• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Friday 12th October, 2007

Election fever disguises decisions on UK children's services spending

The ill-tempered aftermath of a bout of election fever in the UK overshadowed the first pre-Budget report by new Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling. Media scrutiny focused on inheritance tax, and the possibility that the Government was stealing the ideas of the Conservative opposition, but beneath the political veneer, important decisions were being made about expenditure on children.UK Government expenditure is bound by a three-yearly Comprehensive Spending Review, one of which sets the priorities for the period 2008-2011. The current Review introduces 30 new 'Public Service Agreements (PSAs), which are a sort of social contract between central and local government and the providers of public services. At least a third of the Agreements relate to children. Many are predictable and promote old ideas measured by doubtful indicators. More children completing school, getting qualifications and going to university remains the orthodox objective. "Britain needs the skills to compete in a global market" is the mantra. The number of children gaining qualifications is one of the indicators.Other PSAs are welcome and worthy but prospects of achieving the aspirations they represent appear slim. When it came to power in 1997 the Labour administration committed itself to eradicating child poverty by 2020. That goal is still in place and the indicators are clear, but they do not suggest sufficient progress is being made.Other Agreements, while not brand new, capture the growing concern about the mental health of children in UK. And the ways of measuring progress toward improving behavior and emotional well-being, although not ideal, have the potential to become reliable.PSA 12, for example, is about improving the health and well-being of children and young people. Three of the five indicators are more breastfeeding, more school lunches and lower levels of obesity A fourth, dealing with the emotional health and well-being, uses Goodman's Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ).All 150 English local authorities nowadays administer the Tellus survey. A largely qualitative user participation survey, Tellus also includes the well-regarded SDQ, providing data on children's behavior, hyperactivity, emotional well-being, peer relationships and pro-social behavior. In a typical local authority Tellus develops a sample of about 1,300, including children from 40 primary schools, 15 secondary schools, and one special education context. Again, this is less than ideal, but it represents a step forward from the service data that has been at the heart of previous Comprehensive Spending Reviews.Last but not least, PSA 22 promises the UK a successful Olympic and Paralympic games in 2012, and not just for this reason many grateful and ungrateful children will be exercising much more in the three years to come.

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