Cut the red tape and put children centre-stage
The British seem particularly confused by their children, sometimes portraying them as sentimental objects, more usually as young demons. Children are rarely seen as total entities. Adults divide them into the components of health, education, social services and, finally, criminal justice.
Children play little part in determining the compartments into which organisations and professions press them. It is, therefore, hardly surprising when some children, and particularly the neediest, kick against definitions which have little to do with what they feel about themselves.
Schools are there to teach, not to provide a social work service. However, the child with pressing, unresolved, social and personal needs often cannot learn and will disrupt the education of others. Failure at school almost invariably features in subsequent delinquency, family breakdown or mental health problems.
The services concerned with these problems are rarely involved in anticipating or preventing such problems. They have to wait until the child qualifies for their attention by manifesting the appropriate symptoms. By that time, however, the problems are often intractable, expensive and nearly impossible to resolve. Meanwhile, schools struggle on bravely and often unsupported, with the next generation showing early signs of failure.
Of course, there are many illustrations of imaginative cooperation between services, but usually these happen more in spite of the system than because of it.
Why do we place our services in such a relation of mutual impotence and frustration with each other? History plays a large part as do differing professional cultures but, over the last decade, things seem to have got worse as financial and other pressures - for example, the national curriculum on schools - have pulled services back from collaboration in the area where early intervention is possible.
We find it difficult to put our children centre stage. Britain was hardly an enthusiastic signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its continuing resistance has meant the changes in attitude and approach that have taken place in other European countries have passed us by.
A Gulbenkian Foundation enquiry, Effective Government Structures for Children, is the latest report to expose the slow progress. It points to the failure to give children political priority and, indeed, to their invisibility. British statistics and other information are hard to come by. In contrast to Denmark, children are not the subject of a national annual report.
Coordination between Whitehall departments is inadequate, leading to inflexible and inefficient use of resources. There are few initiatives to promote children's responsible participation in society, so it is no wonder young adults now show diminishing interest in the democratic process.
The report calls for a fundamental change in the national mind-set, with a senior cabinet minister and a cabinet committee backed by senior officials to oversee the development and monitoring of a coordinated strategy for children in the UK.
The Gulbenkian report recognises its agenda is one that must be tackled locally as well as nationally and that the culture of conflict rather than collaboration which has grown up between central and local government has not helped. Authorities, such as Manchester, with whom the National Children's Bureau has been cooperating in developing cross-service initiatives, have confronted an obstacle course of trenches - incompatible legislation, guidance and funding arrangements - dug by central government.
The Children Act 1989 placed on local authorities a duty to promote the welfare of children, particularly those in need. At the same time, however, other legislation obliged local education authorities to devolve resources to schools, diminishing their capacity to fulfil the Act's aims. Pressures of the national curriculum and growing competition between schools has resulted in less willingness to handle challenging behaviour. Increasing numbers of children excluded from school flow into social services residential accommodation where annual costs range between Pounds 40,000 and Pounds l50,000 per child year. Government guidance on child protection has resulted in resources being concentrated on defensive investigation of complaints and propelling children and families through a court system which does little to serve protection.
A similar preoccupation with process rather than services has been identified in the recent Audit Commission report on young people and crime, Misspent Youth. The cost of investigation and court process has risen to nearly Pounds l billion a year, vastly more than initiatives aimed at preventing crime. To increase by just one fifth the number of children cautioned rather than prosecuted could release Pounds 40 million for expanding preventive initiatives.
More can be done at local level, and the Audit Commission's recommendation for a comprehensive strategy initiated by the chief executive keys with the mandatory duty now placed on local authorities to produce Children's Services Plans. It means that the money in the system has to be looked at across departments and recognising that an initiative in one sector - for example, schools increasing or reducing exclusions - may generate large costs (or savings) in another.
Manchester, for example, spends Pounds 7.7 million a year on less than 300 children - too much, too late on too few, as the council leader says - but only Pounds 4 million on supporting children showing early signs of school failure.
Manchester has given itself seven years to reverse these figures. It has also set up a pump-priming fund of almost Pounds 1 million toward initiatives which it hopes will see fewer young people ending up in expensive specialist settings.
A network of pilot projects has been established where staff from across the services are grouped in support of small clusters of schools and early years centres. These groups will have support available at an early stage, allowing bodies, such as social services, which have hitherto come in at the end of the line, more effective access to children and families in the neutrality of a universal setting which does not further stigmatise those already troubled.
No local authority can initiate such projects on its own. Central government must act to ensure that, for example, the Department for Education and Employment does not treat special education needs and challenging behaviour - a discipline issue - as distinct conditions. The Department of Health and DFEE must demonstrate a shared awareness of the problems of exclusions, and Grants for Education Support and Training programmes should be linked with comparable social services initiatives.
DFEE's local behaviour plans provided for in the new Education Bill must be compatible with Children's Services Plans as well as the youth crime strategy proposed by the Audit Commission.
The outright rejection by Home Office ministers of the Audit Commission's analysis of the misuse of resources underlines the prevailing myopia in Westminster. Perhaps only the Treasury has the clout and breadth of vision to drive the Gulbenkian agenda forward.
Why not be hard-nosed unashamedly and base the arguments for a coherent national policy for children on the social and economic costs which can be saved from tackling recidivism and social breakdown at an early stage.
John Rea Price is director of the National Children's Bureau.