Children should be our priority, not endless paperwork

27th March 2009 at 00:00

You can tell someone is frustrated when they start writing in capital letters.

In Lord Laming's report on child protection last week, he expressed irritation that progress had become stuck since his inquiry into the treatment of Victoria Climbie in 2003 and the death of Baby P. The services working with young people seemed to know how important it was, he said, so "it is hard to resist the urge to say ... 'NOW JUST DO IT!'"

The question is - how do you "just do it" when capacities in both the worlds of social work and education are stretched to the limit by burgeoning bureaucracies? This issue was highlighted by Joanna Nicholas, a very articulate social worker, who told BBC news that she and her colleagues had to spend 80 per cent of their time in front of a computer.

Change is required before we can "just do it".

Several commentators have complained that most directors of children's services have an education background, so know little about social work.

It is interesting to hear that, as I've received negative reports from headteachers who feel they have become victims of local authority structures in which education has become a third-tier service.

Many of my colleagues believe that the top-down restructuring of local authorities has been little short of disastrous in some areas. Too many have been restructured in ways that do not appear to value sectors of the workforce. This causes conflict, reduction in trust and creates barriers to closer working relationships.

The psychologist Daniel Goleman writes about the importance of resonance, the ability to empathise and understand your workforce because you have walked the walk. There have to be people in positions of power inside the local authority who have the experience to lead confidently through a thorough understanding of their sector. So a positive rethink is needed about how councils provide services. Whatever their background, a director of children's services should have an expert, high-level team with knowledge and understanding of social work, education and support services.

In order to move forward, we have to put aside our differences to ensure that help is available when children from distressed families need it.

This has to start from the ground up - from the actions taken by teachers and social workers.

There are shining examples where this works well. Westfield Community School, a primary in Wigan, has a purpose-built children's services unit on site, allowing it to provide early intervention and support for families. Swift and easy referral is crucial when things go wrong and can prevent a crisis later.

The aim must be for all schools to provide what Westfield School offers its community. In some areas that will mean on-site support; in others it could be a facility shared by a cluster of schools.

It is worth emphasising that the vast majority of children grow up in families that are supportive and loving. But there are others that live in chaotic and dysfunctional homes where parents are desperate for support and guidance - and there is a yet smaller minority who are not fit to have custody of children, as shown by the Baby P tragedy.

We must all be watchful to ensure that evil is not allowed to blight, and sometimes terminate, the lives of the innocent.

While our focus should be on the changes at school level, it is important that we also see evidence of positive change at the top.

The expansion of the National College for School Leadership to cover directors of children's services is both a threat and an opportunity. The threat is that its focus on school leadership will be diverted; the opportunity is that there can be a real meeting of minds, and that education can play a stronger role in children's services.

However, the main opportunity for change must lie in the long overdue reform of the bureaucratic overload. Teachers and heads are not the only ones whose initiative has been stifled - it is a disease that afflicts all public services, and it is high time that the bureaucratic machine was halted.

We must collectively challenge this suffocating malaise because every minute that is taken up by bureaucratic compliance is a minute that is not available for working with children and their families, either in the classroom, or in the home.

In their book What's Worth Fighting For in Education, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan say this: "The message is clear - if you are looking for hope for positive educational change in Britain that will benefit all pupils and include as well as motivate the teaching profession, do not expect New Labour to provide it - at least not yet! If you are looking for hope, you must turn instead to yourselves."

Sadly, these words were written in 1998, and it is clear that the words "not yet" actually mean "not ever". If we are to effect positive change for the children of this nation, we are just going to have to do it ourselves.

Mick Brookes, General Secretary, National Association of Head Teachers.

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