A dangerous lesson to forget

25th May 2012 at 01:00
The whole-child approach has been abandoned in favour of a narrow focus on educational standards. William Stewart asks what this means for the children the policy was meant to protect

At 3.15pm on 25 February 2000, months of cruel neglect and abuse finally came to an end when an eight-year-old was declared dead.

The little girl had just suffered a heart attack, along with kidney and respiratory failure. A Home Office pathologist declared the cause of death to be hypothermia, which had developed alongside malnutrition and restricted movement.

Marks on her wrists and ankles suggested that her arms and legs had been tied together. It later turned out that she had been forced to spend days and nights lying in a bath, tied up in a black plastic bag full of her own urine and faeces. Because the girl's hands had been bound with masking tape, she was forced to eat like a dog by pushing her face towards piles of cold food.

The pathologist found 128 separate injuries on the child, showing that she had been beaten with a range of both sharp and blunt instruments including a hammer, football boots and a bicycle chain. No part of her body was spared. It was, he said, the worst example of deliberate harm to a child he had ever seen. But the pathologist wasn't yet aware of another, almost equally shocking, aspect of the case.

During the 10 months when the girl received her terrible injuries, the authorities had 12 opportunities to intervene and save her. None of them were taken.

It is worth recalling the appalling details of Victoria Climbie's suffering because they help to explain the moral impetus and drive behind the far-reaching reforms that followed.

The education sector may have played no part in the Climbie tragedy; the eight-year-old had never been to school in the UK and it was not teachers but social services, the police and the NHS that failed her. But Every Child Matters (ECM), which became the overarching title for the reforms that followed, required all public sector organisations working with children to come together to prevent any more tragedies.

It had a huge impact on everyone working in education. Schools suddenly had to ensure that they were looking after all aspects of pupils' lives. Their breakfast clubs multiplied, and they built close links with social services, health authorities and the police. Councils across the country no longer had education directors. Their fiefdoms were merged with child social care to create new children's services departments. Eventually, in 2007, Whitehall followed suit with a new Department for Children, Schools and Families.

But today, those changes are unravelling almost as quickly as they were put in place, as a new government prioritises a narrower focus on educational achievement over "the whole child". Michael Gove, education secretary, recently described the "Every Child Matters agenda" as "meddlesome", while his department says it is determined to reduce the bureaucracy and regulation it created.

So were the reforms worthwhile? And does every child still matter under the coalition?

Protection and potential

The new approach brought in under Labour in the wake of Victoria Climbie's death may have had child protection as its starting point, but it quickly developed into something much more ambitious. The Every Child Matters Green Paper followed the recommendations of Lord Laming's inquiry into the Climbie tragedy by stating that "child protection cannot be separated from policies to improve children's lives as a whole".

In other words, ministers wanted to do more than just protect children, they wanted to "ensure that every child has the chance to fulfil their potential". ECM set out five key "outcomes" for children, saying they should be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution, and experience economic well-being. Sure Start Children's Centres and "full service extended schools" - providing breakfast and after-school clubs, childcare and health and social services on site - were opened. A children's commissioner for England was appointed, the government wrote The Children's Plan and schools were given a statutory duty to promote their pupils' "well-being".

John Dunford, then general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, had some reservations from the start.

"The words `Every Child Matters' did help people to focus on children and not simply exam results, and to raise awareness of the immense difficulties that some children experience," he says. "However, I remember thinking at the time that, in some ways, this had gone too far. I remember thinking, we have put so much in place as a result of the Laming inquiry that a lot of people had to jump through a lot of hoops unnecessarily for the vast majority of children."

But for schools serving the most vulnerable and needy children, such as George Green's secondary, where staff have to battle just to get pupils to attend, the changes were a godsend. Headteacher Kenny Frederick says that they led to her school, on the Isle of Dogs in East London, having a social worker based permanently on site, while a nurse came in for a day a week to help the many pupils with medical needs.

"Every Child Matters made a huge practical difference because it brought together all the different services that we had access to," she explains. "People were more willing to engage and participate because everything was centred around the child."

It was an agenda that, to begin with, few people, including the Conservatives, were publicly prepared to take issue with. After all, how can you argue against protecting children? But several years down the line, as a new administration took power in 2010, there were some immediate and not very subtle signals that priorities had changed.

The day after the coalition was formed, the Department for Children, Schools and Families was renamed the Department for Education. The department's rainbow motif, complete with brightly coloured cartoon children - derisively referred to as "munchkins" by Conservative advisers - was ditched in favour of austere, dark-blue lettering. And when Michael Gove took office in Sanctuary Buildings it was as the secretary of state for education, not children.

