Jo McShane invite readers to consider multi-agency or multi-professional working with schools from the perspective of an enthusiastic apprentice, who realises the value that ‘joined-up thinking’ offers

One Friday night…
Imagine if you will an open-plan office at 5.45pm on a Friday. Most people have headed for home, leaving you hovering around your desk, ensuring vital case notes are ready for an important review meeting on Tuesday. Suddenly you sense that someone is looming over your right shoulder. When you turn your head, you are surprised to see your head of service standing beside you wearing either a strained smile or a grimace. He places a green folder on top of your neatly organised case notes. Though the rest of the conversation is rather blurred in your memory, in short, you have just agreed that you are in fact ‘just the person’ to join a new multi-professional partnership and to carry the baton for your service. You ponder ‘was that a smile or a grimace?’ and realise that only time will tell.

Reality strikes
Next morning, a quick ‘Google’ of the term ‘multi-agency working’ begins to provide a stark sense of what you have signed yourself up to. The Every Child Matters website spells it out in a manner which initially appears both blunt and vague and you note that there is no ‘precise formula’ for it and that it is ‘complex, challenging and significantly influenced by the local context and personalities involved’. Gripping your coffee cup a little tighter, you read on. It seems that the site does contain good advice relating to factors, attitudes and practices that can help multi-agency, multi-professional groups, panels and partnerships to succeed at strategic and operational levels. Among these are shared goals and common targets, agreed timeframes and secure governance arrangements, as well as definitions of roles and clarity of vision and purpose. Things are perhaps starting to look up. This is, after all the kind of visionary work you have used to mould your career so far.

As you munch on your pecan pastry and consider what you might wear to this evening’s social event, you realise that you have perhaps started with the ‘how’ and missed out the ‘what’ of multi-agency, multi-professional working. Typical! You are always doing that, perhaps because most days you wonder how you will get anything else done with such an insurmountable caseload.

Rhetoric and reality
It seems that in the wake of the tragic events surrounding the death of Victoria Climbié, the Every Child Matters agenda has established the need for greater information sharing between services and agencies who work with children and young people, from the police, via schools, to agencies involved in social care. This is beginning to sound like a good idea! You can think of at least eight occasions over the past two years when you have thought (sometimes angrily!) ‘Why didn’t I know that?’ or struggled to get even the most basic information in support of vital case developments. Developments that have involved life-or-death situations.

This is all so fantastic in theory and we all love ‘joined-up thinking’, but how will you really do justice to the real business of working actively as part of a complex and multi-professional group to achieve positive, measurable outcomes for the benefit of young people? Surely this cannot just be another talking shop where rivalries and territories are pitted against feeble pots of government money targeted at yet another range of immeasurable outcome measures? You start wondering how on earth real and valuable work of this nature will ever really happen. Returning to your desk, you click on another, so far unexplored, link to a detailed study on the issue conducted by NFER. The wholesome texture of oats and grains is accompanied by the comforting possibilities reported on, including the identification of a wide range of benefits for children and their families that include improved access to services, an improvement in children’s educational attainment and access to education, pointing to the level of contribution made by ‘other agencies’ to children’s education. You smile wryly, reflecting on the fact that you have been ‘banging on’ about this for years, arguing that solid educational outcomes are not just a matter of schooling and trying to persuade countless self-interested partnership groups that ‘other’ agencies really can make a difference. Now it seems, with the Every Child Matters and Extended Schools agendas that multi-professionals are coming together with a common purpose – to meet the wide ranging needs of all children. There appears to be a real sense of joint responsibility and a culture of collaborative planning and delivery. I’m feeling cautiously optimistic.

Optimism prevails
You dare yourself to open the ‘green folder’, which contains some notes in the handwriting of your head of service, seemingly taken down at some conference or other. Your attention is drawn to a list, which is entitled ‘Top Priorities for Agency Rep’. Interesting! You are encouraged by the level of trust placed in you as your eye moves across terms such as ‘shared responsibility’, ‘shared values’, ‘consistency’, ‘openness’, clarity of role’, ‘quality communication’, and ‘professional knowledge and understanding’. Evidently, your boss was smiling and not grimacing as they loomed over your shoulder yesterday evening. You turn the page to see a highlighted phrase that lifts your spirits and sends you into your Saturday afternoon with the ‘feelgood factor’: ‘real time and space to do justice to multi-professional working, which is after all the essence of our mission and values’. ‘Onwards!’ you chime as you skip off to choose that outfit!

  • Atkinson, M et al (2002) Multi-agency Working: A Detailed Study (LGA research report 26). Slough: NFER
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