Child protection needs a more flexible approach

12th December 2008 at 00:00

The tragic death of Baby P in the London borough of Haringey has caused panic among professionals involved in safeguarding children. Not unusually, everybody is looking for someone to blame. No wonder so many young people view social work negatively when choosing a career.

I don't know the details of the case, but I am sure that a similar tragedy could occur in any part of the country, despite all the measures taken to safeguard children. There will always be devious parents and carers who pull the wool over social workers' and other peoples' eyes. But this should not stop us from doing everything we can to avoid similar horror stories.

I spent most of my formative years as a teacher working in Haringey. Even then it was an exciting and diverse authority. We had the same social problems as those in inner-London, but never received anything like the funding available to those in the inner-London education authority.

When I first became a head of house at a large secondary school in the borough, I took it upon myself to visit every family in my house. I did this in the evening and by myself - something I would never allow my staff to do now because it was really quite dangerous.

I had had some training in home visiting and was very aware that I should not be making subjective judgments about the things I saw or experienced. But I learnt so much during this time about the children and the families I was supporting. As the head of my social welfare team remarked the other day, poverty is not so obvious these days. From the outside, most estates and homes look very much alike and give an appearance of wealth - at least to some degree. It is only when you get inside many homes that you see the full extent of the poverty.

I did not sleep very much for the first term because of the weight of the problems I was dealing with. It was really heavy going, and I used to dread it when a child would ask to see me to tell me something "in confidence". I knew this usually meant they were going to disclose some terrible abuse. My natural reaction was to say that everything would be all right, that I would sort it out and everything would be fine.

But it was not OK, and I couldn't sort it out. One case was a pupil who had been abused by her father and brothers over a long period. She was finally taken into care, but her family disowned her and she was later abused while in care. I often wonder what became of this pupil, and what I or social care might have done differently. I am sure those who were involved with Baby P will go through similar reflections. Children are so loyal to their families that they would sometimes rather stay with them than be moved into a safer environment.

Twenty years on, every school I know is reporting increased numbers of child protection cases. Indeed, the situation is so extreme that social care is overwhelmed. School staff are now being asked to take on more and more in terms of finding out facts from the children and deciding what the true situation is. Yet our training tells us that we must not probe children or lead them into saying things. We know that social care does not have enough resources to deal with this rise in child protection cases and we are very willing to do our bit, but we need to be careful about doing things properly.

The Children Act and Every Child Matters very sensibly promote more joined-up thinking and working. As an extended school, we have been at the centre of these developments and have benefited from working in partnership with various agencies. But it cannot be right that so many of us are hemmed into meeting after meeting, with ever decreasing direct contact with children and families.

It seems the level of service and success of multi-agency working depends on the flexibility of the school on the one hand, and on the individual professionals from the various agencies on the other. Where individuals and organisations have been willing to think and act differently, we have had successful partnerships. Those of us in children's services cannot continue to do what we have always done in the way we have always done it. We all need to be flexible and able to change the way we work.

Professionals in childcare need to cover their backs and make sure procedures have been followed. But I know I am not alone in my frustration when some professionals arrive in threes for meetings. We need more distributed leadership so it does not take three or four professionals to make a decision. We need leadership rather than micro-management. We must make children our priority and cut down the heavy management structures of some professions. There has to be a way to streamline the systems so that professionals are accountable but also able to do their jobs.

Kenny Frederick, Headteacher of George Green's Community School in Tower Hamlets, East London.

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