Risk and Childhood

This conference was a curious affair. The clear message from the opening address was that childhood, like much else about life today, is less risky now than it ever was in the past. This seemed like a good start to a day of debunking risks, and a full frontal assault on our risk society. Or so I had hoped.

The first clue that this wasn’t to be was the opening sentence of the RSA report of the same name launched that day: ‘Growing up is a risky business’. While acknowledging that ‘the world is generally a safer place for children than in the past’ the authors, Dr Nicola Madge and Dr John Barker, couldn’t help but sound less-than-convinced by the evidence before them. Nearly half way through and I thought I must have missed a session. In the morning we were told all this worry about risk is so much over-hyped nonsense; and by the afternoon, delegates were faced with speaker after speaker redefining normal childhood experiences through the prism of risk. The precautionary principle, as one sane voice from the floor hinted, was never far beneath the surface of the day’s discussions.

For Naomi Eisenstadt – Director of the Social Exclusion Task Force and responsible for work on ‘Families at Risk’, both at the Cabinet Office, and when heading the Sure Start programme – it was poverty and poor parenting that represent the biggest risks. Sir Cyril Taylor, an adviser to government on specialist schools, and chair of the body responsible for the establishment of City Academies, was surely off on a tangent when discussing the implications of poor literacy. But no, this too was a ‘risk’. Others warned of the risks to children’s well-being and self-esteem, or of the risks associated with children’s exposure to, and interaction with, new media. It was soon pretty clear that this risk thing has a tendency to take on a momentum of its own as social and technological changes arise and risky scenarios are dreamt up.

To be fair this was to be expected given the programming of the event itself. It was organised by the RSA Risk Commission, a body that apparently ‘aims to examine and contextualise risk in modern society’. The session before lunch began by blaming modernity and the ‘consequent changes to our physical and social world’ for our attitudes to children and risk. Professor John Adams, one of the principal academic advocates of the risk agenda, alongside the ever batty and belligerent Mayer Hillman, who proclaimed ecological doom for all our children (from the floor) whenever given the opportunity, were cases in point.

Those with an interest in tortured debates about environmentalism will know Hillman in particular for his deep green catastrophist views on our prospects of dealing with climate change (ie not very good); and deeply reactionary views on carbon rationing (which, if you hadn’t noticed, is now official government policy and the prevailing wisdom for want of a better word). He is also an advocate for greater freedom for children. But this potential ally – for those of us, who want to free childhood from the restraints imposed by adult anxieties – has this other agenda in mind when talking about childhood too.

In 1971, Hilman conducted a study into the proportion of children going to school unaccompanied by an adult. Based on a survey of five schools, this stood at 80%. The research was repeated in 1990 with Hilman this time accompanied by Adams. They found that just 9% walked to school. Adams explained to delegates that this was illustrative of his thesis that ‘hypermobility’ (in layman’s terms, ‘too much moving around’) is bad for children, and bad for society. Effectively transport policy (ie, ‘too many cars’) is responsible for the loss of social cohesion, the breakdown of trust in neighbourhoods; as well as children’s loss of independence, and freedom to go out to play. As a consequence, instead of celebrating the greater mobility afforded by modernisation – from 5 miles a day in 1950 to 30 miles for the average person today – Adams thinks it a regressive trend to be discouraged.


But if its not modern life per se that is responsible for all this talk about risk and childhood, why are we so anxious about children these days?

David Willetts, heading a new inquiry into the so-called ‘crisis of childhood’ for Tory leader Cameron, was one of the more insightful speakers to address the conference. He seemed to recognise that it is ‘anxiety about risk’ rather than risk itself that is at the heart of the problem. (Similarly, Professor Robin Alexander, who heads the Primary Review into the future of primary education, talked about a ‘discourse of anxiety’ in which children feature as both a threat to society and as ‘at risk’ themselves.) Willetts was critical of the notion that what makes a good parent is so-called risk awareness. As every other adult becomes a threat to their children, parents feel both more alone and are less likely to intervene when another child is in danger, he continued.

This was echoed by Prof. Alexander when he described how there has been a ‘loss of meaningful contact between generations’. Willetts went further, arguing that not only have adults ‘lost confidence in children’ but ‘children have lost confidence in each other’ he said, with play areas abandoned to gangs of youths. Increasingly for all children, ‘childhood retreats into private space controlled by parents’; into the bedroom (for working class kids) or into a regime of ‘organised activities’ (for their more affluent peers).

