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Caring For Children Too

Marion MacLeod

As regular readers will know, Common Weal’s Care Reform Group has actively campaigned for an effective National Care Service. Its visionary paper ‘Caring for All’ set out a detailed concept of a service that would guarantee entitlement to timeous and comprehensive response to need, be provided through accessible community based and locally governed resources and meaningfully and consistently represent its users’ experience in planning and delivery. The Scottish Government’s initial plans for a National Care Service would have failed to deliver on any of these aspirations. Thanks to the efforts of Common Weal and others, notably within local government and the trade union movement, the Scottish Government has had to pull back on many of its original proposals.

While it was intended from the outset that care services for adults, with the exception of criminal justice services, were to be included in the NCS, no decision had been taken as to the future of children’s services. The Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection at Strathclyde University (CELCIS)* was commissioned to carry out a study to provide government with information that would assist their reaching a decision on how work with children was to be conducted and governed. This study has now been concluded and its conclusions published.

It is clear that its authors suffered from an absence of meaningful data that would have facilitated a decision one way or the other. For a start, the brief from the Government was vague and unspecific. In addition, the many significant variables which might impact on the value and effectiveness of an organisational model were largely ignored. It is not therefore surprising that its conclusions could not be described as ground-breaking or adding any significant value to our existing body of knowledge. Its findings mirror those of many previous pieces of work, among which are papers published by Common Weal several years ago. In relation to the future position of children’s services, in whatever entity the National Care Service turns out to be, we are none the wiser.

Sadly, this follows a well-established pattern of work commissioned or directly undertaken, usually at considerable expense to the public purse, by the Scottish Government. Like the proposal for the National Care Service itself, scant attention is paid to existing evidence and work undertaken seems to be directed towards unearthing some justification for an ideological position already adopted. Only when it is clear that either the weight of evidence against a proposal is compelling, it is found illegal or public opinion is overwhelmingly against it is a proposal sidelined (and, sometimes, not even then). To its credit, the CELCIS study at least is honest in admitting that none of the data it examined led it to reach any definitive conclusion. Instead, it iterated a list of the attributes of a good service for children which were largely irrelevant to their structures of governance (though very much related to the adequacy of their resourcing). The jury is still out on service integration, let alone the particular nature of the structures proposed for the NCS.

Probably the key challenge was finding a definition of integration that was consistently identifiable. Whether this meant any of all of pooling of all resources managed under a single authority, collaborative working at practitioner level, shared multi-agency planning or partnerships established for specific activities was not clear. Examination of international evidence largely meant comparing apples and pears, or even, in some cases, apples and motorcycles. It was also impossible to extract to what extent outcomes were attributable to governance and management and what to other factors. Finland’s positive performance may be as much to do with the level of investment in public services, the quality and qualification level of the workforce and a strong ethos of universalism as it is to do with integration of services.

The factors that were deemed to be important were, at the end of the day, factors that we all knew were important anyway – that good practice is based on developing effective and enduring relationships with people who use services, that shared understanding of ethos and objectives is essential in working across professional disciplines and good communication must underpin this, that services should be local and accessible and that the level of resourcing (including investment in the workforce) must be sufficient to deliver timeous, adequate and sustained support. All of these factors were highlighted in the Common Weal papers ‘Caring for All’, ‘Care in Your Community’, ‘Struggling to Care’, ‘Child Care or Caring About Children’, ‘What Is Care?‘ and ‘Empty Promise’, and, indeed, in many other pieces of published research.

It is disappointing that, yet again, the Government has spent time and public money to restate the blindingly obvious. The saving grace of this document is that it at least highlights some of the hallmarks of a good service and does not explicitly endorse the flawed National Care Service project.

* CELCIS was set up to conduct research and improve practice in respect of children in out of home care, though its scope now appears to be much wider. It is governed by a Strategic Advisory Board (SAB), supported by the University of Strathclyde, and monitored by the Scottish Government, its principal funder.

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