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Essay: Does collaborative/multi-agency working provide a perfect support system for children/their families?

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  • Does collaborative/multi-agency working provide a perfect support system for children/their families?
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The Plowden Report surveyed 3,000 children in primary schools in 1967, it showed across the board that there was a complete lack of parental involvement which could potentially be one of the main reasons why children were failing at school (Baker, 2003).

When looking at the needs of the child, and ability to learn it is vital to view the child, not just from an educational point of view but as a whole. The well being of a child can affect the learning process so following Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs Theory, professionals must ensure the basic needs of the child are met in order to reach their full potential.

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) outlined the importance of partnership working identifying the need for parent involvement as ‘central’ to the process.

For many reasons, it may be difficult to engage parents in their children’s learning. This could be due to several factors. Parents may refuse to acknowledge a potential problem, they may feel resentment towards practitioners for invading their family privacy, they may feel practitioners are interfering or in some cases they may actually have something to hide. Parenting is very different today than it was in previous years. Social economy and inflation mean that for many families, both parents are required to work in order to provide a stable home environment for their children. Long hours, shift patterns and fatigue are just some of the many reasons why parents may not be able to find the time to regularly meet with practitioners to discuss their child’s development.

A more common reason which has been frequently reported in the media is the gap in achievement between children from poorer, disadvantaged backgrounds.

In the 1960’s the educational underachievement of children who came from working class families was identified by sociologists as an issue that may stem from parents who struggled to see the values and importance of education. Many working-class parents possibly felt intimidated or lacked confidence when dealing with teachers themselves. The belief was that teachers knew best and parents, particularly those who may have had negative educational experiences, believed that teachers were the only factor that would guarantee success. (Whalley, 2017).

This can be a challenge and strain on the relationship of the practitioner and the parent/carer as with many parents feeling ‘put down’ by teachers and practitioners therefore having a lack of confidence, many of these parents/carers may also have had bad experiences at school when they were children. Practitioners need to be approachable to ensure that parents/careers can feel comfortable talking to them about their child.

The EYFS provides strategies for engaging parents and careers in their child’s learning. This can include providing information about the child’s achievements and developmental milestones on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, in the form of daily diaries, learning journals and parent’s evenings. Social events such as open days, Mothers/Father’s Day events, fundraisers etc. Asking parents to get involved in observations by sending home observation sheets, practitioners can then see what the child is learning at home and work on it within the setting and also give a better knowledge of the interests of the child.

It is therefore important to build a good relationship right from the start. This helped with the introduction of the key worker policy, where parents could deal one to one with a specific member of staff dedicated to individualising a specific child’s learning journey and building a trusting relationship with that child.

The Desforges Report concluded that when children receive support at home from parents this has a ‘significant effect on children’s achievement, even after all other factors have been taken out of the equation’ (Desforges, 2003). It went on to acknowledge the attempts to change policy with regards to parental involvement and although a promising start had been made, the achievements were yet to be fully apparent.

Working in partnership is more than just involving parents. The number of professionals involved in a child’s early years can be vast, ranging from G. Ps and nurses to Paediatricians and clinical psychologists, speech and language therapists to educational psychologists, social workers, safeguarding officers, child protection and even police. The professionals involved with one particular child are known as the Team Around the Child (TAC).

It is a group of agencies that share information regarding the child to ensure the best opportunities are provided to meet the needs of the child and his/her well-being and provide the best outcome (Cheminais, 2010).

This multi-agency working is not a new development, it has been around since the mid-nineteenth century, however it was during Margret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s, specifically ‘The Children’s Act 1989’ where inter-agency collaboration and joint working in relation to children became a statutory requirement (Cheminais, 2009).

In theory this would be a major revolution in providing the best care for children and young people, but can multi-agencies really work collaboratively?

