Page last updated at 17:54 GMT, Friday, 1 May 2009 18:54 UK

Red tape 'risks children's lives'

Young children
Heads want the referral system streamlined

Vulnerable children are being left in danger because a system designed to get them help quickly is not working, head teachers are warning.

Heads at the annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers say the bureaucracy involved "delays intervention distressed families need".

Schools in England must fill in an eight-page form to report concerns about a child's welfare or safety.

The government says this process helps to engage other services more quickly.

The NAHT say a small-scale study among their officials in eight local authorities, representing 1000 schools, found that no-one thought the new system, known as the Common Assessment Framework (Caf), had led to an improvement in referrals to social services of children in difficulties.

'Addict'

NAHT general secretary Mick Brookes described a case where a head teacher had visited the house of some pupils with an alcoholic single parent - their mother - because the children had not been to school.

He found the mother "collapsed on the floor" but could not get immediate help for the family because the form for referring the case to social service (the Caf form) required parental consent.

"The child is living in a highly volatile, dangerous state," he said.

"The intention of this change was for early intervention and we teachers are extremely good at identifying problems, but children are not getting the help they need."

He said about another case: "A child was going home to a family where the mother was a drug addict and her boyfriend a dealer and there was some difficulty over drug wars.

"We knew the child was going back there but could not get support from social services.

"They told me to call the police, who told me to take the child home.

"In the end we got another parent to take the child home."

'Firefighting'

Roy Tedscoe, a school leader in Haringey who represents heads and deputies in several London boroughs, said: "Most of the children I am referring need help now… and meanwhile the form is passed around and children do not get the help they need."

Another delegate to the conference, Chris Hill, a head teacher from a primary school in west London, said there had been a nine-month delay in a child being taken into care after a social worker assigned to the case went on maternity leave.

"In that time, the mother became pregnant, was abused by her husband and then lost the child," he said.

The NAHT says it recognises the pressure social workers are under and suggests they are probably too busy "firefighting difficult cases to do the essential early intervention work that can avoid later crises".

It recognised the shortage of social workers, health visitors and school nurses.

The association is calling for pilot schemes involving dedicated teams to be set up to work in schools or groups of schools to give children the "front-line services they require".

Mr Brookes added: "This cannot wait. There are children at risk in our communities right now because they are not getting the support they need."

But a spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families, said: "The common assessment framework is intended as an early intervention tool for use with children and young people with additional needs. The Caf should reduce bureaucracy.

"Many are saying that it saves time as there is less time spent finding out who else is already working with a child and fewer different referral forms to complete."



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