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Citywide reforms to cure social ills

Manchester is pooling its resources to help families in need, reports Clare Dean. Manchester is to shake up its education service following a critical report into the welfare of children in the city.

Money and extra staff are to be put at schools' disposal to enable them to become advice and support centres for young people and their families while nurseries and children's centres will offer help on parenting.

Radical reform in the way education and social services are provided in the city follows a 10-month study by the National Children's Bureau, believed to be the first of its kind in Great Britain.

It discovered that the proportion of children with behavioural problems in Manchester was well above the national average and that the number of children being excluded from school was gradually rising.

Council departments felt they were operating under siege. Social workers in particular believed they were being asked to carry an unfair responsibility and were haunted by fear that they would be blamed for the next death of a child.

Manchester is one of a handful of local authorities who have set up a joint children's services sub-committee with representatives from education and social services. It plans to set up pilot schemes in at least two areas in the city with the departments working in tandem.

The authority, which covers the second most socially deprived area in the country, has the second highest proportion of lone-parent households at 8.6 per cent. More than a quarter of all children aged between 0 and 15 live in such households. More than a third of children live in households with no adults in active employment. Manchester has 11.1 per cent of its families in this group, compared with the national average of 4.7 per cent.

The authors of the report, John Rea Price, director of the NCB, and Gillian Pugh, its early childhood unit director, said deviant behaviour among children could be linked to mothers and fathers lacking parenting skills.

They said schools had access to children and their families in a way that no other service did. For many children, schools provided the continuity and stability that was absent elsewhere in their lives.

They added: "The levels of need in Manchester justify high expenditure on mainstream early-years services. During the first five years of life children are laying the foundations for all later development. Any problems or developmental delays can be easily picked up during these years, and more expensive later intervention avoided."

They called for closer collaboration between voluntary and private sector playgroups and child-minders (who provide more than half the day care places for children under five) and nursery classes in primary schools so that the pool of resources available to parents was seen as a whole.

"While the provision of day care is crucial to enabling parents, and particularly women, to return to work or to continue their training, there is widespread evidence that many parents with young children would welcome opportunities to meet informally with other parents, seek advice . . . become involved in their children's education . . . and would value help in looking at new ways of handling challenging behaviour or communicating better with their children," the report added.

Early-years forums across the city are suggested to enable workers from different agencies to develop services locally for children and their parents.

A new multi-agency forum involving education and social services, health authorities and trusts will oversee progress and consolidate work currently being done.

And the council hopes that multi-agency support will cut out exclusions and truancy with clusters of schools adopting preventive rather than defensive measures.

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