Three cultures in search of common ground

4th February 2005 at 00:00
There are many decisions to be made before 'Every Child Matters' becomes a working reality, argues Elizabeth Kennedy.

All professionals working with children welcome the broad sentiment in the Green Paper "Every Child Matters", the need to safeguard children through better joined up working between agencies and services. But some underlying assumptions need to be explored if the changes are to bring about the improvements the Government wants. Central government must decide which ministry "owns" children's services, since, despite having a children's division in Education and Skills, there is a need for more joining up between departments.

Separation of agencies has resulted in unnecessary duplication of services, poor communication, and in extreme cases, such as that of Victoria Climbie, a failure in the duty of care. Working together can result in a more coherent and efficient service for children and families. In such an "arranged marriage", however, it is not just that the parties barely know each other; they are not even of the same culture, language or religion.

Although the Children Act does not actually require local authorities to create children's services departments, all must appoint a director of children's services to coordinate this work, and some are already bringing education and social work into one department.

Any abolition of the traditional organisation of Health, Social Services and Education is a reorganisation of almost "constitutional" significance as currently, the three agencies are predicated on different conceptual working models, are underpinned by different legislation and practice, and the professionals are separately trained and monitored.

In the "culture" of schools, it is the performance of groups which is measured - by targets and league tables. School improvement has, laudably, been this government's battle cry, but in schools there has always been a tension between the needs of the individual and those of the group. While a raft of social inclusion initiatives has led to improvements for groups such as looked after children, refugees, asylum seekers and travellers, a parallel, "separatist", agenda continues to label and stigmatise children.

Special needs legislation continues to run counter to an inclusive approach by identifying individual children (who therefore need "specialist teaching"). Instead, it should ensure that schools "own" the need to raise the attainment of these pupils as their central task. The good practice required would raise the attainment of all. Most of the services for these groups are separately managed and staffed by peripatetic personnel. The result has been disconnected and disparate services differently managed and separately accountable.

Every child matters, absolutely, but the survival of the organisation also matters and schools survive through achieving good results. If every child is to matter, then the inherent contradictions between the organisational imperatives and the needs of their individual constituents must be tackled.

What will happen to the school improvement agenda if the centrality of an individual child becomes the overarching professional philosophy? Extended schools offer a way forward. The possibilities of rich and diverse understandings of children and families are exciting, but will be hard to achieve without a much greater awareness by all concerned of the roles, tasks and beliefs of the different professional groups. Maintaining both respect and curiosity about children and families and about each other will, hopefully, allow for an exchange of information, ideas and experience that will benefit everyone.

Without adequate funding, for joint training, for example, the structural change needed for multi-disciplinary work is unlikely to evolve. The danger is that the different disciplines will end up working alongside each other, but engaged in separate activities.

Elizabeth Kennedy is an educational psychologist working at The Tavistock Centre and for The City of Westminster. The views expressed are her own

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