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Reforms will put children 'at risk'

Ministers warned that 'knee-jerk' plans uniting council education and social services may backfire. Michael Shaw reports

Plans to toughen child protection by bringing together education and social services are in danger of backfiring and creating greater risks for young people.

This is what teachers' unions, charities and educational advisers told the Government this week in their responses to its Green Paper Every Child Matters, which outlines radical reforms for children's services.

Several of the proposals in the paper received wide support, including the introduction of a Children's Commissioner to safeguard young people's rights.

However, unions said that they were concerned by plans to create local children's trusts by 2006 that bring together education, social services and other agencies. These will be managed by a single director, who will replace the chief education officer and director of social services.

The National Union of Teachers said that, although some authorities had succeeded with similar approaches, the Government's plans were potentially disruptive and could lead to areas of responsibility being confused.

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, was even harsher, describing the proposals as "an unhappy knee-jerk response to the Victoria Climbie tragedy" and "dictatorial centralist thinking".

"The proposal to establish the new post of director of chidren's services seems heavy-handed," she said. "Headlong rushing into new structures will leave the way open for more, not fewer, tragedies."

Similar fears were expressed by the National Association of Educational Inspectors, Advisers and Consultants, which said the restructuring could be "counter-productive" to the Green Paper's aims.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said it agreed with the Government that all local authorities should be required to establish children's trusts. But it added that plans for the trusts were unclear and that establishing them by 2006 would be too rushed.

Classroom unions fear the reforms outlined in the Green Paper may place greater pastoral burdens on teachers.

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers warned that the Government's attempts to reduce teachers' workload could be undermined by the proposals, which include school staff becoming the first contact with families in certain child welfare cases.

Meanwhile, the NUT said it was concerned by the suggestion that the Government will carry out similar workforce reform for all those who work with children to that which it has introduced for teachers.

The NUT said this implied that unqualified staff would be employed as social workers, speech therapists and educational psychologists.

"In social work, the undertaking of child protection work by unqualified persons could endanger children's well-being and, ultimately, lives," the union said.

The DfES said it was unable to comment on the consultation responses, although it has denied past claims that the Green Paper will place teachers in the role of social workers.

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