This e-bulletin looks at the legal implications of The Children’s Plan and considers the impact it will have on schools

The Children’s Plan was announced by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) in December 2007. The plan is described as a long-term vision designed to improve schools and change the way parents and families are supported in the upbringing of their children. Ceri-Sian Williams of Browne Jacobson considers the impact this will have on schools.

What is the Children’s Plan?

The Children’s Plan expands on the Every Child Matters agenda and signifies the biggest shake-up of policies for young people in a generation. It aims to address British schools’ slide in international league tables, schools’ opposition to increased testing, and highly critical reports on British childhood by a number of organisations, including UNICEF.

Does it address only education issues?

Actually, no. The Children’s Plan sets a 2020 deadline to dramatically reduce illiteracy and antisocial behaviour and eradicate child poverty, by placing schools at the centre of an array of new measures covering education, health, the family and law and order. While education is the focus, the plan needs to be a multi-agency approach to succeed.

What role will the school play?

The plan places schools at the heart of the community, encouraging them to make effective links with the NHS and other services, taking extended services to another level. It also reiterates the government’s intention to make sure that every school offers activities from 8am until 6pm, under the extended services programme.

Does this mean that schools are expected to take on a leading role?

That is how the plan is currently drafted, yes. The planned link-up to other agencies signals government recognition that more needs to be done to support families and children, and that services should be shaped in response to their needs. However, concerns have been raised that to centre the provision of these services around schools makes them take on too much of a loco parentis role, and risks removing the responsibility from parents for organising their children’s lives.In order for schools to ensure that they are effectively coordinating their services with other service providers, school leaders will need to allocate continuing time and resources to monitoring these relationships. Their success will be highly dependant on the cooperation and support of the other agencies involved and there is the danger that this may divert schools’ focus from the provision of children’s education.

Does the plan envisage any change to the curriculum?

A thorough review of the primary level curriculum has been promised, to look at potential improvements to primary level education. The review will look at ways of making the transition from early years to school easier. The review will look at the key issue of whether children should be tested on a ‘needs’ instead of an ‘age’ basis throughout their education, and could see the end of key stage tests. If this change is implemented without a change to the system of league tables, it is arguable that the change would do little to reduce competition and stress for pupils and teachers.The review will also look at creating a sharper focus on mathematics and English, and whether teachers should be given greater flexibility in structuring their day.

Does the plan encourage teacher/parent cooperation?

The plan creates a contract of mutual cooperation between teachers and parents, whereby teachers are encouraged to maintain regular contact with parents throughout a child’s school life to provide advice, information and guidance on their child’s ongoing development. Personal tutors will be the parents’ main contact point with the school, to ensure that parents are kept up-to-date and to enable their preferences and views to be heard.

So what are the implications for schools?

The Children’s Plan has received mixed reviews from educationalists, but the intention behind it has, on the whole, been welcomed. However, its proposals and policies could have significant implications for schools in terms of resources and implementation. Increased pressure will be put on schools to provide extra-curricular support to children and families and the burden has been placed on schools to ensure that they liaise with other agencies. This will require continued monitoring by schools and will be effective only through ongoing cooperation by those other agencies. The plan envisages that parents will become more engaged with their child’s learning through cooperation with the school. However, some critics believe that this will increase, not decrease, the school’s loco parentis role, by placing the duty for building the parent/teacher relationship firmly on the school.

Could this put too much pressure on schools?

There is a danger that if schools become responsible for leading on issues such as antisocial behaviour and parental support, they will lose the focus of, and become overburdened with, issues unrelated to their primary objective of providing quality education. As a result, attainment may suffer.

It seems an obvious point, but children are in school for only a fraction of each day (on weekdays, and excluding holidays); for the rest of the time they are out in the wider community, where they can be influenced by a plethora of external factors. In reality, the responsibility for childhood should rest with all of us, and the government will need to ensure it gets the right balance on this fine line when it begins to implement the plan.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in September 2008

About the author: Ceri-Sian Williams