Tom Peterkin: Getting it right for every child harder than first thought

BEHIND the angry rhetoric Swinney knows the named person law has become a hard sell, writes Tom Peterkin

Early intervention when children are at risk is seen as crucial to ensuring that youngsters fulfil their potential. Picture: contributed

Before the Scottish election, the Deputy First Minister John Swinney spoke at a conference in Perth. The topic under discussion was GIRFEC – one of these acronyms which is so beloved of the public sector but in this case refers to the principle which underpins his government’s controversial named person scheme.

For those who don’t know, GIRFEC or Getting It Right for Every Child is the strategy which is supposed to improve children’s well-being and which has the named person at its heart.

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For fans of acronyms GIRFEC is a Godsend. It has spawned the equally catchy abbreviation SHANARRI.

For the uninitiated SHANARRI stands for “safe, healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, responsible and included” – the eight indicators that a named person should think about when assessing a child’s well-being.

No-one doubts that GIRFEC and SHANARRI are anything other than well-intentioned as is the named person concept as a whole. There can be no argument with the Scottish Government’s intention to protect vulnerable youngsters from mistreatment and the sort of appalling tragedies that all too often blight or even end young lives.

But the use of impenetrable acronyms seems to sum up an initiative that is growing increasingly confused.

When Mr Swinney spoke at the Transforming Children’s Services Conference in Perth, he was in typically bullish form telling those at the sharp end of government policy (social workers and other interested parties) that the Scottish Government’s approach had to be sold strongly.

Sub-titled “Using the best evidence to get it right for every child”, the conference - held in March - heard Mr Swinney make a typically stout defence of the approach being taken by the government.

The Deputy First Minister made what he described as a “statement of the bleeding obvious in that the good of the child should be at the heart of everything”.

So far, so good.

Mr Swinney went on to make much of evidence suggesting that early interventions when children were at risk were crucial to ensuring that youngsters fulfil their potential and have the best life chances.

Such was his confidence in the approach being advocated by the Scottish Government, that he believed those involved in children’s services should take a bullish 
stance against those who disagreed with it.

“For those of you who are actively involved in this work and who may come up against the obstacles and organisations and people, I suppose what I am saying to you is you really should be pretty intolerant of all of that and really challenging about that,” Mr Swinney said.

When encountering opposition to GIRFEC, Mr Swinney told his audience that “you should feel empowered to challenge that assertively and aggressively because what should be driving this agenda is securing the best interests of the child.”

Mr Swinney’s robustness was backed up by his contention that there was a broad political consensus that GIRFEC was the right approach to take.

Since then there has been a Scottish election which saw the named person initiative emerge as one of the defining issues when it came to attacking the Scottish Government’s record in office.

The charge was led by the resurgent Scottish Conservatives and was stoked by concerns expressed by teachers and health visitors - the two professions that will take on the named person mantle.

The Tories yesterday attempted to build on the anti-named person sentiment built up during the election campaign. This was done by calling a debate in the newly configured Holyrood. An extremely passionate debate ensued with the Conservatives Liz Smith and Adam Tomkins to the fore.

“The single most illiberal law that this parliament has passed since its creation 17-years ago,” was how Professor Tomkins described the named person legislation as he called for it to be paused and re-thought.

The sharing of confidential data and the burden of increased bureaucracy causing the most vulnerable children to fall through the net were among the concerns raised by the Conservatives.

Also raised were long-standing concerns that named persons will undermine family life by being unnecessarily intrusive.

As the newly appointed Education Secretary, Mr Swinney was equally shrill in his defence of the policy which now comes under his remit.

Indeed, he accused the Conservatives of deliberately stoking up opposition for political purposes.

According to Mr Swinney, the Conservatives had “utterly misrepresented” the policy during the campaign.

But beneath the angry rhetoric, there was a significant change of tone from Mr Swinney. During the debate, the Education Secretary acknowledged there were “concerns and misunderstandings” about the policy.

“We need to get the guidance for professionals and information for the public right and that is why we will refresh these materials,” he said.

It was language which differed from the assertiveness and aggression he was calling for in Perth before the election.

Mr Swinney - backed by his SNP MSPs - is determined to press ahead with the contentious policy, but there does appear to be an acknowledgement that much more has to be done to convince the named person sceptics.