Ian Lewis, of Campaign for Adventure – Risk and Enterprise in Society, and clerk of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Adventure and Recreation in Society, put up a valiant effort to counter this state of affairs. He talked enthusiastically about testing young people’s ‘adventure thresholds’, setting ‘new horizons’, and berated us to ‘change our own perceptions of the possible’. Dr Tony Sewell, CEO of Generating Genius and a columnist with the black community newspaper The Voice, also injected a much needed dose of inspiration. He echoed Lewis’s warning that in the absence of sufficient risk taking opportunities children will seek it out in the kind of activities society frowns upon, like drug use and antisocial behaviour. If we don’t provide young people with the opportunities to take risks, he said, they’ll seek out bad risks and join gangs. We need more ‘controlled risk’ he continued.

But this distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ risks is a distraction, and irresolvable anyway. It ends up using the risk-discourse to frighten the bureaucrats with the prospect of even more out-of-control youth. And that is no solution either. It only reinforces risk as a currency. Rather than challenging the groundless claim that the world is less safe than it used to be; and that children are more vulnerable to it than before – it extends the reach of risk management by endorsing the search for so-called ‘safe’ or ‘controlled’ risks. The notion that you can ‘encourage young people to take risks safely’ as Madge put it, just doesn’t make any sense. It only adds to the confusion, and paves the way for further policy interventions with the ludicrous objective of somehow making risk safer.


Errol Taylor, Deputy Chief Executive of RoSPA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) continued the drift of defensive statements emanating from the risk bureaucracy of late, with his criticisms of both the ‘paranoia and complacency’ about risk. Still, he argued, children need to know and understand what risks and hazards they might face if they are to manage them effectively. RoSPA have set up LASER (Learning about safety by experiencing risk) Centres, in which children are exposed to scenarios such as a simulated smoke-filled house. The rationale is that children are informed about risk in a ‘cushioned’ or safe environment. This idea of providing more safe and supervised ‘spaces’ is also promoted by the authors of the Risk and Childhood Report. But by promoting the idea that we have to create safe spaces we are actually further exaggerating the extent to which children are in danger, ignoring the empirical data, and failing to address the cultural anxieties that inform the risk discourse in the first place.

The title of the presentation (‘Making it safer for children to take risks’) given by Clare Tickell, chief executive of children’s charity NCH, demonstrated how ingrained this confused thinking about risk really is. We should be ‘creating environments that encourage risk-taking with positive outcomes’ she said. But surely the point is that we don’t always and often don’t know what the outcome will be in advance. That is why it is a risk, and that is also why risks are sometimes worth taking. This is not an argument for recklessness but for a grown up debate. It is children’s charities like NCH, and the regulatory bodies appointed by government, who have been driving the risk agenda in relation to children, much as they’d like to blame someone else.

Denise Platt, Chair of the Commission for Social Care Inspection, rightly argued that local authorities, who insist on CRB checks when children in care have sleepovers with friends, are acting contrary to government advice. But this is to underestimate the extent to which councils are acting in a way that is very much in keeping with the spirit of risk aversion that is driven by regulatory bodies like that headed by Platt. The unprecedented expansion of the vetting of people working with children is not a consequence of over-zealous implementation of government dictate. That is the official policy.

Like Platt and Taylor, Judith Hackitt, Chair of the Health and Safety Commission, was clearly on a counter-offensive and intent on confounding the critics of the ‘elf ‘n’ safety’ culture. She too blamed our litigious risk-averse culture on those who have to implement it, by accusing them of turning risk assessment into a paper exercise. It would appear that some of those responsible for instituting such regimes are now recoiling in horror at the implications of their intrusive and hopelessly bureaucratic ‘safeguarding’ measures in practice.


So what happens when you get a bunch of policy makers in a room to discuss risk? More reasons to worry and more of an obsession with risk and its management as a way of regulating our lives. The more they talk about the problem of risk in relation to children or anything else, the more anxious they (and we) become. Guy Taylor, an Enterprise & Insurance Risk Management Executive, and founder of the Enterprise and Risk Forum, made a useful point. In an otherwise folksy and rambling speech about life as a school governor, he argued that as a society we have ‘allowed the lowest common denominator to dominate our thinking’. I think we also have an exaggerated sense of children’s vulnerability, and a tendency to regard the modern world as an increasingly hazardous place.

It is perhaps easy to forget then that modern society makes children’s lives safer not more dangerous. But our irrational anxiety originates with the political and cultural elite, and they then project it onto the rest of us. Stella Creasy from Involve (an organisation ostensibly concerned with ‘involving’ people) told delegates that ‘people are irrational’. It is therefore the job of professionals to sort out the management of risks for them, she declared.