These were just the big, public changes. It later emerged that an internal DfE memo was sent out after the general election specifying the new terminology that civil servants should use under the coalition. Instead of referring to "children's trusts", officials were supposed to talk about "local areas, better, fairer services". Before the election, the department's aim was that "England should be the best place in the world for children to grow up". After 11 May 2012, it was to "make Britain the most family friendly place in Europe". Perhaps most significantly, the "five outcomes" and Every Child Matters were replaced by "help children achieve more".

In fact, although the terminology and titles had changed, in Whitehall much else stayed the same. The sprawling social policy empire created for Ed Balls when the Department for Children, Schools and Families was set up in 2007, with responsibilities for everything from schools and children's centres to "families with multiple problems", domestic violence and youth services, remains intact.

And that was exactly how it was planned, and privately briefed to journalists, in the run-up to the 2010 general election. The Conservatives were keen to get on with their school reforms and so did not want the distraction of a big departmental reorganisation. But there was to be a change in emphasis. The children's agenda would not be publicly scrapped, but it would disappear from the foreground.

A shift in priorities

Matt Dunkley, a past president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS), was told the same thing.

"The message I received strongly from the government when they came to power was that they believed that Every Child Matters was right for its time," the East Sussex director of children's services recalls.

"They didn't argue with the principles behind it," he adds, "but they clearly had a belief that the focus of school activity had been in some way dissipated away from a sufficient focus on standards and that the way to improve the performance of schools was to sharpen their focus on standards in, I think, what was inevitably a slightly more narrow sense. That was the sense from the inside that I got."

Town halls already seem to have taken their cue from this message. Statutory guidance under Labour warned councils against combining children's and adult social services under a single director "without a very strong justification". And, it added, any authority going against this advice must ensure that education and children's social services were fully integrated. But since the general election, three authorities (Kent, Hillingdon and Wolverhampton) have done the opposite and split education and children's social services between two separate departments. On top of this, ADCS figures showed that currently directors of children's services are also responsible for adult social care in 36 of 152 local authorities, although since September at least five of the remaining 116 authorities have switched the other way and separated adult and children's services.

The changes will come as no surprise to Garath Symonds, Surrey County Council assistant director for young people, who last year wrote: "We local government officers like nothing more than to reorganise services in the name of transformation. Having brought all the bits of the council together that relate to children to meet the ECM agenda, the obvious thing to do is break it up again."

But there was another factor. In 2007, the very thing that ECM was designed to avoid happened again when Baby P (Peter Connelly) died after suffering more than 50 injuries. The toddler had been on the child protection register of Haringey Council - the same North London authority that failed to prevent the death of Victoria Climbie.

Afterwards, Lord Laming stood by Every Child Matters, describing it as an "outstanding statement of policy". But for Dunford, the case exposed its flaws. "I don't think there is ever a guarantee the (cases of) Victoria Climbie or Baby P will not reoccur," he argues. "There can never be a guarantee and I always thought that was what the government was trying to do - to dot every i and cross every t to ensure that never happened."

It was Dunford that the coalition turned to in 2010 when it wanted to review another central pillar of ECM - the children's commissioner. The post was, and still is, held by Maggie Atkinson, a former teacher, whose career flourished during the ECM era as she became one of the first directors of children's services, before being appointed commissioner in 2010.

In a written statement, Atkinson eventually told TES that she remains a "fan" of Every Child Matters, even though the words have "passed from widespread use". But she does not want to be interviewed on the subject. Her reluctance can probably be explained by ministers acting on Dunford's recommendation to base her responsibilities around the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, with Every Child Matters to be "dropped".

The move brought the commissioner's office into line with the language now being used by government. But on the Isle of Dogs, Frederick regrets the departure from the phrase Every Child Matters. "Dropping it has been damaging in itself because it meant that we didn't have to convince people that looking after the whole child was a good thing," she says.

At the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Lisa Harker, head of strategy and development, has also been watching these developments "with some concern". She is particularly worried about the departure from the director of children's services model, which "has been very important to provide a clear focus and point of accountability in local authorities".

But where Harker does agree with Dunford is that the biggest danger to children's well-being comes not from changes to structures, government or language, but from what she describes as the "very challenging" cuts local authorities now face. She says some have cut their children's social care budget by up to a fifth - forcing them to focus purely on their statutory responsibilities.

