Councils must champion children and hold schools to account

The development of children’s services is creating an unprecedented challenge for local authorities and their partners. In such here and now pressure one of the key challenges is making sure that these emerging services are fit for tomorrow’s purpose as well as yesterday’s Children Act. There is no doubt that the environment in which these services will be operating is set to change significantly in the future.

Take three examples. The schools white paper pushes greater autonomy and freedom for schools within the context of the Every Child Matters agenda characterised by partnership working between agencies.

Roberts, PaulIs this policy synchrony or schism? To create local synchrony will require councils working effectively as champions of children, as commissioners, as strong community leaders; they must be able to hold schools to account on behalf of communities, especially on admissions. 

This is not about protecting old roles for local authorities but having the means to fight for equality for children in vulnerable communities. Vulnerable children are the ones most likely to suffer through school autonomy. Schools that find their way around equitable admissions policies or who exclude pupils that they don’t like must be open to local scrutiny and challenge. Further, the work of autonomous schools to narrow the attainment gap needs to be within a local systems approach – especially as many underlying causes of that gap are to do with wider characteristics of the community which are at the heart of local authority remit.

The education secretary refers to education “as the engine of equity”. These changes need to ensure that local government has the levers to act as community leader, as champion of vulnerable children, as a local engine for equity. The council has a key role to establish the local framework within which autonomy and equity can thrive – a framework to encourage the autonomous school to contribute to the greater good, to ensure that the action of one school does not damage outcomes for children elsewhere.

Regulation is another significant area in which the landscape is due to change for local authorities. There is developing consensus on the over-burdensome nature of regulatory regimes. In his Budget speech, Gordon Brown announced his intention to reduce service inspectorates.

Councils have long argued for a lighter inspection regime as part of the goal of moving to sector-wide framework of self/peer improvement and regulation. But for that to happen councils need to be able to show their self-assessment capacity is robust.

If we can get this right now and prove that councils are tough on themselves it lays the foundation for easing the externally imposed regulatory burden. So the challenge is to ensure that developing children’s services have robust self-assessment processes.

A third key area of change is the emphasis on personalising services. The title Every Child Matters implies that “personalisation” of provision must become a reality. The government appears to use personalisation to mean a form of supermarket choice. But we need to go beyond seeing it as a drift to a market-based future. This guarantees no great likelihood of significant personalisation – especially for the vulnerable. 

Show Me How I Matter – Part 3 is available    from

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