News Views

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Voting with their Feet?

The latest figures show that truancy rates among primary school children are at a record high, and the number of primary school pupils absent from lessons without a reasonable excuse has increased by a third in three years. 59,380 children have been defined as persistent absentees. Illness and holidaying during term time were the most common reasons for absence.

What do we make of all the figures? Do we throw up our hands in horror that even primary school children are truanting in larger numbers? Or do we point out that, if parents remove children so often from school to go on holiday, their priorities appear to place leisure ahead of education?

If you read about education in the past you will find that school attendance was often very patchy when children were required to help in the fields or the home, or when they had simply had enough of schooling. (Indeed children rioted, attacked teachers and burnt schools down at times.) Truancy is nothing new.

How important is 100% attendance? Is it to achieve obedience and conformity, or is it necessary for students to attend for a certain number of hours to absorb the learning required to develop their knowledge base and skills? Our view is that the whole system needs a fundamental review, and that what matters most is enthusing children so that they want to attend school and learn. Simply attending is not much use.

No Vetting? No Barring?

There always were vetting schemes such as List 99 for teachers and the Index for child care workers, but they were rudimentary. Employers at times failed to notify the civil servants managing the records, and as they were not sufficiently comprehensive they were not consulted either. So the last government decided that a more thorough approach was needed after Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were murdered by Ian Huntley in 2002, and the Vetting and Barring Scheme was initiated.

Now, after a government review, the Vetting and Barring Scheme will be scrapped or dramatically scaled back. The Home Secretary Theresa May will decide whether any such scheme is needed or whether authorities and employers can be relied upon to carry out the necessary checks. The scheme was due to start in the autumn of 2010 but the coalition government put it on hold in June.

One of the problems is that the aim of a vetting scheme is fundamentally good and simple but implementing it is complex and tricky, and the danger is that one ends up with an overblown bureaucratic system. The key question is whether the system is effective in preventing unsuitable people from working with children.

The government has a further problem. If it does away with the Vetting and Barring Scheme, and the Children’s Workforce Development Council, and the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care, and the General Social Care Council, (and who knows what else?), there is the danger that the props that a good system of child care requires are being progressively removed.

When there is a scandal, it will be the people on the spot who are blamed, not the people who years earlier decided not to vet staff or train them or register them or support them by closing these organisations down. The Department for Education is taking on responsibility for some of these tasks at a point when the number of civil servants is being reduced; it will have a hard job.

The Big Society and Happiness

Just as wartime seems to encourage creativity and innovation, triggered by the threat of defeat, so the combination of the recession and the creation of a coalition government seems to have allowed a variety of new ideas to flourish which would not have occurred if there had been a single party in power in easier economic circumstances.

First we have had the Big Society, which many people dismiss as so much wiff-waff, claiming not to understand it as a way of saying it is too woolly and undefined a concept to be worthy of attention. Under the soundbite title there are important issues about the capillary level of our community. Some politicians may only be interested in the big projects which cost billions. They are important; they are the arteries in the life-blood of the nation, but in the end the blood gets out to the whole body and the functioning of the system at capillary level is just as vital. It is less dramatic and one small cut is not as damaging to the body as a whole as a cut to an artery is. But the system as a whole is just as important, and politicians who ignore it are blinkered.

Now we have the happiness gauge, to see how contented we are as a nation. At first mention the idea sounds naff.  But calculations of this sort have been going on for some time, and there could be important messages. What if it is true that all people (including the rich) are happier in countries where there is less division between the rich and the poor? Will the government take steps to narrow the gap?

Would the Conservatives or the LibDems have pushed these ideas if there had been no coalition, or would some of their internal power groups have killed them off? Will they take action to see through the implications of the ideas? Or will that be more than their parties can stomach?

Teamwork

Ann White’s article this month advocates the importance of training in encouraging teamwork in child protection, and so avoiding the communication gaffes which have bedevilled so many child protection failures.

