'Stop seeing children as victims or delinquents'

10th October 1997 at 01:00
Britain is failing its children and needs to rethink its attitudes and the services it provides, the Government was told this week.

Institute of Education researchers in London are attempting to spark a debate on the future of children's services and persuade ministers to grasp the nettle of change.

They hope to amplify growing calls for an integrated children's service, bringing together the present fragmented collection of education, health, social and other services which can leave parents confused and allow children to slip between the cracks.

But at the campaign's heart is a call for a radical reappraisal of society's attitude towards children, and an end to a culture which views them either as victims or as delinquents - and childhood as something to be hurried through on the road to qualifications and a career.

Their call is an implicit criticism of the Government's focus on standards - a criticism being voiced by social policy analysts, most recently in a letter signed by 50 academics in the Financial Times.

Peter Robinson at the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, in his research paper Literacy, Numeracy and Economic Performance, said that Labour must look at wider social issues if it is to make a real difference to vulnerable young people's life chances.

Pat Petrie and Peter Moss of the IOE's Thomas Coram Research Unit launched the debate this week with an international conference, a discussion document and the release of a pamphlet, Children's Services: time for a new approach.

"We want to go behind the debate about structures and organisation," Mr Moss said. "We're trying to plug into the new debate about children and childhood and the place of children in society.

"Services are very much defined either in terms of what children will become as adults, or to protect them from adults, or to fulfil adult objectives like Welfare to Work. We don't have a strong sense of services for children as children."

Mr Moss and Dr Petrie argue that schools are chronically under-used despite occupying a central role in the children's services. In a scathing section of their discussion paper they condemned the split between "school" and "out-of-school" activities as "a lost opportunity and a wasteful use of resources".

"With some exceptions, both wider education policy and local schools management do not see schools as part of a larger children's service," they wrote.

"The potential of schools has been too little recognised and even less exploited: for much of the year, most schools are empty shells."

Schools should open up their campuses more to the public - as community schools are beginning to do - but should also offer more for children including early-years services. Too many after-school clubs were set up to benefit working parents rather than the children attending them, Mr Moss said.

Tuesday's conference heard from workers in Scandinavia and France who have adopted a more flexible approach which integrates the school day into a wider range of provision, including child care and leisure.

The campaign builds on a report last year by the Gulbenkian Foundation, which called on the Government to develop a national, inter-departmental strategy, with examination of the impact on children of all legislation, and an annual report on the state of the UK's children.

The IOE team argue that the Government has failed to take this on board - despite encouraging local authorities to work more co-operatively in delivering services on the ground.

Among the speakers at Tuesday's conference was Paul Sutton, head of children's services at the newly-created unitary Milton Keynes Council. His department is welded to education in the directorate of learning and development - an attempt to create a more integrated service which has apparently caused some unease in the Government's social services inspectorate.

"Social services departments are dead and buried and the sooner we have the funeral the better," Mr Sutton told The TES.

"The skills and knowledge you need to be a case worker in community care are rapidly becoming very different from those of the children's service."

For free copies of the leaflet Children's Services: time for a new approach, send a large sae to Children's Services, TCRU, 2728 Woburn Square, London WEC1H 0AA. The discussion paper of the same name is available price Pounds 5 plus Pounds 1 pp from The Book Shop, Institute of Education, University of London, 20 Bedford London WC1H 0AL

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