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Putting a name on it

April 5, 2016

Hello! My name is Seán – and I was a “named person” for nearly forty years.

It shouldn’t feel like it, but some of the ill-informed reaction to the Scottish Government’s proposal for a “named person” to safeguard young people seems to suggest that anyone favouring the idea should admit to that position only apologetically.

However, I have no intention of contributing to the frequent and depressing aggression which can characterise Scottish political discussion online, but I would like to offer information from experience which might clarify how such a programme can work in reality.

The assumption of those who seem alarmed by the prospect appears to suggest that a “named person” will be, de facto, a “state snooper”, eyeing young people and their families with suspicion at every turn, seeking to uncover family secrets.

This is a familiar fear to me.

When I stated that I was a “named person” for nearly forty years, I was referring, initially to my career as a guidance teacher, which commenced in 1976, just eight years after the far seeing Scottish Education Department paper which proposed a guidance system was issued in 1968.

My introduction to guidance, then, came after approximately a school generation of pupils had been part of such a system. Colleagues reported that, at the start of the guidance structure, the cry from some parents and outsiders was that this was unwarranted interference in family affairs and an insult to the integrity of the family unit.

However, by the time I was in post, when parents and schools had had some time to experience the scheme in action, the reaction was rather different. The record showed that the best of Guidance in Scottish schools provided a support to children and families when they most needed it – whether it be related to academic progress, or the elements outside of school life which can hugely affect a young person’s development and well being.

In my career as a guidance teacher, my pupil caseload varied from 60 to 200 – and eventually, as a depute head in charge of guidance throughout the school, I had ultimate responsibility for the wellbeing of around 1200 pupils

With the numbers of pupils for which guidance teachers had responsibility, the notion of “spying” or “snooping” was laughable. The original guidance remit was defined as the need for every pupil to know “there is one teacher who knows them well”. In practice, this eventually meant guidance staff receiving extra training so that they could be alert to anything which might suggest a child’s wellbeing was being compromised in some way – and this could refer to academic progress or to health, social or emotional concerns.

Realistically, with over a hundred pupils to support, this generally meant that the signs had to be quite blatant: situations where staff would not need to go ‘snooping” to have cause for concern.

It is also worth noting that, in my first register class of 28 pupils, only three came from single parent families. In my final years of teaching, it was not uncommon for more than half the pupils in any group to come from single parent or “remodelled” families.

As the child of a widow who lost my father when I was 5 years old, I was always well aware of the added sense of responsibility felt by a parent bringing up a child alone or in changed or challenging circumstances, and their appreciation of support or affirmation from neutral sources outwith the family. This is not a prejudgement of single parent families but rather an appreciation that the logisitics of safeguarding a child where there is only one carer, or where new family arrangements are in place, are sometimes, though not always, more challenging than in a nuclear family.

Good guidance staff had the trust of pupils, colleagues, and parents, and would therefore be in a position to assess the situation and offer whatever support was appropriate. It was a question of working together in the best interests of the child. “Guidance” was not something which was “done” to a child or family, it was a structure of support when needed – and accepted.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned by a guidance teacher – and this will also apply to “named persons” – is to listen to the young person. I sometimes worked with children whose home circumstances suggested a level of intervention by appropriate agencies would be helpful and positive. Not infrequently, these pupils let me know, in various ways, but very clearly, that as far as they were concerned, my operating in their “best interests” would be to treat them “like every other pupil”. In other words, their only chance of any “normality” was in school – and over zealous or hasty intervention might take that way from them, no matter how well intentioned or seemingly “necessary”. Safeguarding a child can very often mean “being aware” rather than “taking action”.

In mid-career, I was trained in the use of Child Protection Guidelines, and I then became a trainer myself. Although I am recalling the early 1990s, it is not hard to remember some of the initial reaction when we suggested up to one in ten children might have been exposed to emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Many found themselves unable or unwilling to believe this possibility – which, as we now know in hindsight – gave abusers the strongest possible cover for their activities.

For those of us who had worked in Guidance for over a decade, this new training and awareness, provided us with an image of pupils and families, going back to the start of our careers, whom we now realised had been asking for help, but in times when we had neither the understanding nor knowledge to respond. We learned how abusers target the vulnerable, those with least ability to reject them or report them. Often this was in obvious situations: for many years, children who communicated using sign language would, quite literally, have no means of telling of their abuse, leading to perpetrators targeting work in such settings as a means of access to victims. Less obviously, many young people – through lack of vocabulary or articulacy, or through embarrassment, as well as out of fear of the perpetrator, found it impossible to share what was happening to them.

