Councils struggling on education, say school leaders

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The Independent Online

Local councils are struggling to cope with their responsibilities in education and safeguarding children, school leaders warned today.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said that in the last 18 months, schools have lost out as the Government has placed more expectations on children's services departments.

Many departments do not have the capacity or the expertise to deliver new education initiatives such as the Building Schools for the Future programme, which aims to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in England, or National Challenge, which focuses on the poorest performing secondaries in the country.

A survey of 65 ASCL union representatives in 150 local authorities reveals that three quarters (75 per cent) believe that school services are not as good since councils were made to merge their education and children's services departments, following the Children's Act 2004.

Just over one in five (22 per cent) said they thought the service for schools was the same as it was, while just 3 per cent said they thought the service was better.

The survey comes as Lord Laming publishes his review of progress made on implementing child safeguarding reforms.

In his address to the ASCL's annual conference this weekend, general secretary Dr John Dunford will say: "The job of Director of Children's Services (DCS) has become the job from hell - responsible for everything that happens to children in their area, accountable to a huge range of bodies, spending a high proportion of the working week on corporate committees, and as vulnerable as school leaders to being sacked. The risk is that some DCSs take their eye off the educational ball.

"The Government needs to be much clearer about the role they want local authorities and children's trusts to play, and more realistic about their ability to play it effectively. The joining up of local services, so that they provide timely and effective support to front line institutions, is the job of local authorities and children's trusts. That is where their focus should be, and not as the local enforcement arm of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, delivering dozens of school improvement initiatives.

"School improvement is the job of schools. That's where the expertise lies. The local authority role in this field is to monitor and, if things are starting to go wrong, commission support from other schools."

Dr Dunford added that while it is right in principle that all children's services are properly co-ordinated, paperwork must be simplified so that professionals can spend more time helping young people.

The Common Assessment Framework, a national standardised form, meant to provide earlier identification of issues, has become a particular "hindrance", Dr Dunford will say.

David Cokeham, an ASCL union representative in the Midlands, said: "The local authority has taken a long time to come to grips with the change in structure. In seeking to centralise the services they provide, the specific requirements of schools have sometimes been overlooked. There has certainly been a loss of expertise as departments have been restructured."