The Scottish Government has confirmed that it is reviewing guidance on child protection practices in the wake of a spate of critical HMIE reports, and the death of Dundee toddler Brandon Muir.
Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop said this week that child protection would be the Scottish Government's highest priority. She saw early intervention as the way forward to tackle the challenges faced by so many communities, she told a conference on the future of child protection, held in Edinburgh.
Education leaders, meanwhile, have warned that the pressure on resources to improve child protection could have a knock-on effect on education spending.
Ms Hyslop's pledge follows a damning HMIE report on Dundee's child protection services which was brought forward following the death of 23- month-old Brandon. Inspectors rated the service "unsatisfactory" in its failure to provide an immediate response to concerns over child welfare. It was rated "weak" in a further eight areas, "satisfactory" in six and "good" in three.
The HMIE-led team expressed concern about the lack of help for children exposed to domestic abuse, their parents' drug and alcohol problems and mental ill-health. Brandon's death was caused by his mother's drug- addicted boyfriend.
"Some children were left in situations of risk for too long without protection or support," the report stated. "Staff did not have guidance, policies or procedures to carry out assessments of risk and needs."
Ms Hyslop said: "We know from inspection that recognising and assessing risks to children need to be improved nationally, and we're taking this forward through the review of the 1998 national child protection guidance. We know that self-assessment could be better in most areas, and the second round of inspections will have a greater emphasis on building self- assessment."
The minister added that it was not simply laws or systems that protected children, but people. Where there were shortcomings, the answer wasn't necessarily to put in place even more statutory duties but to take "hard, practical steps to ensure that existing duties and good practices are implemented in full".
There will be targeted inspections to help raise standards in struggling areas and the UK's first hub for brokering child protection expertise, the Multi-Agency Resource Service (MARS), was being set up at Stirling University, she told the conference.
John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, warned that everyone working with children - and teachers were in the frontline of child protection - would have to become more sophisticated in the way they dealt with an increasingly complex issue. "Pressures are increasing, resource requirements are increasing and often things don't go ahead because of a lack of capacity rather than a lack of procedures," he said. There was already more pressure on social services to intervene in the wake of recent high-profile cases.
He added that a greater focus on child protection would inevitably have some impact on education and other children's services, but insisted that child protection was the prime issue in education: "There is no point in educating children if they are not safe. They can't learn if they are not safe, if they are not comfortable in their environment, if they are in danger, or not being nurtured. There is not a conflict between an education budget and a social budget."
Alan Baird, the newly-appointed chairman of the Dundee Children and Young Persons Protection Committee, said there would be an increase in the number of front-line staff working across child protection and a new unit is to open at Kings Cross Hospital, where specialists in child protection from all of the agencies will work together to share information on each and every case.
A follow-up report by the inspectorate on Aberdeen's child protection services was published this week, following one which highlighted concerns about the number of children living in high-risk situations with drug- abusing parents, concluding that the service had been successful in laying effective foundations for improvement.