In a survey by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, 13 per cent of local authorities confessed to fearing for the future of children's services.

Budgetary constraints

And it is not just councils that are facing the squeeze. The ring-fencing around funding for the extended schools programme stopped in 2010, just as school budgets came under pressure and with town halls in no position to plug the gap.

Anne Longfield, chief executive of the charity 4Children, which used to help extended schools offer childcare, says that this will have damaging consequences for some of the country's most disadvantaged children.

"Extended schools provided a really important springboard and glue around the formal education of a school for those children and families who needed extra help," she says. "But they are quickly losing the support that they enjoyed for a short period of time. We are starting to see the gaps emerge where there isn't that help there, and that means more children will fall down the cracks."

Longfield says that the 18 months to two years that most schools ran extended services for was not long enough to embed the approach. She believes that the vast majority will have reduced what they were offering.

"They might still have a number of activities around the school, but in the majority of cases it won't be the dawn to dusk approach that the original vision was," Longfield says. "In some areas, support for vulnerable children of school age has just been cut from the budget completely."

The experience of School-Home Support, a charity that provides schools with parent support advisers to help their most needy pupils, backs up her fears. They work with families in which children are struggling at school because of problems at home including poverty, adult mental health problems, domestic violence, substance abuse and poor housing.

"Many teachers will tell you that getting to the kind of families we get to is very difficult for them," chief executive Jan Tallis says.

The advent of ECM and the funding that came with it "made a huge difference" as the charity expanded from working with 80 schools in 2006- 07 to 270 in just three years. Today, it is back down to 150.

But with an annual cost for schools of pound;35,000 for an adviser, is it not more important to retain teachers if times are tough? Tallis argues that such an approach would be a false economy: "You can put the best teaching on in the world, but if the kids aren't going to be there, it won't improve anything."

She adds that School-Home Support can also increase schools' pupil premium funding by encouraging more families to register for free school meals.

But those funds are already being eaten into. In March, the DfE said it was taking pound;50 million of pupil premium money to pay for its summer school scheme. The news dismayed Tallis. "The kids we work with often aren't going to ordinary schools, let alone summer schools," she says.

Longfield was also hoping that schools might use the premium to save their extended services. "But with the focus on academic outcomes within schools, we do think that the wider well-being issues around supporting children are being overlooked," she says.

Too much to ask of schools?

It is easy to see why schools might want to shift their priorities. The coalition may have been shy about spelling out a downgrading of the children's agenda, but there has been no attempt to hide its greater focus on educational "standards".

Under Ofsted's new inspection framework, introduced in January, the number of points that schools are graded on has been reduced from 27 to just five. Overall effectiveness, pupil achievement, quality of teaching, pupil behaviour and safety, and leadership and management are covered. But specific grades on pupils' spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, and the extent to which they "adopt healthy lifestyles", develop workplace skills and "contribute to the school and wider community" have been dropped. It is a change that children's charities fear will be to the detriment of some of their most vulnerable pupils.

"It would be fair to assume that hard-pressed schools will prioritise the things they are inspected on - it is human nature," Lily Carter, the Children's Society's campaigns director, warns.

Frederick agrees. "Yes, it will influence schools' behaviour like that," she says. "I hope that schools don't pay less attention to the wider well- being of children, but I think they will because there are only so many hours in the day."

But is it fair or even sensible to make schools responsible for every aspect of children's lives, much of which they will have no direct control over? Was ECM spreading schools' resources too thin? Some would argue that it is better for schools to focus on their one real area of expertise: teaching.

Dunkley, East Sussex's director of children's services, says that was what ministers were hearing from schools. "The message from some headteachers to government was that some of the things they were involved in, being done in the name of extended schools activity and a raft of other things, were a drain on their capacity to focus solely on standards."

But that is missing the point, according to Carter. "It seems to be fairly common sense that, if you are really focused on improving attainment and helping children to achieve educationally, that is inextricably linked to their overall well-being," she counters.

At George Green's, Frederick is doing everything she can to hold on to the whole-child approach, but battling with fewer and fewer resources. The school has lost its nurse, cannot afford as many hours from educational psychologists and relies on social work students instead of a qualified social worker.

"But it isn't just about the money," the head says. "It is about the principle that every child does matter and that together we can make a difference.

"Every Child Matters was the most sensible policy ever and to separate every child back into little boxes now would be a big mistake. It is kids, and the most disadvantaged ones, who suffer. They are down already and they are being kicked again."

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