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EIS wants shorter leash for children's watchdog

THE idea of a children's commissioner being enthusiastically pushed by leading groups acting for young people has run into flak from some powerful vested interests.

The Scottish Executive is officially undecided although Jack McConnell, Education Minister, has said he is "sympathetic to the idea". The Scottish Parliament's education committee is holding an inquiry and there is to be a debate at the beginning of next month.

But George MacBride, education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland, warns: "The issue of children's rights in education is a contentious one with our members, particularly when the language of children's rights is used to defend one individual's rights while failing to take into account the rights of other children. A balance of rights is necessary in order to ensure calm and orderly education."

The driving force behind the establishment of a children's commissioner is Scotland for Children, a consortium of leading children's rights organisations. It suggests a commissioner should not only act as an advocate for children, influencing the law and promoting awareness of children's rights, but should also be able to conduct investigations as "an independent watchdog".

But this proposal has drawn fire from the Associatio of Directors of Social Work which "does not envisage the role of a commissioner as being the investigation of individual cases". This should be the responsibility of local child protection committees whose knowledge and expertise would be difficult to replicate in the office of a commissioner except at significant cost.

This is one of the issues on which Mr McConnell is seeking clarity before the Executive reaches a decision. "We want to be clear about the functions that a commissioner should have and the added value that will be provided," he said earlier this year.

The situation in Scotland contrasts with that in England and in Wales where children's commissioners are provided for under the Care Standards Act 2000.

At a conference in Glasgow last week, Peter Clarke, children's commissioner for Wales, revealed that children are to be involved in every single appointment he makes in his office. Mr Clarke said he wanted "to change the way in which Wales relates to, and provides services for, its children". He would be a "champion, focus and catalyst".

The Scottish parliamentary education committee is also keen to involve children in its inquiry and is going into the movie business, making a short film so children can express their views.

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