Minister must now build on family foundations

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Margaret Lochrie urges Beverley Hughes to attend to parents'


As Beverley Hughes contemplates her brief as the new minister for children, young people and families, she has the advantage of the legacy of her predecessor, Margaret Hodge, in the form of a template for the reform of children's services.

Every Child Matters, a framework of 150 local-authority-led programmes for change, together with plans for extended schools, children's centres, improved work-life balance for parents, a new children's commissioner and a rising entitlement to universally free childcare, aims to transform outcomes for children.

She might also consider whether she now has the bigger challenge: ensuring that the architecture which has already been constructed can bring about change for the millions who suffer from poverty and other disadvantages during childhood.

Many children are failed by their parents, or by the services created for their protection. According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, every week, at least one child dies as a result of an adult's cruelty and 600 are added to the child protection register. In inner-city areas, more than 43 per cent of children have considered suicide and one in six children under the age of 11 has attempted suicide, according to Bully OnLine, the UKNational Workplace Bullying Advice Line website. Among children aged five to 15, 8 per cent suffer from an emotional disorder; this rises to 20 per cent in families where no one is working. In this context the five outcomes for children set out in Every Child Matters, to be healthy, safe, to enjoy learning, to make a positive contribution to society and to have economic well-being, could hardly be more desirable or urgent.

The reconfiguration of schools, nurseries, health and social work as integrated frontline services, is the product of New Labour's more mature second term. Local children's services directorates and children's trusts face a massive change programme and will want the security of adequate funding. They and the voluntary organisations which will be central to the Change for Children programme may hope for an open door to the minister, with consultation on early findings and the opportunity to help develop central strategy.

More fundamentally, a third term gives time to reflect on what might be needed to achieve greater equality of opportunity for all. This might include the recognition that the best way to secure children's interests is through a continuous exchange with parents.

Research shows that the family plays the most influential role in a child's educational success. Every Child Matters signals an intensified relationship between the state and the family with each of the five outcomes for children matched with a corresponding requirement for parental support. But if parents lack economic well-being, or health, or education, how are they to provide these for their children?

The main remit for family learning rests with the Learning and Skills Council. But it also features in other policy initiatives, including the Children's Fund, Sure Start, Neighbourhood Renewal, and the Five-Year Strategy for Children and Learners. Relevant to nearly all the key policy agendas, it lacks an overall strategy focused on the needs of families themselves.

Evaluations of family learning suggest that it can bring a range of benefits, from more confident parenting to progression to further education. There is a highly persuasive case for universal access, according to need, available in the same way as ante-natal or primary healthcare.

Childcare, education, health and welfare services are part of a necessary span of policies in the service of children. More compelling, however, is the question of how a new settlement can be reached with parents to build not only a more child-centred society, but the economic and collective well-being which would be its hallmark.

Margaret Lochrie is a director of Capacity, a children's services think-tank

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