The stranglehold of ‘risk management’ on much of public life is perhaps even more worrying than the risk averseness that it seeks to counter. It provides the rationale for a particularly stifling policy orientation to every issue it touches. The promotional image projected onto the back wall of the RSA lecture theatre was I think particularly apt. It featured a puny child in superhero cape and goggles comically flexing his muscles. This sadly was a false dawn for the brave new world beyond our anxious age of stifling risk aversion.


Every parent matters?

‘I stand for a Britain that supports as first class citizens not just some children and some families but supports all children and all families.’ UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s commitment in his conference speech to helping all families sounds liberal and caring. But state intervention in cases of desperate hardship or vulnerability has expanded into an increasingly hands-on approach to family life that undermines parents and important personal freedoms.

The publication in June 2007 of the Care Matters: Time for Change White Paper by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has drawn attention to the British state’s poor record with regards children in the care system. Children who have lived in care have poorer educational performance and employment prospects than children living in families, and a stronger likelihood that they’ll go on to get a criminal record or sleep rough.

Things have been improving, though. The proportion of children in care in the UK has reduced from around 7.5 per 1,000 (ie, 100,000 children) in the 1970s, to around 5.5 per 1,000 (or 70,000 children) today. But even this is to overestimate the numbers who spend prolonged periods in care. There has also been a shift from a reliance on residential provision (or children’s homes) to foster care and kinship arrangements, and increasing success in keeping children with their families. So, awful as it can be, the care experience is not as bad as it once was.

But the care system is just one part of the much larger children’s social care system. While the focus on the dire prospects of the 8,000 young people leaving the care system each year is understandable, it leaves unexamined the broader implications of the so-called ‘corporate parenting’ role assumed by the state. The wider Every Child Matters agenda (which informs Care Matters) is ostensibly the government’s response to the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié at the hands of her carers (her aunt and her aunt’s partner) in 2000. But the reform agenda has remarkably little to say about how to tackle child abuse.

Instead, the government has turned a rare child tragedy into a far-reaching agenda for change in the provision of children’s services as a whole. There was an explosion of child protection inquiries in the 1970s, sometimes resulting in legislative and structural change. But never before has a government’s response to a child’s death been so sweeping in its implications for all children and families. The new agenda is about prevention, early intervention and safeguarding – in other words, protecting children from innumerable risks to their well-being, not just (or even predominantly) abuse or neglect.

Indeed it is questionable whether Every Child Matters is about protecting children at all but rather about protecting society from children, or at least from the supposedly faulty child-rearing practices of their parents. Alternatively, this agenda might be understood as a redefining of child protection and traditional categories of ‘abuse’ and expanding them to mean something else. A number of commentators have argued that the Climbié case was no more than a convenient hook on which to hang initiatives around social exclusion and anti-social behaviour. Though this seems to be the case, it doesn’t explain how these new initiatives and policies could have found such purchase and gained such wide support. 

The focus on ‘vulnerable children’ has a resonance in our anxious and child-obsessed times. The flip-side is that parents and parenting are also high on the political agenda. Parenting is now deemed too important by the political elite to be left to parents alone. The Conservatives launched an ‘inquiry into childhood’ in March, its own response to the now infamous UNICEF report that slated the UK’s record on children’s well-being. Gordon Brown, seeking a line in the sand, responded to Tory proposals around incentivising marriage and the traditional family by pledging to ‘support’ all families.

The big new idea is that government should intervene not only at the margins but across the board in the name of the child, giving ‘practical, sustained help, whenever and wherever families need it’ as Brown puts it. Madeleine Bunting, in the Guardian, writes approvingly: ‘Put children’s wellbeing first and it reframes the debate.’ Because ‘family structure makes little difference to children’s outcomes’ this is the only ‘defensible reason’ for the state’s intervening ‘in the private decisions of a couple’, she says. Well, that’s all right then.

The state doesn’t need any encouragement to intervene in family life. In guidance issued in 2006, the DfES urged local authorities to develop Parenting Support Strategies. In a letter accompanying the publication of Every Parent Matters in March this year, the secretary of state, Alan Johnson, promised that parenting would no longer be a ‘no-go area for government’. This was followed by the launch of the government’s Parenting Academy in April. The ambitions of the corporate parent have expanded from SureStart Centres working only in the most deprived communities to the plan for 3,500 Children’s Centres by 2010 to cater to the needs of every parent in ‘every community’. And as if all of this isn’t enough, Harriet Harman has complained that, unlike teachers, doctors and nurses, parents don’t have the professional structures through which to lobby government or to play their part in scrutinising legislation. There should be ‘family impact statements’, she says, whenever a new piece of legislation is proposed.

