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Where do we go from here on partnership?

There will be huge opportunities but the implications for funding and services are only just sinking in, says Janet Law

WITH the development of a childcare strategy comes an increasing understanding of the pros and cons of the partnership approach to the care and education of young people. Huge opportunities exist, but many of the potential implications are just beginning to dawn.

In 1998, following a Green Paper, Meeting the Childcare Challenge, national guidance was issued to local authorities on the strategic and integrated planning of education and child care. Childcare partnerships, with representatives from the voluntary and private sectors as well as the local authority, were expected to draw up plans for submission to the Scottish Executive. Funding for child care is linked to these plans and will continue to be necessary well beyond the period covered by the Executive's commitment so far.

Subsequent guidance stressed that partnerships should be "childcare and education partnerships". This shift in emphasis serves to highlight potential conflicts and strategic issues which still have to be addressed.

Much of the impetus behind the concept of childcare partnerships resulted from the need to reconcile conflicting interests. The difficulties faced by out-of-school care, playgroups and independent nurseries in working closely with schools and local authorities stem from the widespread misapprehension that child care could be best provided by competition.

The rhetoric that accompanied past developments suggested that competing small businesses would spring up in response to parental demand. Competition was further fuelled by the Tories' voucher system. Yet it is questionable whether child care can ever offer lucrative business opportunities even in the most affluent areas.

The partnership approach is intended to replace the failed model of competition, and to that extent it makes sense. But increasingly it is becoming apparent that partnerships don't work unless they are for a specific and limited purpose. The Executive's good practice guidelines point out that partnership working does not "necessarily mean that the partners are always in agreement on the particular issues, or that they will always work in partnership".

Surely, however, before a partnership comes into existence, the partners must share objectives and know the likely time-scale. It still seems unlikely that partnerships set up as a means of fulfilling requirements for Government funding will all have taken the time to establish good ground rules, or even the appropriateness of all the partner members.

There are at least two specific and still unresolved potential conflicts. First, tensions are likely to exist among the various different departments or services within the local authority itself. Whether the partnership is chaired by a voluntary sector or a local authority representative, the ultimate responsibility, both or driving the agenda and ensuring the money is well spent, lies with the council.

True, the differences in ethos between, for example, education and social work services are more rhetorical than real at practitioner level. But at a strategic level they are considerable. Social work commissions voluntary agencies, while education staff are directly employed, often on tightly defined contractual hours. The different historical approaches to making the books balance have created a myth that education is inflexible while social work is needs led.

The partnerships will also be engaged in forcing the local authority itself to decide on priorities. This is by no means easy. The scale of local authority provision is considerable, especially if all pre-school education is counted.

The latest guidance on childcare and education partnerships last December states: "Planning of these services is linked to local authorities' duties under the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 to develop (in consultation with others) children's services plans. Ministers have previously expressed their view that the planning of pre-school education and child care should not impose unnecessary new burdens." However, such plans will not determine funding priorities or where a service should be located.

A second area of tension is among other organisations represented on partnerships. These include the private sector and voluntary organisations which are hugely diverse. In some areas out-of-school care is provided by small groups of parents. Elsewhere, large childcare charities may bid for contracts to provide specialist services. Some organisations may be involved in other relationships with each other. Some may have agreements with the council outwith the childcare and education partnership. Some partners may be funded by the partnership itself.

The transformation of childcare partnerships into childcare and education partnerships recognises that child care cannot be planned in isolation from education. Allocation of pre-school resources should be part of the same planning process.

There are strong arguments for the same approach to be applied to all out-of-school and extracurricular activities whether defined as care or education. This would require a sharing of information and decisions about the discretionary elements of individual schools' budgets. Meanwhile, the negotiations on the McCrone report may produce more flexible staffing budgets with maximum devolution to schools. Taken together these developments could bring virtually the whole of a council's education budget under the scrutiny of childcare and the education partnership.

With the Executive determined to remove housing from local government, the idea of councillors meeting annually to agree the budgets for partner providers in education may not be far from the minds of Government advisers.

Janet Law is chair of Perth and Kinross out-of-school network.

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