All together for the sake of children

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Far-reaching reforms to protect young people were published this week. Dorothy Lepkowska and Michael Shaw report

The Children Bill is the most radical reform in living memory to services for young people, Margaret Hodge said this week.

The children's minister said teachers, doctors, police, social workers and other professionals would have to make drastic changes to the way they work.

Speaking before the publication of the Bill yesterday, Ms Hodge told The TES: "We are saying to all of these people, 'Push down your boundaries and think in a new way.' This is a huge challenge and it will be a long journey to full reform. We will only achieve our objectives if we work together for the good of our children."

The Bill fine-tunes last year's Green Paper, Every Child Matters, written in response to the Laming inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie. It is expected to pass through Parliament by the end of the year.

Under the proposals, agencies and schools will work together closely to identify children at risk.

Laws which have hampered the sharing of information between education and other services will be scrapped and all children will be given an identity number. Those who get support from more than one service will be assigned a "lead professional" to take responsibility for them. It is not clear how often this will be a teacher.

Extended schools will be created in each borough as a hub where families with problems can get help, and all local authorities will appoint a director of children's services in a new over-arching role.

A children's commissioner will be appointed by next spring to provide an independent voice for young people and children's trusts will be set up to oversee services.

Ms Hodge said: "The individual child must be at the centre of everything.

The whole focus must be one of prevention and intervention. There will be a duty of partnership and co-operation."

She dismissed fears that the extended schools plan would jeopardise the Government's standards agenda. She added: "We will only reach the standards agenda if we ensure that every child is given the opportunity to fulfil their potential. And we will only have full inclusion when every child is able to achieve."

Her remarks came as concern grew over the details of the Bill.

Children's charities fear that sharing of information between services could put children at risk.

Eileen Munro, a child protection expert at the London School of Economics, said a database would record intimate details such as parents' mental illness or drink and drugs problems.

"This radical intrusion could put children at greater risk - not just from paedophiles hacking in to get details of vulnerable targets but also by distracting professionals from offering help to families.

"They will focus on children who are already in trouble rather than preventing future problems."

Ms Hodge said information would only be disclosed on a need-to-know basis and that a flag system would be used to identify those most at risk. Two or more flags against a child's name would require the relevant agencies to discuss the case.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said schools would welcome prompt responses from social services, but added:

"I'm worried that the broader responsibilities on schools will take headteachers' eyes off the ball, away from teaching and learning."

Pressure for closer links between agencies grew this week after it emerged that fears about Ian Huntley had been voiced two years before he killed Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.

The inquiry into the murders by Sir Michael Bichard heard how Roger Davies, deputy head at Immingham school, Lincolnshire, spelt out his concerns in a fax, which was never seen by police, in which he alleged Huntley had slept with two 15-year-old girls.

This week the National College for School Leadership announced a new project to support the Bill's recommendations. It will set up a community leadership scheme to promote collaboration between schools and local communities.

Maggie Farrar, who is heading the scheme, said: "It is the only way forward if we are to break the debilitating link between poverty and under-achievement."

Platform 23; FE focus 2; leader 24; friday magazine 8

Main points

* Laws which currently prevent information-sharing among agencies will be scrapped

* Every child will have an identity number

* A "lead professional" will be assigned to, and have responsibility for every child who receives support from more than one service

* Extended schools will be created to provide a one-stop-shop for vulnerable families

* Key services for children, including education, will be overseen by children's trusts, each led by a local authority director of children's services. Local authorities will be allowed to retain separate education and social services departments

* A children's commissioner will provide an independent voice for young people.

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