Putting the Glue Back in the System: What approaches can practitioners adopt?

by Loic Menzies, 06 September 2022
Putting the glue back in the system

We say the same thing every time, which is ‘we need to work together better’. Well, we said that for Baby P. We said that for Victoria Climbié, and that was 20 years ago now.”

This was the call to action from Reza Schwitzer, former Head of Children’s Social Care Strategy at the DfE who attended the Assessment Network’s latest roundtable. For him, a lack of ‘system thinking’ has stymied the sector’s ability to gather, share and act on information about vulnerable young people’s needs. 

"What you've got now… is a system which is completely disjointed.… It comes down to what in Whitehall, people call grip: who's in the know, and who is gripping the solution - because too often, kids are falling through the cracks”

So how can we put the glue back in the system? That’s the subject I want to explore in this series of three blogs. 

The depletion of local authorities means structural solutions are urgently needed. The government’s recent Green and White Papers and Children’s Social Care Review have started to show what this might look like, for example, through the proposed pooled budgets, a proposal to bring schools into statutory safeguarding arrangements and by introducing a legal requirement for councils to introduce Local Inclusion Plans.

However this series of blogs will come at the problem from a different angle:

  1. “Putting the Glue Back in the System” will set out some of the approaches practitioners are attempting within the current system. 
  2. “Making Information Work for Young People” will zoom in on a topic that has been somewhat neglected in recent debates: the role and agency of young people themselves.
  3. “The Real Glue is Relationships” will ask whether, what we might actually need, is a more fundamental shift in focus towards continuity and relationships. 

The role of education providers

Part of the rationale for education reforms a decade ago was a belief that a school-led system could prompt institutions to build their own partnerships and that these might be enough to glue the system together. Whilst it’s increasingly clear that this approach is insufficient, a 2014 NFER study for the DfE did point to examples of how communication and information sharing improved when schools took greater responsibility for meeting permanently excluded pupils’ needs. Meanwhile, The Bolton Impact Trust illustrates the role individual providers can take.

According to Paul, the Trust’s Executive Principle it’s only when teachers understand the needs and behaviours that led up to an exclusion that they can design a responsive curriculum. The trust therefore secures detailed referral information focusing on what he calls ‘Phase One’ outcomes - what a pupil needs to achieve if they are to progress with their learning. 

"We've got to gather the information in order to pluck from the menu what a child needs at that particular time in their lives… we talk to lots of professionals, parents, children, we speak to schools and from that we have a profile of the child, what they need in the first six weeks… so that information sharing is very, very important in deciding what we design from our menus.”

The form includes resource requirements, a pupil profile (focusing on strengths and talents, as well as strategies that have positive impact), alongside a detailed risk assessment. An additional benefit is that it acts as a useful baseline against which to review progress. The approach aligns with findings from a 2018 study of referrals to AP that highlighted the importance of detailed information. Unfortunately, some schools don’t know their pupils well enough to provide the information - in some cases because pupils have such a history of non-attendance that the information is simply not available.

The role of an area-based third party

Leaving it to individual providers won’t provide enough ‘grip’ to ensure vulnerable pupils don’t fall through the cracks. The West London Zone (WLZ) is one response to this challenge. It was set up to provide an embedded, community-led resource that could build deep partnerships across statutory, voluntary and families. In doing so it provides much needed glue to hold the system together. Similar organisations have sprung up in a number of areas where cash-strapped Local Authorities have been left struggling to provide the local leadership that’s needed.

In order to understand local needs, the CEO Louisa’s first port of call was to try and link up existing datasets, but she soon found that this didn’t get to the heart of pupils’ needs. Information was often patchy and lacked the longitudinal and qualitative aspects that were so important in understanding a young person’s story. Data protection constraints and clunky systems also made sharing difficult. 

Louisa’s response was to conduct a detailed 360 assessment of pupils in each school WLZ works with. This was obviously time consuming, but in the end, teachers said the process was worthwhile because it got to the heart of issues that could have slipped under the radar. Similarly, James told us that in the communities his charity works in, a thorough assessment of pupils’ needs played a crucial role in challenging prejudices and confronting assumptions about which pupils needed help. For example many teachers had assumed it was boys in particular who had a problem with literacy, but it turned out girls’ needs were being overlooked due to stereotypes.

With different services often myopically focused on their specific remit, James and Louisa’s experiences suggest that sometimes it takes someone external and independent to look across different areas and get a ‘grip’ of young people’s needs. 

The role of language, hearts and minds

Cultural rifts and differences in language frequently undermine the glue that should hold different parts of the education and youth sector together. As one head teacher from Hertfordshire explained:

You can be filling out a form for a children's safeguarding board and it has to be done in a very strict manner, which is disconcerting because if you don't fill it in properly, the case can fall through”

Honest communication can also be undermined by a perverse incentive to emphasise ‘crisis’ in an effort to ensure a case meets thresholds for intervention. Lydia from the National Youth Agency (NYA) found that services like the police sometimes failed to take action when youth workers used the wrong language, describing young people at ‘at risk’ rather than in ‘immediate need’. 

The NYA is now providing training around issues like this, but Lydia pointed out that “even before information sharing can happen people really need to value each other's professions”. That need sits behind the rationale for a new programme called ‘Joined up’ which has been designed to dispel misconceptions regarding different professions and build a shared language and purpose. The programme is led by the charities UK Youth (representing the Youth Work sector), Frontline (representing Children’s Social Work), Dixons Academies Trust and the Reach Foundation (representing schools).

The role of central government

The structure of the education and youth sector is due a rethink and additional resourcing is urgently needed. Different arrangements for putting the glue back in the system might suit different areas depending on local capacity - and that might require a devolved, responsive approach. However decentralisation needs to be balanced with robust and ambitious minimum standards.

Beyond structural and resourcing questions, the government needs to lead by example. Data sharing is governed by poorly understood regulations such as GDPR, with limited judicial precedent to aid interpretation. This contributes to risk aversion, curtailing people’s willingness to share information, even when doing so is safe and legal. The government therefore needs to establish norms and show what is and isn’t doable by being more open with its own data. To this end, Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel De Souza has been calling for a unique child identifier saying:

“The lack of information collected on children, coupled with complicated data sharing practices means children become ‘known unknowns’ – we need to stop this. I believe this unique identifier would facilitate better data matching between organisations responsible for safeguarding and supporting children”

De Souza recognises that this is just part of the answer - such datasets will never provide the qualitative, technicolour detail that’s needed to truly understand a child’s life story, but that doesn’t make it any less important. 

What I haven’t talked about is the role of young people themselves in all this. Too often these all-important ‘data subjects’ are expected to be passive and silent when it comes to the information about them. My next blog will therefore focus on them specifically. 

This blog was in response to our discussion series 'Mapping The Way to a More Equitable Future for Education' which brings together key voices from the education sector to discuss the barriers to equity in education, and the information policy makers and practitioners might need to overcome them. You can add your voice to the discussion by signing up to our next live webinar event.

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