The Children Acts; tour de force not tour de France!
Friday, November 29, 2019
I was inspired by the powerful insights provided by ADCS President Rachel Dickinson, ADCS past presidents and Vice President Jenny Coles as they looked back at the Children Acts 1989 and 2004. However, their insights also highlight concerns that there is an increasingly large number of disadvantaged children in our country whose rights, which are set out in those acts, are ignored on a daily basis.
One sector in particular appears, in some cases, to be travelling in the opposite direction and working counter to the principals of the Children Acts 1989 and 2004. The sector I am speaking about is schools and more specifically a minority, but a growing number of, academy schools. These act outside of “ethical considerations” (as one academy recently described its own discussions) and describe disadvantaged children as “anchor students”.
You will recognise these schools and no doubt you will be able to name some. Typically, they appear to be highly successful, popular with the Department for Education and some parents (but by no means all), have high progress and attainment measures and are likely to be rated as ‘outstanding’. However, some of these schools ignore or actively shun the needs of the most vulnerable or disadvantaged children in their communities by using a range of strategies. Many claim to be system leaders but act in ways that are almost entirely competitive and other schools are greatly frustrated by them. They cite ethics as their driver, utilising phrases such as “pupils first”. This is clever, but it implies that only ‘our’ children, the ones that learn here, matter.
In order to succeed, some of these schools feel the necessity (as one academy wrote) “to come at the problem, with no preconceived ideas of ethical considerations” in order to test what would work best for their academy school. In the worst cases they implement coercive, controlling and demeaning behaviour regimes. Many of these schools have extremely high levels of fixed-term exclusions and engage in gaming their intake by techniques which include a range of morally unacceptable practices which would be difficult to prove to legal standards.
You can probably name such schools. You may well have battle scars from attempting to tackle these issues. Fair access panels and local inclusion partnerships are struggling, Pupil Referral Units and Alternative Provisions are filling up, elective home education is now more common and exclusions are rising. Yet across the country, national agencies (with the exception of the Children’s Commissioner) are not acting against these behaviours. As a result, these schools are emboldened. It’s as though this minority of academy schools and their leaders’ vanities come first, not the children (who they are mandated to serve by both; the Academies Act 2010 and their funding agreements).
As we know, the first function listed in the Director for Children’s Services (DCS) job description in the Children Act 2004 (S18 2a) is for our education duties, the second (2b) our social services functions. Yet many DCSs are being left unsupported by some of the key national agencies when attempting to undertake the first function of their statutory duty in this regard.
What’s more, it’s pernicious that good and honourable school leaders feel forced to consider worrying policies. I can’t help but draw comparisons with cycling when the sport was embroiled in cheating. At one time in professional cycling, many felt it wasn’t possible to be a credible competitor in the peloton without cheating, because they felt everyone else was doing it. Young cyclists started clean and idealistic, soon to be ruined. Increasingly, I can see a similar worrying trend in our school system in 2019. New idealistic leaders feel forced to work contrary to the rights of our most vulnerable children. Too many believe that it just isn’t now possible for schools to be credible in terms of progress and attainment unless they engage in discriminatory, coercive and exclusionary activity.
The truth is that there are other ways. Promoting holistic and restorative practices effectively in schools is hard to achieve but it is possible, it is being done by many brilliant schools and school leaders across the country and it is the right thing to do.
We are required by these powerful statutes to ensure that every child matters, whatever type of school they attend. Our national agencies should now do the same.
Paul Brennan is chair of the ADCS Associates Network. This blog first appeared on the ADCS website