Professional teams can make the agenda for change work, says Dr Nick Johnson OBE.

New requirements for professional practice and managerial action often spring from the political reaction to public scandals. In Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss’s 1988 Cleveland inquiry the failure of professional collaboration was pinpointed. The 1989 Children Act that followed required professionals to ‘work together better’. It took the shocking results of Lord Laming’s inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié, and the 2004 Children Act, for parliament to prescribe professional integration as the cure.

Over the same time much has been said about the difficulties of achieving effective collaboration. To function interdependently, professionals need to distinguish between their own roles and those of collaborating colleagues and use them appropriately. This is not easy. Professional integration is even more challenging. But, if it follows a Whitehall blueprint, will it look like a Heath Robinson creation?

Schools are pivotal to success

So, is the Every Child Matter’s plan to enforce professional integration with prescriptive guidelines likely to work? In the London borough of Bexley we thought not – not unless the professionals themselves could seize the agenda and design its development. By using collaborative inquiry – a form of participatory action research – headteachers are now in the driving seat of reform. Following detailed consultation with managers, heads, social work and health service practitioners we set up a ‘champion group’ to design and recommend the changes needed (Johnson, 2005).

Self image, and the importance of professional ownership of the problems and the solutions, was a critical component. At the start of the process it was not so easy. One head put it like this, ‘we are like the client because it is us asking for help for the child…we feel like we are being “done to” and our own professional views are not being valued…our own professional experience and opinion does not count.’

The professional obligation felt by teachers was also compelling. As another head put it, ‘I feel that the school is seen to be increasingly responsible for the problems by the parents, but we don’t have the power to do anything about it other than to refer cases to social services. Our main job is to educate the children. I feel the need to do something more than that and I dread the next meeting with the parents when I can say no more than last time.’

The need to empower and support the heads was the key finding of the ‘champion group’. It was agreed to put the school centre stage – as the pivotal site from which all action now springs.

School-based practitioner team

A new school-based ‘practitioner team’ is now in place to merge the professional skills from health, social services and education best able to meet the range of needs identified by the school. Other practitioners are called on when required, but the school, with its own agenda, is in the driving seat.

 From the outset participants were aware they were trail-blazing a completely new approach, one that was not prescribed in any DfES guidance. ‘For too long we have struggled to respond to challenging children without the resources and support we need while we fend off Ofsted inspections. This gives us back our professionalism,’ a satisfied head commented. But they were also aware that expectations needed to be managed, especially in the school itself. As the behaviour support worker put it, ‘We are not going to be able to wave a magic wand are we? The main benefits will be having a pool of defined skills and one channel of communication – a name to a face – outside the school system; someone who will know which services to access and act as the link person between the school head and other specialist agencies.’

The experiences of the ‘practitioner team’ already indicate that basing work in the school itself is giving a better service to children and their families. This has reinforced the belief that the school, as a significant motivator of professional opinion, must take the lead in the development of integrated children’s services.

How does it work in theory?

To build support for the idea in all schools we need even more than this professional enthusiasm for deep cultural change. We need hard data to prove that all the effort is worth it by giving improved outcomes for We also need to be able to prove that the school benefits too – otherwise this initiative might be seen as detracting from the real business of education.

The data are being generated by the ‘practitioner team’ itself. We are not just ticking the boxes needed to comply with the physically exhausting joint area review but looking for the benefits to the school, the staff and, most importantly, the children being served.

The results are intriguing and persuasive. In the next of this series of articles, Nick Johnson will look at what integrated working has achieved in terms of better outcomes for children and the advantages for school attainment.

Further information

Johnson, N (2005) Implementing a Children’s Trust: the Significance of Managerialism, Professionalism and Performativity. London: Bexley Council.

Johnson, N (2006) A Model for the Creation and Operation of an Integrated Children’s Services Team. London: Institute of Education. (Summaries are available from the author.)

Dr Nick Johnson OBE is the chief executive of Bexley Council and visiting fellow at the Institute of Education, London University

First published in Learning for Life, September 2006