04 Apr 2016, Ruth Thomson
Child protection systems should ensure that no child falls through the net, but when a child does fall through the gaps in universal systems or more targeted early intervention schemes, the results can be devastating.
In 2011, for example, eight-year-old Dylan Seabridge tragically died from scurvy in Pembrokeshire. An inquest heard that Dylan was ‘invisible’ to local authorities because he was home-schooled. Meanwhile, the EU’s criminal intelligence agency Europol has warned that up to 10,000 refugee children have disappeared since arriving in Europe, a chilling reminder of how easy it is for vulnerable children to fall under the radar.
In Scotland, the government hopes its Named Person policy will go some way to ensuring that all children and families have someone who works with them, and who they can approach for help or advice if they need it. The policy was introduced by the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, and is part of Scotland’s Getting It Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) policy framework.
‘There is recognition across children’s services of why the principle of having a single point of contact for children and family is so important,’ says Jackie Brock, chief executive of umbrella organisation Children in Scotland. ‘It comes from a common understanding that we cannot leave vulnerable children and families behind, nor leave potentially vulnerable children invisible.’
Currently being trialled across a number of areas, the system is planned to be rolled out nationally by 31 August this year, when local authorities will have a legal duty to ensure that every child from birth to 18 years has a Named Person and that people know about the service and what it means for them.
In their pre-school years, a child’s Named Person is likely to be a health visitor, then a head teacher, deputy, or guidance teacher once they are at school (see box). The Named Person’s role is to act as a single point of contact and co-ordinate any support that children may need with other practitioners, such as GPs, and to share relevant information with them.
The information-sharing must take place with the knowledge of the children and families, unless there is a child protection concern. There is no requirement on children and families to accept any help offered, nor have practitioners any legal powers to compel them to do so. Nevertheless, the scheme has attracted vociferous opposition, with critics viewing it as state intrusion in family life due to its universal nature and lower threshold for intervention.
While the current threshold for intervention is ‘risk of significant harm’, under the Named Person system it will be any concerns about a child’s ‘well-being’ – as defined by the eight indicators that underpin the GIRFEC framework, including Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, namely: safe, healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, responsible and included.
Chief among the scheme’s critics is lobbying group No2NP, whose members include the Christian Institute, the Scottish Parent Teacher Council and home education organisation Schoolhouse.
It has gathered 19,312 signatories to a petition opposing the scheme, arguing that the plan ‘will undermine parents’ responsibility for their own children and allow state officials unprecedented powers to interfere with family life’.
There is also the question of cost. ‘The compulsory nature of this state surveillance scheme, which offers no opt-out to families, means even fewer resources will be devoted to those children most at risk and most in need’, says No2NP spokesman Simon Calvert.
For supporters of the policy, however, the wide definition of well-being is a bonus. Tam Baillie, children’s commissioner for Scotland, says: ‘The definition of well-being is very broad, so one of the key benefits is that the scheme is designed to help with all types of problems, not just for times where a child or young person is at risk of significant harm. This might include where a child or young person needs more short-term support, such as when they are ill or have had a bereavement.’
While Mr Baillie supports the scheme, he has concerns about information-sharing now that threats to well-being will be the trigger for intervention.
‘One of the potential risks is that the Named Person and other adults may choose to share information about the child that violates their right to privacy,’ says Mr Baillie.
‘We need children and young people to feel comfortable about accessing confidential services without fear that what they tell professionals will not be kept private. What we may find is that they will not look for the help that they need, and that is the opposite to what we want.’
As one of the trial areas, South Ayrshire has been introducing the Named Person policy gradually since 2011, and currently has 90 practitioners acting as Named Persons. Douglas Hutchison, director of educational services at the local authority, says the information-sharing aspect was one of the main challenges in implementing the policy.
‘One of the big challenges is making sure we are able to share the right information with the right people to make sure children are safe and well,’ he says. ‘Any issues about communication have been overcome by working closely with colleagues from different agencies and making sure parents are well informed about what we are doing.’
