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Are colleges ready for childcare challenge?

The Children Bill proposes radical changes to protect youngsters. Will it deliver? Linda Blackburne reports

Thousands of childcare and nursery workers will need to be trained by colleges to satisfy demand created by the Children Bill.

Staff in FE colleges will also have to be retrained to satisfy the legislation's requirement that health, education and social care professionals share information regarding children at risk.

The Bill - called Every Child Matters - was published on March 4, with royal assent expected by September. But just days before its publication few colleges seemed to be prepared for the radical changes.

Detailed funding costs have yet to be calculated, although the Government has given pound;100,000 to all unitary and county councils to help them develop better information sharing.

A total of pound;134 million will be given to local authorities over three years to develop children's centres under the Chancellor's drive to expand childcare in deprived areas.

The Green Paper that preceded the Bill was written in response to the death of Victoria Climbie, the eight-year-old girl who died from malnutrition and hypothermia in February 2000 after months of abuse by her aunt, Marie Ther se Kouao, and her boyfriend Carl Manning.

The new legislation will create directors of children's services in all local authorities as well as a children's commissioner to act as an independent champion for children and oversee the integration of services for children and young people into trusts.

"Workforce reform" is a key part of the legislation and brings a major challenge to the FE sector.

The Green Paper said: "Our goal must be to make working with children an attractive, high-status career, and to develop a more skilled and flexible workforce. Over time, and subject to consultation and resources, the Government would like to develop a package of measures to deliver this."

Colleges will have to train the 180,000 childcare workers to fill the 1.15m new childcare places being proposed. More speech and language therapists and nursery teachers will be needed.

Staff will have to identify children at risk and be able to offer support to those with minor problems. All professionals who work with young people will be trained in child development and about parents and family life, child protection and listening to and involving young people.

Child protection legislation applies to all young people under 19, including college students.

Carol Gibson, principal of Waltham Forest college, London, praised the Green Paper's aims but was sceptical about putting the proposals into practice. Staff in Waltham Forest are trained in child protection but Ms Gibson expects that the Bill will require teachers to be retrained on refresher courses.

The college, which has 2,500 16 to 19-year-olds and 300 14 to 16-year-olds, already works closely on campus with Equalities, a company which specialises in disability issues. It also hopes to offer a medical service soon.

Manchester college of arts and technology offers comprehensive support to its 2,500 16 to 18-year-olds. It provides free breakfasts, 300 childcare places for student parents, and an enrichment programme for its 500 16 to 18-year-olds who live alone. The college also employs 12 youth workers who act as advocates for students.

Maria, 18, a student who is under police protection and lives in sheltered accommodation, got help from the college's guidance unit to fill in grant forms and claim travel costs. She also received pound;160 for equipment she needed for her catering course. The unit liaised between Maria and the police when she was unable to attend college.

At Worcester college of technology 460 students have already visited the college counsellor since September, and extra care is being given to 20 homeless teenagers.

But principal Chris Morecroft says the counsellor's caseload often becomes "intolerable".

College expansion has brought an increase in the number of students with criminal records. "The growth is a success, but when you widen participation, you need support networks," he said.

Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality at the Association of Colleges, is also sceptical about the Bill.

"This is a case where we really need the rhetoric to become a reality," she said. "We have different systems operating in different parts of the country."

Ms Norrington maintains that the colleges already have "an impressive record" of supporting students of all kinds.

So it remains to be seen whether the Bill can put these radical changes into practice.

Since 1945, there have been 70 public inquiries into cases of serious child abuse in Britain. In many instances, it has been found that the same errors have been made time and again.

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