Every Child Matters (ECM) is a UK government initiative for England and Wales, that was launched in 2003, at least partly in response to the death of Victoria Climbié. It is one of the most important policy initiative which has been introduced and development programmes in relation to children and children's services of the last decade, and has been described as a "sea change" to the children and families agenda. It has been the title of three government papers, leading to the Children Act 2004. Every Child Matters covers children and young adults up to the age of 19, or 24 for those with disabilities.
Its main aims are for every child, whatever their background or circumstances, to have the support they need to:
- stay safe
- be healthy
- enjoy and achieve
- make a positive contribution
- achieve economic well-being
Each of these themes has a detailed framework attached which is required for multi-agency partnerships to work together in order to achieve. The agencies in partnership may include children's centres, early years, schools, children's social work services, primary and secondary health services, playwork, and Child and Adolescent Mental Health services (CAMHS). In the past it has been argued that children and families have received poorer services because of the failure of professionals to understand each other's roles or to work together effectively in a multi-disciplinary manner. ECM seeks to change this, stressing that it is important that all professionals working with children are aware of the contribution that could be made by their own and each other's service and to plan and deliver their work with children and young people accordingly.
A helpful acronym to remember the 5 parts is SHEEP - Every child shall be: Safe, Healthy, Enjoy/Achieve, Economic, Positive contribution.
It is the central goal of Every Child Matters to ensure every pupil is given the chance to be able to work towards the goals referenced within it. Most of the legislation passed and guidance applies to England and Wales, and all maintained schools have implemented the policy; it has also been influential in the rest of the UK and in some independent schools. The similar model Getting it Right for Every Child - GIRFEC is the equivalent approach in Scotland.
Since the formation of the Cameron Ministry in 2010 there has been some movement away from the terminology, and the funding for, Every Child Matters. Instead, the government is now returning child health checks to health visitors in their more traditional setting - the child's home - and subsidising a parent's independent choice of child care, via tax credits, rather than a centrally funded service.
There comes a time in any long sea voyage when the land behind is a distant memory and the destination has yet to appear on the horizon, and you wonder if you will ever again set foot on dry land. Welcome to children's services, five years into their voyage in search of a new world.
The Every Child Matters (ECM) policy, the chart for this journey, was published in 2003 alongside the report into the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié. It responded to the catastrophic failures in Climbié's case by proposing a series of big changes to the way English public services shared their information, how they were organised, and how they cooperated with each other. The scope of the proposals was daunting, but the timing was opportune: the sector had been shaken by high-profile failures and was tired of being public enemy number one.
The Children Act 2004 which followed made provision for the creation of children's trusts - local, multi-agency partnerships with a duty to promote five key outcomes for all children in their area. They also in effect did away with the last vestiges of "cradle-to-grave" social services departments by driving the appointment of a single director of children's services with statutory responsibility for all children in an area. The resulting split of adult and children's social care was a source of concern at the time. So, too, was the squeezing together of the relatively small, specialist children's social care services with what was perceived to be the juggernaut of education.
But now, in 2008, this almost seems ancient history. In December last year, the government issued the Children Plan, a review of the key planks of ECM. But the course largely appears to be "steady as she goes". So what does the sector make of the passage so far - and are there any storms ahead?
Progress, it seems, is good. In fact, there is a sense of optimism among many people working in the sector. Despite the huge demands made on those involved, both at frontline and strategic levels, most of their worst fears have not been realised.
John Coughlan, director of children's services for Hampshire, says: "It's going well. Once the writing was on the wall about the disestablishment of education and social services departments, people drove at that very quickly. We warned at the time that there were real risks in any big structural reform. But the wheels haven't fallen off and local authorities deserve a great deal of credit for that."
Christine Davies is director of the Centre for Excellence and Outcomes, a new government-funded body which will act as the central good practice hub for local authorities and their children's trust partners. She says: "I was one of the architects of ECM, and I do feel quite passionate about it. Progress has been considerable, but I think it's fair to say that there's a lot of variation - each area is at a different point on the journey. The central concept of ECM, that schools are at the heart of interdisciplinary working, is absolutely right. There was some reluctance at the beginning and if you talked to children's services at the start, they would often cite schools being a concern. But it's no longer the case."
The perception now is that health is the bigger challenge, Davies adds. "The child health strategy [delayed from the spring but expected shortly] will hopefully bring some momentum to that. There's a lot of evidence that children's mental health is really one of our challenges as a nation."
But despite the generally upbeat mood, there are inevitable problems. One growing area of concern is around safeguarding - or child protection as it used to be known. Under ECM, safeguarding ceased to be something that was purely social work business and became instead "everyone's business". This widening of the net has drawn in some unexpected and not entirely comfortable messages, in particular the growing number of local authorities with safeguarding systems that have been found wanting.
This is partly a result of a new joint area review (Jar) inspection regime which, since 2007, has focused particular attention on safeguarding. This looks in detail at processes and infrastructure, but also inspects files, asks whether police checks have been carried out and investigates outcomes for children. Crucially, the new Jar looks not just at children's social care, but asks questions of all services who have contact with children.
Andrew Cozens is strategic adviser on children, adults and health services at the local government Improvement and Development Agency. He says: "The headline that we're keeping an eye on is that there's quite a dissonance between how some services were rated before the Jar started looking in detail and what it turned out to be. Based on the current analysis, there are quite a lot of councils where there are some concerns. It may not be serious, but it has the potential to be.
"What concerns us is that councils, and in fact the sector as a whole, haven't got a sharp enough idea about what constitutes a good safeguarding service. The worst thing that can happen when you have an inspection is that your self-assessment is not backed up by the evidence. The key thing is to have integrity in knowing where you're at - and we're not sure at the moment that we've got a good enough way of judging that."
Safeguarding may, in fact, be one symptom of a wider problem, namely that ECM's focus on improving "universal" services has inevitably deflected attention from the most vulnerable children. Cozens sees evidence that ministers are now keen to see some refocusing on the sharp end. "As far as targeted and specialist services are concerned, I think there's a real concern about the thresholds that still exist, and about consistency of information sharing," he says.
Clare Tickell is chief executive of the charity Action for Children (formerly NCH), which provides services to vulnerable families across the UK. She agrees with Cozens, saying: "One of the greatest challenges when you extend services out in the way that ECM has done is how you continue to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. My view is that you never crack it. You just have to keep asking: 'Are we doing it?'. If you don't, it will slip off the radar."
The danger of refocusing on the most vulnerable, of course, is that the progress made in respect of universal and preventive services starts to slip backwards. Tickell argues that this is not the time to be stinting on services which prevent troubled families reaching crisis point, particularly if the credit crunch - or a change of government - means that finances come under renewed pressure.
"When money is tight, people cut back on prevention," she says. "But it is such a false economy, because two or three years later, everyone sits there going: 'Oh my God, we've got spikes all over the place'. Well, you've got spikes because you haven't been investing in prevention. What's critical, and what breaks that cycle, is for all of us to understand the need to research and to be able to prove outcomes for the services that we're providing."
The message of ECM to date seems to be steady progress, but with a huge range of local variation and some persistent problems. But there seems to be little appetite for retrenchment. Coughlan says: "If there's any fault in the way this has been progressed over the past five years, I think it was the gross underestimation of how complicated this change programme would be. It is a massive undertaking and it was always going to take a long time to get it right, even in the best authorities. But we have made major strides and we need to recognise how much good has been done. For God's sake, don't stop now."