The Department for Children, Schools and Families has been urged today to move away from short-term pilot schemes, to more effectively tackle inequalities between disadvantaged children and their peers.
An interim study from the two-year Narrowing the Gap project – a DCSF-funded initiative to define best practice in tackling inequality among children – said ministers should “run no more than a very few national programmes” aimed explicitly at narrowing the gap.
The project is supported by a number of organisations, including the Local Government Association, but is now overseen by DCSF-funded best practice body the Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in Children and Young People’s Services (C4EO), which was set up in July.
It will produce its final report in March 2009, which will aim to provide councils with best practice models for eradicating inequalities.
Today’s report found that “things are moving in the right direction in many areas” in terms of the increasing ability of local agencies to reduce inequalities. But the “whole system change” required to extend and sustain progress in the longer-term has not yet occurred, although it is closer than it was six months ago.
The report said the government had a key role in making narrowing the gap an explicit and consistently reinforced objective for all relevant agencies, including councils, schools and primary care trusts. However it said that “this can’t be said to describe the current position”.
It said short-term initiatives focusing on particular service areas risked confusing professionals and organisations and leading them to lose focus. Instead, it called for “fewer, bigger, long-term programmes that aim explicitly at narrowing the gap”.
The call echoes that of children’s charity Action for Children, which said in a report in September that successive governments had produced a string of initiatives on children’s services, but had not allowed time for each to be implemented, reducing their effectiveness.
The report also called on ministers to hold local authorities and their partners to account for achieving improvements in outcomes, while giving them the flexibility to develop local solutions. It urged a reform of the current performance management framework to give “stronger and more consistent signals” to all services, including schools, about the importance of tackling inequalities.
It also called for more leadership support for directors of children’s services, including investment in current and future directors. Without this, “there is a risk that newly-appointed DCSs, in particular, may find it extremely challenging to exercise the leadership crucial for narrowing the gap,” the report said. And it highlighted the need for specific work with middle managers in children’s services as they were “central to the process of changing service cultures”.
The report called for the role of children’s trusts and the contribution of partner organisations in narrowing the gap to be more clearly articulated. This follows a highly critical report from the Audit Commission last month, which said that confusion over the role of children’s trusts, resulting from mixed government messages, had hampered their effectiveness.
The call came as the DCSF confirmed today it would press forward with legislation to strengthen children’s trusts in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech.
Narrowing the Gap project seeks best practice