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Services need a lingua franca

Communication among agencies is already proving a problem, reports Helen Ward.

Moves to link education, health and social services, as envisaged in new child protection laws, face many hurdles, not least the lack of shared language.

Acronyms abound, and even a simple word such as "infant" has varying meanings. In education, it means a five to seven-year-old: in the health service it is a baby under the age of one.

The lines between the two professions have blurred as councils merge their education and social services departments and appoint directors of children's services.

So far, three-quarters of the directors of children's services are former directors of education.

Since April, under the Children Act 2004, councils have had a duty to promote co-operation between agencies to improve children's well-being.

This means bringing together schools, GPs, sports and play organisations, and the voluntary and community sector.

Now the Department for Education and Skills has published a glossary for those working in multi-agency teams defining everything from ADHD (see box) to "young person", a term it says now lacks any precise meaning.

The need to communicate clearly when talking to professionals across various sectors is essential if they are to work together in children's best interests.

Dave Smith of the Plain English Campaign said: "It is a good idea for professionals to meet each other half way. But it is everybody's responsibility to speak and write in a way that the person on the receiving end can understand."

A DfES consultation document on how children should be protected has been severely criticised by the British Association of Social Workers. It says: "The draft guidance is a rambling incoherent mismatch. If its original aim was to deliberately set out to make it difficult for the reader to decipher who has the key responsibility for protecting children, it has succeeded... "Serious revision is needed if it is to achieve its goal of empowering agencies and professionals to work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of children."

The association is also angry about the omission of social workers from the document. Instead, it refers to local authority or child social care.

In 2003, a study by the Mental Health Foundation on joint working between education and the child and adolescent mental health services, said: "It is exceptionally challenging working across different sectors and different cultures of organisations."

The research for the DfES concluded: "Good communication was deemed as essential for good practice. This was on many levels, good communication within teams, communicating clearly between health and education staff, and communicating with clients."

It found that relations with social services departments were the most difficult because of the enormous pressure they were under.

Steve Leverett, head of strategic partnerships for Essex county council, said: "Every community has its own way of speaking. Part of the challenge is to make sure we all speak a common language. We encourage people to be sensitive to the fact that people come from different professional backgrounds, with their own vocabulary, understanding and priorities." or amused by eduspeak or social services jargon? If so, email:


ASW: An approved social worker who has been approved by the local authority to carry out a range of statutory duties under the 1983 Mental Health Act, including assessing whether a person needs to be detained in hospital compulsorily.

CAMHS: Child and adolescent mental health services. In the broad sense, CAMHS cover all types of provision and intervention, from mental health promotion and prevention, specialist community-based services, through to in-patient care for children and young people with mental illness.

Looked after children : Children who do not live with their families, but with foster parents or in children's homes.

Quality protects: A government programme launched in 1998 focused on working with some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children. The programme officially came to an end in 2004.

Section 47 enquiries: Section 47 of the Children Act 1989 places a duty on every local authority to make enquiries when it has 'reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives, or is found, in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm'.

Significant harm: The Children Act introduced the concept of 'significant harm' as the threshold that justifies compulsory intervention in family life in the best interests of a child.

Source:DfES glossary, some entries have been edited

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