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Services for children: training needed to tackle complexity of new labour’s joined-up approach


Making New Labour’s multi-agency teamwork approach to modernising government effective is a complex challenge, and training to make it work must be planned and funded, warns important new ESRC-sponsored research into delivering children’s services.

Joined-up delivery, involving both public and voluntary organisations, is a central tenet of the Government’s aim to make services more efficient and effective. But, says the study led by Professor Angela Anning, of Leeds University, until now the way this major shift in policy is being conceptualised and implemented has scarcely been examined.

The research found confusion, for instance, between the concepts of multi-disciplinary and multi-agency work. And it identifies lack of training in effective management of multi-agency teams and managing change as two key issues which must be addressed.

Researchers investigated five multi-agency teams operating in children’s services in England, covering youth crime, mental health, special needs provision for under-fives, neuro-rehabilitation and assessment of child development. Agencies and specialists involved included police, court workers, psychologists, social services, probationary, voluntary sector, education and health professionals.

The study found that heavy demands are made on the professionals involved in implementing multi-agency teamwork in terms of their need to rethink their roles and switch to different kinds of activities and working practices.

A main focus of this new way of working is the sharing with others of information perhaps previously restricted to those in a particular specialist field, with an expert understanding of its language and practices.

Attempting to share information more widely may create anxiety and conflict and affect the way teams work together - setting for instance, medical versus social work; education versus care.

Researchers found that during meetings about major decisions, jargon could be used to ‘exclude’ some team members from contributing fully to discussions. Use of jargon was often associated with high status specialist knowledge, for example within medical teams, or acronyms used by educational or social services groups.

There can be confusion, says the report, in how best to use generalist and specialist workers within teams, and differential pay and working conditions can cause resentments if not addressed openly as part of an overall strategic plan. Changing roles could threaten professionals’ sense of themselves as specialists when teams worked towards ‘blurring’ responsibilities to create generalist workers.

On the other hand, individuals spoke of the creative energy released by operating as a team, when professionals felt their newly developed professional knowledge both enhanced their career opportunities and improved users’ experiences of services.

Others spoke of feelings of loss as their roles changed. In particular, specialists such as a teacher, health visitor, nurse or special needs nursery nurse, felt they had lost the particular identity they had brought with them to the team from previous mainstream work. Those who were part-time, seconded, or not employed by a lead agency in the team, seemed more uncertain and stressful about their new professional identities within the groups.

Professor Anning said: “We found that the quality of team leaders, including their ability to insist that diversity was a positive thing and that the knowledge and skills of all members should be given equal value, was crucial in confronting and resolving conflicts.

“Emphasis on new ways of working can be exciting and enriching, but it requires funded time to work through the challenges of sharing knowledge, expertise and working practices.”

Becky Gammon | alfa
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