Getting it right for every child - who could argue with such an aspiration? The short answer is that no one does. It is a policy that commands universal support. Where the divisions arise is at implementation level.
The Children and Young People Bill is at the start of the legislative process, with the Scottish government's consultation on its proposals having closed last month. One of the most important elements in it is an attempt by the government to give its Girfec policy statutory weight.
Commentators suggest that the government's attempt to codify policy has been born out of frustration at the length of time it is taking to deliver Girfec. Each of Scotland's 32 authorities is at a different stage of implementation; each has a different interpretation; and the change of culture across agencies - from education to health, social work, law enforcement, housing and adult support services - to deliver more integrated working is proving slow in some areas. The bill is an attempt to ensure consistency across the country.
Summed up, the Girfec approach is an attempt to ensure that "no matter where they live or whatever their needs, children, young people and their families should always know where they can find help, what support might be available and whether that help is right for them" (A guide to getting it right for every child, Scottish government, May 2012).
That requires anyone providing support to put the child or young person - and their family - at the centre. And crucially, it places a focus on early intervention and working across organisational boundaries.
Its philosophy has distinct parallels with Curriculum for Excellence in its focus on the whole child. If the four capacities of CfE - successful learner, confident individual, responsible citizen and effective contributor - have worked their way into the education lexicon, then the Shanarri indicators of well-being are the equivalent for Girfec (see panel opposite).
The Girfec process should be driven locally, develop trust, eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy and assist families to understand processes better. But it is taking time to move cultures, systems and practice in order to get to the stage where everyone is speaking the same language.
The bill contains three key proposals for giving Girfec policy statutory weight:
- All children and young people from birth up to leaving school should have access to a "named person" - in practice, someone from the health services up to the age of five; thereafter education;
- All relevant services should cooperate with the named person in ensuring that a child's or young person's well-being is at the forefront of their actions; and
- A single planning process should be in place to support those children and young people needing the involvement of a range of services, through a single "Child's Plan".
That named person will be expected to step in at an early stage, rather than wait until things have reached crisis point, and say to a child's parents: "Here's what we think needs to happen".
Once a concern has been brought to his or her attention, the named person - who is essentially the first point of contact for the child and family - needs to take action or arrange for the right help in order to promote the child's development and well-being. For children aged from five up to the time they leave school, the headteacher or depute head will tend to be the named person.
But Girfec also creates the role of a "lead professional", who is expected to coordinate matters when two or more agencies need to work together. In practice, that role too tends to fall to education.
The primary heads' union AHDS, in common with other organisations, supports the principles behind Girfec but has some concerns about its practical implementation.
Given that a headteacher is likely to be the "named person" for a vulnerable child in school (and in some schools there will be more than in others), AHDS warns of "significant workload and resource implications". It also wants clarification on the respective roles of the "named person" and the "lead professional".
AHDS cites two areas of major complaint, based on its members' experiences of the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act:
- Other agencies can be unwilling to engage, because of either different thresholds for intervention or budget constraints;
- Paperwork burdens demanded as part of the process can appear to become more important than the activities in place to support the child.
AHDS is concerned that where the majority of a child's additional needs are not related to educational matters - for example, social work - it should be an option to change the named person accordingly, says its response to the government consultation on the Children and Young People Bill.
"A further issue within schools," it adds, "is that an individual with responsibility for particular year groups (for example, in a large primary school three deputes may have responsibility for different stages in the school - nursery to P2, P3-5, P6-7) may be the named person only for a part of the child's time at school. There must be flexibility in the system to change and delegate named person responsibility."
The association also wants to ensure that arrangements can be put in place to cover out-of-school hours and school holidays.
"Who would take on named-person status in these periods?" it asks.
One experienced primary head spoke to TESS of continuing frustrations over unnecessary paperwork being used as a "stalling process". A speech therapist might, for instance, insist on teachers filling out numerous forms detailing everything they had done with a child, when what was really needed was a constructive discussion.
"We don't have time to fill out a `request for assistance' and then to fill out a speech therapist's form. That information should come out of discussion round the table," she says.
"I don't think you will find anybody across Scotland who won't agree that Girfec is what we should be doing, but in reality it is difficult to achieve that because we have to work very much more efficiently with health and child liaison and mental health and so on.
