Chair's blog

April 2018

A long time ago in a University far far away a group of academics led by Professor Jane Aldgate, Harriet Ward, Wendy Rose and Hedy Cleaver (and including a younger and slimmer version of myself) were hard at work on a new approach to child assessment for social workers.

We had been briefed by our research commissioner in the Department of Health, that what she ideally wanted was something that workers could carry in their pockets, limited to one side of paper only and that, rather like the map of the London underground, would help assessors ‘navigate’ the task of assessment, keeping the child at the centre of their thinking, whilst also taking into account established research around child development and parenting capacity, mapped against family and environmental resources (including those from all of the agencies potentially involved).

The diagram that we came up with is now well established and tends to be simply referred to as ‘the triangle’, which if you’re not familiar with, you’ll find at the end of this piece.

I was, oddly, reminded of the framework on a recent trip outside the UK, listening to the Radio One John Peel Memorial Lectures by the musician and all round polymath, Brian Eno.

Eno was talking about art and music, but was suggesting that this part of our shared experience functions like an ‘ecosystem’; in that the development and progression of music, reflects inter-connected and inter-related influences that, from time to time, result in a flowering of creativity like ‘The Sixties’, or in Eno’s case of course, Glam Rock!

This may seem a million miles away from child development, but in fact fits very well. Because, what Aldgate et al developed and represented with the triangle, was an ecological model reflecting the range of inter-connected and inter-related influences that impact on children and young people. Where positive influences, that function in the best interests of the child, result in strong development, or in contrast negative influences, result in children being ‘in need’ or worse ‘at risk of significant harm’.

But what Eno went on to say helped me greatly to understand why it is that I have always had some unease and difficulty in reconciling why it is that the notion of ‘thresholds’ really is not helpful and does not fit with a child focused and individual ecological model, when he noted:

“…the thing about ecosystems is that it’s impossible to tell what the important parts are. It’s not a hierarchy with things organised in levels, with the important things at the top and less important things at the bottom. Ecosystems aren’t like that, they’re richly inter-connected and co-dependent in many many ways. And if you take one thing out of the ecosystem you can get a collapse in quite a different place, they’re constantly re-balancing.”

In this sense the notion of service thresholds, misses out completely on the complexity and uniqueness of each child’s individual developmental ecosystem. And indeed the notion that we can apply a generic threshold inherently moves away from an approach based on assessing and meeting children’s individual needs, toward a ‘menu driven’ one size fits all service. It’s important for all of us as safeguarding professionals to recognise this contradiction, because the seeming attraction and plausibility of thresholds continually pops up, especially at times of limited and stretched resources.

For professionals, thresholds can appear attractive because they are tangible and specific. No professional judgement (or concomitant responsibility!) is required. You either are entitled to a service or you are not. Thresholds appear to offer simple clarity, and often an argument around fairness, in that all get the same and none get more than others, is raised as simple justification. Thresholds also appeal to auditors, inspectors and other ‘bean counters’ who strive to evaluate safeguarding in almost actuarial terms, who worry that lack of thresholds will result in loss of control over resources. From this perspective, agencies who say ‘we don’t use thresholds’ can consequently be viewed with circumspection verging on suspicion, that something is going on and that there is an alarming lack of consistency and specificity!

So Eno’s lecture usefully reminded me that thresholds, although superficially attractive, simply don’t work in anything other than the most basic and simple of circumstances. Our commitment in Leeds as a safeguarding partnership to Restorative Early Intervention, is inherently child focused, individual and ecological. Assessment of child development and whether a child is ‘in need’ or at risk of significant harm’ is a sophisticated and highly skilled professional activity, the nuances of which are completely lost through the application of crude thresholds, and there is nothing unfair about meeting a child’s needs when assessed, whether doing so requires either more or less than another family in different circumstances.

What Eno expressed better, talking about music, than I have ever heard anyone talking about child development and safeguarding is the potential ‘richness’ of the developmental inter-connections for each child. Moreover the opportunity for a reciprocal ‘flowering’ of culture where safeguarding and developmental needs are more generally met. Perhaps something we should strive to remember when arguments for explicit thresholds emerge as they will in the future.

Chairs blog April 2018 The Triangle