The Scottish Government’s proposals for appointing a ‘named person’ for children have come under heavy criticism. I was puzzled at the discussion on Question Time last night, which seemed to treat the idea as a strange invasion of alien ideas. (One of the discussants compared to the intrusive behaviour of Italian police. Imagine – foreigners, and European foreigners at that!)
The idea of the named person comes from the 1978 Warnock Report on special educational needs, later prominently supported by Margaret Thatcher (who had set up the Warnock Commission while education minister). Warnock wrote:
We believe that there is a clear need for one person to whom the parents of children with disabilities or incipient special needs can turn for advice on the different services available to meet their child’s needs. This should be someone who is well known to and accepted by them. The principle holds whether the children are under five, of school age or making the transition from school to adult life. We therefore recommend that one person should be designated as Named Person to provide a point of contact for the parents of every child who has been discovered to have a disability or who is showing signs of special needs or problems.
The Named Person was supposed to offer continuity throughout a child’s lifetime. As the Warnock report argued, however, needs can occur at many points in a child’s lifetime and there is no clear, constant distinction to be made between children who have special needs and others. Extending the principle to other children is unsurprising.
It’s not a bad principle, but after more than 35 years we can say something about how the idea actually works. The system of the Named Person doesn’t, in practice, provide continuity through childhood. Some professionals, such as Health Visitors, may have a prominent early role which reduces in importance later; others, such as teachers, may take on responsibilities for a few years before the child moves on. So from an early point, the practice has been to nominate a generic official, such as the Director of Social Work or Director of Education, and any idea of continuing personal contact becomes meaningless. This is a pleasing idea that was tried and didn’t really work.