US performance management expert tackles Every Child Matters agenda

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Take up for the Every Child Matters (ECM) agenda has been sluggish and too many schools have yet to buy the idea that working collaboratively with other agencies to improve children's wellbeing can improve their academic attainment. Indeed, say enthusiasts, such collaboration is essential to it.

Addressing the national children's and adult services conference in Brighton, education secretary Alan Johnson said ECM was as important for schools as had been the seminal 1944 Butler Act. Yet research published at the same event painted a gloomy picture of schools' engagement with the programme, suggesting that as few as one in 10 was "actively" involved with children and young people's strategic partnerships, children and young people's plans or children's trusts.

The research, part of the annual survey of trends in education by the National Foundation for Educational Research, was carried out for the Local Government Association and based on survey returns in summer 2006 by 370 primary and 1,155 secondary schools in England. Although there was a further rise in the number of schools offering "extended" services such as breakfast clubs and community activities - though no change in the small numbers offering health, social care or public library services - few respondents were enthusiastic. Asked to gauge the main advantages of extended schools, the most popular answer was "very little or none".

Max Friedman, a US performance management expert, is unsurprised: across the globe, he says, professionals cling to their silos, fragmenting services and trying to force users of services to fit into artificial categories. And teachers are worse than most. He said: "We are fighting decades, centuries of narrow thinking about this. People are scared: it's a frightening thing to step out of your traditional role and say: 'I'm going to pitch in here.' We're used to protecting our turf, working these narrow channels, but the ironic thing is that if you get a community working together, the school's performance will improve."

Schools that turn their back on collaborative working, that cut themselves off from the community, will end up harming themselves, says Friedman, who was briefly a maths teacher. But he understands their reluctance. "The history of this work is that social agencies would come and ask the schools to do their job for them, basically, and the schools would say: 'Woah, my job is to teach kids and I don't have the extra capacity. Get out of here.' The way this is happening now is different: it's agencies coming to the schools and saying: 'The kids in your school who are failing are the kids in juvenile hall [court] who are failing and the kids in the health system who are failing. If we work together, these kids are going to do better in your school.'"

The ECM agenda is a singular opportunity to reshape children's services, he thinks. "If that process of reshaping is simply shuffling boxes and reorganising and changing how people check for compliance, there won't be very much benefit from it. But if it really means that agencies and people work together differently across systems, then there is a chance for some significant gain."

(Guardian, 1 November 2006)

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