Multi-disciplinary teams could easily be compared to families, they can either work effectively together or be completely dysfunctional, and with professionals from different fields of expertise, having received different training, ways of working, culture and have different priorities for the child, one could argue that this is a recipe for disaster or could it be, if structured correctly, a flawless support system.
The key would be to provide clarity for each professional role and what is expected of themselves and others.
When looking at a team, each team member could bring something, a characteristic or skill to the table to strengthen that team. A useful way of looking at this would be to explore Dr. Meredith Belbin’s work on team roles the idea that a team role is ‘a tendency to behave, contribute and interrelate with others in a particular way’ (Belbin 2015).

Some will be suited to action-orientated roles, some to people-orientated roles and others to thinking-orientated roles. This kind of team work allows for work load to be delegated effectively and to focus on the main objectives.

The beauty of partnership working is not that everyone is the same but the diversity of each professional involved and their ability to share differing perspectives. All professionals will have their own agendas, which can prove tricky at times, however each individual skill is unique and combining skills and opinions can make for a more effective way of meeting the individual needs of children.

For professionals this can lead to job satisfaction, improved opportunities to learn and share knowledge, this supports child centred approaches and creatively developing the services available (CWDC, 2010).

Collaborative and multi-agency working should provide the ‘perfect’ support system for children and their families. Sadly, this has not always been the case. Theory and practice are processed differently by individuals depending on their own way of viewing it. When practice is followed with ‘silo mentality’ the results can be devastating.

In February 2000, an eight-year-old girl died in intensive care, following months of appalling abuse. Her name was Victoria Climbié and she would bring about some of the largest changes to legislation on partnership working that England had seen.

On 12 January 2001, Victoria’s great-aunt, Marie-Therese Kouao, and Carl John Manning were convicted of Victoria’s murder and Lord Laming was asked to conduct an investigation into why Climbié was failed by local services and to write a report of his finding along with recommendations for prevention of future cases like hers.

‘Victoria, like many other children, was brought to the United Kingdom for the chance of a better life. The once happy little girl fell victim to unimaginable cruelty. The true horror of what happened to Victoria during the last few months of her life was exposed during the inquiry into her death.

“The food would be cold and would be given to her on a piece of plastic while she was tied up in the bath. She would eat it like a dog, pushing her face to the plate. Except, of course that a dog is not usually tied up in a plastic bag full of its excrement. To say that Kouao and Manning treated Victoria like a dog would be wholly unfair; she was treated worse than a dog.” (Laming, 2003).

The failures in Climbié’s case seemed to fall around the lack of information sharing, lack of training, racial issues and excessive workloads. Professionals were said to have several ‘missed opportunities’ where they could have potentially saved Climbié from the daily torture she had endured for months. An article in The Telegraph reported of the ‘stunning and shocking disorganisation and incompetence’ of professional organisation such as police, doctors, social workers and their failure to ensure that the very basic protocols such as visiting Victoria at home were not carried out.

Though policies and procedures in accordance to national guidelines and legislation were in place, there was a complete confusion over who was supposed to do which role, indecisive professionals lead to delays and inactivity. The only area where agencies did appear proactive was that of recording information, however this was not even done to the standard expected (Palmer, 2001).

The Laming Report spurred a surge in the necessity to work more closely together across agencies and professions.

With uncertainty surrounding the benefits and/or drawbacks of multi agency working, a research project was set up at the university of Leeds. It was called the Multi-Agency Teamwork for Children’s Services or MATCh project. As initiatives and legislations regarding partnership working began to change so did the roles and responsibilities of professionals. One of the findings of the MATCh project was that professionals were finding the changing of roles and what was expected of them difficult to adapt to. ‘Our professional identities may be destabilised as we grapple with new roles and unfamiliar activities’ (Anning et al., 2010). For some who had built up an individual professional identity over several years of experience, it seemed difficult to try and work collaborativley and struggled to find new identities within integrated working.

It was clear that although partnership working Policy was in place, that it was not necessarily being adhered to.

The introduction of Every Child Matters in 2003 was a positive step in changing the attitudes of professional across the UK, the introduction included a heartfelt message from the prime minister at the time who commented on the reforms so far.

