One for all at one-stop shop

20th February 2004 at 00:00
The new Children's Bill will assert that there is such a thing as society. Diane Hofkins explains why it will transform schools.

The Children's Bill is due to be published next month, and could receive Royal Assent as early as September. The rumbles of expectation within the education world are growing louder.

When the Every Child Matters Green Paper - written in response to the Laming inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie - appeared in September 2003, the focus was largely on what it said about child protection. But its impact will be much, much wider.

Philosophically, it is about providing joined-up services for children and putting families at the heart of policy. Contrary to the famous words of Margaret Thatcher, the paper asserts that there is such a thing as society.

It is widely agreed that the Children's Bill and the accompanying report will bring profound change for everyone in the education system. It is just that it is hard to visualise just what that change will feel like.

The Government wants at least one school in each community, and eventually all schools, to become one-stop shops for children and families to gain access to any service they need, from education (obviously) and daycare to healthcare, social work and family support. This won't necessarily mean that heads have to manage all this - but these groups will all have to work in harmony and trust each other. The Government is making pound;133.6 million available to local authorities for extended schools over three years.

The policy represents a shift which may seem symbolic, but could mean big changes in working practice. Services are to be built around those who use them (children, families), rather than those who deliver them (education, social work, speech therapy).

The children at the heart of the Green Paper are those with a number of needs - one child, for instance, might come from a troubled family, and have speech problems and emotional difficulties. Their beleaguered parents should be able to go to the school, where a friendly staff member will help them with minor problems, and arrange for them to see everyone they need to.

The school would have a parents' centre, providing support and learning opportunities. The children's services professionals, rather than thinking about the child only in terms of their own specialism, would be expected to work in concert, using the same framework for assessing needs and concerns.

One person, again probably someone at the school, would be responsible for overseeing the provision for each child. Who would these staff be? The deputy? A teacher? A learning assistant? Someone else altogether? It will probably vary from place to place.

How much of this will really happen and how much is ministerial daydreaming? Again, hard to tell. In part it will depend on the will of individual heads and other leaders, partly on local authorities, and partly on the trickle-down effect of the structures that are set up.

The toughest part will be to get professionals with completely different ways of working and ethical codes to understand each other. When you are talking about children at risk, what is confidential? To doctors, almost everything. To teachers, quite a bit less. In fact, social workers have been quite shocked at the sort of staffroom gossip about children they hear in schools. How do you strike the balance between privacy and protection?

Teachers might also be shocked to discover how they are viewed by much of the childcare world. Childcare workers often feel looked down upon as mere technicians, and fear that education's preoccupations with targets and national test scores will skew after-school provision toward homework clubs rather than much-needed recreation.

What's going to make it all happen? In part, structural change. Under the Children's Bill it is expected that every local authority will have to have a director of children's services. Children and families departments will be organised to integrate provision. Then there will be the Office for Standards in Education, whose teams will include childcare inspectors for extended schools and children's centres. Chief Inspector David Bell is keen to ensure that the inspectors take account of the Green Paper's emphasis on raising standards for children with special needs and from disadvantaged backgrounds. Given the power of inspection to drive the system, fear of Ofsted could yet again shape what schools do.

It is to be hoped that the changes will come about because, as David Hawker, director of children, families and schools in Brighton and Hove, says (see below) it is the right thing to do. Thinking in schools is already beginning to change. One primary head put it this way: rather than asking herself if she is delivering what is required, she will have to ask herself if she is meeting the needs of the children.

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