A turf war is the last thing children need

7th May 2004 at 01:00
Edinburgh's decision to bring teachers and social workers together is bold but creative, says Ewan Aitken

One evening last week I found myself making a speech alongside the art impresario Ricky Demarco at the opening of a wonderful exhibition of work by more than 40 first-time teenage artists. Ricky was his usual expansive self.

"We are all artists", he said. "It is only through creativity that we can find meaning for the suffering we experience in our existence. Creative activity is the best way of expressing our unique awareness not only that we live but also that we shall die, an awareness that comes through seeing mystery in the ordinary things of living."

That, he said, was why Van Gogh's yellow chair sold for $40 million, the ordinary speaking of the extraordinary.

I went straight from there to open a showing of the "104 shoes" project in my council ward. Donated by celebrity women, the 104 shoes symbolise the number of women killed by domestic violence every year. It is a shocking statistic and a powerful exhibition. Ordinary shoes telling extraordinary stories of suffering and, at the same time hope by the consciousness they raise.

Finally I attended a showing of Kundun, the Martin Scorsese film of the early life of the Dalai Lama in the presence of his representative in North Europe, Kesang Takla, which was part of the preparations for the Dalai Lama's visit to Scotland in June. It is a beautiful film, a tale of great suffering and oppression but also great hope and faith.

In it, the Chinese Red Army invades Tibet but the Dalai Lama refuses to give up on non-violence, accepting that as a strategy it may take generations to win its war, but it remains a better way of being. Violence to others means also violence to yourself. Buddhist teaching says that we are called to alleviate suffering, beginning with ourselves. Then we can begin to help others in their suffering.

It is the suffering of others, real and potential, that has driven the radical change decided last week by the City of Edinburgh Council for its services for young people, families and vulnerable adults. We are getting rid of both the education and social work departments and creating two new ones, the departments of children and family services and of health and social care.

This is a bold, creative move that will mean a significant change in culture not just for social workers but for staff in education and in health. It will make real the words of "for Scotland's children" and help to break down the professional barriers that inhibit their care.

It will mean social workers, health practitioners, teachers and at times the voluntary sector not simply working together but being in the same staff teams and under the same management. It will mean clearer and better decisions about the care and protection of children. It will embed the message that looking after children is everyone's job.

It not only is a new way of weaving the safety net society wants to create to keep children safe but it will ensure that everyone whose job it is to pull that net tight is pulling in the right direction for the protection and nurture of all children. It is not popular among social work staff who view it as an attack on their profession. The opposite is the case. Instead of social workers being out on the edge and isolated, society's whipping boys, I want to bring them back to a place where the protection of children is much more clearly everybody's job.

It will also demand a change in teachers, especially the few who still think their job is simply to teach and not be really concerned with the humanity and suffering of those whom they are charged with teaching.

I know that, in the end, it is not structural change that will make the difference but the work of the extraordinary men and women, teachers, social workers, health staff and so on who day in and day out cope with the struggle of walking with the suffering.

But when I see the "104 shoes" exhibition, although it is about adults and not children, I am reminded again that we all, myself included, are still failing so many because of the barriers we create by our present structures which are built round professions defending their corner and not engaging in the activity of others.

Change must happen. Professions must no longer be ends in themselves. The needs, both joyful and suffering, of all people must be the driving force in reshaping our services, not just in education or in social work but across the whole of the public sector.

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

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