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'Big ears and no teeth' warning

As the Children Bill moves closer to law Michael Shaw reports on fears of diluted role of the new commissioner.

The most significant changes to education services for decades are due to be put in place as the Children Bill heads towards Royal Assent.

A final debate on the Bill, which Labour ministers have described as "the small Bill with the big heart", was held this week in the House of Lords.

Teaching unions have been broadly supportive of the legislation, which aims to make staff in education and other public services work more closely together to improve child protection.

But the National Union of Teachers said it still has outstanding concerns about plans to abolish education directors and replace them with directors of children's services.

The passage of the Bill through Parliament has been dominated by debates over parents' rights to smack their children and plans for a network of databases with information on every child.

Conservative MPs said that the databases would amount to "Big Brother for children" and might distract attention from the small minority of young people who needed the greatest support.

But Labour ministers argued that they would only contain a minimum amount of data and were crucial to help prevent cases like those of Victoria Climbie, the eight-year-old who died after being tortured by her great aunt and her great aunt's partner.

The creation of children's centres has also concerned those involved in Sure Start, the programme for pre-school children, who are worried funding may be diverted from them. Chancellor Gordon Brown said in the summer that pound;100 million would be made available to create 2,500 children's centres by 2008, with local authorities responsible for developing them.

But it is still not clear whether the cash will be ear-marked specifically for the development of the centres.

Professor Norman Glass, one of the pioneers of Sure Start and chief executive of the National Centre for Social Research, said he was excited about the children's centre programme, but added: "I am somewhat nervous about the lack of detail on how it will work and how much money it's going to get."

Teachers are expected to be able to highlight the computer files of pupils where there are concerns so that social workers and doctors can contact them, but they will not put personal details about the child on the system.

For local authorities, one of the greatest disappointments has been that the Children Bill does not force schools to cooperate with other local services which demand their help.

An attempt to amend this was defeated after Margaret Hodge, the children's minister, argued that schools would not need such compulsion.

Another issue of contention has been the role of England's first Children's Commissioner, whose powers appear to be weaker than those of similar commissioners in other countries.

The expenditure per child on England's commissioner is expected to be around 24p, compared to pound;3.80 for his or her counterpart in Northern Ireland, pound;2.11 for Wales and 98p for Scotland.

Opposition MPs argued that England's commissioner would have "big ears and no teeth".

Liberal Democrats attempted to amend the Bill to get the commissioner's job description changed from "promoting awareness of the views and interests of children" to "safeguarding children's rights and interests". They failed.

However, the Bill was altered to place a duty on the Children's Commissioner to take children's feelings into account and to introduce a national minimum allowance for foster carers.

Mrs Hodge has dismissed claims that the new post is too weak as "absolute academic nonsense" and said she expects that England's commissioner will make her and other ministers' jobs very difficult at times.

The minister was today expected to launch consultation into the move to replace directors of education and social services with overall directors of children's services.

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the NUT, said it would be a mistake for many authorities to abolish the role of education director because it might reduce their ability to work with schools.

"We believe there should be directors of education because 50 per cent of what local authorities do is about education. It's true that there are some very good directors of children's services already, but we do not think it is necessary to introduce them in every authority," he said.

The Bill is seen by the Government as just a part of its children's strategy, which includes an increase in the number of extended "open all hours" schools.

What the Bill will introduce

* A Children's Commissioner for England.

* Directors of children's services and a lead council member for children in all local authorities, responsible for education and social services.

* Children's Trusts to be responsible for schools and children's centres.

They will also co-operate with other services.

* A system of local databases containing basic information on every child.

Professionals who work with children, including teachers, will highlight files if they have concerns they wish to share with others, but will not write the concerns on the system.

* A lead professional responsible for children who are under the care of multiple agencies. For many, this may be someone in school.

* A board in every authority responsible for "safeguarding children", normally chaired by the director of children's services.

* Parents will risk prosecution if they smack their child and leave a visible mark or cause mental harm.

The vanguard

Name - John Harris. Age: 48. Job: Director of children, schools and families at Hertfordshire county council.

Career: Secondary school teacher, education authority adviser and inspector, director of education at Westminster 1999-2003. Worked for Capita Strategic Education Services before taking up his present post in October last year.

Salary: pound;125,000.

John Harris jumped at the chance to be at the helm of Hertfordshire's combined children, schools and families department. He has long believed that meeting the needs of the child is the best way of raising school standards.

Hertfordshire has been at the forefront of restructuring departments to implement the Children Bill.

Mr Harris said one of the lessons learned has been that schools had to be partners in promoting children's well-being.

He has three deputies who are in charge of schools and standards; social care and prevention; and commissioning, performance and resources.

Mr Harris said the inspection framework within the Children Bill was crucial: "Without that there are warm words but no real substance to it."

Name - Lisa Christensen. Age: 48. Job: Head of social services at Norfolk county council since 2002, becomes its first children's director in the new year.

Career: Director of community health services in Bradford, executive director for social services and health improvement in Lambeth, south London Salary: About pound;120,000 Lisa Christensen says schools will be at the heart of the new department of children services in Norfolk: "Schools are where children are and that is why it makes sense to have them at the centre," she said.

She believes her social services background will help her build partnerships. Her priority will be to build confidence and allay fears that the Bill will detract from a focus on school standards.

No decisions have yet been made about the structure of posts to support the new director. The existing posts of directors of social services and education will be abolished, although a director will still be needed to maintain responsibility for adult social care.

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