-year-old whose first language isn't English. "But his English is good enough to get by, and he's not seen as a priority by the English as an Additional Language service. Normally, when children get to key stage 2 they fly. But this child may also have mild disability. Potentially, the home background is also a little disorganised, perhaps the child has poor nutritional levels or is failing to thrive for other reasons. But it's not serious enough for a referral.

"What you have is a child who, by any single factor, does not meet anyone's criteria for intervention but if we look in the round, we have a child who is likely to fail, to become disaffected, to develop more serious learning difficulties."

Surrey's response is a seamless service, welding education and social services, creating multi-professional teams who will offer a single front door to children and families in the area.

"We're about three-quarters of the way there," says Mr Ayre, who has spent the past six months selling the concept to the county's social workers, education welfare officers and psychologists and child protection teams.

"There's a lot of very good quality multi-disciplinary work going on already," he says. "But you need to get people committed to it so that they not only know that it's the right thing to do, but they feel it's the right thing to do."

The new service will be as local as possible, with key workers to act as internal advocates within their team for a child or family.

"If something doesn't happen, they will have the right to go and challenge whoever in the system is holding up the process," says Mr Ayre. "Ed psyches, EWOs, specialist teachers - they will all need to accept the fact that their engagement can be initiated by someone else on the team."

Mr Ayre is aware of pitfalls. But the prize is a service in which people feel that they know them better, and where professionals have a better understanding of each other's practice.

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