But for all this parenting talk, in reality parents themselves are increasingly marginalised. The qualities of parenting are a matter for public deliberation, contingent on policy goals and discussed in purely instrumental terms. The parent typically features as a passive recipient of ‘support’ or as a ‘partner’ alongside all the other agencies involved with their children. Indeed, the political divide is more apparent than real in this regard. Cameron speaks for the political class as a whole when he describes parents who allow their children to eat too much as ‘grossly selfish and irresponsible’. After all, ‘being a good parent isn’t just a benefit to your child but to the whole of society’.

Not only are parents being told in no uncertain terms that they are unable to play the kind of role that the government expects of them in their children’s lives. It is also becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish ‘children in need’ from ‘children’ anymore. Much of the rhetorical force of Every Child Matters emanates from wider concerns and anxieties about the welfare of the nation’s children. But the notion that children are now subject to innumerable risks in greater numbers, and with greater consequence than ever before can only have a corrosive effect on child-rearing.

The relentless discourse of despair about children and childhood needs to be challenged. There are exceptions when society, one way or another, must intervene to protect or care for a child. But these instances are rare and must be treated as such. Similarly, though the care population deserves much better, the critics are neglecting to interrogate the implications of other much more pervasive interventions in family life. It is important that parents reclaim their autonomy from the interventions of the state, and that professionals too begin to redraw the line.

The case has to be made for defending the sovereignty of parents over their own children, to raise them as they see fit and without official intrusion – otherwise parents are destined to become just another partner in the business of rearing their own children.

This article is an edited version of a presentation given to the IoI Parents Forum.


The State of Parenting


 The publication of the Care Matters Green Paper (DfES, 2006d) has drawn attention to the state’s poor record with regards children in the care system. It has also brought renewed emphasis to the state’s so-called ‘corporate parenting’ role. But this is ultimately about much more than just working with families where children are ‘on the edge of care’. The new parenting role represents an extension of the reach of the state into the lives of all families. The Every Child Matters agenda of which Care Matters is a small part is premised on the notion that children are increasingly vulnerable, and that parents are unable to play the kind of role that the government expects of them in their children’s lives. It is argued here that the rise of the corporate parent threatens to undermine the confidence, authority and autonomy of all parents to bring up their own children.


Before the state goes any further in its attempt to make the rest of us better parents, maybe it should take a look at what is going on in its own back yard. (Millar, 2006)

As the government launches Care Matters, a reform programme aimed at transforming the lives of children in the care system – the state is a ‘rotten parent’ say its critics (DfES, 2006d; Millar, 2006; Sergeant, 2006). For all its denunciations of problem parents and anti-social families, this government like those before it has a very poor record when it comes to looking after the children for which it has parental responsibility. It is argued that the children supposedly in its care, or who are (to use the official term) looked after, are in fact anything but. “Care is failing on a scale that is catastrophic”, says the author of one scathing report, as well as “failing society and perpetuating an underclass” of prostitutes, drug addicts and criminals (Sergeant, 2006, p1). Curiously, this is a sentiment echoed by the government itself in relation to children raised in their own families. But before considering the official discourse about the impact of bad parenting on children and in turn society; I want to take a brief look at the discussion around children in care, as it is with regards this group that the state’s interventions are generally seen to be most problematic.

How ‘looked after’ is the looked after child?

As critics of the care system never tire of pointing out, the ‘outcomes’ for children are appalling. Many young people spend their ‘care careers’ moving from one placement to another, sometimes moving between different parts of the country, and consequently attend a number of different schools. This inevitably has an impact on their quality of life and their educational performance. Only 1 in 10 achieves five good GCSEs and many leave without any qualifications at all. Care leavers are more likely to be excluded from school and to be unemployed when they leave. Few go into post-compulsory education, and far fewer (a figure of 1% is sometimes quoted) will go on to higher education. They are more likely to get a caution or criminal conviction, and account for a large minority of young offenders, adult prisoners, and street homeless (DfES, 2006c; CSCI, 2006a; Sergeant, 2006; Millar, 2006; Goddard, 2003; Cabinet Office, 2005).

On the plus side, the proportion of children in care in the UK has reduced from around 7.5 per 1,000 (100,000 children) in the 1970s, to around 5.5 per 1,000 (or 70,000) children today (Bullock et al, 2006). But even this is to overestimate the number of children who spend a prolonged period in care. In England, for instance, there are around 45,000 (DfES, 2006c) children living in the care system for 12 months or more. There has also been a shift from a reliance on residential provision to a care system predominantly made up of foster care arrangements. There is an increasing emphasis on using kinship placements as opposed to, or as a less disruptive way of, accommodating a child (Bullock et al, 2006). In this regard, at least, the situation has arguably improved for ‘looked after’ children.

