Magazine article Public Finance

Best Laid Plans

Magazine article Public Finance

Best Laid Plans

Article excerpt

Gordon Brown's real passion has always been children's policy. So it was no surprise when his chief lieutenant, Ed Balls, was given the job of bringing schoolage education together with children's social policy in the new Department for Children, Schools and Families. And just before Christmas, the prime minister and the childrens secretary launched their policy bible: the ten-year Children's Plan.

There is little that the plan omits, from building new playgrounds to a 'root-and-branch' shake-up in the primary school curriculum. There are proposals to curb internet pornography and childrens TV advertising. Every local authority will have two parenting advisers. Some £90m will build extra facilities for disabled children to take short breaks, while more money will be set aside to improve teaching for children with special educational needs. Childrens writing skills are to be strengthened. Parents are exhorted to read with their children. Accidents are to be reduced. Mental health services are being reviewed. Drugs, alcohol and sex education will be improved. Children will have personal tutors. Some pupil referral units for disruptive pupils will be superseded by vocational 'studio schools'. And the commitment to raising the education leaving age to 18 is reaffirmed.

Balls believes his plan is long overdue. 'The plan addresses the needs of all children whatever their age, social background or academic potential,' he says. And he has the backing of childrens campaigners.

Childrens commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green says: 'Growing up can be tough, particularly with the diverse influences and mixed messages children and young people are told about lifestyles, healthy eating and safe things to do. I commend the focus in the plan on young people who get into trouble.'

But others think the plan too unfocused. Shadow children's secretary Michael Gove says: 'How can the secretary of state credibly say that he is clearing away the clutter and empowering professionals, when he is sticking his fingers into everything and generating gloop on an industrial scale?'

And amid the swathe of initiatives - many simply extending existing schemes - lie real policy tensions. Although the plan has some new ideas, and is backed by £1bn of previously unallocated money from the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review, it is more about trying to marry two competing policy approaches. The tension inherent in this process might make it harder to raise school standards and eliminate child poverty than ministers imagine.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says: 'If schools are to be placed at the core of social reform for children, this places tremendous expectations on schools and their leaders' His concern was echoed by 56% of school heads, who thought it 'unacceptable' that schools should have more of a social services role, according to a Guardian survey last month.

The first approach, the 'standards agenda', aims to improve academic results for all children. It was first promoted by David Blunkett, as education secretary in Labour's first term. And while Blunkett and Tony Blair famously declared that they wanted 'standards, not structures', their agenda came to embrace both. Labour not only continued with the testing, inspection and performance tables created by the Conservatives, but set demanding targets for literacy and numeracy, greatly expanded specialist schools and created city academies.

This agenda is represented most forcefully in the DCSF by junior schools minister Lord Adonis. The former Blair adviser is best known for developing city academies and is also a strong advocate of traditional primary school teaching methods. He strongly backed former senior Ofsted inspector Sir Jim Rose, when he recommended traditional 'synthetic' phonics as the, basis for teaching reading in 2005.

Adonis has maintained influence under Brown, ensuring the PM s support for structural reform. …

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