Are we putting pupils' needs top of the schools' agenda?

5th October 2007 at 01:00
The new plan aims to transform support for young people, building on Every Child Matters. But has that policy made a difference, asks Louisa Barnett

VICTORIA CLIMBIE was just eight years old when she was killed by her guardians. Until her death, the police, social services and local authorities were all in contact and noted signs of abuse. The judge in the murder trial described Victoria's death as "blinding incompetence", as all involved failed to investigate properly.

The Every Child Matters programme was one of the most significant responses to the inquiry into her death. Launched in 2004, it said all children, whatever their background or circumstances, would have the support they needed to "be healthy", "stay safe", "enjoy and achieve", "make a positive contribution" and "achieve economic well-being".

To achieve these five aims, organisations from hospitals and schools to police and voluntary groups would be expected to team up and share information.

Three years on, the Government is consulting on its Children's Plan. Due to be published in December, it will set out what can be done to improve opportunities for children and, specifically, meet the five aims of Every Child Matters. So how well has that agenda fared?

Gordon Brown has already shown a willingness to focus on support for young people not just through the Children's Plan, but also in the decision to break up the Department for Education and Skills and create a super- department covering children, schools and families.

Almost everything that schools do seems to fall under the aim that children "achieve". Vetting of teachers and the drive to create extended schools with breakfast clubs are among the activities that also fall under the programme's banner.

Like most teachers, Peter Robinson, head of Bishops Park College in Clacton, Essex, is familiar with Every Child Matters.

"There is not a single school in the country that doesn't agree with keeping children safe and healthy," he said. "But what schools need to examine is how deep they want to go into it. It's very easy to touch the surface, but if you really want to get to the core of what supports children, that inevitably means supporting their family."

Bishops Park is a base for a multi-agency team, with mental health, sexual health, drugs and alcohol counsellors among the professionals there a practical and common example of how the policy can be implemented.

But the school has gone further. Since it opened in 2002, Bishops Park has been arranged into three "mini schools", with pupils from Years 7 to 11 taking most lessons in their sections. There is also thematic teaching in key stage 3 and mixed-ability teaching throughout.

Mr Robinson said the structure paralleled the philosophy of basing services around the child, even though the school might have introduced it anyway.

"We secure good relationships between the child, family, teacher and community first," he said. "That relationship is what children's learning is built on."

The concern among some children's organisations is that schools are not yet linked closely enough to other services.

Paul Ennals, chief executive of the National Children's Bureau, said: "The direction of travel is right, but the Government is still way behind target on integrating children's health services with social care and education."

One of the most tangible changes for state schools has been the combining of education and social services in local authorities into children's services. So in February Confed, the education directors' association, merged with the Association of Directors of Social Services to form the Association of Directors of Children's Services.

John Coughlan, its joint president, said information-sharing had improved between agencies, but the real benefits were yet to be seen. "The Government hasn't moved forward as quickly as we would have liked," he said, "but that's because there's so much to do, such as give more support to schools and services outside them."

Beverley Hughes, minister for children, young people and families, said: "I do not expect people to get there in a matter of minutes. This is changing a complete system. The changes are huge and fundamental, but the most important thing is that children and families have to be at the heart of the way these services operate.

"It's about pushing forward the integration of different services. This is a massive transformation of the way schools are operating."

Ms Hughes sees no conflict between Every Child Matters and the drive for schools to improve results.

"Schools can't improve levels of attainment and close the gap between privileged and disadvantaged children unless the family issues are dealt with," she said.

"I'm not saying the role of teacher should merge into that of the social worker. But the school is a universal service, so they are in a unique position to identify when something is wrong. It's then that the other services come in to support the children and family."

Victoria Climbie's fate was sealed when signs of abuse were not properly investigated. Concerns were first raised when she was at school in France. Sadly, she was never registered in England, so there were no teachers to see what was happening. But her death has begun a process that has the capacity to improve the lives of children wherever they are in the UK.

How a child's death shaped a new policy

February 2000: Eight-year-old Victoria Climbie dies.

January 2003: Victoria Climbie inquiry final report published.

September 2003: Every Child Matters green paper published.

November 2004: Every Child Matters: Change for Children published. The national framework sets out two main changes for teachers: the creation of extended schools and a new system for information-sharing. Three linked initiatives are also to be developed: a common assessment framework, an information-sharing index (now known as Contact Point) and a lead professional for children seeing multiple agencies.

The Children Act 2004 paves the way for setting up an information database. It creates the first children's commissioner and makes authorities promote co operation. Schools and GPs do not have a direct "duty to co-operate".

December 2004: Ten Year Strategy for Childcare published.

March 2005: Education and skills select committee inquiry raises concern about staff training and funding.

March 2005: Children's commissioner appointed.

December 2007: 10-year Children's Plan to be published.

2010: All schools in England must open to pupils from 8am to 6pm, all year round. They must also refer children to specialists who may be based on the same site, support parents and allow community use of facilities.

More than 600 documents relating to the Every Child Matters agenda can be found at: resources-and-practice

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