Features: August 3rd, 2007

By Richard Randall

Change can always be a little uncomfortable, even when the changes are for the greater good. On 15th November 2004, royal assent was secured on the updated Childrens Act and the legislative spine that would bring about whole-scale reform in the delivery of services to children was agreed. Social services and education departments were brought together under the banner of children’s services and would be required to work together, sharing information to secure better outcomes for children.

The Act was warmly welcomed but commentators questioned how the disparate teams who deal with children could be helped to work together. Would departments with entirely different cultures be happy sharing information? How would they go about it? Would practitioners be bombarded with information that was of no relevance to them. How would IT systems cope with the new demands?

In the last couple of years we have been busy trying to answer these questions and, at the same time, create an environment where information sharing between children’s services departments is automatic – part of the underlying culture of any service that comes into contact with children.

The Cultural Change

At Somerset County Council many of our efforts since early 2005 have focused on achieving this cultural shift. Education and social services teams have for a long time followed very different working practices and held a different ethos.

A social worker may spend a large proportion of their time out of the office meeting with families and support organisations. They work with a small number of individuals so that they can provide a focus for those individuals on their case load. In contrast, someone working in the council’s education team is more likely to be based in the office or visiting schools, rather than individuals. They could be involved in helping develop policies that will affect a larger number of children; investigating solutions to target truancy, for example, or supporting schools to raise achievement.

Although the two teams’ aims have always been the same – improving outcomes for children – their starting point was perhaps quite different, with a lack of shared understanding about the challenges each faced. The most important task we faced was to develop understanding, remove suspicion and keep communication flowing between the teams to ensure joined-up working.

Job shadowing at every level has been instrumental in this, revealing how the other half works. Until you spend a day with a social worker it is difficult to imagine what their job entails and the amount of time that is sometimes necessary to devote to each child. A job shadow reveals the variety of cases they deal with and how they record the data relating to a child. Job-shadowing is an eye-opener to many staff who do not have day-to-day contact with social work as well as those who have no experience of education work.

We have also implemented joint teams to improve information sharing. Wherever possible we now deliver services in teams with representatives from education and social care so that we can develop a holistic view of a child’s circumstances.

Change has also taken place in the location from which services are delivered. Everything used to be based from county hall. However, joint working and the creation of children’s centres have allowed us to have a more local presence. We have 8 centres dotted around Somerset, which are the hub of our delivery of services to children. These are children’s centres and a great deal more. Located in the more disadvantaged areas of the borough, they have provided a focus for delivering education services alongside social service provision and family health care. The aim is to shift the focus from dealing with the consequences of difficulties in children’s lives to preventing things from going wrong in the first place.

We provide ante-natal care, care for post-natal depression, childcare advice and specialist support for early developmental issues in children. It is also a place to engage with social services teams and voluntary sector support groups. The centres have allowed authority teams to be more focused, concentrating on a smaller number of locally-based families that they see regularly and ensuring a better standard of care.

The Devil is in the Detail

Behind the cultural change there has also been a great deal of technological change to support joined-up working. Authorities need to implement an Integrated Children System (ICS), which combines social services, education and other data on children and young people for a single view of the child. The ICS will ensure that the clues which identify a child at risk are not lost in countless different files or databases. Joined-up thinking and action needs joined-up IT systems in place to support it. There is little doubt that an education welfare officer will be better equipped to address a teenager’s continued truancy problems if they have more detailed information about the possible causes of a child’s disaffection from a school or social care record.

Our biggest challenge in delivering the ICS, however, has been in dealing with two seemingly contradictory aims. We need to provide a joined-up picture of every child and yet we need to make sure that practitioners only see the data necessary for them to do the job. Having every item of data relating to a particular child could confuse the situation or make information available that a member of staff is not trained or authorised to deal with. We are moving forward with this despite the challenges and a basic ICS system is now in place.

Our motivation to keep going has been strengthened by the success of information sharing in other areas of children’s services. For some time now, we have used Capita Children’s Services’ One information management system to automatically bring in data from schools on a daily basis so that we can monitor our education provision to children. We can look to see what the educational outcomes are for looked after children, for example, and this helps inform policy. We can also identify issues with truancy or exclusion in particular areas, families or schools and this ensures education welfare officers and the wider authority can tackle the issue much more effectively. It also enables us to closely measure the results of any initiatives put in place to tackle the problem to see if they have been successful.

From these early experiences we have learnt that data accuracy is crucial. If you want to make good decisions based on the information you have at your disposal, you need to be confident that the data is correct. A social worker needs to be sure when they type in a name that they will get details of the child they are working with and not a child with a similar name. We have a specialised team in place, which serves as our clearing house for data, checking any potential duplicates or conflicting issues. They ensure that we can rely on the information in our systems and can deliver the single golden record for each child.

Two and a half years after the Children Act was passed, changes are still coming thick and fast. Now at least, the cultural shift has already taken place and we are just working on the details – getting the systems and working practices right to support the new culture of sharing information. As our experience has already shown, this will put the information we need at our fingertips and allow us to make better decisions relating to an individual child or on behalf of all children in the authority.

Richard Randall is eLearning & Information Group Manager with Somerset County Council.