When “named persons” for child protection were appointed in schools, when Personal and Social Education programmes made it clear to staff, parents and pupils who these people were, and where trust had been established through a professional and caring approach to pupil support, it became easier to share concerns – for all members of the school community. It was understood that there was a member of staff who would not be “shocked” by a disclosure of abuse, and who would be trained in how to deal with it; the awful feeling of isolation from which victims often suffered was eased by the knowledge that others must have undergone similar experiences.

This, in turn, led to pupils being more comfortable in speaking to staff, staff finding it easier to consult with the “named person”, and expertise and training being used appropriately to assess the situation and plan joint action if it was needed.

Being “named person” for child protection was easily the most stressful part of my long career as a teacher and management team member in schools. It was an area of the job where one was aware one had to get it right. I always appreciated the care, support and concern of colleagues in school and in in other agencies, and I always felt the responsibility was well worth carrying if it was in the best interest of the pupils and if it took some of the burden off my colleagues. It was also an area of working and caring which multiplied my already high respect for the strength of families and their mutual love and resilience. As with all education, as a teacher, you were working best when you were also learning.

For those whose concern overt the Named Person Bill can be reduced to “Quis custodiet, ipsos custodes?”, I think it is crucial that joint working between agencies in support of the structure, as is intended, acts as a double check on all decisions and actions. The opinion of one named person alone may be enough to instigate initial inquiries, but the opinion of one person should never be final in determining onward decisions.

As report after report shows us, unless agencies work together, in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust, children will be failed. My own experience suggested that, irrespective of political and management declarations, establishing effective joint working called for huge commitment, teamworking and endeavour from all the professionals on the frontline – and this, too, will be needed from all those who are named persons. The fact that this has been sometimes difficult to achieve in the past cannot be used as an excuse to leave our most vulnerable young people open to abuse of any kind. As the Children Scotland Act reminded us – professionals at all times must act “in the best interests of the child” – this is not an aspiration, this is a contractual requirement.

So I have suggested that named persons will not be “snoopers”, but they will be people who know the children well enough to be “aware” if they, or their families, need additional support.

However, in a sense, this is replying to an agenda set by those who oppose the Bill. My own reaction to the proposals, when first I heard them, came from a diametrically opposed direction.

The most angry and combative group of parents I worked with as a teacher, guidance teacher, and school manager, were those who had children with additional needs. Often their approach to the school would be aggressive from the start and, at first, I would wonder why this was. When we gained their trust and they saw that we were focused on supporting their child to full potential, they would often share their frustrations. They tended to approach the authorities in an aggressive frame of mind because, often since the child’s birth, experience had taught them how hard it was to access even their child’s basic rights, never mind the additional support that could make such a positive difference. Their default position had become: “if we don’t fight for this, we won’t get it.”

Often they had been worn down by being passed from agency to agency, from official to official – and these were the folk who were more or less “bureaucracy-savvy”.

I’m not sure that those who have not experienced the struggle for support can recognise how monolithic and impenetrable “authority” can seem to those without self confidence or articulacy in their armour. Sadly, many simply “give up”, defeated by years of not knowing who to talk to or how to talk to them to make progress in support of their child.

So my prime understanding of the Named Persons Bill is to give a voice to those folk – those in need of support or access to power, those too shy or embarrassed or frightened to speak to a family member, those who need to share a concern or a problem with somebody outwith their immediate circle.

It is a chance for everybody – and none of us can predict when support might be needed – to know that if they have a concern or a worry, if they want to share something or ask for help, there is somebody who is tasked with being there for them, somebody, if you like, who can be held to account for the state’s duty to all its citizens, somebody who knows how the system works and is in a position to make it work for the person who most needs its support.

In short, it is the government saying: if we are not carrying out our duty of protection – through this person you can hold us to account.

There are, of course, those, and you’ll find it a common view in the USA, who think state accountability for its citizens is pernicious, an unwarranted interference, a sign of “the nanny state”. They are unlikely to accept this Bill and will continue to insist that we are all responsible for our own wellbeing. That is their right, but I prefer a model where we take responsibility for each others’ wellbeing, where the common good er trumps the desire for personal advancement.

Thankfully, in Scotland, despite the social challenges we face, the chances are that the vast majority of young people will not have cause to contact their `named person’ – it will just be a name on an official form.

However, as part of that majority, I think it is our duty to care for the minority who need our support.

That is my view, based on nearly 40 years of working with young people, and having responsibility for many of the most vulnerable.

And I will be perfectly happy to have somebody “named” who is accountable for ensuring the support of the many who can, is given to the few who cannot.

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