A day for celebrations

Tomorrow specifically, 16 November, marks the 30th anniversary of the Children Act 1989 receiving Royal Assent. Today specifically, 15 November, is the 15th anniversary of the Children Act 2004 receiving Royal Assent. In the run up to these important milestone dates, I have been enjoying reading the comments from past ADCS Presidents about what those vital pieces of legislation mean to them and for children and families.

From the revolutionary concept in the 1989 Act that children had rights of their own, and that adult responsibility was to protect those rights and children’s welfare, to the holistic view of children’s lives at the heart of the 2004 Act, and the attendant requirement for services to work in partnership to improve children’s outcomes across many different domains, these acts have shaped the principles and guided the practice of everyone working with children ever since.

I was still a student in 1989, and I’m embarrassed to say that I can’t actually remember the Children Act 1989 legislation being passed, even though 30 years later it impacts daily on how I think and what I do. However, I have a vivid recollection of the excitement and positivity generated by the 2004 Act, the powerful statement that Every Child Matters, and the way the five outcomes started to be threaded through the policy and practice development that followed.

Nevertheless, I felt as though there was still something left out of the legislation, though I couldn’t put my finger on it. A few years later after the Department for Children, Schools and Families had reverted to the Department for Education and every document with a rainbow on it was filed away, I stumbled across the answer in a web archive. There was a report on young people’s responses to the ‘Every Child Matters’ five outcomes which showed clearly that – although for the most part they agreed with the outcomes being prioritised – they would have put economic wellbeing much further down the list than the adult consultees had and instead would have significantly emphasised family and friends; staying connected with the people important to them. That is such a significant omission! The ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda went out of its way to make room for children and young people’s voices; promoting consultation, engagement and involvement of children and young people in relation to all developments affecting them. Here was a fine example of government asking young people what was important to them, but their answer didn’t make it into the final framework. Of course economic wellbeing is important, but in human terms what could possibly be more important than the people we love and who we want to love us?

Although that report has now disappeared even deeper into the archives, so I can’t find it to link to here, it remains a powerful influence on me as a Director for Children’s Services, and in two ways in particular:

First, it’s a daily reminder that ‘children’s voices’ deserve more than lip service. If we ask children and young people what matters to them, then we need to be prepared to respond positively to the clear messages we receive back. This does not mean giving children everything they ask for; we know that’s not always possible, or wise. But, in my experience children equivocate far less than adults do and their directness and clarity can help us to define our focus and purpose. In my own authority, Merton, we don’t only consult with children and young people, we directly employ them as advisors, inspectors, commissioners and will soon have a young scrutineer for our safeguarding partnership.

Second, it means really working to protect, sustain and - where necessary - rebuild children’s family, friend and community relationships. I’m still surprised sometimes at how much we’re willing to spend as a sector, both in cash terms and in terms of kindness, creativity and patience, to support a child in ‘stranger care’, sometimes a very long way from home, when we don’t make the same effort or financial commitment to support and encourage birth and extended families to solve their problems.

In Merton’s new Children and Young People’s Plan, we have five outcomes that I’m sure everyone would recognise, and a sixth, which is about children and young people’s connection and belonging. We’re starting to make that priority more explicit in the values that underpin our practice. This will influence many things from how we find ways to meet the needs of children with SEND, to how we work with families whose children are at risk of harm. This, I think, helps to return us to the core principles of the Children Act 1989; children being cared for within their own families wherever possible.

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