On 28 June the Department for Children, Schools and Families celebrated its first birthday. Public approval of Gordon Brown may be nosediving, but his decision to create a department covering all aspects of children’s lives and its first year’s performance has been praised by campaigners.
The DCSF consists of the children’s functions of its forerunner – the Department for Education and Skills – plus several other responsibilities. These include taking joint lead for youth justice with the Ministry of Justice, control of the Respect Agenda, which aims to tackle antisocial behaviour, and overseeing child health with the Department of Health. The appointment of Brown’s close ally Ed Balls as the department’s secretary is also seen to have made its policies effective.
Handing the DCSF joint responsibility for youth justice was heralded as a positive step by campaigners. Many raised hopes that it would lead to a more welfare-orientated approach and young offenders being treated as children first and offenders second.
One year on and opinion is mixed on whether this has been achieved. Deborah Clothier, national policy development manager at crime prevention charity Nacro, says that DCSF has started a shift in this direction but that this has been hampered by other parts of government.
“We have DCSF coming up with more welfare-based initiatives while ministers are coming out with a punitive approach to justice issues and children,” she says.
There is evidence for Clothier’s view. In April, the Daily Telegraph reported that Balls and Jack Straw had fallen out over the DCSF’s approach. It is believed that Straw sees the new direction as tacit admission the youth justice reforms he implemented as home secretary in 1998 have failed.
Clothier says recent policy indications reveal a government in a state of confusion. This summer ministers are set to publish a Youth Crime Action Plan. Leaks reported in the press suggest the plan will propose local authority children’s trusts are given responsibility and funding for youth crime, including youth offending teams, stripping them from the Youth Justice Board.
Clothier says the idea has some support due to its potential for more welfare-based policies, but recent parallel proposals from Louise Casey, the incoming neighbourhood crime and justice adviser at the Home Office and former head of the disbanded Respect Unit, in a government-commissioned review indicates policy moving in a somewhat different direction.
“In the Youth Crime Action Plan there’s the possibility of moving YOTs to be managed by local authority trusts rather than the YJB while at the same time you have got Louise Casey coming out with a much more punitive approach, putting people [doing community sentences] in uniform and putting posters up [identifying criminals],” says Clothier.
Andrew Neilson, assistant director at the Howard League for Penal Reform, agrees that there are tensions but he sees the DCSF as having taken the lead on the action plan.
“Generally it does look as though the move towards welfare is happening. Although it was three departments doing the action plan – the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the DCSF, and technically the Home Office were leading – it felt like the DCSF’s thinking was driving it,” he says.
John Fayle, freelance consultant and ex-head of policy at the YJB, is not so optimistic. He says he can see no evidence of a shift [towards welfare] and says he is disappointed by the lack of improvement on reducing the level of children in custody.
“One has to hope that behind the scenes things are going on,” he says.
Disabled children are arguably the group to have benefited most from the work of the new department. Just prior to its creation in May the government published the far reaching policy document Aiming High for Disabled Children. This was backed up with a £340m funding package for 2008-11 consisting of £280m for short breaks, £35m for child care and £19m for transition services.
Steve Broach, campaign manager at the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign, sees the document as the DCSF’s product, both in its nature – it covers many aspects of disabled children’s lives – and the fact that Balls secured the funding [his previous job was chief secretary to the Treasury].
“Aiming High for Disabled Children exemplifies what the DCSF is trying to do – it emphasises the difference between a department that’s about education, schools and skills and a department for children and families. It’s a product of the new thinking that looks at children and families much more holistically. They [the document and the department] all come from the same Brown-Balls thinking,” he says.
Broach adds that since DCSF’s creation, its commitment to the group has been further demonstrated by last December’s announcement of £100m more for short breaks, a service many parents say is their first priority.
The Every Child Matters agenda has been embraced by the social care sector but research has found some schools and head teachers to be more resistant. When the Children Act 2004 was published its failure to place a duty on schools to co-operate to improve children’s well-being, while placing it on most other agencies, was widely criticised by campaigners.
Anne Pinney, assistant director of policy and research at Barnardo’s, says that the DCSF has attempted to tackle this. She points to draft guidance on the duty, published in April, which calls for more involvement from schools in children’s trusts. Balls is also considering legislating to strengthen the requirements.
“There’s a much more joined-up approach and much more focus on broader outcomes, beyond attainment in education. The new duty to co-operate on guidance is a good example [of this]. It talks more explicitly about how schools need to engage in the every child matters agenda,” she says.
Any new leader, body or government is often keen to make their mark and it seems the DCSF is no different. Since its creation, initiatives ranging from the 10-year £10bn Children’s Plan, to pledges to tackle children’s housing needs, have come thick and fast. Pinney says there has been a flurry of initiatives that can sometimes overlap.
By way of example she says that alongside the well-being duty draft guidance, the department has published documents on raising the leaving age for education and training to 18, on the Youth Matters reforms and most recently a green paper on alternative educational provision for young people who don’t attend school.
“Those documents are all so interlinked. They are about the same children and young people and they have all come at different points with not enough done to explain how they are to link up in local delivery or what they add up to for the young people involved,” she says.
The DCSF’s wider reach and its work looking at children more holistically has been welcomed by campaigners. Young offenders, the Respect Agenda and children’s health look set to benefit from coming under its wing.
● Government review of antisocial behaviour
This article published in the 3rd of July issue of Community Care magazine under the headline ‘Still learning to walk’