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In 2000, a young girl called Victoria Climbié died at the hands of her carers – a great-aunt and her partner – after an extended period of horrific mistreatment. What made Victoria’s death particularly distressing was that she was known to a range of local authority and other children’s agencies – housing departments, social services departments, the police, hospitals and a charity – who between them failed to arrive at co-ordinated effective action to save her. The subsequent independent statutory inquiry, chaired by Lord Laming, concluded that Victoria’s death was the consequence not simply of the actions of her carers, but of “a gross failure of the system”. (Laming, 2003: par. 1.18). “I am in no doubt,” Lord Laming stated,

that effective support for children and families cannot be achieved by a single agency acting alone. It depends on a number of agencies working well together. It is a multi-disciplinary task.

(Laming, 2003: par. 1.30)

The Government’s response was not simply to strengthen child protection procedures, but to view the Climbié affair in the wider context of the role that children’s service might play in combating ‘social exclusion’. In the same year as the Laming report, it issued a Green Paper with the title Every Child Matters (DfES, 2003a), proposing sweeping changes to these services:

We want to put children at the heart of our policies, and to organise services around their needs. Radical reform is needed to break down organisational boundaries. The Government’s aim is that there should be one person in charge locally and nationally with the responsibility for improving children’s lives. Key services for children should be integrated within a single organisational focus at both levels.

                                                (DfES, 2003a: 9)

Every Child Matters went on to propose a framework of desirable outcomes for children which might form the basis of common assessment systems, shared working practices, and, above all, shared goals for childhood professionals. A year later, the Government legislated, in the Children Act, 2004, to:

1. create integrated children’s services departments by combining education and child and family social care functions;

2. bring these new services together with health and other childhood services by establishing Children’s Trusts locally;

3. develop a set of shared working practices across these services; and

4. increase the mutual understanding and common skills base of childhood professionals.

On the face of it, this was an entirely rational response to the failures in the Climbié case and the Government’s wider social inclusion agenda. The Government’s thinking appears to have been that children depended, to greater or lesser extents, on the services provided by the state and the voluntary sector. Currently, the quality and effectiveness of those services was severely compromised by the organisational barriers between different services and the professionals working within them. If those barriers could be broken down and professionals with different disciplinary backgrounds encouraged to work more closely together, not only would catastrophic failures be avoided, but all children would receive a better deal.

However, rational responses of this kind have a chequered history in this field. As an early review of the evidence base for the Every Child Matters proposals concluded:

Structural reorganisation has traditionally been the dominant method of reform in children’s services. It has mainly involved adjustments to the administration and management of the organisation, including greater or lesser decentralisation, increased or decreased specialisation, the separation of the purchaser from the provider and divisions of responsibilities based on geography or function…In places, Every Child Matters is in danger of perpetuating the assumption that modifying the structure of services will result in a change of culture and better services for vulnerable children (pp.59, 70f). This cause-effect relationship is not supported by much evidence, however.

                                (Warren House Group at Dartington, 2004:  8)

In the remainder of this paper, we will examine more closely whether these fears are justified. We will suggest that the pursuit of multi-agency collaboration is more complex than a rational perspective might seem to suggest. We will also examine what seem to us to be significant ambiguities and contradictions in the Government’s agenda. However, the picture is not entirely negative. The Dartington review quoted above concludes, not that multi-disciplinary collaboration is impossible, nor that structural reorganisation is irrelevant, but that “reorganisation is only ever part of the solution” (loc. cit.). We will, therefore, also explore some promising developments that seem to suggest what else needs to be done within the context of structural reorganisation to make collaboration both possible and effective.

The problems of multi-agency collaboration

Whether facilitated through structural reorganisation or not, the history of attempts at multi-agency collaboration suggest that it is fraught with difficulties. This is not necessarily because there is hostility or opposition to the idea of multi agency work from those who participate in it.  As Farrell et al. (2006) have shown, for many years professionals working with children have valued the opportunity to work with other colleagues and have appreciated the added value that this can bring to improving services for children and families.  Payne (1998) also argues that:

…the case for treating social problems in a holistic fashion is overwhelming. People know, in a simple every day fashion, that crime, poverty, low achievement at school, bad housing and so on are connected.

(Payne,1998: 12).  

Despite this, many questions remain unanswered. For instance, the term ‘multi-agency collaboration’ covers a range of organisational forms and practices (Audit Commission, 1998, Wilkin et al., 2002). We can see this in the Every Child Matters reforms, where the same professional might well find her/himself employed by a local authority through its integrated children’s services department, delivering services commissioned strategically by a Children’s Trust, working for some or all of the time in a children’s centre or school where professionals from different agencies are co-located, and contributing to ad hoc

teams supporting particular children and families. Each of these organisational forms is a site for collaboration, yet the legal status, governance, resourcing and working practices of each is different. If we add to this the legitimate local variations in these forms –Children’s Trusts may have different partners in different places, children’s services departments may have different degrees of integration, and so on – it becomes clear that the structures within which multi-agency collaboration take place are highly variable, even within what seems like a coherent set of reforms.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, roles and responsibilities within multi-agency collaboration are equally variable. A study by Atkinson et al (2002) is unique in attempting to systematically examine the scope and success of multi-agency activity in which Education Authorities were then engaged. Frequently, respondents described roles and responsibilities as either ‘simply evolving over time’, or being ‘the result of joint discussion amongst those involved’. On this basis it is understandable that ‘confusion over roles and responsibilities’ and ‘competition between agency and individual priorities within the initiative’ were amongst the most frequently reported challenges to multi-agency working.

This points to an ambiguity at the heart of attempts at collaboration. On the one hand, collaboration requires professionals to move beyond existing working practices and procedural arrangements in order to engage in the sorts of evolutionary and negotiated approach to role definition indicated above. This in itself may result in considerable role ambiguity, inter-professional tension, and the temptation to work beyond professional competence Rushmer and Pallis, 2002, Wasoff et al., 2004). Moreover, even where the structures of collaboration are clear, there may be considerable ambiguity over its purposes and working practices (Stewart et al., 2003; Percy-Smith, 2005). Webb and Vulliamy (2001)

On the other hand, there is considerable research evidence that setting up collaborative arrangements does not in itself overcome the cultural differences between professionals from different backgrounds (Easen et al., 2000, Cameron and Lart, 2003; Harbin, 1996; Wilkin et al., 2003; Wasoff et al., 2004; van Eyk and Baum, 2002; Coxon, 2005; Johnson et al., 2003). Craig, Huber and Lownsbrough, 2004). There may therefore be limits to which professionals from different backgrounds are willing to renegotiate their roles, and fundamental differences in how they see the purposes of collaboration. Again, looking specifically at the Every Child Matters reforms, simply creating integrated children’s services departments does not in itself guarantee that teachers, social workers, educational psychologists, family support workers, youth workers and the rest will see the world in the same way.

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These problems may be exacerbated by the practicalities of finance and resourcing (Atkinson et al., 2001; Sammons et al., 2003; Cameron and Lart, 2003; Johnson et al., 2003, Wilkin et al., 2003; van Eyk and Baum, 2002; Tisdall et al., 2005). Where partner agencies remain separate, there may be disputes over who contributes what resource to the joint venture. However, even within the single organisational and funding structures envisaged by Every Child Matters, there is no reason to suppose that there will not be internal disputes about the resourcing of different activities. Moreover, when, as in the current ...

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