FORMALISING GOOD PRACTICE
Supporters say that in many ways the policy is simply a formalisation of existing good practice. ‘There are obviously new requirements such as providing a named persons’ service to young people aged 16 to 18 who have left school,’ says Mr Hutchison.
‘However, at the core, the policy is putting into law what was good practice from the “Getting it right for every child” approach, which has been promoted for a number of years and was itself emerging good practice.’
But health visitors have expressed concerns about the implementation of the policy, fearing an increased burden on an already-stretched service. Responding to a survey carried out by Unison Scotland and published in January, one health visitor commented: ‘My employer is always saying the named person changed nothing, it is just what you are already doing. This in my view is not the case.’
The survey found that 53 per cent of health visitors did not think the introduction of the Children in Scotland Act would be a good thing. One survey respondent said: ‘I think it is strange that a health visitor should be the Named Person once the child is at nursery as the nursery would see the child daily and the health visitor has little input.’
Another added: ‘The amount of information that will be passed to health visitors will be like an avalanche.’
Opponents of the scheme last year lost a legal challenge when judges from Scotland’s highest court ruled that the legislation does not conflict with human rights or data protection laws. The four charities and three individuals have taken the case to the UK Supreme Court, and judges are expected to give their verdict in the summer.
But supporters are confident the policy has clear benefits for children.
‘Too often when children have come to harm it becomes clear afterwards that the signs were there, but the various people involved did not share the relevant information so that action could be taken in good time to protect the child,’ says Mr Hutchison.
‘The requirement to share well-being concerns with the Named Person should help make sure that children get the help they need at the right time and from the right people.’
CASE STUDY: KIRKCALDY WEST PRIMARY SCHOOL
Kirkcaldy West Primary School is a large school with more than 600 pupils, including 126 in its nursery classes. Head teacher Ewan Trousdale has been preparing for the Named Person policy since 2009, when the idea was first being mooted. ‘Fife has been ahead of the game,’ he says.
The Named Person for children in the nursery is their health visitor. When they move into Primary 1 aged four or five, this responsibility passes to the deputy in charge of that year, Tracy Westwater, then Geraldine Lawless, deputy in charge of Years 2 to 4, and finally Lesley Rae, who has responsibility for Years 5 to 7.
‘In most primary schools the head teacher will be the named person but in a large school like ours it can be the head or the deputies,’ explains Mr Trousdale. ‘If there is a need for more involvement with other agencies, or children have complex needs which span different departments, the Named Person is there to co-ordinate the work,’ he adds. ‘Our school is in the heart of the town centre, with a very diverse catchment of children, 20 per cent of whom have English as an additional language.’
Ms Westwater works closely with the health visitors who are the Named Persons for the nursery children. ‘If the child has additional needs or needs more support, there will be review meetings with the health visitors, and they will put together an integrated support plan for that child,’ says Mr Trousdale. ‘When the children move from nursery to Primary 1 they will have a Named Person report that looks at the well-being indicators and flags up any points to note as they transition across, and any key information that should be shared.’ Resources such as a checklist and flow chart help the Named Person carry out the correct procedures when they believe a child’s well-being has been compromised.
Parents have been informed about the system through letters and the school website, and from last month new parents registering with the school are informed who their Named Person is straight away. ‘A lot of the good work that was already happening has just continued, it’s just that now it has become a legislative requirement,’ says Mr Trousdale.
Third Sector Touchpoint, published by Children in Scotland. Guide to help third-sector organisations prepare for implementation of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, including the provision of Named Persons, www.childreninscotland.org.uk/touchpoints
Named Person, published by the Scottish Government. A simple guide to how the implementation of the policy will work, www.gov.scot/Topics/People/Young-People/gettingitright/named-person
No2NP. Information about the campaign against the Named Person policy, http://no2np.org