Schools should be at the centre of professional support for children and heads should champion change, argues Nick Johnson OBE.

This article describes how a multi-agency group of headteachers, social workers and health practitioners in Bexley designed a new approach to the integrated team working promoted by Every Child Matters.

Services working together

Statistics show that 20% of secondary head teacher jobs are vacant. Is that surprising? Who would want to be a head these days? Senior managers in social services, health and local government would say much the same in their own professions. The government’s top-down approach, with detailed targets and control of performance through punitive inspection regimes, is hardly motivating. Delivering integrated services for children is a huge additional burden, but I am convinced that Every Child Matters (ECM) does make sense.

We all know we could do a better job for children, and instinctively appreciate that working together, while difficult, could make the difference. Unfortunately, ECM does not appreciate how to deliver the integrated service it promotes and the autonomy of schools means that they are not even required to implement the changes. Already tied up with raising attainment and standards, schools have no immediate incentive to take on even more responsibility. But I knew that the commitment and active leadership of headteachers were the elements which could deliver change in a way that nothing else could.

 There is a lot of talk in management circles about the problems of getting different professionals to drop their suspicions so as to overcome the quirks of their different ‘cultures’. While the DfES offers guidance on defining problems (www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/deliveringservices) and management consultants abound with ideas about how to identify even more, what we really need are workable solutions. In Bexley we have harnessed the power of participatory action research to put professionals back in control of the changes in policy and practice needed.

Bexley Council’s MAISI intervention

Bexley is an outer London council. The Audit Commission accepts we are ‘improving well’ and we have the maximum four stars. Our services are better than most, but we know there is more to success than getting boxes ticked. In working with our staff to devise the way forward I came to realise the pivotal role of the school and that heads are the key professionals in creating integrated organisations.

Over the years we have learned lessons the hard way about how to manage significant organisational change. Some would say that authentic participation in the design and management of the process by the affected professional staff, and allowing them to propose how success is judged, is simply common sense. But great outcomes can’t be forced on people by regulation. They need champions, backed up by the right processes and a supportive environment.

ECM will change the working lives of over 3,000 professionals in Bexley. I wanted to know what they really thought. A sample of over 700 practitioners, teachers and managers in three services – education, social services and health – were asked their opinion. Their passion for integrating their skills was overwhelming; so was their anger at prescriptive regulation and meaningless performance measurement. To enable people to understand each other’s roles and make proposals for change I combined the concept of ‘collaborative inquiry’ with ‘participatory action research’. This amalgamation gives professionals the opportunity to lead the change, but helps them with information and examples of best practice from national and local experience and from relevant academic research. It has been a huge success in Bexley.

We asked headteachers and other senior managers to join a ‘champion group’, which included frontline practitioners – class teachers, social workers and health staff. This group of 19 included eight primary and secondary heads. The group worked together for over a year, drawing on the help of an analytical group of researchers, and called itself MAISI (the Multi Agency Integrated Services Initiative). But it is not about acronyms. MAISI agreed the method, identified the problems, proposed the solution and championed the professional changes needed. It is now managing the transition in children’s services throughout the borough.

Exposing the current weaknesses in practice – the method

I have always found discussing practice more revealing, and a better motivator for change, than debating theory. The MAISI group sat down and read the case files of young people we have tried to help. Looking at our impact on their lives was a profound shock to us as a four- star service provider. We went through their files, rewrote their stories factually and chronologically, detailing what happened to each child and their family, elaborating how we had all played our part in responding to their needs as teachers, social workers, GPs or other health practitioners. We drew a map, a visual metaphor of the key relationships.

Time after time we saw how inadequately we had integrated our skills. We did not communicate well with each other or with the family. We were not aware of what other services could offer. There was often a breakdown between primary and secondary schools and we saw that while we responded to crises we did woefully little preventative work. Used to reading public inquiry reports into appalling child deaths – the most poignant in recent years being Lord Laming’s inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié (www.victoria-climbie-inquiry.org.uk) – we found that the failure of the system was just as real in the less severe cases. In fact it was the norm. As we faced the painful reality we generated both the momentum for change and clear ideas on what a new service should look like. We simply could not continue in the old way. As we worked on the visual metaphor, and carried out qualitative research to assess professional views, the answers became plain. We can see how the champion group visualised the experiences of 13-year-old Tina (not her real name) who had been ‘known to social services’ all her life.

