Children’s Trust Boards to be “reformed” – So what?

10th November 2010

So what do the changes actually mean?
1. Who will co-ordinate “Every Child Matters” targets, such as reducing childhood obesity?
Children’s Trust Boards bring together all the professionals working to deliver the Every Child Matters aims.  By working together, services avoid overlap and productively share information on issues such as reducing youth gangs, child obesity and infant malnourishment – all key indicators of future physical and mental well-being.  Without Trust Boards a new way will need to be found to coordinate the aims of health and security of young people if these aims are still considered important.
2. How will the coming deficit in Primary School places be resolved?
Along with the abolition of Trust Boards, local authorities no longer need to write a Children & Young People’s Plan.  These plans explain how local services will meet the Every Child Matters targets and, crucially, the plans detail school place planning.  Given the severe shortage in primary school places expected by 2013 the Children & Young People’s Plan was one of the few means of ensuring local councils told local people how the problem would be solved.  Without the plans many Councils will continue avoiding this problem leaving parents to worry about the future education of their children.
3. If a school acts in a way that will damage the local area, who will stop them?
Removing the “duty to cooperate” with local strategic plans means schools will now be able to decide how best to educate their children on their own.  Many heads will breathe a sigh of relief.  From now, if a Head wants to expand and create a Sixth Form to provide his staff with greater teaching opportunities and school capital he will no longer need to take into account the impact on other schools or public services.   But such actions are likely to affect others.  If, by opening this Sixth Form, a 1000-pupil sixth form down the road begins to struggle for recruitment and teacher retention, who will be in charge of finding a solution?  The hope is likely to be that Free Schools or social entrepreneurs will then take-over and improve the sixth form in order to ‘win back’ students. Is this a sign that competition comes before collaboration?
So, what justification is provided for the changes?
The DfE announcement clearly explains that the changes “devolve power and information to local areas”.  Instead of professionals collaborating on policy; power should go to citizens.  In practical terms, the Coalition imagines that instead of nurses and teachers working together to reduce child obesity, Parent-Teacher Associations will order the school kitchen staff to reduce the salt intake in Free School Meals, or that charities will provide holiday sports activities rather than the council.
In many ways, this inclusion of the third sector is important but how will it be organised?  My guess is that small communities with active church boards and community halls may have some success, but it fails to take into account the complexity of some problems. For example, infant malnourishment is related to a complex mix of financial, cultural and family issues not easily remedied by amateurs.
The brief also makes clear that Trust Boards will not be forced to disband; the policy merely removes statutory requirements to have a Board.  In so doing, local authorities are encouraged to find the most suitable system for their area.  But without a statutory requirement public service professionals will struggle to prioritise long-term strategy over immediate works such as 999 calls or GCSE classes.  In response to this argument, a colleague argued that “urgent stuff is the most important, it’s where the majority of effort should be” hence, he maintained, the policy is helpful. But we must remember that in Tesco not everyone sees to the urgent business of stacking shelves.  Someone must co-ordinate long-term strategy if the business is to survive.
The “Big Society” hope is that by opening up the long-term planning to citizens, Britain will get a more flexible public service. One that responds to user needs in the same way that opening up the software to make iPhone Apps created more technological innovation than Apple could have ever paid for.  It sounds great in principle, and if it works this announcement may prove to be the right choice; but if not, the health and security of young people will be the price paid.
Laura McInerney, Policy Development Partner
This is the first of Laura’s fortnightly L.K.M Consulting blogs. You can find out more about her and her role here
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