He acknowledged that although situations had improved for many children, there were still instances where more could be done. He referred to Climbie and the unimaginable cruelty she had to endure before her untimely death at the hands of her abusers and used this as an example to point out that protocol was still far from effective and changes had to be made. The Laming report was a valuable influence on this new initiative and many of Laming’s recommendations shaped the creation of new policies and procedures and a clear push for multi-agency working requiring local authorities to collaborate children’s services (Blair, 2003).

This was underpinned by the The Children Act 2004 which stated that by 2006 all Local Authorities were required to adopt a new system to ensure that all the requirements of the Children Act were being met and consequently provide the documentation to prove so.

The outcome was the Common Assessment Framework, but even this failed to prevent continuing tragedies such as Baby P in 2007.

Peter Connelly (Baby P) was a 17-month-old boy who died in London in 2007. Peter’s mother Tracey Connelly, her boyfriend Steven Barker, and his brother Jason Owen, were all convicted of causing or allowing the death of a child. Connelly pleaded guilty to the charge. Despite receiving 60 visits from social workers, doctors and police over an eight-month period, Baby P suffered more than 50 injuries.
Agency professional came under fire when the Independent newspaper reported again of the ‘missed opportunities’ to put an end to the abuse. It stated that although professionals were under a huge amount of pressure they should still have enough experience, skill and courage to act on their concerns and make the right decisions where a child’s safety is concerned (Marsden, 2010).

Again the ‘revamped’ system had failed, and this was across the board. The media frenzy surrounding Baby P was due to the fact that it was the same local authority, Haringey Council, which failed Victoria Climbié seven years previously.

Though sadly this case is just another one of many:

Sunderland, Baby O: Six moths old, suffered severe injuries in 2013.
Blackpool, Child BW: Three months old, Deceased due to neglect in 2015.
Birmingham, BSCB: Twenty-one months old, Deceased due to serious non-accidental injury, 2011.
Camden, Child B: Nine weeks old, permanent disability due to mother shaking her, 2014.

Swindon, Child D: Two weeks old, Deceased, Found dead on sofa after his mother fell asleep whilst breast feeding. She had high levels of drugs and alcohol in her system, 2016.

(NSPCC, 2016).

Following the death of Baby P, Lord Laming was asked to conduct a second investigation or progress report into why the policies in place were still failing. In this report, Lord Laming commended professional agencies for the improvements that had been made since Every Child Matters, it was also apparent that it had become much more challenging to protect children from abuse and further changes had to be made in order to form more conclusive arrangements to protect children from abuse. His report made is clear that it was imperative for the safety of children and young people that action had to be taken (Laming, 2009).

Also, in the report, Laming discussed the main reasons of why the system is still failing. These included extensive issues in the reality of working across ‘organisational boundaries and cultures’ Professionals were still not effectively sharing information, nor were they providing feedback or follow up reports once a concern had been raised. Social work caseloads were extremely high, which was affecting the quality of service that social workers were able to provide and the training and qualifications were of a poor standard, thus producing an ineffective workforce.

It was found that some police forces had reduced resources available for child protection, though this varied across the UK. The police also showed a lack of quality specialist training in child protection which meant that despite their best efforts and good intentions, they did not have the ability or skill to carry out protocol correctly.

Dame Clare Tickell conducted a review of the EYFS in March 2011 to identify what was working well and where improvements could be made. In this review, there were issues raised regarding documentation required by Ofsted and Local Authorities, with many childcare providers being unclear on what documentation was needed. There was also clarity needed on where practitioners could receive support when working with children with Special Educational Needs (SEN). Practitioners were struggling to engage parents/carers, to access consistent training or tailored training to support children with specific needs and some settings employed staff with low or no qualifications in childcare.

Of course, this needed to be addressed as it mirrored previous failings that had taken place in other early Years sectors. The failings within Early Years support and protection had become one large continual blame game.