We support Ann. The professionals involved in child protection come from a variety of services and professions, each with their own aims, values, systems, priorities and even language. One cannot make assumptions that any two professionals involved are on the same wave-length. Police representatives, for example, may have little lee-way to take initiatives, but they are accountable and report back to their force. General practitioners, on the other hand, are independent professionals but they may not speak for, or communicate very much with, their fellow doctors. Social workers should have learnt about teamwork in their training, but they often come and go too fast to integrate. No doubt there are also well-integrated teams where everyone understands each other, and the caricatures above are just myths.

Postcode Lottery

This is a hackneyed term that is trotted out as soon as someone can’t obtain a service which others can get elsewhere. We think that it is time that it is banned.

Either we end up with a totally standardised and centralised system of government, with distribution of resources and control of the services resting with central government, or power is devolved to local communities. There is some room for centralising some things and localising others, but within particular services, we can have it one way or the other, but not both.

If schools are directly funded by the Department for Education, using a nationwide formula, the system can no doubt be made to work. But if so, there is virtually no point having residual departments responsible for education in local government, and adapting budgets to suit local needs will have to be part of the national formula.

Similarly, if health planning is to be local, people need to put up with local decisions, even if a neighbour in another authority can enjoy a better service. This has always been the case between local authorities, and it has led to people moving house at times. (Years ago it used to be said that the chief officers working for Liverpool all lived in the Wirral because of the quality of the education there, but that was no doubt a calumny.)

As a matter of political philosophy, we support control being given to local communities wherever possible, rather than a central bureaucracy, and if that means postcode discrepancies, so be it.

Out of the Mouths of Children…

A member of our family worked in the Public Record Office, and during the Second World War he was moved, together with a lot of valuable historical material to the safety of Shepton Mallet Prison in Somerset. When his daughter was asked in a Junior School test where the Magna Carta was kept, she wrote down, “In Daddy’s office” and was marked wrong. She had the good sense to keep her mouth shut. There are twin morals to this story. The first is that teachers are not always right. The second is that children may be not only more knowledgeable than adults but they may also be wise.

Every Child (still) Matters

It is rumoured that Every Child Matters is not being officially killed off by the coalition, but is being quietly dropped. We think that this is pathetic. Every Child Matters was an excellent piece of thinking, getting to the root of what children need and focusing on the positive. It was not a party political slogan and it was widely accepted by professionals as providing a sound basis for children’s services. It should have become part of the ongoing thinking about children, adopted by all parties.

We recall a book which described the Stalinist practice of obliterating opponents from history, and where the clear message was that this was a symptom of weak underconfident government. Now what was it called? 1984?

From the Case Files - Christmas Special!

I was advised that a manger would ring me back.

Surrounded by asses and oxen?

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 1st, 2010 at 12:58 am and is filed under Editorial. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “News Views”

  1. Noel Howard Says:

    Good, as always to get the latest issue. Your points on the vetting and barring scale back in News Views are most interesting. From a personal perspective I was delighted when I read after the new UK government had taken office in the summer that Theresa May had called a halt to what seemed a headlong rush toward madness of a kind. I found it ironic that this most rational, sensible move came from a conservative minister when I had so many hopes in the late 90s that New Labour would bring things forward in the child care scene and not backwards. My interest in this as an Irish person is that we have looked for many years to developments in the UK and often replicated them here. My worry is that the experience around vetting and barring in the UK will, at the same extreme, find its way here in some guise. Many of the same concerns arise here in this general area. As you snippet says we all want a safe system for children; that system however cannot be an inane, straightjacketed one where even the most innocent actions of staff are suspect. Ultimately, staff will adopt (understandably) an attitude of watching their backs with little initiative, spontaneity or humanity. This will set any service back years. And an afterthought - good also to to see your education secretary’s view on a “new deal” for teachers around touch and restraint.

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