What is a Corporate Parent?

The Children Act 1989 represented a shift from ‘parental rights’ to ‘parental responsibilities’. According to critics local authorities’ were guilty of employing a ‘minimalist interpretation’ of their responsibilities under the Act to children in the care system. According to one commentator there has since been an “expansion of the state’s direct parenting responsibilities” and an attempt to “replicate the actions of ‘good parents’” (Goddard, 2003, p29). This is immediately apparent in Care Matters which says that “the State has a special responsibility for their wellbeing. Like any good parent, it should put its own children first” (DfES, 2006d, p31). However, for some the problem of the State as substitute parent is an intrinsic one. It is argued that as a ‘corporate’ and multifarious entity tied to the young person neither by kinship nor heritage the State has a potentially ‘disruptive’ influence. The “separation of actual care from formal responsibility” (Bullock et al, 2006, p8) is unavoidable. A lack of security, support and permanence for the ‘looked after’ child blight the system (Ibid, p15).

Although ultimate responsibility rests with central government, it is local authorities that have a ‘legal and moral duty’ to their respective care populations. It is this duty which is usually being referred to when the term corporate parent is used (Dobson, 1998). Corporate parenting is about the cooperation of local services e.g. health, education, housing and social care in looking after a child (DfES, 2003b; DoH, 1989). It is about the social worker co-ordinating the work of each professional involved with a particular child; and monitoring the day-to-day care that the child receives from their carer (Jackson, Ajayi and Quigley, 2005). The social worker – like the local councillor sometimes seen as the personification of the ‘corporate parent’ – is an inevitably ‘inconsistent parent’ (DfES, 2006d) given the difficulties that local authorities have with staff retention. However, though each plays their part in undermining the care experience for young people, these are technical arguments that don’t begin to tackle the political character of state intervention in the life of children and families.

The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, for instance, gave legal force to the consensus that post-care arrangements were inadequate (Grover, Stewart and Broadhurst, 2004; Goddard, 2003; Bullock et al, 2006). The conclusion of research conducted in the 1980s-90s was that leaving care was even more problematic than the care experience itself (Goddard, 2003). The argument that “[t]he state also has to accept long-term responsibility for children into early adulthood” (Bullock et al, 2006, p16) was readily accepted. But the extension of post-care support, however justifiable in practical terms, also implied the extension of childhood for the care-leaver to at least the age of 21 in keeping with the experience of their ‘stay at home’ peers living outside the care system (DfES, 2000a; DfES, 2006d). This resonance with wider cultural trends has nevertheless gone unexamined.

This pragmatic tone of the discussion about the failings of children’s social care also means that the wider definition of corporate parenting is largely forgotten. As stated in the government circular that first made explicit elected members responsibilities,

When you were elected as a local Councillor, you took on important responsibilities for the health and well being of all children in your area (Dobson, 1998).

Written by Frank Dobson, Minister for Health at the time, it launched the government’s Quality Protects initiative, aimed at improving the life chances of ‘vulnerable children’. It also made clear that notwithstanding councillors’ particular responsibilities to other ‘children in need’, they also had a responsibility to attend to every child in their area. The focus on the dire prospects of the 8,000 young people leaving the care system each year is understandable. But it leaves unexamined the broader implications of the corporate parenting role now assumed by the State.

Parenting the Vulnerable Child

Under New Labour children are seen as constituting ‘risk’ in their being and, therefore, they have to be carefully monitored and controlled (Hendrick, 2003, p253).

[Every Child Matters was] framed in such a way that any child, at some point in their life, could be seen as vulnerable to some form of risk. The government therefore deemed it necessary that all children were potentially covered by its proposals (Parton).

Before it became Every Child Matters the government’s programme of reform for children’s services was going to be called Children at Risk (Parton, 2006a, p986). It turned a far from unique child tragedy into a far-reaching agenda for change. The reforms, ostensibly the government’s response to the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie, seemed to have remarkably little to say about how to tackle child abuse. The proposals instead talked about the ‘safeguarding’ every child in the country (Munro and Calder, 2005), something that was subsequently given legal force as a statutory duty on local authorities and others (DfES, 2004). Despite this incongruity the Green Paper was almost universally well received by academics, lobbyists and practitioners alike.

