Thursday, 4 December 2008

Tick boxes and show trials

Plenty has been written about the terrible life and death of Baby P, and I will not add to it here. But there are some wider issues about working with children and families that are worth exploring.

Not long ago, I was talking to a Children’s Centre head who asked me if she was the only one who often went home worrying about the safety of children in contact with the Centre. I know she is not. It is difficult enough being a nursery school headteacher; but with extended services and a large programme of outreach and home visiting, all of us in Children’s Centres know a little bit about a lot of vulnerable children and families. And it can be very worrying. This anxiety is made worse by the tone of the public discussion, the Sun petitions and corner-shop conversations which are more like show trials than a serious consideration of how we should undertake the difficult work of protecting children.

A nursery may be praised for its outstanding curriculum or be featured in the press with pictures of smiling children and fabulous new buildings and facilities. There is no equivalent celebration or even respect, for good social work - only silence, or sharp criticism if mistakes are made. This is not an atmosphere that encourages safe, reflective practice. It might also prompt Children’s Centre heads and other staff to respond defensively and anxiously: to turn cases away, refer them onto someone else, do anything to avoid being stuck with something which might go wrong.

This defensive response is made worse by a process of de-professionalisation which is going on in the early years and education in general. By this I mean that professional ways of working, like making judgements based on experience and wider knowledge, having discretion, and thinking carefully and critically, are being replaced by a tick-box, competence-framework approach. When you look at the inspection of nurseries and schools, the supervision of NVQ3 candidates, or the assessment of Early Years Professionals, you will see elaborate long lists, systems and measurable outcomes. They do a very thorough job, and they often miss the point entirely.

It is essential that lessons are learnt whenever a child is harmed or killed. But as well as learning lessons about procedures, processes and recording, we must do something more difficult – develop a new professionalism in children’s services.