Conor Ryan: In a crisis, you still can't reach a social worker

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The Independent Online

Since Lord Laming's 2003 report into the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, there has been a big drive to bring together services for children, from police and schools to hospitals and social services. Local authorities have merged departments. The government split universities and skills from the old education department, most recently adding them to Lord Mandelson's growing empire, merging schools and social services issues with the new children, schools and and families department under Ed Balls. Similar changes have taken place at Ofsted.

Under the banner of "every child matters", the Government declared new goals on such themes as health, safety, "enjoy and achieve". Few disagree with the aims, and many teachers have been enthusiastic about them.

Yet, six years on, there is a sense that things are not working out. In his recent review of the Baby Peter case in Haringey, Lord Laming said the problem was that his ideas hadn't been introduced fully or fast enough. But head teachers fear that some of Laming's solutions are part of the problem. There may be worthy new "safeguarding'"committees and "partnership working", they say, but you can't get hold of a social worker when you need one. The Government has professionals bogged down in "integrated strategy" and "inter-agency governance" but too little attention has been paid to the practical measures that could really make a difference.

And heads' support for closer links between schools and welfare services has been turned into frustration as efforts to merge two very different professional approaches – that of the teacher and the social worker – are put into practice.

In the end, the focus of a local authority's children's services department often depends on who is in charge. So, education leaders, who led good schools departments, find themselves dragged down by historically weak social services. Equally, those with expertise in social services are being expected to manage schools, with values and goals often very different from those in their own profession. There is a fear that the changes have reduced the importance of raising academic attainment in some areas.

The result has often been a reduction in the effectiveness of both. This clash of cultures seems to have been at the heart of the problems in Haringey, where the director of children's services, Sharon Shoesmith, a former schools inspector, was pilloried for her department's failings in child protection over Baby P. To be fair to ministers, there has been a move to improve the training of children's services leaders.

But more imaginative school leaders believe there is no substitute for having welfare workers in schools. Some schools in disadvantaged communities have taken to recruiting their own social workers and police officers. Extended schools often provide GP and nurses for the community on site because they know that is more effective for children's health than expecting mums to use the health centre.

But the best schools introduce such measures without being forced to do so. An effective "every child matters" agenda demands more such school-based services and better procedures. And where a head sees a child who looks as if they have been abused at home, they need to be able to pick up a phone and reach a social worker within hours. It's no good waiting for the next committee meeting.

Ministers are missing a trick by not focusing on expanding such practical measures. Instead, they have gone for more legislation to extend the bureaucracy associated with Every Child Matters. The current education and skills bill would extend the role of children's trusts, which many heads fear would simply add an extra layer of local bureaucracy.

Ed Balls has been given longer than he perhaps wished to see all this through. If he really wants to make his mark, he should give heads and teachers the people and powers to make a practical difference to the welfare of children. Unless this happens, there is a real danger that we will fail to prevent more children becoming the victims of abuse.

The writer, a former education adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett, blogs at