Time for joined-up thinking on poverty

In a week when Peter Mandelson admitted in the Guardian that "in the years following 1997 (New Labour's) real delivery has proved patchy" (May 18), and news stories featured two girls visiting their mother in prison after she had been jailed for their non-attendance at school, it must surely be time to look again at the impact of poverty on children.

I have only ever worked in inner-city, colliery or post-colliery regions. It is what I know and what I do, and I have rarely seen cohesion between the many agencies charged with protecting, educating or controlling our children. When I go to my GP, I know the practice nurse will monitor my blood pressure, advise me about cholesterol and work within a holistic and preventive framework.

But when children cannot attend school because they have no shoes, or fail to learn because they have had no breakfast, the one agency that can act swiftly, without a core group meeting and without the need to fill in a form for statistical analysis, is the school. But the action does not appear on any performance or assessment report, and will not be on next year's targets for the education development plan.

Boundaries in local government budgets are a nonsense, and non-inclusive. I know of no family in which the adolescent non-attender is not having to try to function within a range of difficulties affecting the whole family. There is often a sibling non-attender, and the child is often known to local magistrates' court and youth offending teams. There may be issues of long-lost parents and, significantly for boys, absent dads, or alcohol or drug abuse.

The high correlation between special educational needs and the index of poverty is also clear. And the longer the league tables continue, the greater the chances of ghetto schools developing in areas of poor housing, unemployment and non-existent amenities.

The school remains central to the solution and has the chance to co-ordinate the delivery of services to children. This would require a new way of distributing the budget for social services, a level of advocacy that would require sharp brains and focused workers, and a style of management that cuts the crap and delivers swiftly. Otherwise, I shall retire soon without having seen - in almost four decades - any significant progress in the way we support children. For now, we shall continue to use our management team, our nursery nurses, private school funds, clothes collections, and breakfast kitchen, as well as the Rowntree Trust (one of my modern heroes) and a naive optimism, to try to plug the gaps.

Mic Carolan is head of a large special school in north-west England

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