With the Children's Plan almost here, some heads fear the red tape involved will hinder progress. Jonathan Milne reports.The announcement of the Government's much-vaunted Children's Plan next month will not only open the door to ad-hoc testing for children when they are ready to sit them, but it will also provide the ultimate test of whether reorganised local authorities can deliver the goods for schools and children, say headteachers' associations.
Two years ago, local education and social services departments were merged into big new children's services departments. The focus was no longer on delivering services for schools but services for children. Every Child Matters, teachers were told. No kidding, they said, but do schools still matter?
The two heads' associations say that the loss of education expertise in some areas is causing relations with schools to disintegrate. In Wakefield, primary heads in the National Association of Head Teachers have passed an almost unprecedented vote of no confidence in council leadership.
Elsewhere in England, others are concerned. Brian Lightman, new president of the Association of School and College Leaders, has been travelling around the country talking to his members. He had been told that the quality of pay, human resources and computer services had deteriorated.
With the new Children's Plan, there will be a heightened expectation for authorities to co-ordinate early intervention by health, justice and social workers when a head phones up about a child who is self-harming or reacting badly to a family bereavement.
Dr John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the relationship between town halls and individual schools had worsened since the development of children's services departments.
"I simply do not believe they have the capacity to deal with the Children's Plan," he said. "It's not a lack of resources. The reorganisation has increased bureaucracy in local authorities and the workload of directors of children's services. They aren't hands-on, they don't know the schools. They are too tied up in corporate meetings."
But those who work closely with children's services departments say heads are being precious. Previously having had the ear of their chief education officer, they must now get used to dealing with children's services directors with far wider responsibilities to deliver comprehensive and integrated education, health and social services to England's 11 million children.
Contrary to popular belief, most of the country's 150 directors of children's services come with expertise in education - 93 of them previously worked in education departments, although not necessarily at the same authority.
Gordon Jeyes in Cambridgeshire, for instance, is a former teacher and education officer from Scotland. Kevan Collins of Tower Hamlets in east London was previously national director of the Primary National Strategy.
The headteachers' concerns are not assuaged. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the NAHT, said many smaller councils, such as Wakefield, had dramatically cut the number of their education officials. Many heads were doing administrative work which the local authority traditionally helped with.
In Wakefield, primary heads - generally more reliant than secondaries on central provision - lost patience and passed a no-confidence vote in the authority.
Heads had been concerned at the council's reduction of support staff and failures in delivering services. Attempts to broker a rapprochement were undermined when those same heads learnt through the local newspaper that some of their schools were threatened with closure by the council.
NAHT officials this month met the council's corporate director of family services, Elaine McHale, but said they had made little progress towards ending the stalemate.
Ms McHale comes from a social services background. Two years after the education and social services departments merged, only five officers from the original education department of about 20 are still working with schools.
She said the Every Child Matters agenda required local authorities to bring together education and social services to ensure the needs of children and their families were met, but that the council understood heads' concerns, especially about support and administrative services, and had taken steps to deal with those issues.
Peter Box, leader of Wakefield Council, met Mick Brookes after the vote of no confidence in May. "Results in our schools speak for themselves," said Mr Box. "We had the best-ever exam results this year.
Mr Brookes described the council's handling of the potential school closures as "inept", yet a reasonably typical example of problems around England.
One Wakefield school under threat is Shay Lane Primary which, according to council figures, has 38 per cent of desks in classrooms sitting empty. That figure is expected to rise to 52 per cent within four years.
David Wright, head of the 145-pupil school, said Wakefield was more than inept - it was negligent. He said the council would be wrong to close it purely because of its falling roll when it had a brand new pound;30,000 computer suite, a thriving nursery and newer buildings than a neighbouring school. "This local authority's management has been an absolute shambles and this is the final straw," he said.
Heads in some other areas are more upbeat. In Lincolnshire, the overhaul of the children's department has been so complete that there is a new director and three new assistant directors. Yet Barbara Peck, a retired head who now represents local secondary heads for the ASCL, said the reorganisation had engendered greater confidence and self-reliance.
"In the beginning it was difficult for the heads because there was a completely new vision of what services were going to be like," she said. "They felt there was no one there championing the schools. It wasn't clear who was responsible for what, and where to go for help."
That has now changed. Lincolnshire, which was in the vanguard of the movement to give grant-maintained schools freedom to buy services from whomsoever they chose, has seen increasing numbers return to the local- authority fold.
"They have a choice. Some have gone elsewhere, but most are happy with the county's provision," Miss Peck said.
Nobody expected the transition from education departments to children's services to be easy. John Freeman, the joint president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, described it as an earth-shaking change.
Mr Freeman, the director at Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council, has spent enough time as a science teacher and then a chief education officer to be blunt about teachers' complaints of more distant, inaccessible local authorities.
"We should not be involving ourselves in schools' day-to-day operations," he said. "They should be getting on with the job. The over-supportive relationship of the past has been unwound."
He admits that councils do not have the capacity to deliver the Children's Plan alone - but together with schools, police, and primary care trusts, they can do so.
Mr Freeman expected the plan to present an ambitious and clear focus on prevention and early intervention. "We must ... address problems before they become too difficult. Schools cannot do that on their own," he said.
What councils must provide
All organisations that provide services or work with young people should:
- have senior managers who are committed to children's and young people's well-being and safety;
- be clear about people's responsibilities to safeguard and promote children's and young people's welfare;
- have effective recruitment and human resources procedures, including checking all new staff and volunteers to make sure they are safe to work with children and young people;
- have procedures for dealing with allegations of abuse against members of staff and volunteers;
- make sure staff get training that helps them do their job well;
- have procedures about how to safeguard and promote the welfare of young people;
- have agreements about working with other organisations.
Director with the personal touch
When Ann Baxter (left) was appointed director of children's services, her lack of education experience meant she had difficulty even talking with heads. One mentioned the SHA to her and she thought he was talking about the Strategic Health Authority, not the Secondary Heads Association. Stockton-on-Tees heads asked: "What does she know?"
"Heads were understandably suspicious about someone without a background in education," says the one-time social services director. "I was honest about my lack of knowledge and I've learned a lot."
As a former social worker with deprived children, Ms Baxter quickly won the confidence of the sceptical heads. "In-depth understanding of working with children is important," says the 53-year-old. "It would have been just as relevant to have been a teacher or a nurse. In this integrated culture, we're all children's services."
She oversees 4,500 council officials, social workers and teachers in 82 schools. She meets every head individually every year.
From January, she is dividing Stockton into four geographical quadrants, each with integrated education, health and social services. Rather than being passed between different agencies, children and families should be able to explain their circumstances just once, then have their needs met.
John Morgan, head of Conyers School in Stockton, says heads like their regular talks with Ms Baxter. "That personal touch is appreciated," he says. "Her openness and collaboration engenders trust."