Is the murder of eight-year-old Anna Climbie a tragic one-off or proof that an overhaul of the child protection system is needed? Thelma Agnew reports on how opinions have been polarised

The grim story of how eight-year-old Anna Climbie was tortured to death by the couple who were supposed to be her carers, and let down at every turn by the professionals who could have saved her, will not be easily forgotten.

All the agencies involved admit that 'the system' failed Anna.

Press coverage of the case put the system in the dock, alongside the little girl's murderers. Surely after such an appalling tragedy nothing less than sweeping reform will do?

In fact, if the statutory inquiry set up by health secretary Alan Milburn does recommend major change when it reports in September it will dismay many professionals involved in child protection.

They believe the Climbie case is not representative of the system as a whole, which they feel is improving.

John Ransford, head of social affairs, health and housing for the Local Government Association, says critics should hold their fire until the inquiry, led by former chief inspector of social services Lord Laming, has established what really happened.

'I want to know more about what went wrong in this case - whether it was system failures or individual failures. If it is individual failures we do not need to change the system. I take a much calmer view of this than the NSPCC.'

The radical prescription for change put forward by the National Society for the Protection of Children was widely reported in the days following the conviction of Anna's murderers. The charity claimed that the rate of child homicide in England and Wales had not dropped over the last 25 years, with one or two children killed each week. It called on the government to introduce a national strategy to prevent children dying from abuse and neglect, including targets to reduce child killings, and child death review teams to investigate all suspicious or unexpected deaths.

Mr Ransford dismisses these proposals as the 'instant solutions' of a campaigning organisation.

He is equally unimpressed by the argument for a single-agency child protection service, first put forward by Sir Louis BlomCooper in 1985 when he chaired the Jasmine Beckford inquiry, and reiterated by him in the wake of the Climbie case. Though 'superficially attractive', it would not be able to encompass the huge range of services, from health to housing, implicated in the Climbie case, says Mr Ransford.

Sir Louis claims the single agency approach works well in the Netherlands.He says as long as the distinction between social care and health in the child protection system remains, children will continue to fall through the gap. The fact that the Climbie tragedy occurred despite the improvements to the system in the 1990s shows it is time to take this radical step, he argues.

In the debate about child protection, even basic data is controversial. The NSPCC's claim that there has been no decrease in the rate of child killings in a quarter of a century is disputed by Colin Pritchard, professor of psychiatric social work at Southampton University.

His research suggests there has actually been a significant reduction in child killings, with Britain's rate currently fifth lowest in the world, compared to third-highest in 1974.

The Association of Directors of Social Services is, like the LGA, inclined to view the Climbie case as exceptional.

ADSS president Moira Gibb goes so far as to say that Britain's integrated child protection service is 'probably the most sophisticated in Europe and one which many professionals from other countries envy and admire'.

The NSPCC is standing by its claims, and says that changes in the ways in which death rates are counted explains the discrepancy between their figures and Professor Pritchard's. The charity's head of child protection awareness Chris Cloke insists the real death toll far exceeds the official figures, because so many cases occupy a 'grey area', with abuse misdiagnosed or disguised by a 'natural' cause of death such as pneumonia.

'There is a lot of ignorance about child deaths. A national strategy would provide a greater understanding of the circumstances in which children are killed, which in turn would lead to better prevention, ' he says.

In deciding who to blame for Anna's death, the media has been almost spoilt for choice. A social worker, police officer and doctor were all named and shamed.

Consultant paediatrician Dr Ruby Schwartz - the lead child protection clinician at Central Middlesex Hospital - was condemned for misdiagnosing Anna with scabies. Amid all the furore the trust tried to point out that its internal investigation found nothing to suggest that Dr Schwartz acted inappropriately at the time.

Haringey social services, as the lead agency in the Climbie case, has faced the most ferocious criticism and last week was placed on 'special measure' by Mr Milburn, which requires it to implement an action plan under the close scrutiny of the social services inspectorate.

The council's director of social services, Anne Bristow, accepts, of course, that something went disastrously wrong in the handling of Anna's case, but the problem areas are not as glaringly obvious as press reports have suggested.

She denies that the unit was starved of funds or that Anna's social worker, Lisa Arthurworry, was clearly ill-equipped for the job. 'She was qualified - she had two years' post-qualifications experience. We have an on-going training programme.'

Ms Arthurworry is suspended and four managers are being interviewed about their role in the case as part of an internal management investigation. All staff are also being sent on child protection refresher courses - a measure which is intended to boost their confidence as much as their skills. 'Morale is very, very low. Staff are suffering constant abuse from the public. We have had people coming in off the street and shouting, 'You murderers' at reception staff, ' says Ms Bristow.

The risk that the Climbie tragedy will exacerbate problems in child protection services by becoming yet another stick with which to beat frontline social services and medical staff worries Dr Harvey Marcovitch, press liaison officer at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

The expectation that doctors should rescue at-risk children ignores the complexities of diagnosing abuse and the legal limits on their role: a paediatrician who warns social services that a child is being abused (as Dr Mary Rossiter did while caring for Anna Climbie at North Middlesex Hospital) has no power to force action.

Dr Marcovitch claims that doctors who diagnose abuse are also increasingly at risk of being 'harassed' by parents and harangued by defence lawyers in what is still a brutally adversarial court system. 'Quite a lot of paediatricians are running scared.'