No more room for neglect
Last week I presented certificates of achievement to 100 or so young people who are homeless or in care and who have been attending Coram Family's education service over the past year. Despite their apparent detachment, there was very real pride at what were, for many, the first exam passes that they had achieved - and some exceptionally creative poetry, short stories, art and design work were on display. These were young people who had, for the most part, been let down by the system - their individual needs unmet, their education neglected, their home lives unsupported.
It was in order to intervene earlier and more effectively in the lives of vulnerable young people, and in response to the appalling death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie, that the Government set up the review that has been published this week as the Green Paper on children at risk.
Many of the Green Paper's proposals have already been announced - Margaret Hodge's appointment to the new post of minister for children and families; the bringing together within a new directorate in the Department for Education and Skills of responsibility for children's social care, family policy, childcare law, Sure Start and Connexions (but not, sadly, children's health, youth justice, or schools); and the piloting of children's trusts in 35 local authorities. But looking at the Green Paper as a whole is to realise the potential for real and lasting change in keeping children in the centre of the frame - not least through the welcome appointment of a children's commissioner.
In co-ordinating children's services, many local authorities are ahead of the Government. Children and young people's strategic partnerships, often involving health, the police and the voluntary sector as well as education, social services and leisure, are becoming more common, and the new children's trusts will make such integrated arrangements more straightforward. The issues of accountability that Lord Laming highlighted in his report on Victoria Climbie's death should be resolved with the appointment of a director for children's services within each local authority.
The Green Paper recognises that supporting all children better through well co-ordinated mainstream services is the right place to start. Children's centres are the perfect model for providing "joined-up services" to local families, providing not only education and care for young children, but also support for families, with appropriate input from health and social services.
This model is to be extended into schools, many of which are already involved in home-school liaison initiatives. But an approach which sees all schools as central to the multi-agency teams which will deliver children's services is going to require different priorities for headteachers and staff and a lot of new skills.
Teachers have increasingly found themselves in the role of social workers, but having focused for so long on the standards agenda, how easy will it be for schools to become the focal point of intervention for children at risk? Research evidence shows that the Green Paper's focus on early intervention and family support will help to improve standards - but do all ministers at the DfES really buy into this?
Some of the more radical proposals from earlier drafts are left tantalisingly vague in this final version - for example, the strategic objectives for children and young people on which the children and young people's unit has already consulted nationally. Rather than the plethora of often conflicting targets from different government departments, this approach assumes that there are a number of things to which all children should be entitled and to which service providers should respond collaboratively. These were grouped under five main headings: being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution, and economic well-being. This model is already being used by the strategic planning committees in many local authorities, and it is to be hoped that Margaret Hodge will make it a priority within government.
The Green Paper provides a bold vision of how, as a country, we can change the culture by providing services that respond better to the needs of children, rather than to the interests of different service providers working within their own professional silos. But a key to professional change has to be training - and whilst recognising that shortages of appropriately trained staff are a major problem, and that joint core training for all who work with children should be a high priority, there is no mention of additional funding to support the implementation of the Green Paper. Unless the Government finds more money, the paper's fine words will come to nothing.
Gillian Pugh is chief executive of Coram Family