Editorial: Advocates for Children

The implications of the cuts in the budgets of children’s services in England are now becoming apparent. It is not a question of salami-slicing here and there. Some services, such as child protection, seem to be well preserved, while others, such as play, the youth services and Connexions face wholesale slaughter.It is a time when all professionals with an interest in services for children and young people should be coming together. Picked off one by one, each service is powerless to fight its corner, especially at local level. The down-sizing of services needs to have a rational basis in terms of the various requirements of children and young people. Action is needed not only nationally, monitoring the overall impact, but locally and regionally, so that each area’s particular needs, problems and strengths are reflected in the planning. Action is needed not only to react to proposed cuts, but to identify priorities, to find a balance of services and to think up new, more effective ways of responding to need.

Who is in a position to call everyone together in this way, to work in partnership? It needs to be an independent national body with a track record of co-ordinatory work, and one which is widely respected. In our view, only the National Children’s Bureau fulfils this description. It has the stature and it works with every local authority in the country, but if it is to reach out to the professionals, rather than the services, it needs a system of networking, perhaps based on its membership.

When the National Bureau for Co-operation in Child Care was set up in 1963 it was ‘owned’ by its members. It was they who had seen the need for professionals to get together, to address the problems of the time, to share ideas, to have a common voice and to work as advocates to improve services for children and young people and their families.

These professionals came from many different backgrounds – in the National Health Service, Education Departments, Children’s Departments, the voluntary sector (there was very little private sector work at that time) and so on. They were from many professions and worked in different settings and at different levels of seniority. But they were all concerned to co-operate in the interests of children.

Nearly fifty years on the National Children’s Bureau has a well-respected track record for research, policy development, consultation, training, conferences, publications and, not least of all, consultation with children and young people. (There have been young members of its Board for the last decade.) The NCB has been well led. Mia Kellmer-Pringle, for example, is still widely quoted, and Sir Paul Ennals has had a major personal impact. The NCB has influenced governments; it has generated ideas which have been the foundation of legislation; it has acted as the co-ordinator of coalitions of organisations with specific interests such as bullying or disability. Its role, in its field, is unique.

But the emphasis on all the excellent work described above has sidelined the membership – perhaps in part because most of the Chief Executives have been researchers, rather than people primarily concerned about membership organisations. Originally there were branches in many parts of the country, where professionals from different backgrounds could meet, network and share ideas. It was decided to shut down the last of these branches when John Rae-Price was Chief Executive. Even though its projects are sited across the country, the NCB looked, to some at the time, a London-centred body.

The membership is made up mainly of corporate organisations such as local authorities, health authorities or schools, but there are also a few hundred individual members. Through the network as a whole, there must be some hundreds of thousands of professionals working with children and young people employed in member organisations, but most are probably unaware of their membership or of what the NCB could offer them.

It is our impression that NCB membership has become primarily a way to access its services; the original ‘ownership’ has long gone. The NCB accounts to its members at the AGM, but that is little more than a token gesture; the power and motive force of the NCB rests mainly with the senior staff, monitored and led by the Board. As described above, in many respects this approach has worked admirably, and we would not wish to detract from the NCB’s success.

We suggest, though, that it is time to reconsider the situation. At a time of economic stringency, services for children and young people need their advocates – nationally, regionally and locally. Professionals need to come together to think of new and better ways of collaborating to meet children’s needs, outside the formal structures within which they work. In short the needs which the National Bureau for Co-operation in Child Care faced in the early 1960s are in some ways mirrored today. There are concerns which require professionals to come together and take a common line.

If the NCB continues as at present, it will continue to play an important role in policy development and all the other activities listed above, but it will have missed a trick. There is no other body in which all interests concerning children and young people can come together. The NCB needs the professions to be arguing their cause; it needs the workforce to identify with it (‘my NCB’). Otherwise it risks being a really first-rate London-based consultancy, rather than the expression of concerned professionals throughout the country.

We are not suggesting that traditional forms of paid membership will work. These days ephemeral systems of electronic communication work better. But to draw up large contact lists is not expensive and does entail time-consuming mailings. What matters is whether the professionals are in touch, kept up to date, sharing ideas and identifying with the wider campaign.

And in the absence of the NCB, who will draw the professionals together to have a common voice? We suspect, no one. Services for children will remain splintered and weak, and it will be not only the workers but the children, young people and their families who will suffer in the absence of advocates.

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