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Listening role is vital for new chiefs to help young people

The two men responsible for Scotland's crucial children's hearing system would prefer not to be in the spotlight.

"Whenever you have a new organisation, or a change in leadership, that creates a risk," says Garry Coutts. "All organisations go through periods of change. We have to find our feet and get to a place where we can reassure people and they can forget about us again."

Mr Coutts is the chairman of Children's Hearings Scotland (CHS), the new agency that took over responsibility for managing 2700 volunteer Children's Panel members last year.

Last week, he announced the permanent appointment of Boyd McAdam as chief executive and national convener of CHS. Mr McAdam had stepped in on an interim basis in April after the departure of his predecessor Bernadette Monaghan, whose tenure had been a troubled one.

Indeed, the adjective 'troubled' has come to attach itself to CHS. Brought in to deliver a new national structure and standards, and respond to changes in legislation, CHS has faced external criticism from the vocal community of volunteers on which Scotland's unique child welfare system depends. It has also faced internal turmoil.

Steadying the ship is the immediate task of Mr McAdam and Mr Coutts - and they will set out their plans for change next month, with an outline corporate plan that all those involved in the system will be consulted on.

"We want to consult in the autumn, and towards the end of the year we will pull together a final corporate plan, which we will launch next spring," says Mr McAdam."

If this approach sounds a little technocratic, that is not entirely surprising. Mr McAdam is a career civil servant with nine years' experience working directly with children's hearings between 1997 and 2006. Mr Coutts is currently chairman of NHS Highland and has a background in local government and social services.

They make no apology for the approach. "The corporate planning process is one every public body has to go through," says Mr Coutts. "But Boyd and I are very clear we want to hear from people about what they think the priorities are."

Nobody is denying changes are still needed, although both men are eager to downplay the extent of past problems. "This was always going to be a big change and change is often seen as a bit of a threat," says Mr Coutts.

He reels off a list of things that might have gone wrong. "People were asking, 'Would we lose a lot of panel members? Struggle to recruit new panel members? Fail to get the organisation up and running so panel members were not ready to go live?'"

None of these happened, he points out. Some panel members have left, but there has been no mass exodus, and recruitment has met demand. The go live date agreed with ministers last summer was met.

This is all true, although the start date for the new body had to be put back. But you could also come up with another list that people didn't predict:

l Would the board and the original national convener Bernadette Monaghan fall out, leading to her suspension and eventual departure?

l Would contracting out training see all the universities that had delivered it for years ditched, in favour of West Lothian College, with many panel members still concerned about the impact on quality?

l And would a survey commissioned by the CHS board expose problems so significant that 79% of staff and board members said morale was low, while some warned of a culture of 'fear and uncertainty'?

Mr Coutts suggests these problems are now historic.

"The Progressive Partnerships report was a snapshot, and it would have been accurate at the time," he says. "It certainly highlighted things Boyd and I have to address as we move forward. Our job is about building confidence, building trust and listening to people so they can operate at the maximum effectiveness."

Problems with training have been exaggerated, he says, although after feedback, new panel members will now receive seven days of training, after a reduction to six was felt to have left training too compressed.

Many other areas are also open for review, the CHS leadership suggests, including some never envisaged at the outset. They have both been influenced by the work of the charity Who Cares?, which represents children looked after by social services.

Mr Coutts says: "We met them and they ran the meeting as a panel hearing. They kept us waiting outside and had young care leavers taking the roles of panel members and professionals."

It was an eye-opening experience, showing the difficulty young people feel in making their voices heard, and could lead to changes.

The scheduling of hearings, for instance, is an issue, says Mr McAdam. "Young people find it stigmatising being taken out of school. They would prefer afternoon or evening hearings." This is problematic for professionals, though, he concedes.

Mr McAdam adds: "If we are going to support panel members we have to look at these issues and work out how to improve the way the system operates."

Mr Coutts says: "There are limits to what we can do. Decisions are being made about their lives, that could have profound effects on them. You are never going to make it a 'fun' experience."

Meanwhile, Mr McAdam will fulfil that multiple duties of the national convener/chief executive post that was laid down in legislation. It involves being accountable to the Government, managing the system for appointing panel members, and acting as an ambassador for the panel. It is an unusual post, Mr Coutts admits, but "it is a system that can work," he says.

In terms of accountability, the Government has to be satisfied the organisation is working well. The upheaval at CHS has caused anxiety, Mr McAdam says.

He adds: "Ministers want confidence we can deliver and that panel members feel supported."

Challenges remain, although CHS appears to have been stabilised. Panel members themselves have been part of that, Mr Coutts says.

He continues: "I see panel members actively sitting on panels, completely focused on the interests of the child and making the right decisions. Our job is to make sure we remove any hurdles to that.

"I am hugely excited about this role. I'm wedded to the idea the panel system in Scotland is the right way to deal with children who are vulnerable.

"Virtually everyone else is too, he says. "Whenever I have spoken to children and young people, their families, social workers, teachers, sheriffs panel members - everybody - the amount of commitment to Scotland's unique approach is as strong as it ever has been.

"This is a great way of doing very difficult business and there is something really special here."

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