Speaking the same language

15th April 2005 at 01:00
Persistence and passion are needed to get the most from an overview of children's services, but Kenny Frederick urges fellow hard-pressed heads to try

Forty Years of Research, Policy and Practice in Children's Services: a festschrift for Roger Bullock

Edited by Nick Axford, Vashti Berry, Michael Little and Louise Morpeth

John Wiley pound;65

My usual holiday reading consists of a daily newspaper (I never have time to read one in term time), the TV Times and a few popular (read trashy) novels. But this Easter was different. I welcomed the opportunity this book presented to clarify my thinking on the delivery of children's services, a key issue following the Children Act and last week's critical select committee report on the Government's Every Child Matters strategy.

Most local authorities are working on the framework of their children's and young people's plan and looking at the best ways of providing joined-up children's services. Every headteacher must have sometimes felt frustrated by the obvious lack of co-ordination between services for young people and their families, particularly related to child protection. Trying to get various groups of professionals to share information, to share responsibility and to take action is often very difficult, and we tend to resort to blaming others (usually social services) when things go wrong.

My school officially became a full-service extended school 18 months ago but has been working along these lines for five years. We have been lucky enough to have a social worker and police officer on site. This means action can be taken quickly, and it has also given me a greater understanding of the barriers that the various services face every day. We are all clear that we want to work in partnership and to improve services for young people, but it is how this is to be done that causes the problems.

We are set up as separate services with our own priorities, our own funding streams and our own professional way of working. We have been working in isolation for too long.

Every Child Matters is the most important government document of the past decade, and schools are expected to be strategic partners in implementing it. It will have a direct influence on the way we work and will, I hope, help us to stop vulnerable children falling through the net. The number of such children is growing, and the definition of a "vulnerable child" itself is changing. Those of us who work with young people must engage in change.

We can't wait for things to be decided for us; we need to be proactive.

This book helps us to understand the processes we need to go through to implement Every Child Matters, with its reflections on 40 years of change.

It is rooted in the research community, but will be useful and relevant to headteachers, particularly those of full-service extended schools, and anyone wanting to increase their knowledge of this field. Most of us rely for information about new areas, such as children's services, on summaries of the key documentation, and build up our knowledge over time.

This book provides a clear overview of key issues in research, policy and practice in UK children's services since the 1960s. It takes a uniquely wide perspective, incorporating not only social care, but also other providers involved in meeting the needs of vulnerable children. Most of all, however, it is a book published in honour of Roger Bullock, who retires this year as head of the Dartington Social Research Unit, by his colleagues and other leading researchers. Roger has been an extremely important influence and I have no doubt that he deserves the glowing tributes.

Here is an outline of social researchers' past frustration at being limited to working within their specialist fields, and the move to greater cross-disciplinary work over the past decade, including collaborations between those who previously regarded each other's work with incomprehension and whose only contact was in the college canteen. Sounds familiar? It is exactly the problem that joined-up children's services are expected to address.

The book also demonstrates the variable extent to which policy and practice have been shaped by research. Evidence has had a significant effect on both policy (notably the refocusing of child protection services in the 1990s) and practice (for example, the adoption of scientific assessment tools in mental health and youth justice).

A major challenge for the research community is the need to take into account all agencies (not just social services) and all children (not only service users). For example, children who have been maltreated at home invariably have difficulties in other areas of their lives. To some extent the call in the mid-1990s for a focus on the "overall needs of children rather than a narrow concentration on the alleged incident" has been heeded, aided in the UK by the principles enshrined in official guidance on multi-disciplinary assessments.

Of the 15 chapters, those I found most enjoyable covered 40 years of educational change, young offenders, mental health and secure care, child protection, and the evolution of family support. Chapters on the influence of the political climate on research were also interesting. Others required more specialist background knowledge than most teachers would possess.

It is clear from this book that the Dartington unit is committed to finding methods of reaching a non-academic audience and a common language for all those engaged in the delivery of children's services. This work continues and has a long way to go: I found the language and terminology in some sections difficult to follow, and not all heads will share the passionate interest in this field that encouraged me to persist. This is a lesson for all those involved in bringing together the different services in real partnership: the language of our various professions can act as a barrier that keeps other professionals out. However, the Dartington unit has long stressed the need for a common language in children's services, not only between professionals and policy makers, but also involving young people and their families.

Kenny Frederick is headteacher of George Green community school in the London borough of Tower Hamlets

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