They did not ask why ‘Every Child’ and not that particular child, and children like her. Nor did they wonder how an investigation into a child’s murder could become a catalyst for the wholesale transformation of children’s services. Never before had a government’s response to a child’s death been so sweeping in its implications for all children and families. The Green Paper is characterized by a constant slippage between material disadvantage and behavioral problems on the one hand, and abuse and neglect on the other. Much of its rhetorical force emanates from wider concerns and anxieties about the welfare of the nation’s children. No less than the Archbishop of Canterbury made public his various and extensive worries about the concerning ‘state of childhood’ (BBC, 2006d) in a widely covered speech last year. The publication of Freedom’s Orphans (Margo and Dixon, 2006) by the IPPR was billed as a response to the wide-ranging debate on the ‘problems of modern youth’.

But it was a report by UNICEF that caused the greatest media outcry. It placed UK children at the bottom of a ‘well-being’ league table of 21 countries. For children’s lobbyists this seemed to confirm their worst fears especially as it coincided with a bate of shootings in South London. It was, as one Editorial put it, confirmation of a “cultural malaise in British society” of which our “young are the most miserable, lonely and frightened of any economically affluent nation” (Chandiramani, 2007). Arguably Every Child Matters was formulated at a time when the hysteria around the plight of children and the perils of childhood was only just starting. The reforms found their rationale in contemporary attitudes to risk, in the notion of children as particularly vulnerable to those risks, and in a consequently ever expansive definition of child protection. It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish ‘children in need’ from just children anymore; such is the all-embracing character of this relentlessly depressing discourse.

Supporting the Vulnerable Parent

A number of commentators have long argued that Climbie was no more than a convenient hook on which to hang initiatives around social exclusion and anti-social behaviour (Dowty, 2004; Munro and Calder, 2005). Parton (2006a) traces Every Child Matters back to Treasury and Home Office policies on targeting crime and unemployment. Early intervention, prevention and family support emerged in the mid-1990s, he says, as the premise for a “major strategy for overcoming social exclusion both for children and for avoiding problems later in life” (p978). But there is more to the reforms than this. The new agenda might also be understood as an attempt to manage wider cultural anxieties that have children as their focus.

The language of ‘safeguarding’ for instance goes beyond protecting children from abuse to include “all the problems that may disrupt a child’s health and development – from whatever cause” (Munro and Calder, 2005, p440). Parents are consequently implicated in a shopping list of maladies from youth crime, obesity and truancy to family breakdown and under-achievement at school. Teenage parents, poor parents, unemployed parents and low-income families are all regarded as a problem in as far as their children may be ‘disrupted’. But parents are also regarded as a potential solution.

[Parents] are vital to create a supportive environment in which children and young people can develop; more can be done to build their capacity to fulfil this role. (HM Treasury, 2007, p1)

Their role though is contingent, passive and discussed in purely instrumental terms. The parent typically features as a passive recipient of ‘support’ or as a ‘partner’ alongside all the other agencies involved with their children. A recent study commissioned by the children’s social care inspectorate, though ostensibly concerned with parents who have neglected or abused their children, had a wider remit in mind. It argued for a focus on problems around mental health or substance misuse, for instance, and how they impact on parents’ ability to look after their children. It expressed concern about how ‘high thresholds’ and how many parents are unlikely to come into contact with services. It proposed that public services, from health to housing, recognise their ‘family support’ responsibilities vis-à-vis their clients (CSCI, 2006b).

In guidance issued in 2006(a), the DfES urged local authorities to develop Parenting Support Strategies. Again, the emphasis was on prevention and early intervention rather than enforcing sanctions on the minority of known problem parents. This approach goes beyond children who are socially excluded to “monitor and identify children who are at risk of or begin to develop problems” (HM Treasury, 2007, p1). The trajectory from SureStart Centres working only in the most deprived communities, to the 3,500 Children’s Centres planned for 2010 to cater to the needs of every parent in ‘every community’, gives an indication of the ambitions of the corporate parent.


The notion that children are now subject to innumerable risks in greater numbers and with greater consequence than ever before, can only have a corrosive effect on childrearing. It is the premise upon which Every Child Matters and the extension of corporate parenting is based. As far as the government is concerned, the parent is just another partner in the business of rearing their child. The implication being that parenting is too important and too difficult a job to be left to parents alone. And yet they are charged with solving problems that the corporate parent is failing itself to address with regards the small proportion of the nation’s children currently in its care (Goddard, 2003; Sergeant, 2006). Regardless, it seems intent on extending its reach into families’ lives and assuming responsibility for the well-being of all children. This is a worrying prospect that has long been neglected by critics concentrating too narrowly on the care system.


