Who will be centre of the universe?

5th March 2004 at 00:00
If the proposal to merge local education with children's social services is accepted, what will heads' role be? asks Patrick Scott

If you wanted a title for a Green Paper that dared you to disagree with it, you couldn't do much better than Every Child Matters. Anybody against? Of course not. And yet, there is something about that confident assertion that should make us all pause for thought.

The Green Paper - which underpins the new Children Bill published yesterday - draws on the lessons of the Victoria Climbie case and makes children's welfare a top priority. It widens the net to include all children and it puts their education, rather than just their safety, at the heart of the matter.

No problem, but the title still niggles. Are we being asked to accept that Victoria died because, in some sense, she didn't matter? If that is the case, then what we are being told is that the current arrangements for child protection are so flawed that they amount to institutionalised abuse.

And the problem with that, as a line of argument, is that it makes it dangerously easy to believe that the risks to children can be eliminated by creating new systems, new management structures and new forms of accountability.

Let me put it another way. The structural change proposed in the Green Paper, published yesterday - is the merger in local authorities of education and children's social services to create a new department of children's services.

In discussing the Green Paper in the management team of which I am a member, there was a very sobering moment when the director of social services said: "God help the first director of children's services facing the wrath of central government and the national media over a high-profile child abuse case. There will be nowhere to go."

Gazing into his crystal ball, he could still see potential for occasional, catastrophic failures. For reasons that are perfectly understandable, we have focused so intensely on the way the systems of public care failed Victoria Climbie, that we are in danger of dismissing any risk that change might make matters worse.

I have long harboured the ambition to write a book called Why does quality assurance make things worse?. If I ever do, it will have in it a chapter arguing that any reforms to the public sector ought to carry a statutory warning to the effect that "when you are making changes in local government, please remember services can deteriorate as well as improve".

It will be closely followed by a section headed "Targets: why are they the enemy of ambition?" but that's another story.

The point is that better child protection will not be achieved just by overhauling the structures of local government. It is going to take much more than that. Quite how much more became clear to me at one of our termly education authority meetings for headteachers. "In all this talk about multi-agency working," one headteacher asked, "who is going to be at the centre of the universe?" That wasn't an egocentric question about putting schools first. It was a genuine enquiry that arose from a serious attempt to think things through. It was the kind of question that headteachers are really good at. How is it going to work in practice?

The reason why it is a difficult question to answer is that schools are not just another service. Airy talk of partnerships won't do. Schools are not even just places where children spend their time. They are a stage in everybody's life, a state of mind, if you like. They are what children do and that's what puts the headteacher in a unique position.

And it's no good arguing that welfare is what many schools, and many headteachers, provide already. Yes, they do. But the move from being an informal advice centre for parents and children, when there is no question about whose side you are on, to being part of the formal network making provision for children, is a big one.

So what I understood by that headteacher's question was this: if schools are at the centre of it all, who is responsible?

Everybody at that meeting had seen those ashen-faced council officers on television, struggling to explain how things went wrong, looking just beyond the camera, at a world in which yesterday they had met all their targets and today it does not make any difference.

And it wasn't just a legalistic question. It was also about how multi-agency teams might work. Who is going to be responsible for convening meetings, for producing minutes, for gathering information, for writing reports, for following up decisions. Who is going to make it happen?

And who is responsible for the child that hasn't come to school? Who is going to make sure that there is nothing amiss? And who is going to check that it's all been checked? And if schools aren't at the centre, what will happen then? Will headteachers be sucked into a bureaucracy that is outside their experience and beyond their resources? Will they end up being marginalised, as the specialist teams take over? Will they be unwitting partners in a system that ends up protecting data rather than children?

There have got to be answers to those questions, but they are about culture and ethos, as well as structures and systems. They are about mutual respect and shared goals. They are about professionals working together to make sure that the weave in the safety net is so fine that nobody can fall through.

FE focus 2

Patrick Scott is director of education and leisure in York, but is writing here in a personal capacity

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