Contrary to some of the more hysterical reports about the state of services for children, safeguarding partners continue to strive to improve multi-agency responses to the needs of vulnerable families.
However, from a headteacher’s perspective, some things never seem to change: the thresholds for social care are too high and you have to keep referring – they never get back to you and there are too many changes of social worker.
I currently work as the independent scrutineer for the Medway and Kent multi-agency safeguarding partnerships.
Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018 established the requirement to have independent scrutiny of partnerships but was silent on what this should look like, or how the effectiveness of local partnerships could be assessed.
It was proving challenging to describe what the world would look like when partnerships were working well.
Following the Wood Review, the government’s new Working Together guidance removed the need for Safeguarding Children Boards, which were largely seen as process-driven talking shops.
The new arrangements for the first time identified that the three statutory partners of local authority, health and police were equally accountable for the safeguarding of children.
Working in partnership
Since the establishment of the new arrangements in 2020, multi-agency partners have reported improvements in safeguarding, but there’s still much to do.
One of the ironies of the coronavirus pandemic was how it improved cooperation between partners, including the development of closer working relationships between children’s social care and schools.
As society returns to a new normal, children’s social care services have reported an increase in contacts and referrals, putting a strain on an already overstretched system.
The Medway Safeguarding Children Partnership (MSCP) has embraced the freedoms and opportunities provided by the new arrangements and, amongst other developments, has sought to improve some of the traditional areas of friction between schools and children’s social care.
As did many partnerships, the MSCP reviewed their thresholds and consulted widely on the proposals. There was widespread acceptance and support for the new thresholds, which brought simplicity and clarity.
However, getting the words right is one thing; the interpretation of those words varies between professions and still leads to frustration amongst teachers believing a child meets the necessary threshold for a social work intervention.
Headteachers in Medway tell me that communication with children’s social care has improved significantly, although concerns remain about having to make multiple referrals of some children before social care finally accept the case.
Conversely, social workers feel that schools could do more to provide early help to vulnerable children and be more enthusiastic about taking on the lead professional role. Heads feel they are being left with the case and only refer because they no longer feel they can meet the needs of children.
Although schools are not statutory partners, the MSCP has reached out to headteachers to ensure their voice is embedded at both the strategic level in executive meetings and in the various sub-groups which are delivering against the partnership’s priorities.
While one head cannot represent all schools, the partnership recognises the value of having a strong voice influencing strategy and policy. This doesn’t remove all the differences, but it ensures there can be frank discussions about the realities of multi-agency working.
All headteachers will say there isn’t enough ‘Early Help’ and most directors of children’s services will agree. However, the fundamentals of good multi-agency working remain the same, with good communication between agencies and a commitment to constructively challenge each other where there’s disagreement.
Through my work I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a number of heads dedicated to not only improving outcomes for learners, but also identifying and providing support for the most vulnerable families in their communities.
Schools have built up a range of services, including providing parenting courses and mental health support, and implemented new systems for monitoring issues of concern arising within the school.
The best settings ensure their designated safeguarding leads (DSLs) are trained in the local social care practice model and the relevant assessment tools. This improves understanding and communication between the professions and ensures the needs of vulnerable children are identified and the right services provided at the right time.
Schools are also providing student social work placements, enabling those entering the profession to get a better understanding of the school experience and how they can collaborate better to identify and support those in need.
This good work should be applied universally to strengthen further the understanding of the different perspectives within the professions.
The provision of so called ‘no name’ consultations by children’s social care gives safeguarding leads the confidence to contact colleagues to talk through their concerns before making a referral. This can provide reassurance that they’re adopting the right approach or confirmation that a referral would be appropriate.
The best social care services are open to challenge and will always be willing to hear the concerns of schools about a child.
So, at a time when resources are scarce and reducing; demand is rising and is likely to rise further, as more children and their families are plunged into poverty; and increasingly more is expected from schools, there’s an even greater need to ensure that services work together.
Engaging with the safeguarding partnership provides an opportunity to shape priorities, influence strategy and contribute to the development of creative new approaches to supporting vulnerable children in the community.
Bringing schools and early help services together in community hubs and pooling resources can deliver a more coordinated and effective response to increasing need in the community.
This also includes influencing the new integrated care services which are replacing clinical commissioning groups so that the delivery of community health services are more fully integrated with other front-line services.
While all public services are under growing pressure, there are grounds for optimism in the way that partnerships are evolving to drive new ways of working and supporting the most vulnerable.
Communication and information sharing remain a key strand of effective safeguarding practice, and headteacher engagement in safeguarding partnerships is helping to build a more effective response to children at risk and breaking down some of those traditional barriers between schools and children’s social care.
Rory Patterson is the independent scrutineer for the Medway and Kent multi-agency safeguarding partnerships.