In a Progress Report written by Professor Eileen Munro the improved provision of ‘early help’ through better interagency working was a key feature. The report referred to positive examples of agencies working collaboratively to provide a better all-round understanding of the needs of children, but also pointed out that some of the existing statutory guidance was still causing conflict for professionals trying to integrate services. Munro commented in her report on how the expectations of professionals had become unrealistic and that the demand for professionals to ‘ensure’ children’s safety was somewhat impossible. The concept that ‘professionals were to blame’ had led to rather defensive culture and the focus had been shifted to whether targets were met and reports protocol and compliance seemed to be of higher importance than establishing whether effective services for children were actually being provided (Munro 2012).

Professor Cathy Nutbrown highlighted in her report about the importance of adequate qualifications in Early Years Settings. Her review stated ‘It is very clear to me that we cannot achieve excellent early years provision without an effective qualifications structure. High quality qualifications with knowledge rich content shows employers what skills and understanding a prospective employee possesses and this is highly important when selecting staff members as each setting wants to give the children in their care the best 1quality of service they can provide. Nutbrown concurred this in her report, acknowledging that ‘children deserve to be educated and cared for by those with the right abilities and dedication to give them the best. The quality of children’s early years’ experiences has a powerful effect on their learning and development, well into later schooling’ (Nutbrown, 2012).

In April 2013, the government released the updated statutory guidance for adults working with children and families in England. Working together to safeguard children 2013 streamlined previous and provided clarification on the roles and responsibilities of each agency in regards to safeguarding children. The aim of merging existing effective guidance with newer concepts was to try to ensure that the needs of children key to safeguarding practice. The guidance enforced the concept that safeguarding is the responsibility of all professionals and in order to be effective, each professional and organisation was required to take full responsibility and adopt child centred approaches to fully understand and support the needs and views of children. Every organisation would be required to use these principles to underpin their safeguarding policies and procedures.

In 2014, the Home Office released a final report on their Multi-agency working and Information Sharing Project. It conducted a survey of local authorities in over 37 areas where Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hubs (MASH) had been set up. The project showed improvements consistently being made (Home Office, 2014).

The Children and Family Act 2014 made changes to better support children with Special Educational Needs (SEN). Statements of (SEN) and Learning Difficulty Assessments (LDAs) were replaced by Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plans which provide statutory protection up to the age of 25 instead of ending at 16.

Families with an EHC Plan were entitled to personal budgets to help with things such as accessibility, equipment etc.
All local authorities were now required to publish a ‘Local Offer’. This was an information tool for families advertising where families could find support, groups and activities that were accessible for children and young people with SEN.

Health services and local authorities were required to commission and plan services for children, young people and families collaboratively.
The new ‘working together with your child’s school’ system was designed to give children and their families a voice and opinion when making decisions about their education and the support they required. Professionals were to follow a child centred process and respect the fact that parents know their children better than anyone, and therefore their input is invaluable (Bateman, 2014).

Working together to Safeguard Children is regularly reviewed and updated when new recommendations are made. It is currently undergoing significant revisions of what is expected from each organisation to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. As new arrangements and new child death review guidance is updated, so are the regulations put in place to support them. These new revisions will coincide with legislative changes underpinned through the Children and Social Work Act 2017. Following these revisions, the government has proposed to make the appropriate changes to the current statutory guidance, Working Together to Safeguard Children 2015.

It has to be said that steps have been and continue to be taken to ensure partnership working is effective. Looking at reports, it is clear that positive changes have been made and that multi-agency services are steering in the right direction; however, it is not a fool proof system. Looking at the NSPCC website and various journals and articles, there are still a vast number of serious case reviews to suggest that the system in place are still not failsafe. Can a system be created where all children are safe and well, unfortunately the answer is probably not. Multi-agency working heavily relies upon each individual member of the team putting the child at the centre and sharing information, if there is even one weak link in this chain, there is a possibility protection of a child will fail.

Training will remain an issue as many childcare settings are financially unable to sustain regular training opportunities and many will take on underqualified or inexperienced staff. The government is now offering 33hours free childcare pledging £650 million to accommodate this, but in reality, the realistic figure needed to is 1.6 billion. Funding will remain a large issue and the declining number of registered childcare providers is set to cut ties with many children who potentially need support.

Related: Multi agency – every child matters

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