A hard lesson to learn

12 Jun 09
The Baby P case has thrown up some serious questions about the merging of children’s education and social services.
By Conor Ryan

13 February 2009

The Baby P case has thrown up some serious questions about the merging of children’s education and social services. Conor Ryan asks whether the government has got the balance right between welfare and school standards

While Sharon Shoesmith, the one-time director of children’s services in Haringey, was being pilloried in the national press for her role in the Baby P case last November, she received a strong vote of confidence from 61 of the London borough’s head teachers. As she was keen to remind people when she spoke out about her treatment in media interviews last weekend, they hailed her work in improving school standards in an authority that had once been a byword for educational failure.

‘There are no schools in special measures in Haringey,’ Alex Atherton, head teacher of Park View Academy, said. ‘I feel proud to be associated with the education support that Haringey offers.’ Local Liberal Democrat MP, Lynne Featherstone was unimpressed. ‘This isn’t about her competence or otherwise in education,’ she blogged. ‘It’s about her responsibility and accountability for the social services side of her brief.’

Shoesmith, a former schools inspector and special needs teacher, was later sacked by Haringey after a damning Ofsted report, a decision that Children’s Secretary Ed Balls defended after Shoemith’s weekend interviews. But her case illuminated a growing concern within the education world about the extent to which a welfare agenda is replacing school standards as the cornerstone of government policy.

Since Lord Laming’s 2003 report about the failures of public services to protect nine-year-old Victoria Climbié, there has been a major upheaval in education and children’s social services. Charles Clarke, as education secretary, responded to Laming’s report with the Every Child Matters agenda, five principles that were to become the watchword of government and local children’s services in the years ahead.

Significantly, school standards, which had until then dominated Labour policy, merited only half a principle called ‘enjoy and achieve’, as externally marked tests for seven-year-olds were replaced by internal teacher assessments and schools were expected to focus more time on the safety and health of their pupils.

Behind this approach lay a belief that the failings that led to Victoria’s death were the result of a lack of co-ordination between local schools, councils, police and health services. The new ECM agenda prefigured a restructuring of national and local government. Local authorities were expected to merge education departments with those parts of social services that dealt with children into new children’s services departments.

The 2004 Children Act established local children’s trusts, which drew their members from health, police, probation, careers advisers, learning and skills councils and district councils and later schools, colleges, charities, adult social care and housing. These boards will be put on a statutory footing in the new Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which will also require schools, colleges and academies to co-operate with them. Local Children’s Safeguarding Boards were also established after 2004 to lead the protection of children at risk. The new children’s database, ContactPoint, finally launched last month, is designed to make it easier to share and compare information about those at risk between the professionals involved. Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, found its role extended to include children’s social services in addition to further education, nurseries and adult skills. When Gordon Brown became prime minister in 2007, he was persuaded by Ed Balls to split the old education department in two, hiving off universities and further education to a new department, and bringing the full range of children’s welfare services into the new Department for Children, Schools and Families, with Balls as its secretary of state.

Later that year, Balls rebranded his new department with an all-embracing ten-year children’s plan. The DCSF tried to reinvigorate the uneasy marriage between the two very different education and welfare cultures. ‘Common sense and every teacher in every classroom tell us that what happens outside school hours and parents’ involvement in children’s education are both vital to their progress,’ declared Balls at the launch.

In truth, there had already been a growing welfare dimension in schools, through health clinics and after-school clubs. Inner-city schools have also employed a growing number of non-teaching welfare staff, including learning mentors, part of whose role is home-school liaison, and police officers who are based on site.

But these changes had been largely subservient to the principal role of the school in maximising young people’s qualifications and skills. The formalising of education and welfare links exposed some deep differences between the two groups of professionals. ECM changed the structures but the personnel often reflected their own backgrounds, as with Shoesmith in schools. Head teachers have often been annoyed when someone with a social work background is in charge of their local children’s services department, who they feel has little understanding of schools and qualifications.

