The Children’s Plan was published by the DCSF in December 2007. It consists of over 60 programmes and, in the words of the DCSF, “is a vision for change to make England the best place in the world for children and young people to grow up.” Coming from a government that never managed to ‘deliver’ clean hospital wards, this is a pretty ambitious undertaking. Certainly, enough money has been spent: this year, the Children’s Plan will cost about £5 billion—enough to put an additional eight teachers in ever primary school in England. This would be money well spent if it actually improved the life-chances of children growing up on our sink estates. The economic and social costs of maintaining a huge underclass are huge. Unfortunately, the omens are not good.
At the Centre for Policy Studies, we have spent the last eight month studying the major elements of the Children’s Plan. Just putting a price tag on them was difficult enough—the ‘integrated delivery’ model used to implement programmes entails a complex web of quangos, charities, private companies and local authorities—few of whom were able to tell how much their activities cost. For example, the Family Intervention Programme involves two government departments, 11 quangos, and countless private and public agencies in all 150 local authorities. It is a wonder that any money every trickles down to those it is meant to help.
Our most surprising finding was that the main beneficiaries of the Children’s Plan are middle-class parents. Sure Start, which was originally intended to benefit the most vulnerable children, is now a universal entitlement. Reports by Hull University and the Common Health Committee have condemned the programme’s failure to reach marginalised social groups. The Food in Schools programme intended to ‘de-stigmatise’ free school meals by making them universal—a provision which the Coalition has wisely scrapped. Other elements, such as School Sports and Every Child A Reader, were intended as universal benefits from the start.
Although a few elements of the Children’s Plan are worthy of continued support from Whitehall—and there are others (such as the £315 million Early Years Foundation Stage) that should clearly be scrapped—we concluded that the most sensible option is to allow local authorities to implement and finance the ones that meet local needs.
One of the first casualties should be the Children’s Workforce Development Council, a little-known quango which is developing a broad range of new qualifications for anyone who works with children up to the age of 19. Virtually every new initiative encompassed by the Children’s Plan involves these new ‘professionals’. The CWDC’s rigid adherence to ‘child-centred’ principles ensures that the most vulnerable children will not learn the skills or self-discipline needed to become productive members of society.
The ideological bias of the Children’s Plan is vividly illustrated by the measures adopted to combat illiteracy. Reading Recovery is the main element of Every Child A Reader, and it costs over £6,000 for each successful intervention. By contrast, West Dunbartonshire—Scotland’s second-most impoverished local authority—has virtually eliminated reading failure for well under £100 per pupil. This has been accomplished without the usual array of highly-trained experts in child development. One man—the educational psychologist Dr Tommy MacKay—convinced West Dunbartonshire teachers that all children, even those from the most dysfunctional homes, are capable of learning. The secret is that they have to be taught. But if you wait for children to ‘discover’ essential knowledge and skills, you may have a very long wait.
It’s worth noting that Tommy MacKay’s programme was locally led and locally implemented. The Children’s Plan is ultimately doomed by the conceit that a committee of experts can determine ‘best practice’, and disseminate it in communities as diverse as Haringey, Hampstead and Halifax. In truth, progress results from diversity and competition—concepts that will never emerge from a CWDC course in childcare or ‘Teaching and Learning’.