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Apology to schools for results bias

Government officials and consultants meet weekly to push home message that children's welfare and raising standards are interlinked

a senior government official has apologised for private sector consultants who are pushing schools to concentrate on test results at the expense of their wider responsibilities for children's welfare.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families now emphasises that its twin aims of raising school standards and implementing the Every Child Matters agenda are interlinked. But local authorities say the message has not got through to national strategies consultants, employed by the business process outsourcing company Capita and paid by the Government to help raise academic standards.

One children's services director, who wished not to be named, said her authority's officers and school headteachers and deputies had attended regional national strategies meetings where the wider aims of Every Child Matters were ignored.

"It goes from, 'I don't know anything about healthy schools or safeguarding, I am here to talk about the primary strategy,' down to, 'Your responsibility as a school is to drive forward standards. When you have dealt with that, then you can think about Every Child Matters'," she said.

Ralph Tabberer, the Department for Children, Schools and Families' director general of schools, has apologised to councils for the problem and told them he hopes it is being resolved through weekly meetings with national strategies management.

But as Capita approaches the mid point of its five-year, pound;178 million contract, councils say it is increasing pressure on schools to improve the results it will be judged on. They complain it is shifting from a supportive to a monitoring role, with authorities rated red, amber or green on a variety of indicators, some subjective.

John Stannard, architect of the national literacy strategy, advised the services provider CfBT during its unsuccessful bid for the national strategies contract awarded to Capita in 2004. He said that Every Child Matters was then still at a very early stage.

"The priority was much more the need to improve standards," he said. He speculated that greater school autonomy might make national strategies consultants anxious about meeting targets and lead to increased pressure for results.

Maggie Atkinson, Gateshead's director of children's services, said the consultants were sticking too rigidly to what was on the contract.

"A child who is unhappy, ill-fed and not listened to at home can be as clever as they like but they are not going to get a bucketful of GCSEs," she said.

Another children's services director said he did not think the national strategies consultants viewed Every Child Matters as their responsibility. "They see it as their job to look at what happens in classrooms, at the extent to which teaching and learning strategies are being applied, for example, whether we are doing the right kind of phonics," he said. "That is frustrating because you are not going to raise standards unless you address wider dysfunctional things that could be happening in children's lives."

At an Association of Directors of Children's Services conference this month, Carol White, Calderdale's director of children's services, told Mr Tabberer the national strategies consultants had not got that message. He hoped meetings with the national strategies management would help it "seep through".

The Government made good its intention to support children's welfare this week by announcing that an extra pound;1 billion will be invested in after-school arts and sports clubs so every child can take part in "fun" activities once lessons are over.

A spokeswoman for the national strategies said she had no comment.

* 'The Literacy Game: The Story of The National Literacy Strategy,' by John Stannard and Laura Huxford (published by Routledge).

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