Child safety fears at joint working U-turn

4th November 2005 at 00:00
Children's services split from education in Rhondda. Felicity Waters reports

Vulnerable children in need of support could slip through the net in a local authority which once pioneered joint working between education and children's social services, it was claimed this week.

Following the recommendations of the 2003 Laming inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie, all education authorities in England are now taking the joint-agency route. But in Wales, local authorities will only have to appoint a lead director and have a lead elected member for children's services.

Rhondda Cynon Taf was the first authority in Wales to bring education and children's social services together in one department, after Plaid Cymru took control in 1999. But despite praise from Estyn inspectors for the resulting increase in collaboration, the services have been split in two again under two different managers.

Those who pioneered the merger fear it could be to the detriment of vulnerable young people. But the council says it made sense to bring children's and adults' social services together instead.

Pauline Jarman, Plaid Cymru leader in RCT, where Labour now has overall control, said: "Education and children's services are inextricably linked and we joined them together to make sure no children slipped through the net.

"In a county where poverty is a disgrace, this was where an integrated service was most needed."

Ms Jarman says headteachers have lost their one point of contact for education and social services matters relating to children.

"The merger meant that education and social services worked as one department. Children known to social services could be tracked when they entered school and offered the right support."

Other RCT councillors are aggrieved that they were not able to vote on the issue. One councillor said he first heard of it when he received the council's new organisational chart in the post.

In a report last year, Estyn praised RCT for having a "clear vision and sense of purpose" for children's services, and said that integration was starting to improve services.

Sioned Bowen, executive adviser to the Association of Directors of Education in Wales, said: "The association fully supports collaboration between departments dealing with children's matters.

"The concept of a one-stop shop can only mean that care and support for children is enhanced. Overwhelming evidence would need to be presented to overturn a system that was working well."

Dewi Jones, RCT's former group director of education and children services, retired in August, five months after the split. It is understood his job was not advertised externally, but there is no legal requirement for this.

Mike Keating, former divisional director for schools, has taken over as the new director of education and lifelong learning. Children's social services have merged with community services under the direction of John Wrangham.

The council says decisions were "properly undertaken within agreed council processes".

A spokeswoman said: "The chief executive and leading members felt children's social services would be best served by joining with the community care group, which would then cover both children's and adults'

services."

An Assembly government spokesperson said local authorities would have to produce a single, three-year plan for children and young people's services, effective from 2008.

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