Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Ask the Minister – Children first

Children’s minister Margaret Hodge answers Progress’ questions

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The Children’s Green Paper proposes children’s trusts but the initial pilots have not been evaluated yet. Are we rushing in?
There are currently thirty-five children’s trusts pathfinders. We have a programme for ensuring the lessons from developing children’s trusts are captured and disseminated rapidly. This evidence will inform other localities. Within the trusts, there are wide variations in how they are achieving better integration. However, there are some core features that we want all areas to adopt, including moving towards integrated information, assessments and commissioning. The evidence from Sure Start, Youth Offending Teams and other integrated provision shows the importance of bringing services and professionals together and breaking down traditional boundaries. While the exact nature of integration will vary depending on local circumstances and the evidence of what works, we are clear on the direction of travel.

How can the Children’s Commissioner truly hold government to account when they report to the Secretary of State? The Children’s Commissioner will act as an independent champion for children’s views and will report to parliament on progress in improving outcomes for children. It will test the success of government policies in terms of what children think and experience. It will also engage with the media and business and other organisations whose decisions and actions affect children’s lives.

The Green paper calls for massive restructuring. Is that not a distraction in itself?
The evidence from the Victoria Climbie Inquiry report and several other investigations into children’s services have shown that a lack of accountability and poor coordination across organisational boundaries is a root cause of poor practice on the ground. If we want to change the culture and practice of professionals working with children, we need to tackle the underlying barriers to progress, in particular institutional reform to bring services together and workforce reform to improve recruitment, retention, skills and teamworking. While institutional reform takes time and needs to be managed sensitively, we believe it is a key driver of change over the long term.

There is an ever growing number of children in care. Can that be helped, and what are you doing to end the education gap they suffer from? There is a significant variation across the country in the number of children going into care and the placement stability they get once there. Across the country, we face a huge challenge to raise the educational achievement of children in care. A key reason for our reforms in the green paper is to tackle the poor relationships between social services and education services that lies behind some of this failure. In particular, we need to achieve a significant cultural change across professions – so that social workers focus strongly on children’s educational participation and development, and schools and education services focus on protecting children effectively and nurturing the most vulnerable children.

Does your role as children’s minister give you sufficient sway over the youth offending and youth anti-social behaviour remit of the Home Office?
A whole host of services impact on children’s lives – from transport and housing to sport and art. My role as Minister for Children, Young People and Families involves direct responsibility for key services managed within DfES but also coordination of polices across government. We have now created a cabinet committee to coordinate a programme across government. A real example of how this is happening is the creation of an integrated inspection framework across services for children. In relation to youth offending and anti-social behaviour, we have seen significant progress since 1997, including the reduction of the reconviction rate by 22 percent. This has been achieved my much better partnership working through Youth Offending Teams which address the underlying causes of offending and reoffending. Building on these strong foundations requires us to work together across Whitehall.

Many newspapers habitually run scare stories about misbehaving children, demonising them and demanding ever more stringent punishment. Are we becoming a society that fears its own young?
We need to get a better balance in our public debate and to celebrate the positive role that children play in society. When we consulted children and young people, their clear message was that too often they are perceived negatively and seen as a problem rather than as an asset. We will play our part in leading a debate and undertaking practical measures to change our culture – in particular, ensuring children are involved in the design, delivery and evaluation of policies and services locally and nationally, and through the creation of a Children’s Commissioner. Other countries have demonstrated that perceptions in relation to children and their role in society can change over time, so I think it is important not to be too fatalistic about the potential for long-term change in this area.

At what point does the protection of children within a loving family become overprotection and actually inhibit a child’s development and socialisation? The transition from child to adult, from dependence to independence requires the right balance between freedom and structure. This is particularly critical during puberty and adolescence where the challenge is to provide a graduated ladder of responsibility where young people can gain increased autonomy and choice, but need the preparation in advance to be able to make the most of new opportunities and risks. I think this underlines the importance of parenting and parenting support in improving children’s lives. Parenting is difficult and many parents want more advice and support. In the past, there has been a stigma attached to doing this as parenting support has been associated with child protection and social services. Our aim is to make seeking parenting support, not just at birth but throughout childhood and adolescence, a routine activity for parents, accessible through universal services such as schools and GPs.
Recently we have been warned that childhood obesity might kill off the coming generation of children before their parents. What are you doing about this?
Many children’s diets contain more fat, sugar and salt than is recommended. We want to see quicker and more significant progress on the reduction of sugar, fat and salt in processed foods. The Department of Health is continuing to work with industry to achieve that.
We are helping to ensure children get a healthier and more balanced diet through the ‘5 a day’ programme and a national school fruit scheme which is giving nearly one million children a piece of free fruit every school day. The ‘food in schools’ initiative will look at improving options for healthier foods.

Exercise is vital to a child’s health and education as well as their health in later life. That’s why we are spending of over £1 billion to make lasting improvements in every aspect of school sport, including £459 million from April 2003 to improve the quality of teaching, increase participation and form links with sports clubs and professionals.
We know that advertising effects what children eat. The Food Standards Agency recently published a review of the evidence on the effect of advertising and promotional activity on children’s eating behaviour. The government will be carefully considering the policy implications of these findings. This will be closely linked to Derek Wanless’ report on public health which will be produced in the new year. We want to ensure that education can play a leading role in encouraging a healthy population.

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