Key government proposals designed to give schools greater freedom from bureaucracy suffered a major setback this week when ministers lost a crucial battle in the House of Lords to abolish duties surrounding child welfare.
Education secretary Michael Gove had hoped to use the Education Bill to remove the duty on schools to co-operate with the local authority and other children's services, as part of his wider policy of liberating schools from what he regards as "bureaucratic burdens".
The duty was a lynchpin of Labour's flagship policy Every Child Matters (ECM), which followed the death of Victoria Climbie, who was murdered by her guardians despite being known to the local authority, the NHS and social services. It also obliged schools to work alongside other agencies in their area and their local council on policies such as special educational needs.
The plans to abolish these regulations were met with heavy criticism from a raft of peers and children's campaigners, who insisted that schools were best placed to protect a child's well-being, and that the duty to co- operate with social services and health services should remain enshrined in law.
At the time of ECM's introduction, the Liberal Democrats firmly supported the child-welfare legislation that underpinned the policy, and they insist that the Coalition's attempt to remove it was a mistake. "It is all part of Michael Gove's feeling that he should allow schools to be more autonomous," Lib Dem peer Baroness Walmsley told TES. "That is at the heart of all education legislation and he felt this was something he could take away.
"But we felt it sent out the wrong message; it would have given the same message as changing the name of the Department (from the Department for Children, Schools and Families). That sent out a message that the Government wasn't interested in the child as a whole, when I don't think that's true."
And it seems that many headteachers support the retention of the duty of care. Kenny Frederick, head of George Green's Comprehensive in east London, described the Government's attempt to remove the duty as "nonsense".
"It was a daft idea, and it is just part of this nonsense of taking away the bureaucracy from schools when, in fact, all they are doing is isolating schools," Ms Frederick said. "Kids would have suffered because of this as it (the duty) allows everyone to co-ordinate their services better."
Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, agrees that schools are "pivotal institutions" in child welfare. "The move to have the duty abolished was part of (the Government's) knee-jerk decision to abolish as many duties as possible so they could claim they are lightening the burden on schools," Mr Hobby said. "But you don't want to remove everything in the Every Child Matters agenda."
Labour peers are delighted. Baroness Hughes said the opposition in the Lords to this part of the Education Bill was "very considerable" and she described its removal as a "significant" concession by Mr Gove.
"This is just one of a number of ways that Michael Gove wants a bonfire of what he thinks are unnecessary restrictions," Baroness Hughes said. "The whole theme from the Government is that for schools to reach their potential they have to be liberated. I do think he wanted to keep this in. There are a number of other examples where he is trying to liberate schools, but this particular one was totemic; it stands out on its own. I am sure Gove didn't want to do it."
The decision to concede defeat on abolishing the duty was welcomed outside the Lords, with the National Children's Bureau (NCB) describing schools' roles in supporting wider children's services as "vital". "We welcome the withdrawal," Zoe Renton, the NCB's head of policy, said. "Removing schools and academies from this reciprocal duty could have disengaged and disempowered education providers, because it would have also removed the duty on other services to co-operate and consult with them."
The Government insists that it is content with the outcome of the vote. "We have removed the associated prescriptive guidance and regulations," a Department for Education spokesman said, "and we have come to the opinion that the duty allows enough scope for local areas to create meaningful co- operation arrangements that can be responsive to local needs.
"We have always been in favour of schools and other local bodies working together - we just don't think that we need to tell them how to do it."
THE IMPACT OF THE CLIMBIE TRAGEDY
One of the most vocal opponents of the Government's attempt to abolish the duty for schools to co-operate was cross-bench peer Lord Laming.
His 2003 report into the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie in 2000 helped kick-start the Labour government's child-welfare strategy, which led to Every Child Matters.
The initiative gave rise to numerous government papers and the 2004 Children Act.
The key aims of Every Child Matters were for children to:
- be healthy;
- stay safe;
- enjoy and achieve;
- make a positive contribution;
- achieve economic well-being.
WHAT HEADS MUST DO
38 statutory policies to which schools must adhere
16 areas of activity about which a school must publish information, if asked, under the Freedom of Information Act
53 statutory requirements heads must carry out during a school year outside their day-to-day job
21 additional bureaucratic tasks heads are expected to carry out beyond their statutory requirements
Source: The Key.
Original headline: Schools retain their `bureaucratic' duty to protect children