Ministry for children believed overdue

20th June 1997 at 01:00
Research on the high social and financial cost of exclusion argues that one answer is for Labour to set up its promised children's department. Nicolas Barnard reports.

Britain needs a Ministry for Children, if schools and other agencies are to work effectively together to stem a rising number of exclusions, the Government is being told.

Kicking disruptive children out of school is a hugely expensive process which ultimately fails to help the children fit into society, a London conference was told this week by Carl Parsons, who has carried out extensive research into exclusions and their cost.

Dr Parsons, a researcher from Canterbury Christ Church College, which organised the conference on success in combating exclusions and managing discipline, called for better training for teachers in behaviour management, and for more inter-agency work. But he said the key was a national ministry which would "stitch together" the work of schools, social services, health, police, the youth justice system and others - and put children at the centre of the process.

"I'm not greatly confident in the inter-agency arrangements we have seen at the moment. I would much prefer to see a ministry for children, or children's department, where all the professionals were line-managed and budgeted within a single organisation."

Dr Parsons has estimated that education authorities are now dealing with up to 20,000 excluded children a year - 13,500 excluded during the year and the remainder still excluded from the year before - and that the annual cost to the country is some Pounds 60 million.

"The damage has taken place, the kids are out of school and people are having to do repair work," he said. "The very act of exclusion is a punitive one.

"If there were a way of supporting children and schools in organising a transition to another form of education more appropriate to the child it would be much better."

He said a change in public opinion was needed to end the naming, shaming and exclusion culture - most alarmingly seen in the vilification of a Nottinghamshire schoolboy, in the baying for blood at the James Bulger trial, and in John Major's remark "We should understand less and condemn more. "

The conference also heard from Marion Bennathan, who chairs the Association of Workers for Children with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties. She cast doubts on the success of multi-agency initiatives adopted so far by local authorities and the Government and said action needed to be taken much earlier in children's lives to prevent damaged and disaffected youngsters being excluded in their teens.

Mrs Bennathan, founder of the charity Young Minds, was a last-minute replacement at the conference for a Government speaker; she took the opportunity to remind the new Government. "The Labour party promised, in the dim and distant past, a ministry for children. I would like to know when we are going to get that ministry."

She reported her experience of the children's service plans which local authorities are now required to draw up, bringing together different agencies to create a more unified service for children on the "at risk" register. She believes that the plans are being made without consulting the teachers and social workers in day-to-day contact with disturbed or disruptive children.

Children were still being let down by long-drawn-out assessment procedures which meant effective intervention often came too late, she added. "Good guidance is to intervene early and intervene confidently."

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