It shows that not one of the supporting professionals took the school into their confidence. Even worse, when Tina moved to secondary school, there was no planning for the transition. As one of the headteachers put it:

This has been a most difficult discussion. I don’t know about you, but I feel very sad about Tina. It seems we all responded to her behaviour but it certainly has not made any difference to her today. She is still a very unhappy and damaged child. I feel we have just got to do better than this in the future. I would call it a failure. At least we can see a way to prevent it in the future.

From problems to solutions – who should take the lead?

But who decides how and when to organise all this help? Who has the authority? Whose judgement is final? Who is accountable if it all goes wrong? In short who should be in charge? After reading ECM guidance you will be no clearer – the DfES simply lists who might be involved with the child or family and says ‘it could be you!’ This confusion is not surprising – this is the most sensitive and challenging issue.

MAISI realised quite early that the teachers generally have far more contact with the child than any other supporting professional – in many cases more interaction than the parent. Experienced teachers often know what to do, although in the case we looked at they were rarely asked. Teachers should be an early warning system to involve appropriate specialists sooner. If the professionals themselves determine how they should organise their work, and who is going to be in charge, this is more likely to be successful.

The school as the centre of professional support

Integration should mean what it says. The new approach does not mean a repackaging of the old style of collaboration between professionals that has been seen to fail. We need a strategy to identify the skills required to intervene when, and where, they are needed. We have created a school-based ‘practitioner team’ in Bexley. Professionals from social work, health, schools support and special needs will form the powerbase for change under the supervision and direction of the head. In bigger secondary schools the team will be located in the school and supervised by a deputy head. The smaller schools will cluster together and share services, but again they will be managed by a head or deputy.

In Bexley the professionals decided that the schools must be pivotal to the changes and the headteacher must be in the lead. Indeed the headteacher needs to personally champion the change. To make it a success, local authority and the health service money will be invested in new organisations capable of working within and alongside the school.

Providing resources through pooling budgets

We also need to rethink how schools are resourced. Bad child protection decisions ‘cost’ a great deal. They are bad for the child and they are bad for the taxpayer. Local authorities are under no illusion about the government’s intentions for school budgets and the need for enhanced devolved financial management. What if the schools also had control of the special needs, social care and child health budgets? In Bexley we shall be pooling these resources and combining them with the education ‘ring fenced’ grants. The new integrated services Children’s Trust (www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/aims/childrenstrusts) will be funded by integrated budgets. The benefits are startling.

If early intervention, and genuine integration focused on the needs of the child, can be achieved through the supervision and leadership of the school, the financial savings to the education community will be huge. In Bexley we shall be ploughing back over £4m a year currently wasted in arranging lengthy and unnecessary ‘statements’ and out-of-borough provision in specialist institutions. There are not many other examples I can think of that save money and are better for the child or the service user.

The challenge for headteachers, DfES and universities

To achieve great results nationally will need more than the vision and passion of professional champions for change. It will need a good deal of support, training and the involvement of headteachers and the broader academic community. The London Centre for Leadership in Learning (www.ioe.ac.uk) is currently exploring options for skill-based headteacher programmes to tackle this new challenge. There is a need for multi-professional integration training as well; and this is where government should step in to assist and provide the impetus for this new thinking. In the meantime, experience in Bexley would suggest that it can be done. I would like to think that the time has come for headteachers to seize the opportunity and take back the professional initiative from the regulators and inspectors.

Next steps – the Bexley Beacon

We hope to offer visits an opportunities to share experiences through the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Beacon scheme (http://www.communities.gov.uk/). We will also be working with the Institute of Education, University of London to offer training for practitioners and managers.

Further Reading

DfES (2005) Lead Professional Good Practice Guidance for Children With Additional Needs. London: HMSO.
Johnson, N (2005) Implementing a Children’s Trust: The Significance of Managerialism, Professionalism and Performativity. London: Institute of Education (available in summary from the author).
Johnson, N (2006) A Model for the Creation and Operation of an Integrated Children’s Services Team: Can Collaborative Inquiry be Used as a Tool to Facilitate the Professional Acceptability of Organisational Change? London: Bexley Council.

Nick Johnson OBE is the Chief Executive of Bexley Council. www.bexley.gov.uk/service/children/trust.html. He has been both a director of social services and a director of education in London.

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