Bullock, R, Courtney, M, E., Parker, R, Sinclair, I and Thoburn, J (2006) Can the corporate state parent?, Adoption and Fostering, Vol 30, No.4

Cabinet Office (2005) Social Exclusion Unit archive

Chandiramani, R (2007) Editorial: Invest in services to tackle this malaise, Young People Now, 21 February

Commission for Social Care Inspection (2006a) The state of social care in England 2005-06

Commission for Social Care Inspection (2006b) Supporting parents, safeguarding children: Meeting the needs of parents with children on the child protection register

Department for Education and Skills (2000a) Children (Leaving Care) Act 

Department for Education and Skills (2003a) Every Child Matters 

Department for Education and Skills (2003b) If this were my child … A councillor’s guide to being a good corporate parent

Department for Education and Skills (2004) Children Act 2004

Department for Education and Skills (2006a) Parenting Support: Guidance for Local Authorities in England

Department for Education and Skills (2006c) Statistics of Education: Outcome Indicators for Looked after Children Twelve months to 30 September 2005 England

Department for Education and Skills (2006d) Care Matters: transforming the lives of children and young people in care

Department of Health (1989) Children Act

Dobson, F (1998) The Role and Responsibilities of Councillors, Department of Health

Goddard, J (2003) Children Leaving Care in the United Kingdom: “Corporate Parenting” and Social Exclusion, Journal of Societal and Social Policy, Vol 2/3: 21-34

Grover, C, Stewart, J and Broadhurst, K (2004) Transitions to adulthood: Some critical observations of the Children (Leaving Care) Act, 2000, Social Work and Social Sciences Review – An International Journal of Applied Research, Volume 11, Number 1: 5-18

HM Treasury (2007) Policy review of children and young people: A discussion paper

Jackson S, Ajayi S and Quigley, M. (2005) Going to University from Care, Institute of Education, University of London

Millar (2006) The State is a pretty rotten parent,11 July 2006, The Guardian

Sergeant, H (2006) Handle with Care: an investigation into the care system, Centre for Policy Studies


The state of parenting

The recent publication of the Care Matters Green Paper has drawn attention to the state’s poor record with regards children in the care system. For all its denunciations of problem parents and anti-social families, say critics, this government like those before it has evidently failed to look after the children for which it has parental responsibility. The Paper has also brought renewed emphasis to its ‘corporate parenting’ role. But, contrary to popular opinion, this is about much more than just working with families where children are ‘on the edge of care’. In 1998 for instance, the Secretary of State for Health wrote to local councillors reminding them that as corporate parents, “you took on important responsibilities for the health and well-being of all children in your area”. And yet this wider definition has been largely ignored.

This extension of the reach of the state into the lives of all families is very much in keeping with the other Green Paper, Every Child Matters, published in 2003. Both are premised on the notion that children are increasingly vulnerable, and that parents are unable to play the kind of ‘safeguarding’ role that the government expects of them in their children’s lives. More than this, by failing their children parents also risk failing in their responsibilities to society as a whole. The state must step in more often, or so goes the argument, to protect society from badly reared children.

The significance of parenting for society aside, parents themselves are typically described in passive or instrumental terms. They only feature in as far as they are a potential threat to their children’s well-being, or as passive recipients of ‘support’. At best they are just another ‘partner’ alongside all the other agencies involved in the business of rearing their children. The implication is that parenting is too important, and too difficult, a job to be left to parents alone. It is for this reason that the rise of the corporate parent threatens to undermine the confidence, authority and autonomy of all parents to bring up their own children.


Response to Care Matters: Transforming the Lives of Children and Young People in Care

Position Paper, Future Cities Project

We are confident that the proposals set out in this Green Paper will deliver a step change in the outcomes of children in care.

For all the grandiose rhetoric the proposals are in fact rather modest. The Green Paper follows on from the Quality Protects initiative in 1998 – the government’s first attempt to ‘transform’ children’s social care; the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 which extended the support given to young people leaving care; and finally, the duty in the Children Act 2004 requiring local authorities to promote their education. It is, to be blunt, more of the same. This is not to suggest that it contains proposals without merit but neither is it the ‘radical package’ claimed by the authors.

Any attempt to resettle children with their families where appropriate, particularly short-term stayers or those who are in and out of the care system, is clearly a good thing. And the ‘lack of a consistent adult’ in these children’s lives as they typically work their way through numerous social workers and placements, of variable quality, during their time in care is as longstanding as it is outrageous. Solving these two problems, and improving the quality and standards of care, would massively improve the lives of children in the care system. But these things are widely understood within the social care sector and proposals to improve things, however vague, are unlikely to court much controversy.