The government recognised the mismatch after the Baby P case, when Balls announced that the National College for School Leadership would take the lead role in training directors of children’s services. The college has recruited people such as Mencap chief executive Jo Williams to a panel of experts to design the new courses.

Steve Munby, NCSL’s director, believes that with the right training, the two disciplines can and should be brought together. ‘I do think it is possible for one person to take responsibility for the wider role involved in being a director of children’s services, provided they have the right training and support, and a good team to work with. It’s not just about immersing an educationist in social care or vice versa; rather it is about building an understanding of what is a very different role and one that requires a much more holistic approach.’

However, since ECM was introduced, schools have found themselves expected to attend a growing number of committee meetings linked to children’s trusts and safeguarding. ‘As an extended school, we have been at the centre of these developments and have benefited from working in partnership with various agencies,’ wrote Kenny Frederick, head of George Green’s Community School in Tower Hamlets, in a recent article for the Times Educational Supplement. ‘But it cannot be right that so many of us are hemmed into meeting after meeting, with ever-decreasing direct contact with children and families.’

It is this sense that the new focus has created an endless talking shop that is frustrating to so many head teachers. ‘School accountability is almost entirely focused on examination results, yet schools put a huge amount of effort into the wider development of young people,’ says John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. ‘However, the government must accept that schools are only partly responsible for children’s wellbeing and that it is local authorities that must be primarily accountable for ensuring children’s overall health and welfare.’

And the Conservatives, while stressing continuity, might shift the balance again if they win the next election. ‘Any restructuring absorbs a lot of energy – so it is not going to be a priority for us to unstitch what has happened,’ says Michael Gove, the shadow children’s secretary. ‘But we do need a continued focus on school improvement and a recognition that departments with several overlapping goals rarely succeed in achieving them successfully.’ Yet the government has maintained a strong focus on improving exam results through its National Challenge, which expects all schools to get five decent GCSEs for at least 30% of their pupils. But this hasn’t diminished a feeling that academic achievement is being downgraded, which was heightened by recent curriculum changes that mean 11–14-year-olds are learning more about personal development. More recently, a review led by Sir Jim Rose, who previously had helped restore traditional phonics to reading lessons, suggested that ‘understanding physical health and wellbeing’ should be one of six core themes for primary schools.

And it is here where the Tories are opening up differences with Labour, using the sort of language which helped Labour to win the 1997 election. ‘The best schools – those with a strong sense of self-respect, good behaviour and a nurturing environment – are those oriented towards getting a good academic performance from their pupils,’ Gove insists.

While many head teachers support the curricular changes, they are frustrated that the new children’s services regime is neither doing enough to protect children nor to ensure that the lessons of any failings are being properly learned. Such lessons are supposed to follow serious case reviews under the new system, but an Ofsted analysis of 50 such reviews in December found that those in charge failed to analyse quickly enough why things had gone wrong and often failed to ask young people for their perspective.

Yet Ofsted has itself come in for criticism because of its extended role and because the social services inspection system it inherited allowed some judgements to be made based on councils’ own self-evaluations. Michael Hart stepped down as its director of children's services this week following criticism over Haringey, though Ofsted denies this was the reason for his going. And the chair of the Commons children, schools and families select committee, Barry Sheerman, has argued that the inspectorate is spreading itself too thin. Partly in response to such concerns, Ofsted is replacing the desk-based judgements that led it to accept Haringey data – which suggested a good authority – with unannounced annual inspections of child protection services.

Most teachers recognise that schools cannot operate in isolation, and need to address the social circumstances of their pupils if they are to get them to achieve their potential. But the recent Haringey and Doncaster cases suggested that the rhetoric of joint working had not led to sufficient practical improvement in some authorities. As a result, head teachers fear that the meetings and paperwork associated with the ECM agenda could be undermining the drive to raise standards for all - without contributing sufficiently to the welfare of individual children in need of protection.

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