Editorial - A flawed safety net is better than none at all

25th May 2012 at 01:00

"I didn't get into teaching to become a social worker." That was a typical grumble from teachers when the previous government introduced Every Child Matters, its well-intentioned drive to meld education with social care in the name of protecting the young.

School leaders tended to be better at feigning enthusiasm. Several genuinely believed that the scheme would result in greater holistic support for children, and were not just going through the motions because the initiative's "outcomes" had been crowbarred into Ofsted's checklists.

But three child protection disasters illustrate why we might wish Every Child Matters good riddance. The first was the case that ostensibly sparked the initiative to begin with: the horrific death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie. The only time Victoria ever attended a school was in France - where her teachers quickly raised concerns and alerted the authorities. Her guardians then moved to the UK, where they deliberately kept her out of schools altogether.

So England's education system was blameless in this instance. Yet it still ended up facing as much structural change at local authority level as social care did, with Every Child Matters merging the two to form children's services departments.

The darker irony was that a few years later it would be precisely those changes that would be publicly blamed for Haringey's failures to protect Baby P. How had a former education director with a background as a headteacher ended up the boss of social workers? Why had Haringey's child protection work been inspected - and given a thumbs up - by a schools watchdog? The answer was Every Child Matters.

If you think that incident was the final nail in the initiative's coffin, you may have missed last week's Crown Court case in Grimsby. A mother and stepfather were jailed for keeping their two teenage boys locked up at home, forcing them to stay in their beds for up to a month and keeping them so malnourished that neither had gone through the normal physical changes of puberty. Both boys were only allowed out to attend school and college, and it was one of their tutors who alerted authorities last year, bringing an end to their imprisonment. But their suffering started in 2004 - the very year that Every Child Matters came into effect - and continued for six years, unnoticed.

So powerful reasons exist to damn the whole initiative. But the alternative is even more alarming.

Hundreds of schools are now splintering from local authorities to take on the independence of academy status. This has its advantages, but some child protection agencies are now confused about who their contact should be. Do they still ring up the local authority, or should they be setting up new relationships with the academy chains - or even each individual school?

Meanwhile, ministers seem to regard the initiative's goals as distractions from schools' core purpose. No longer do children need to "enjoy and achieve" - just achieve. Even if keeping pupils safe and healthy were still an official priority, local cutbacks are making it harder for schools to bring in specialised support.

Every Child Matters may have over-complicated the relationship between teachers and social workers. But the next child protection disaster will be even worse if we replace it with nothing at all.

michael.shaw@tes.co.uk.

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