Children's rights may extend to closures

Pupils may have to be consulted more fully on school closures under new plans being drawn up as a result of Government legislation.

Councils are currently taking extensive soundings over the future of a whole range of children's services, which they are obliged to do under the 1995 Children (Scotland) Act. The implications are "huge", Bob McKay, director of education in Perth and Kinross, said. "None of the ways in which schools or education authorities operate can be excluded."

Plans have to be finalised by next April and must enshrine the principles of the legislation which reinforce children's rights and parental involvement for "children and young people" (essentially birth up to 21 years).

Ronnie O'Connor, senior depute director of education in Glasgow, where 6,500 copies of the city's draft children's service plan were distributed last week, said education was "pivotal" to the legislation. Schools and councils would have to scrutinise the impact of many of the social dimensions of education such as children's health, child protection, parents' separation and divorce.

Mr O'Connor said: "The whole thrust of the legislation, of which children's services plans are just a part, is to consult on the range of these services and evaluate their effectiveness."

Schools will not be exempt. The Children Act requires case conferences and inter-agency working to be made explicit. There are other more potentially contentious areas, however, such as curriculum choice recording and school provision where children could expect to have their voices heard.

Mr O'Connor said: "The key word is explicit. We will probably have to look at how we involve young people in a wider range of decisions and consultations over school closures could be one of those. It is not often you go to any public meetings nowadays on closures where young people are not present. Often the biggest cheer in the hall is for the fifth-year pupil who launches into a passionate defence of the school."

Linda Kinney, head of children's services for Stirling, the only council to have a children's committee, agreed the Act was far-reaching and that all services had to collaborate. But, Ms Kinney said, that "does not sit easily with a budget-led approach for specific services". There was potential conflict, too, in having to address children's rights as well as the wishes of parents and the Government.

Children's plans are mainly targeted at vulnerable youngsters, particularly those in care and with special needs, and their aim is to enhance the services they receive by better co-ordination between the various agencies. The emphasis, Mr O'Connor said, is on "children in need not children in care as is so often assumed. That is why in Glasgow we are taking a holistic view, encompassing all the council departments involved in providing services to young people including parks, housing and libraries as well as education and social work."

Glasgow's population places great strain on council and health board services. Some 42 per cent of children live in families dependent on income support, 23 per cent live in lone-parent families, 3,000 children have a record of needs, 25 per cent of young people are likely to be experiencing mental health problems and just under 4,000 children have a "limiting long-term illness". These clearly impact on schools.

Bob McKay, a past president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, warns that the Act has considerable legal implications. All schools will have to review their procedures for children at risk, including the quality of reports to children's hearings, and for dealing with the consequences of family separations.

The Act's wider definition of children in need also has consequences, Mr McKay said. "We all have to ask the question: is this child's development hindered by his or her needs? If the answer is yes, that involves education. It means more assessments and more joint assessments between education and social work, which means more psychologist time."

Issues such as placing requests and exclusions will also be in the front-line. "But how great a say will children have in these decisions?" Mr McKay asks. "We will not be required to agree with the views of children and young people but you have to show explicitly that account has been taken of them and that they have had an opportunity to make their case. "

There is also a specific new duty on councils and others to provide for children "affected by disability". That includes children looking after disabled parents, but Glasgow's draft plan admits more effective information is needed so resources can be planned.

The success of the Children Act is, essentially, dependent on the collation of information which itself turns on the willingness of professionals from different agencies to co-operate. Children in Scotland believes the experience of early years provision and community care could hold lessons for the new legislation in making joint working work.

While early years reviews required under 1989 legislation showed the benefits of inter-agency collaboration, "working relationships between the statutory, voluntary and private sectors were not yet based on real equality, and organisational structures needed to be re-examined in order to have better integrated and coherent services. Basic links were lacking in the review processes with groups that had information on special interests such as children with special needs, those from ethnic minorities, children in rural areas, and lone-parent families. Timetables often worked against adequate consultation and involvement."

Inevitably, of course, the success of the legislation will also require cash. The cost of the Act for education alone is put at #163;3-3.5 million, and councils will be pressing for that to be acknowledged in next year's grant settlement.

"The financial consequences are inescapable," Mr McKay states. "Better identification of children's needs means more assessment which means more provision and more support."

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