All together now

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
No more working in isolation. One child, one set of notes. Less bureaucracy. Phil Revell asks staff how the practice measures up to the vision

The temporary headquarters of Hertfordshire's south quadrant look vaguely familiar. The new Children, Schools and Families service for the Watford and Borehamwood area is based at the Langleybury campus, a disused school just off the M25.

"It's where the BBC shot Hope and Glory," says David Ring, a local education and social services manager. Which is all highly appropriate, for the television drama focused on Lennie Henry's portrayal of a dedicated headteacher determined to do his damnedest to provide an excellent education for the children in his care. Mr Ring has a similar role. He's the quadrant manager for Hertfordshire South, one of four area offices for the merged education and social services system in the county.

"Eighteen months of planning have gone into this," he says. "The aim is to place the child at the centre of everything we do." It is a phrase calculated to send one's heart plunging into one's boots. The country is full of local authorities who claim to be doing exactly the same. But Hertfordshire has gone beyond flowery mission statements and liaison meetings between directors of departments.

The Langleybury campus houses social workers, educational psychologists, education welfare officers and support staff. Mr Ring has a background in education welfare services, but he is the area line manager for all three professions. The budgets are integrated and one computer system handles casework details. The aim is to create a single file for each client and a single point of contact. "It's about seeing the problems end-on," says Lesley Carr, a group manager at the quadrant. "Not, 'Who's going to address this?' but, 'Here is the child - what is the best way to address this child's difficulties?' " Ms Carr's background is in social work. She argues that professionals too often work in isolation, unaware that others are working with the same family. "It's often only when you get to a conference or to a professionals' meeting that you discover a lot of the information - that a doctor or a health visitor or a school has had information about a family and has been worrying about the same problems."

The dislocation doesn't just affect the professionals. "Families can be subjected to a whole series of visits from people doing different things," she says. "What we've done is put different disciplines, dealing with the same area of the district, in the same room."

Louise Purser is a social-work manager. Much of her job is the same as Ms Carr's. But there are some crucial differences. "A key difference here is the multi-disciplinary referral meeting in the morning," she says, "where the EWO, the educational psychologist and the social worker sit down and discuss the referrals." There are also the obvious practical benefits - when professionals need to consult about a case it's often a matter of simply popping next door.

"You can actually collar somebody," says Karen Malone, who manages Langleybury's team of six EWOs. However professional roles are not interchangeable and there have been some tensions created i setting up the multi-disciplinary teams. "The honest answer is that we all recognise that there are cultural differences between the groups," says Ms Malone.

Educational psychologists are used to a quiet working environment, while social-work offices are usually recognisable by the frenetic activity and high noise level. But Mr Ring is relaxed about the teething problems, most of which will be solved when his quadrant moves into purpose-built accommodation.

There are still gaps. It is easy for a local authority to merge its education and social-work departments - at least in theory - but the third area of services for families and children is delivered by the health authorities. Psychiatric services, health visitors, speech and occupational therapists - all are part of the fabric of children's services.

"As educational psychologists we have the closest links with speech therapists and occupational therapists," says Harriet Martin, the team manager for the educational psychologists at Langleybury. "But those tend to be one-to-one links on an individual basis." Similarly, social workers tend to have links with health visitors.

There is contact, informally between workers and formally through case conferences. But health services are funded differently and based on different geographic areas. There are issues of confidentiality and information exchange which mean that a formal multi-disciplinary service involving health professionals would be far more difficult to negotiate.

Ms Carr is aware of the gaps but emphasises the benefits of an approach that takes one step at a time. "It's up to us to ensure that we have sensible professional discussions based around the best result for the child," she says.

That professional discourse can only be made easier by a system which has one point of referral. "Everybody refers through the call centre: all the calls come in through the one front door," she says. "Then we make decisions as to who needs to be involved.

"Social workers might pick up the social issues, while the educational psychologist picks up the behaviour in school and the education welfare officer picks up any non-attendance. If we are all in the same room and we mention a name it may trigger a conversation: maybe we need to have a professionals' meeting on this family, get together and discuss what to do." The results? In terms of a formal evaluation it is too early to say, although there is a team from Newcastle University doing just such an exercise.

Lydia Whelan, who manages the long-term casework at the quadrant, has no doubts about the value of the merged service. "There have been real gains for disabled children," she says. "Under the previous regime, we had tiny little groups of workers trying to provide a service that is inevitably multi-agency. It's perhaps the biggest gain - giving that group of workers some designated management. That's a microcosm of what we could achieve across the sector."

Mr Ring is equally confident about the longer-term gains. "What will develop is that people within their professional areas will begin to see the whole picture," he argues. Hope and glory - Lennie Henry would approve.

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