The Children Act needs you

1st February 2005 at 00:00

. but will busy school leaders shun ambitious plans to integrate children's education, health and social services? And should they be forced to join in? Phil Revell reports

Revolutionary changes in local services for children could be scuppered if schools refuse to get involved. The Children Act forces a whole range of agencies from the local education authorities to health trusts to the police to share budgets and work together to serve young people - but schools, supposedly at the heart of the system, are under no such obligation.

The failure to include schools could be critical, says Annette Brooke, the Liberal Democrat children and families spokesperson. "Current proposals will give schools even more autonomy, including ownership of land and buildings. City academies and independent schools are not even mentioned in the Act. How can the Government claim that schools are at the centre of the process unless they address this?" she asked.

The integrated services will be overseen by new local authority-based children's trusts. Ministers have repeatedly said that schools would be at the heart of the plans. But, despite heavy pressure from children's charities and councils they have held back from compelling schools to co-operate.

The TES has been told that the Government resisted calls to place a legal duty on schools because it would put them under too much pressure.

Heads backed the Government's stance. "The overwhelming majority of our members support collaboration, but we strongly opposed the requirement to co-operate," says David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

Pressure from heads also protected schools' delegated budgets from the requirement to pool resources.

Mr Hart is concerned that the "mammoth change" of the Children Act isn't being supported by adequate funding, especially at a time when schools are facing so many other changes.

But Christine Davies, children's director designate for Telford and Wrekin council in Shropshire, disagrees. Telford has been nominated for Beacon status for its work on integrating children's services.

"I do not hold with the view that schools can't afford to do this," Ms Davies said. "Schools occupy a privileged position in the public sector.

They have had year on year growth (in funding) and along with privilege should come responsibilities." She believes that schools which strive to achieve the best for children will welcome the opportunity to work with others.

"Teachers have long recognised that they can't do this job on their own.

Schools that may be reluctant for one reason or another will see what is happening elsewhere. Ultimately, they will come on board."

Schools may have to comply for other reasons. Ms Davies points out that the 2002 Education Act places a duty on schools to promote children's general well-being, as well as education, and that Ofsted will be inspecting local authority provision. "Where the legislation doesn't get you the inspection will," she said.

Telford will create clusters of schools with services for pupils' families with children at the schools.

One of those schools, due to open in September 2006, demonstrates how radically the Children Act plans could change the way schools work.

The Hadley Learning Centre in the north of the town will combine a secondary, primary and special school. It will be a purpose-built "extended" school, aiming to provide a full service, from social services to childcare, with health services, a swimming pool and youth facilities all on one site.

"A child could come into the nursery at a few months old and be at Hadley until they were 16," says Gill Eatough, its new principal.

"My role will be to run the whole shooting match; there will be a federated governing body and leadership team. Part of my work now is to create a structure for all the agencies to work together," said Ms Eatough, who moved to her new job from a headship at a rural school in south Shropshire.

But many Children Act campaigners worry that such new schools may be limited to disadvantaged areas.

And there are other problems with making schools a centre for local services. Some do not even serve a clearly defined neighbourhood, or may refuse children places. Some heads may argue their prime role is teaching and that childcare should be led by other services, and some may be keen to offer services, but only on their own terms. "There will inevitably be some schools who become quite enthused, but who want to do it by themselves," said Anne Longfield, director of 4Children, formerly the Kids' Clubs Network.

"If in six months' time schools are not coming forward, the Government may have to think again about the duty to co-operate," she said.

And Christine Davies' confidence about the influence of inspections is not universal. Last autumn the Association of Directors of Social Services joined the campaign to persuade the government to compel schools to co-operate.

The TES understands the DfES privately reassured critics that new inspection arrangements would remove the need for legal powers. These arrangements are going through parliament and the criteria for school inspection are expected to cover the contribution to pupils' well-being.

However, inspectors will only look at co-operation in new inspections of joined-up children's services. The Office for Standards in Education told The TES that individual school inspections will continue to focus on the children on roll. This means a school could ignore local requests to co-operate with other children's services, and still pass muster with Ofsted as long as in-school arrangements were satisfactory.

"It will be ludicrous for us to be held to account if schools aren't," said Andrew Christie, director of the children's trust in Hammersmith and Fulham, and a member of the ADSS children and families' committee.

"If Ofsted fails to look at schools' responsibility to the wider community, that removes any kind of semblance that this issue is being addressed."

Consultation on the draft statutory guidance ends on March 16, and on the role of the new children's directors it ends on February 18

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