Case study: Devon children's trust

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Every Child Matters, the title of last year's green paper, sums up neatly what motivates people to work in education. When Devon successfully bid to become one of 35 pilot children's trusts, bringing education, social services and health together, I was delighted to be asked to chair it, especially when I discovered its membership.

We are all used to working with people in mainstream education, but seated around our table are also the chief executive of the county council, the director of social services, the clinical director of a local healthcare trust, the chief executive of the teenagers' welfare body Connexions, representatives from Sure Start, the Children's Fund, and parents' and governors' organisations, as well as the lead councillors for education and social services, one of whom is now lead member for children's services. It is a rich mixture.

Our starting point is the five children's rights described in the green paper: the right to be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve the most out of life, make a positive contribution and have economic wellbeing. When you see children who miss out on some, or all of these, it can rip you to pieces. There are tragic cases of young people who suffer severely during this most influential period of their lives, while their more fortunate fellows enjoy love and affection, care, and a decent education.

Some are homeless. Others are physically or emotionally abused, unhealthy, absent from school, or ravaged early in their lives by environmental factors that will shape them forever, if no one intervenes.

We have to be interested in the whole family, not just a particular child, for sometimes it is parents or carers who need support, so that they can, in turn, do their best for their charges. Intervention must come in the early years, hence the presence of Sure Start on the trust board. Parents of children born with a disability, for example, need help from the beginning. A few years ago a colleague of mine at Exeter University, Professor Bob Burden, carried out a study of the mothers of physically disabled children. Some felt guilty at having given birth to a child with medical problems, though, of course, they had done nothing wrong. Most eventually developed back problems from lifting and moving their growing children.

Better communication and co-operation among professionals from many backgrounds is essential. There is a long and distinguished record of community policing in Devon, yet police officers report very different experiences when they go into schools. In some it is clear who their contact is, while in others nobody seems to know, so they wander round trying to find someone.

Our emphasis is on changing ways of working and co-operating, not on setting up elaborate structures, or smothering people in yet more bureaucracy. Everyone wants to do the best for children, but circumstances do not always help them. An innovative series of child and adolescent mental health workshops is just beginning in Devon, allowing professionals from schools, health, social care, youth and voluntary services to work together.

A few years ago one of our researchers at Exeter University visited a couple of truants at home. The two lads sat on a sofa watching television, fit as fleas. Why were they off school? "I've told them," their mother revealed, "one day they'll come home from school and find me dead on the floor, if I've had one of my turns." No wonder the poor boys missed out on their education, terrified their attendance might kill their mother. But schools on their own cannot cope with what is really a family mental health problem. You can't fine someone for being mentally ill.

Among the early projects of the Devon children's trust is the opening of a centre for vulnerable adolescents in Exeter. Youth support workers, teachers and other professionals will be able to give advice and support on pregnancy, substance abuse and other sensitive matters. Another multi-agency initiative is aimed at broadening the skills of those who work in early years services, centres and school-based nurseries.

The original driving force for Every Child Matters was the report into the death of Victoria Climbie. Sometimes good can emerge from catastrophe, and the introduction of children's trusts is one such example. Yet it would be easy to overreact and swamp professionals with so much form-filling and accountability that they are prevented from doing their job.

The Devon children's trust will have been a success if we can bring together professionals from different disciplines and get them working together for the benefit of all children, not just the ultra vulnerable.

Ted Wragg is chair of the Devon children's trust and emeritus professor of education at Exeter University

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