Last October most children’s services departments were hard at work implementing the Every Child Matters agenda when a new set of government proposals appeared in the schools white paper.(1)
This has faced criticism on the grounds that school selection policies could become weighted against less well-off children. Andrew Webb, co-chair of the Association of Directors of Social Services’ children and families committee and director for children and young people at Stockport Council, opposes several of its measures.
“The white paper is likely to make the job of directors of children’s services more difficult,” he says.
Under the plans, schools can become self-governing trusts independent of local education authorities and set their own admissions policies. Many children’s trusts are built around schools and play a key role in achieving outcomes outlined in the children’s green paper.
Webb says if a school becomes a trust the local director of children’s services will have “severe difficulties” in co-ordinating the Every Child Matters approach. He adds that head teachers tell him they are not interested in becoming independent as council interference is less of an issue than regulation from central government.
Webb says his local schools are also reluctant to become their own admissions authorities. “Schools do not want more bureaucracy thrust at them and this will be complicated to manage. They want to concentrate on teaching and developing links with their communities. They don’t want to become bureaucracy centres.”
Schools are required only to “have regard” to the admissions code of practice and many campaigners and MPs have argued that the code should be made statutory if the white paper’s proposals become law. Webb says: “It will have to become statutory because otherwise schools will be able to exclude whomever they want.”
Aside from the white paper, other legislation due to be debated this year includes a Looked-after Children Bill. The inequalities in educational achievement experienced by the group and the lack of stability of some placements are expected to be covered.
But Webb “remains to be convinced” that new legislation is needed as the Children Acts of 1989 and 2004 provide professionals with sensible principles for working with looked-after children. He says professionals have all the statutory powers they need to improve outcomes for the group; they just have not used them far enough.
Parts of the 2004 act yet to be implemented include the information-sharing database of all children. But this will only cover England, a mistake, says Webb, as some vulnerable children move around a lot including to other areas of the UK.
For him, one of the main issues coming up in children’s services will be dealing with the impact of the local government finance settlement for 2006-7 in which social services spending could rise by just 2 per cent.
Another major change will be the abolition of the Association of Directors of Social Services in its current form and the creation of separate organisations for leaders of adult and children’s services. Webb backs the plan, arguing that it reflects what is happening on the ground but says maintaining the links between the two organisations will be essential.
“We will end up with two closely aligned groups possibly in one organisation. It’s important that you keep them together,” he says.
(1) Higher Standards, Better Schools for All – More Choice for Parents and Pupils, DfES, 2005