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Fears over training to help children as key leaders quit

Crucial training for people who volunteer to intervene in the lives of troubled children has been called into question after an exodus of key figures.

HELPING TROUBLED YOUNGSTERS: Children's Panel hearings make decisions on people under 16 because of concerns about issues affecting their lives.
HELPING TROUBLED YOUNGSTERS: Children's Panel hearings make decisions on people under 16 because of concerns about issues affecting their lives.

A flurry of departures from West Lothian College has raised questions about the training unit set up there last autumn.

Last June, the college won a contract from the new national organisation Children's Hearings Scotland to train newly recruited panel members, and members of the Area Support Teams, also volunteers, who help administer the system.

Appointed by the Scottish Government, the role of Children's Panel members is voluntary, but they have significant powers to take decisions about the lives of young people.

Training for such panel members had previously been provided by Scotland's four ancient universities, covering different parts of the country.

Having a single provider was intended to ensure training was uniform and of a similar standard across Scotland.

Last year, the previous leaders of courses at Glasgow, Aberdeen and St Andrews universities, Barbara Reid, Mary Philp and Judith Bell, were all transferred to work for West Lothian College as training officers under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) rules.

However, Ms Reid has now left, while Ms Philp will leave on a voluntary severance package next month. Judith Bell is also understood to be leaving. Meanwhile, Diane Mitchell, a serving panel member who was appointed to manage the Children's Hearings Scotland Training Unit at West Lothian College, is also moving on.

As the three training officers have more than six decades of experience between them the loss to the Children's Hearing system is substantial. However, concerns have been heightened because two of the three are known to have had grievances outstanding with the College before their departure.

Panel members recruited in the Scottish Government's annual recruitment drive are given extensive training across several weeks before being appointed to sit on Children's Hearings.

The system has always relied on volunteer trainers, now known as facilitators, who train newcomers in the ethos of the system, and the substantial legal issues that govern its work.

However, some trainers say materials for training courses have been late or inadequate, with tutors in some cases not seeing them until the morning they are expected to deliver them.

Two Aberdeenshire volunteer trainers and panel members, Enya Norris and Mary Fawcett, recently wrote to Boyd McAdam, interim chief executive of Children's Hearings Scotland, warning that delivering pre-service training had been "challenging" since West Lothian College took over.

"No doubt both you and the CHS board are well aware of the failure of West Lothian College to write or deliver an effective national training programme," they wrote. "It is only because of the expertise and professionalism of the training officers who transferred across from the Hearing system, and the dedication and commitment of the facilitators that training has been able to be delivered at all."

Speaking to The Herald, Ms Fawcett added: "If Diane Mitchell is going and all three training officers have gone, or are going, how can West Lothian College fulfil its obligation to deliver training to 2700 panel members and 430 Area Support Teams members, and how can it still hold the contract?"

Children's Hearings Scotland has recently undergone upheaval itself with the abrupt departure of former national convener and chief executive Bernadette Monaghan and a new chairman, Gary Coutts, appointed along with Mr McAdam, in quick succession.

Children's Hearings Scotland says it still has confidence in West Lothian College to deliver on the training contract, which has an estimated value of £3million to £3.5m over the next three years.

It is widely believed West Lothian College won the contract with the lowest bid of those who tendered for it. One change much touted under the new training arrangements was that panel members would, for the first time, receive a recognised qualification, the Professional Development Award. This is now mandatory for new panel members, and some have questioned the need for it. However, payments to the college from the Scottish Funding Council are said to have helped West Lothian bid for the contract, with the college receiving approximately £500 per panel member who completes the qualification.

A source inside the training unit said the goal of delivering uniform training across the country had not been achieved, saying: "If staff are so unhappy they are leaving en masse, someone has to ask why."

Interim CHS chief executive Mr McAdam said pre-service training was designed to make sure new panel members have the skills and confidence to take the best decisions for a child. He said: "Building a national curriculum from previously varied approaches and providers has had its challenges, but provides us with the opportunity to ensure the consistency of the training provided to volunteer panel members right across Scotland."

So far 267 panel members have successfully completed pre-service training and a further 170 will have completed it by the end of June, he added.

"The training is being delivered on time, on budget and to standard. We continually monitor quality and perceptions of both trainees and trainers. The overall picture is positive, but of course there are areas in which improvements can be made."

One area that may change is the reinstatement of seven-day training packages, said Mr McAdam. Under West Lothian College initial training has been cut to six days, leading to concerns there was insufficient time to cover all necessary topics.

CHS says the training contract is under constant review, while an audit of training will be published in December. Although the contract includes clauses that permit early termination if there are issues about course quality, CHS says such issues have not yet arisen and are not expected to.

A spokeswoman for West Lothian College said the training contract had been won through a competitive tender process and added: "The creation of a single National Unit presented an opportunity to enhance the service."

The college confirmed Diane Mitchell is moving but the spokeswoman added: "It is not appropriate to discuss individual staff, past or present. Our understanding is CHS is satisfied with the quality of our service during the last six months."

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Education

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