Michael YammerGlasgow Labour activist Michael Shanks responds to an article we published earlier this week on the Named Persons scheme. He argues its implementation may deserve some criticism, but the system is sound and could save lives.

 

I read with great interest the recent post by Beth Greene on the Named Person provisions of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act. Beth quite rightly wondered what interest the scheme would get at the upcoming Scottish Labour Conference. I too hope it gets discussed.

But I hope that when it is discussed it is as part of an informed debate about how we safeguard our most vulnerable young people and give them the best possible start in life.

The Named Person element of the Children and Young People Act has been in some respects blown out of all proportion. In my view, aspects of the Act around continuing and aftercare for looked after children and services to prevent children becoming looked after by the state are much more important – but perhaps inevitably since they are less controversial they have been rarely discussed.

I have to take issue with one point Beth, and many other people, made about social workers ‘failing children and ripping families apart’. I defy anyone to argue that any social worker has any such intention. The overwhelming majority spend their entire career trying everything in their power to keep families together and provide the safest environment for children to grow up.

The latest social work statistics show that the number of young people being taken into care has fallen for the past two years. The majority of young people in care remain in their community (14,110 out of 15,580 in 2014) – at home or in kinship or foster care placements. In fact, if anything, the glaring gap in support is for those children being formally looked after at home (but more on this in another blog, if the editor will allow me…!).

Social workers are rightly held to account when they do fail, and those failures are often high profile. But they are rarely given any credit for the countless tough decisions they make day in day out so that the most vulnerable young people in our society are provided with safe, stable and sustainable upbringings.

And it is from that principle that the Named Person scheme emerges.

Only in the eyes of the Daily Express and the Daily Mail are these individuals ‘state guardians’ or ‘snoopers’. In fact they are the very people who are by and large already carrying out the support role – health visitors (who already visit babies after birth and maintain contact); primary school teachers (who already support young people and look out for their welfare and wellbeing throughout the first seven years of education) and secondary school guidance teachers (who already have a defined role in being the central contact for all information about pupils in the school).

Secondary school guidance teachers are a key one here. If you look at the literature on the development of guidance in Scottish schools you’ll see it fits the model of Named Person perfectly:

• ‘to ensure that each pupil knows and is known personally and in some depth by at least one member of staff’
• ‘to consider the pupil’s personal, social and intellectual development’
• ‘to help the pupil to be aware of his [sic] own development and to accept responsibility for it’
• ‘to identify and respond quickly and appropriately to the specific needs of the individual’
• ‘to foster the development of good relations between teachers and pupils’
• ‘to work well with the home in all aspects of pupil development’
• ‘to liaise with support and welfare services’; and
• ‘to systematise and make effective the recording and communication of information relevant to the welfare of individual pupils’.

(More detail here.)

Put simply: in almost every case, the child will grow up having a Named Person who would otherwise already be the key figure in their personal development. There is nobody new getting involved here. And as far as I can see, there is nothing ‘sinister’ going on.

But we must recognise that this is being brought in because time after time after time in every major enquiry into the death or abuse of a child, the conclusion comes back: there were people who knew what was going on. The problem is always that nobody joined up the dots between seemingly isolated incidents of neglect and abuse – until it was too late.

And I know from experience that there are a huge number of young people in Scotland who spend their entire childhood just below the threshold for any kind of intervention and support – who struggle along, quietly hiding the challenges and chaos in their lives and never get noticed. Their silent struggle is no less important for us to resolve than those already being supported by social work – intervening early to prevent crisis and avoid young people being taken into care.

The Named Person – like all legislation – is never going to solve everything. But it is a fair go at trying to do more than we currently do – and isn’t that worthy of support? If even one young person is prevented from falling through the numerous cracks in our system – doesn’t that make it worth trying?

Now, as with everything, the devil is in the detail, and aside from the principles of the Named Person – which I would support – there must be considerable criticism of and opposition to aspects of the implementation and the detail of the guidance around it.

The Scottish Government has failed to outline clearly the complaints procedure, and what process children and families undertake if they wish to change their Named Person. They have also failed to understand the crucial transition period between primary and secondary schools – which is where many young people struggle the most. This is the time where young people may need their Named Person most, but find under the current proposal that support will change overnight to a new, as yet unknown teacher.

There is also a considerable lack of any clarity around the ‘targeted interventions’ which Named Persons will be able to recommend (e.g. speech and language therapy). The Government has studiously avoided laying down any specifics, including whether Named Persons will have any budget to provide these services without which renders them somewhat pointless.

Whilst I may disagree with the SNP on a great, great many things, I find it hard to believe this legislation is designed with anything other than the best possible outcomes for young people in mind. I find it hard to believe the Scottish Government has a genuine desire to break up families.

The Named Person scheme is not perfect. Perhaps no system ever is. But I believe if the Guidance is improved, and the implementation much more effectively thought out than it is at present, it will make a difference to the welfare and wellbeing for young people and it may even save lives.