There has been a lot in the papers and elsewhere over the past few weeks about “Named Persons”, which has been generating much heat, but not necessarily any light.
The Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC), along with a range of other organisations, have opposed the introduction of the Named Person (NP) scheme. In media coverage, those opponents are often characterised as right-wing fanatics. Many of our members have expressed reservations about NP, while some have supported it; our stance reflects the majority of the feedback that we have had.
Our concerns are founded on our perspective as parents, and also the potential impact that NP could have schools. In our view, there are a couple of key issues.
First, under the scheme, the child’s place within the context of their family is mostly ignored. We believe that this could lead to seeing families as in deficit or even at risk, then holding them responsible for factors over which they have little or no control, such as poverty and housing quality.
This is reflected in consultation responses from many children’s charities. For the most part they deal with families – and children – in difficulty or crisis. That is their perspective, and very understandably so, but it is not representative (thank goodness). In contrast, most families have their children’s health and happiness as their top priority.
Second, the scheme places the state where parents should be. If a class teacher or health professional has worries about a 15-year-old, the first point of contact should be the parents because, legally, they are responsible for that child. Under NP, the first point of contact will be a health worker or teacher.
Far from business as usual
Within schools, headteachers are likely to be the NP in primaries, while guidance staff will fulfil that role for secondary pupils. Any such member of staff may be NP for hundreds of young people, with a legal responsibility for their wellbeing.
We don’t believe that the resources or time are available for this to be meaningful – and, of course, there’s the vexed question of what happens outside school hours. For a headteacher in a challenged primary, in particular, NP does not seem business as usual but instead something quite different in character, and potentially requiring expertise and capacity that is simply not there in school.
This legislation obliges families to rely on the judgement of every professional to use and share the information they have about a young person or family in a discerning way. That covers a GP, a school nurse who has a conversation with a teenager, or a youth worker who sees signs of potential problems.
We believe there is a fundamental right to confidentiality between an individual and their GP. This should only be breached where there is clear evidence of potential harm, and even then the situation should be explained to those involved.
The new act also lowers the bar a great deal: whereas professionals were previously obliged to take action when they judged that there was risk of harm, now information can be shared – with or without permission – if they have concerns about a child’s wellbeing. This is so woolly that we are concerned that information will too often be shared “just in case”.
The impact could well be that families and young people don’t ask for help when they need it, because they don’t want information to be shared. This is particularly true for teenagers, of course, where there is already a difficult balance between the rights of young people and the responsibilities of parents.
Trust between families and schools is precious and fragile. The perspective of many parents who have spoken to us about NP is that they believe the level of information sharing required will undermine that trust.
A lot of coverage has focused on cases over recent years where children have been neglected, abused or killed by their parents. The suggestion is that NP will stop such tragedies in the future. We believe that this is dishonest, partly because the average head or guidance teacher doesn’t have the time or expertise to coordinate the range of services that might be involved but also because there is another role – identified in official guidance but not in legislation – which actually has the potential to make a difference.
Let professionals take the lead
Where children have a need for different services to coordinate in order to support them or their family (health, social work or housing, for instance), a lead professional (LP) will be responsible. According to the guidance, the NP will hand over responsibility to them (except in those cases where they also take on the LP role).
In each of the tragic cases that keep being highlighted in the media, had the NP scheme been in place, there would have been an LP whose very difficult job it would have been to work with a wide range of services to ensure that the child did not slip between the cracks. We know in each case that there were a variety of different services involved who should have been coordinating their efforts. Under the new act, the LP is specified as having an overview of all services.
It is this person who has the potential to make a difference to what happens when children’s lives are blighted by neglect or abuse, not the Named Person. The government should channel its energies into resourcing this role (which is, of course, another issue amid shrinking budgets).
The government says that parents asked for one person to coordinate the various services that they need for their child. We would argue that the LP meets this need, not the NP.
Finally, the process in place to handle complaints is much like the standard one for local authorities – slow, lacking teeth and deeply unsatisfactory for families. SPTC was asked what kind of complaints process we’d like to see. We responded that it should be local, quick and use a dispute-resolution rather than a complaints model; the government chose the exact opposite.
We know, because families tell us, that local authority complaints processes are slow and unsatisfactory; families are left with a judgement but no real solution, even if they win. It’s a disgrace, and against the interests of children and families.
Eileen Prior is executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council