A lot to swallow

David Hawker is director of Children, Families and
Schools at Brighton & Hove Council, and past chair of the
Association of Directors of Education and Children’s
Services.

When we set up the Children, Families and Schools service in
Brighton & Hove Council three years ago by bringing together
education with children’s social care, one of the five priorities
we identified for the new service was workforce development.

We saw right from the start that if we were to build a new service
we all needed to think, as well as work, differently. We recognised
the need for a co-ordinated local strategy, across the various
statutory and voluntary sector agencies, to develop our workforce
in line with our aspirations for more integrated services.

So, three years down the line, we warmly welcome the government’s
consultation paper on a children’s workforce strategy. One of the
strategy’s overriding themes is the need to develop new
professional identities to match the new service.

The debate about early years professionals is the most obvious
example. But the document quite rightly is more ambitious than
this. It sets out an expectation that everyone working with
children will learn new skills and develop new relationships with
colleagues from other parts of the sector as they establish
multi-disciplinary teams. This in turn will require a new approach
to professional practice, which will both challenge and reinforce
existing professional identities.

In this article I want to reflect on three of the features of this
new world, and draw out some of the implications for building a new
workforce across the sector.

The first feature is the common core, which sets out the repertoire
of basic skills and knowledge which everyone working with children
ought to have, and which is intended to underpin all basic
training, recruitment and induction into the service, from
whichever sector.

The common core is not strictly a set of occupational standards,
because it doesn’t define a single occupation. Rather it is a set
of essential skills and knowledge which need to be part of every
set of occupational standards for any professional group dealing
with children and young people. As such, it has the potential for
sending out a powerful message about the key values and aspirations
inherent in the new service.

It has been criticised for taking a “lowest common denominator”
approach but, frankly, it is hard to see how it could be anything
else. We should not underestimate the fundamental influence that
such a set of rather simple expectations, made explicit across the
sector, could have on the development of a high quality workforce,
particularly one which is characterised, as this one is, by a large
proportion of volunteer and support workers.

Equally significant, so far as building the service is concerned,
is the proposal to produce a similar “common core” setting out the
expectations of managers, leaders and supervisors in the system.
This is currently being drafted by a cross-agency group, and has
not yet seen the light of day, but again the potential for pulling
together managers from across the sector into a single frame of
reference for their management role is profound.

The second feature of our new world is the integrated,
multi-disciplinary teams which will increasingly take centre stage
as the service develops.

Anyone who has tried to put such a team together, even with a
single focus such as youth offending or substance misuse, will know
how tricky it can be. In effect we are asking people to take on a
dual professional identity – as a specialist in their own field and
as a co-worker with professionals from other disciplines. The
“children’s services professional” is a powerful concept. It does
not mean losing one’s original professional identity – teachers are
still teachers, psychologists are still psychologists, social
workers are still social workers – but it does mean bringing that
identity into the context of a more comprehensive, overarching
identity as a team worker in a multi-disciplinary team.

Some people think that, in such a team, everyone is meant to merge
their professional identities together like some kind of soup.
Others are so keen not to lose their expertise that they behave
like rocks on a plate – bumping into one another more than working
together.

The analogy we like to use locally is the fruitcake – where all the
ingredients are still clearly visible and intact, but at the same
time blended together into a most satisfying whole. As one of my
colleagues rather jokingly put it, you have to be a bit of a
fruitcake to do what we do anyway!

But what of management, supervision and professional development in
a multi-disciplinary team context? Again, a dual approach is
needed. On the one hand, the line management of the team, the
allocation of cases, the parcelling out of work according to the
needs of the children for which the team is responsible, has to be
led by the team manager, and is a collective activity. On the other
hand, the value of the individual practitioners in the team lies to
a significant degree in the expertise they bring to the team from
their own professional discipline, and this needs to be kept fresh,
properly supervised, and supported by senior professionals in that
discipline.

The logical model is to have a series of “heads of profession” to
lead the various professional groups in a virtual sense, and to
provide off-line supervision and development. In a small service,
the heads of profession will also need to be themselves involved in
multi-disciplinary teams, thus creating a kind of matrix management
set-up.

There is surprisingly little research literature about integrated
multi-agency working, and nobody really knows whether it will
ultimately prove more effective in supporting children’s needs, and
in terms of professional practice, than the more traditional
professional silos model. To a large extent it is an article of
faith that integrated team working will be better than
non-integrated working. But it is largely a question of how you do
it, and here we are all learning lessons from one another as we
go.

Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally of all, is the way in which
the new workforce is expected to radically change the way it thinks
and acts. One of the debates my colleagues and I used to have as
trainee teachers was whether we were primarily teachers of a school
subject or teachers of children. Did we derive our professional
identity more from what we did, or from the people we did it
with?
For those of us now steeped in children’s services, such a question
may appear a little fatuous. Of course we are first and foremost
people who devote our professional lives to working with children.
But it is surprising how easily our priorities get blurred, and we
get into a kind of “specialist mentality” where we are so keen to
ensure that our professional function works smoothly that we lose
sight of the bigger picture.

So we get situations where a particular professional is providing a
first rate specialist service, but that service isn’t making much
of a difference because other issues in the child’s life need
sorting out, maybe with the help of some much less specialist
intervention in another area.

As professionals we need the whole picture. Children don’t come
packaged into little boxes; they come as whole, complex human
beings. And they come in families, with local communities around
them. In our thinking as professionals we should always be aware
first of the whole picture, and then put our own contribution into
that picture, whether it is professionally specialised or more
generic.

One of the elusive virtues of good social work – which makes it so
central to the service as a whole – is that it deals with the
inter-relationships, and sees the child as a whole person. That is
the ethos we need throughout our new workforce.

Abstract
Following publication of the children’s workforce
strategy, this article looks at the implications of integrated
children’s services for traditional professional identities. It
looks at the “common core” of skills and knowledge intended to
underpin all occupational standards across the children’s services
sector; the impact of integrated multi-disciplinary teams on
professional identity, management and supervision; and the need for
professionals in all disciplines to set their practice against the
“big picture” of the needs of the whole child.

Contact the author
E-mail: David.Hawker@brighton-hove.gov.uk

Comments are closed.