"All the business about sharing information - that's a hard one as well. The kind of information that I need is not necessarily the kind of information that other people will need," she adds.
Children in Scotland's membership covers a wide cross-section, from education authorities to teacher unions to the voluntary sector. Its intensive consultations with members have identified a particular concern that the Shanarri well-being indicators are too "high-level" for incorporation into primary legislation.
Instead, says Jonathan Sher, the organisation's director of research, policy and programmes, the indicators should be included in guidance or a code of practice supporting legislation.
The fear, he says, is that if such indicators are included in primary legislation, they will be challenged by lawyers, causing delay, and end up being distorted in their meaning. He points to what has happened under the ASL Act, which has been bedevilled by legal challenges to what constitutes "significant" additional needs.
In its present form, the bill will not lead to faster implementation of the Girfec principles, says Dr Sher. "It will only lead to an abundance of delaying tactics and legal actions that don't help children and don't get it implemented a day sooner and maybe years later."
Girfec is still "a work in progress", he suggests, which will continue to require refinement. "It's much easier to change and refine guidance than to change primary legislation.
"It is not difficult to get agreement about goals and principles - there is very little to argue about there," he says. "Where it becomes more difficult is in actually doing it. That is when it runs up against the need to have cultural changes - changes in how organisations are driven, both in how they see the world and act in the world, especially in relation to each other.
One of the key barriers to Girfec's implementation is, he says, that the people who would have to implement it are accustomed to thinking, planning and acting in a certain way which has been socialised into them and which they have always relied on.
Doing things differently - not only within one profession or agency but across professions and agencies - is that much more difficult because there can be miscommunication and differences in opinion about what partnership or information-sharing actually means, he argues.
He believes that the government has sought to incorporate Girfec "as is" into the Children and Young People Bill because of frustration that it's been too easy for the various sectors not to do it.
"Because no one says you have to, when it starts to get harder to implement, there's always been a fall-back position," he says.
Children in Scotland argues that a more effective approach would be to introduce a new statutory duty on the various agencies to create a "nationally consistent, enforceable single Child's Plan" for every child about whom there is cause for concern from birthpre-birth - or where extra helpsupport beyond the normal universal services is likely to be needed to achieve the government's desired outcomes.
Placing a rigorous, inclusive and enforceable single Child's Plan into law would trigger other desirable consequences, it believes, and other aspects of Girfec, including the Shanarri well-being indicators, would be incorporated in the subsequent code of practice.
The single Child's Plan would have to be an actual integrated plan, not just "a package of different plans stapled together and thrown into a folder", adds Dr Sher.
The government's hope is that a more streamlined approach and greater sharing of information will release resources, so that social workers, teachers and others have more time to concentrate on what they need to do and not get caught up in unnecessary bureaucracy.
Highland Council, one of four pathfinder projects involving five authorities, has cut down on its paperwork and been able to take action more quickly.
When it became a pathfinder authority in 2006 and officials looked at how children came into the system, they found there were 29 different processes, 65 different types of meeting that a child could attend - often with the same professional on the other side - and 108 different documents that needed to be completed. Within three years, referrals to the Children's Reporters had dropped by 70 per cent in Highland as a result of its drive to create a single planning process.
A concern for many of Children in Scotland's members, however, is that implementing Girfec will have resource implications at a time of tight budgets.
"It's probably not a good idea to create both expectations and duties when there are not the resources to implement them well," it says.
"That's another reason for making sure that before something becomes primary legislation it is implementable and enforceable. If there's going to be a cross-cutting Children and Young People Bill, and because that only happens historically about every 15-20 years or once in a generation, that provides a good opportunity to rethink our policies in a much more sensible way."
For more information see bit.lyQoF29e.
210,000 - Estimated number of children in Scotland living below the poverty threshold (2005-06)
10,000-20,000 - Children living with at least one parent who is using drugs (2008)
65,000 - Children in Scotland may be affected by parental alcohol misuse (2008)
16,000+ - Children who were looked after in 2010 (1.5 per cent of the under-16 population)
The eight well-being indicators upon which Girfec is based mean children should be:
- Safe - protected from abuse, neglect or harm.
- Healthy - experiencing the highest standards of physical and mental health, and supported to make healthy, safe choices.