Some proposals however commonsense contradict wider government policy. The notion that services for children and adults respectively, and the professionals within them, must work together is at once obvious and brimming with hypocrisy. It was this government’s Children Act 2004 that separated children’s and adult’s social services in an effort to draw together all children’s services under a single roof and thus blur any distinction between services for the tiny proportion of children ‘in need’ and the rest of the 11 million. Whereas other proposals such as independent social care practices and making Independent Reviewing Officers even more independent, and revised commissioning arrangements and child-centred budgets, are as likely to exacerbate this fragmentation of social care planning and the care experience.

We are told that the ‘outcomes’ for children in care must improve and that “the State cannot and must not accept any less for them than we would for our own children”. A worthy statement but it inevitably draws attention to its own very poor record. Many of the nation’s homeless – and reportedly 4 in 5 Big Issue sellers – were once in care, as were a quarter of the adult prison population. Only 1 in 10 of children ‘looked after’ (to use the official terminology) get 5 good GCSEs, compared with more than half of all children. So why is it “the school environment and the way in which teachers and other school staff work with them”, rather than the content of the education children in the care system receive, that is deemed “vital to their chances of success”. Education is not about therapeutic classrooms and teaching is not about ‘best practice’. It is about challenging young people and giving them something to aim for. In our view, this reflects the abandonment rather than the defence of a “first class education” based on the promotion of learning and the transfer of knowledge for its own sake. That they find themselves in poorly performing schools is an argument for better schools not just sympathetic admissions policies or the appointment of ‘virtual headteachers’ to fight their corner. Similarly while free transport will help in the short term to traverse the distance between placement and school, it is the high mobility between placements themselves that is causing this problem.

Just 1 in 100 will go on to university. But in the absence of such a commitment, bursaries for higher education may improve access, but to an increasingly inferior education as evidenced in the trajectory over the past decade or so. It is not despite but because of their difficult circumstances that children in the care system need a good education all the more. As a society we suffer from a culture of low expectations but never more than on behalf of these children. And yet for those leaving the care system, though the trajectory of compounded disadvantage needs to be addressed, there are wider trends that must also be considered. It is clearly the case that local authorities have traditionally been keen to offload their young people as soon as possible, and as a consequence only make them more likely to encounter problems with housing, offending etc. Not least, it might be added, because of the paucity of funds available to them to do otherwise. But as with the requirements in the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, the Green Paper not only reflects a recognition of the need to treat these young people better and support them as any parent would beyond the age of 16 “as long as they need it”, but it also reflects wider trends in our stay-at-home society. While imposing a duty on local authorities to support young people in their foster placements until the age of 21 (and beyond where they continue in their education) may seem at first sight commendable, it is also cause for concern in as far as it postpones and discourages the transition of care-leavers into adulthood. Similarly while more (and better) supported accommodation would no doubt be welcome, this doesn’t solve the wider problem of young people, particularly those leaving the care system, finding somewhere decent to live independently. After all, the housing shortage and the failure of the government to address it is only felt more acutely by this group of young people.

To conclude, radical change is needed but Care Matters is not it. No amount of auditing, inspecting, ministerial ‘stock-taking’ or political prioritising will solve this problem. An obsession with checks and balances and market mechanisms, and a refusal to commit resources and free up professionals and local administrators to do their jobs, only further distances those charged with children’s social care from the business of really looking after them. It only burdens them with pointless paper trails that further bureaucratise an already targets lead and managerial social care system. The creation of children in care councils, like youth parliaments before them, will only succeed in patronising young people by providing toothless forums for them to air their discontent about the inadequacy of their care – a problem incidentally which you might expect a ‘radical package’ such as this to address head-on rather than consulting upon ad infinitum.

One proposal we wholeheartedly agree with at the Future Cities Project is that we need a national debate on ‘who care is for’? The government, keen to extend notions of statutory safeguarding and corporate parenting, and a children’s social care sector keen to shake off its ‘Cinderella service’ image and renew its battered reputation following the Laming Inquiry, both seem intent on extending their reach into families lives and assuming responsibility for the well-being of all children – a curious ambition for an apparently cash-strapped and crisis-ridden sector, and a government all too conscious of the impending Comprehensive Spending Review. But given the abysmal record of the State in ‘looking after’ the small minority of children in its ‘care’, this consultation should rather be seen as an opportunity to reflect on the consequences of it assuming such a role.