There’s a very interesting cover story and editorial in this week’s Times Educational Supplement, suggesting that the Department of Education under the Coalition government is in the process of quietly ditching New Labour’s flagship children’s policy, Every Child Matters (ECM).
ECM was launched in 2002, partly in response to the failure of English schools to prevent the abuse and death of Victoria Climbie, the eight-year-old girl who died in 2000. ECM led to the merging of schools and child support services, the creation of a Children’s Commissioner, the broadening of Ofsted statutory requirements for schools to include children’s ‘well-being’, and the creation of a new ministry – the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It also, I’d suggest, helped pave the way for the national introduction of Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning into primary schools in 2002 and secondary schools in 2007.
Ed Balls, minister for Children, Schools and Families, rapidly built a huge empire on the back of ECM, ‘with responsibilities for everything from schools and children’s centres to ‘families with multiple problems’, domestic violence and youth services’.
As the TES says:
ECM had a huge impact on everyone working in education. Schools suddenly had to ensure that they were looking after all aspects of pupils’ lives. Their breakfast clubs multiplied, and they built close links with social services, health authorities and the police.
Some teachers felt the move went too far, requiring huge efforts to protect every child from instances which were, thankfully, the horrific exception. Besides, ECM conspicuously failed to make sure such instances never happened, as the Baby P case showed in 2007, in Haringey, the same district where Victoria Climbie lived and died. Michael Shaw, editor of TES, writes that the “darker irony” was that ECM ended up getting blamed for Baby P’s death.
How had a former education director with a background as a headteacher ended up the boss of social workers? Why had Haringey’s child protection work been inspected – and given a thumbs up – by a schools watchdog? The answer was Every Child Matters.
In 2010, when the Coalition government came to power, there was a quiet but definite shift in priorities:
The day after the coalition was formed, the Department for Children, Schools and Families was renamed the Department for Education. The department’s rainbow motif, complete with brightly coloured cartoon children – derisively referred to as ‘munchkins’ by Conservative advisors – was ditched in favour of austere, dark-blue lettering. And when Michael Gove took office in Sanctuary Buildings it was as the secretary of state for education, not children.
The Coalition also quietly pushed a shift from well-being to achievement. Schools no longer had a statutory right to promote children’s spiritual, social and emotional well-being, and Ofsted would no longer grade them on this:
Under Ofsted’s new inspection framework, introduced in January, the number of points that schools are graded on has been reduced from 27 to just five. Overall effectiveness, pupil achievement, quality of teaching, pupil behaviour and safety, and leadership and management are covered. But specific grades on pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, and the extent to which they ‘adopt healthy lifestyles’, develop workplace skills and ‘contribute to the school and wider community’ have been dropped. It is a change that children’s charities fear will be to the detriment of some of their most vulnerable pupils.
Government advisors have expressed scepticism about Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning, and it’s likely to be dropped from many schools’ curricula as a result of the shift in focus from well-being to achievement. And several local councils have, since the election, split education services from social services.
Michael Shaw worries that the huge reforms in the education sector – the shift from comprehensives to academies and free schools, and potentially (if Gove is to be believed) the shift from free schools to for-profit schools – could cause institutional confusion, allowing some children to drop through the safety net:
some child protection agencies are now confused about who their contact should be. Do they still ring up the local authority, or should they be setting up new relationships with the academy chains – or even each individual school? Meanwhile ministers seem to regard the initiative’s goals as distractions from schools’ core purpose. No longer do children need to ‘enjoy and achieve’ – just achieve…local cutbacks are making it harder for schools to bring in specialised support.
Another concern, to my mind, is that the new ‘free market’ in education means academies and free schools are incredibly wary of bad publicity, and so could cover up any instances of child abuse they come across, rather than risking bad publicity and its impact on charitable donations and their haloed image as perfect schools. I saw this happening at private schools, and wouldn’t like to see this ‘hush culture’ spread to the state sector, where there needs to be some universal statutory protection in place. The one area where you shouldn’t give too much freedom to individual schools is in how they handle instances of child abuse, otherwise you end up with what happened in Catholic schools all over the world.