A wishlist for the new children's minister

27th May 2005 at 01:00
Barbara Hearn considers what Beverley Hughes should do next

Beverley Hughes has become children's minister at an interesting and challenging time. As Margaret Lochrie pointed out in last week's TES, the Every Child Matters Green Paper put the architecture in place, the task now is to ensure that the Government's vision for children surely if slowly becomes a reality.

How can the new minister make this happen? It is crucial that she works closely with colleagues across government in the interests of children and young people, especially those at risk of failing. This not only means forging relationships between departments: it also means linking within the Department for Education and Skills itself. In particular, the children's minister is well-placed to act as a "critical friend" to the schools minister, to ensure that schools policy is implemented with the needs of children, not institutions, at its heart. This could mean that, at long last, the schools division will confer with the children's directorate about how the Every Child Matters agenda and its five outcomes will be delivered.

We would also like to see the new minister working closely with her schools colleagues on the primary and secondary interface. It is often during this period of transition that difficulties start emerging. A child-centred strategy spanning primary and secondary sectors could improve early intervention to address a range of problems, from truanting to drug and alcohol misuse. With a shrinking population of children, it is imperative that we maximise the potential of all, not only for their own sakes, but to protect our future economic strength.

Keeping an eye on how government policy will affect children is another important area. This might cover issues ranging from transport and traffic safety to community cohesion. It should certainly include ensuring equal opportunities, where the children's minister has a vital role to play.

Recent disability discrimination law placed a duty on schools to promote equality for disabled children, while the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 warns public services that eliminating racial inequalities should be a priority. We hope that the minister will keep these dynamic pieces of legislation at the forefront of her mind in the work she undertakes.

She will also need a steady grip on changes in the early-years sector. The Government is currently proposing to place a duty on local authorities to provide childcare on demand. In these circumstances there must surely be a danger that services will be geared towards the needs of parents rather than children. Quality should be the watchword here. This means ensuring that children's experiences are rich in their own right, rather than simply enabling parents to return to work, or providing preparation for school. It also means accepting the need to consult young children - often overlooked in favour of their older and more articulate siblings - about their wishes and feelings.

Which brings us to perhaps the most important wish on the list: we hope that the minister will continue listening to children and young people themselves. A Children and Youth Board is already in the making, supported by the National Children's Bureau and the British Youth Council. This should prove a valuable asset not only to Beverley Hughes, but to her colleagues within the DfES. And who knows? With the right advocate, we may even see the kind of progress which would give children a direct voice in policy-making across government. That would really make Ms Hughes a children's minister to remember.

Barbara Hearn is director of policy and innovation at the National Children's Bureau

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