- Achieving - receiving support and guidance in their learning, boosting their skills, confidence and self-esteem.
- Nurtured - having a nurturing and stimulating place to live and grow.
- Active - having opportunities to take part in a wide range of activities, helping them to build a fulfilling and happy future.
- Respected - given a voice and involved in the decisions that affect their well-being.
- Responsible - taking an active role within their schools and communities.
- Included - getting help and guidance to overcome social, educational, physical and economic inequalities; accepted as full members of the communities in which they live and learn.
2001: Scottish Executive publishes its report For Scotland's Children, which proposes a national review of children's services.
2004: The Getting it right for every child policy is developed and published. Its goals include: practice change; removing barriers; and legislation to make agencies responsible for collaboration with each other and sharing information as appropriate.
Publication of A Curriculum for Excellence.
2006: Highland Pathfinder initiative launched - a regional programme to test the Girfec principles.
2007: Scottish government publishes Better Health, Better Care action plan.
2009: Highland ideas tested out in selected areas, including Dumfries and Galloway, Edinburgh, and North and South Lanarkshire together.
Scottish government publishes the Early Years Framework.
2012: Scottish government publishes Children and Young People Bill.
Case study: `It's about trying to impact on their whole life'
Inverclyde Council has taken Girfec to a new level, it believes. The council has adapted the Girfec Shanarri well-being indicators to get it right not just for every child but every citizen and community as well (see chart, right).
Angela Edwards, the council's head of inclusive education, culture and corporate policy, explains: "All authorities will be using the well-being indicators to plan in children's services, but we don't just want a nurturing class or school, we want a nurturing authority. We adapted the descriptors so they could be applied to the whole council."
So whether the council is planning a new road or refurbishing a museum, the well-being indicators drive that planning.
"Any child who lives in Inverclyde becomes a citizen of Inverclyde and lives in a community in Inverclyde. It's about trying to impact on that child's whole life," says Ms Edwards.
The "nurturing Inverclyde" approach has influenced the way the council preserves and protects local history, claims Ms Edwards.
The council has committed pound;5.4 million to the refurbishment of the Watt Complex, which comprises the Watt Library and the McLean Museum, and is in the process of submitting a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund.
"The new complex will have a positive impact on emotional well-being as being a place to relax and to enjoy and appreciate culture - but we're also looking at employment opportunities for people when the project gets under way and we're looking at work experience for vulnerable young people in particular, when it's completed," she says.
The council, meanwhile, envisages that volunteer projects will be run at the new facility to develop the skills and confidence of those most at risk of being excluded. Tourism will have its base in the complex, with SQA qualifications in travel and tourism on offer. And the council hopes to incorporate a social enterprise cafe into the building.
The "healthy", "active", "achieving" and "included" well-being indicators will therefore be hit, argues Ms Edwards.
An archivist, meanwhile, has been employed to catalogue and conserve a wealth of local history stored in archive collections from the local area. Ultimately, this will lead to the creation of an Inverclyde archive and local familyhistory centre.
"This should give people a sense of belonging and promote the nurturing aspect of Girfec," she says.
A more traditional Girfec project is the US-inspired, school-based Bystander programme, which encourages Inverclyde youngsters to intervene and prevent violence by being an active bystander, says Ms Edwards.
Run by Scotland's Violence Reduction Unit in Port Glasgow High and St Stephen's High, as well as Portobello High in Edinburgh, the programme uses S5-6 pupils as mentors for youngsters in S1-3.
The aim is to encourage youngsters to speak out against gender violence - rape, dating violence, sexual harassment, bullying and all forms of violence and abusive behaviour - by working through a series of scenarios. These are used to spark discussions, from witnessing a boyfriend shove his girlfriend during an argument in a school corridor to a female acquaintance accusing a male friend of sexual assault. While the scenarios vary, the message from mentors is consistent: everyone has a critical role to play in reducing gender violence, harassment and bullying.
"The idea is that we will change youngsters' attitudes and eventually impact on the statistics for gender-based violence in Scotland as a whole," explains Ms Edwards.
The University of Edinburgh will evaluate the project, which could be rolled out across Scotland if successful.
Original headline: Can Scotland get a grip on support for all children?