Tory policy still needs some improvements

Ravi Chandiramani
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

There is a very real prospect that the next government will be a Conservative one. So it's encouraging that apart from the small matter of a global economic crisis, issues affecting children, young people and families took centre stage at the party's annual conference this week.

Thanks in no small measure to the efforts of ex-leader Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice, the Tories have embraced the importance of investing in early intervention. In contrast to the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, today's Conservative high command realises there certainly is such a thing as society and that it needs proper nurturing to ensure the health of the nation.

Nevertheless there are grounds for concern. On service design and delivery, the Conservatives are keen advocates of independence. This can be liberating, but also risks putting the Every Child Matters agenda in jeopardy. Take the party's continual emphasis on the voluntary sector. Nothing wrong in that: local charities in particular are close to their communities, innovative and generally freer than local authorities, while the bigger charities run substantial programmes very effectively. If this emphasis on the voluntary sector results in a broader, richer mix of services, it will undoubtedly benefit young lives. But if it in fact signals a rolling back of the state's frontiers, where statutory provision is sacrificed - be that cuts to Sure Start or anywhere else - that would be worrying.

This risk is greater still when it comes to shadow children's secretary Michael Gove's proposals to usher in 5,000 state-funded independent schools run by parents, charities and private firms. Modelled on a successful system in Sweden - which is, incidentally, a higher-tax society than ours - the schools would replace poor performing comprehensives and be given a significant measure of freedom to set their own curriculum.

Compared to the current independent, fee-paying sector, these schools would contain some of our most vulnerable children and young people. Although local authorities nowadays have oversight of all agencies that come into contact with a child, this one universal daily service, the school, would effectively be hived off. Just as the government puts a duty on schools to co-operate with children's trusts, this is a move in the other direction. Crucially, it threatens to blur the lines of accountability. The Conservatives need to explain how they would square this circle.

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