Re-drawing boundaries

31st October 2003 at 00:00
The children's Green Paper will change the landscape of school life, writes Margaret Lochrie

The biggest shake-up of children's services for 30 years is built around a simple but persuasive proposition - fitting care and education around the child rather than the other way round. And if the minister for children can drive though the necessary reforms, it might turn out to be New Labour's finest and most far-reaching achievement.

More than four million people work with children in England, including teachers, childcare workers, health professionals and social workers.

Without them, children's lives would be immeasurably depleted. Yet up till now there has been little attempt to address issues of recruitment and retention, divergent pay and conditions, or the need for an integrated framework which would allow the best efforts of all to achieve the maximum benefit.

The calamitous fate of Victoria Climbie, and other abused children, represents the extreme manifestation of a society in which too many children are trapped in poverty, pessimism, low expectation and poor heath.

The Green Paper Every Child Matters will bring social workers, health workers and family support staff into schools, borrowing from the model of Early Excellence Centres. As well as high-quality care and education for children, the Early Excellence model provides a substantial stakeholding role for parents through support groups, family learning and other activities.

The idea of schools as a "one-stop-shop" is appealing and so, too, is the news that a workforce development strategy to rationalise training and to boost recruitment is being considered within the Department for Education and Skills.

But perhaps the most profound significance lies in the possibility of a fuller integration of care and education, not just in the early years but throughout school.

Education has for too long been based on a tradition of separating children from their environments for the purpose of intellectual development.

No one could deny the central importance of the purpose, but the world has moved on in its understanding of children in a more holistic sense and the power of family and community as a context for learning.

The problems in schools, such as truancy and behavioural difficulties, are a reflection of wider social issues.

The training of teachers continues to reflect the pre-eminence of cognitive skills and curriculum. Yet teachers, particularly in the early years and primary, spend more time with and get to know children better than perhaps anyone outside the children's immediate families.

Good teachers instinctively broaden their knowledge base and skills to become experts in family and community dynamics, and to understand the emotional and social factors which will have a bearing on the child's capacity to learn. All too often, the problem is the lack of time or support available for these considerations.

Within the early-years field, the otherwise welcome and innovative development of a foundation degree as a pathway from level 3 qualifications to qualified teacher status, missed the opportunity to include more of the competencies - management skills, engagement of parents - which a modern nursery manager or pre-school leader would need.

Every Child Matters will alter the landscape of school and classroom life.

Teachers will continue to play their specialist professional role, but will be joined by nurses, childcare professionals, social worker family support teams, youth workers and others.

And if the needs of children and families are to drive the development of services, then it is likely that new roles will be identified. This will perhaps bring more community and voluntary groups into the life of the school and more flexible roles for existing support staff, including behaviour management and counselling.

The proposals call for national occupational standards and a modular training and qualifications structure. This will be co-ordinated by the DfES but delivered through closer partnership of those agencies already providing training.

Common content may include child development, child protection and risk factors, parents and family life and listening to young people.

How this will relate to existing professional training, especially for teachers, is not yet clear, but it is to be hoped that boundaries will be lowered sufficiently for people to move horizontally as well as upwards through the course of their professional lives.

As the promises of the Green Paper are translated into practice, successful co-working will depend not just on commitment and good-will among the various childcare professionals but will require all concerned to develop a sufficient understanding of other disciplines and working practices, and a common language and knowledge.

If this softens the demarcation lines between care and education, and brings more families into the community of the school, then so much the better for children.

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