Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What does it say on the tin, exactly?

The executive finger buffet season has begun in earnest with future leadership contestants, I mean government ministers lining up to announce ‘radical new reforms’. Today Education Secretary Alan ‘The Kid’ Johnson stepped up to the counter to graze on devils on horseback and explain what he is going to do for the nation’s 60,000 'looked-after children'.

It came as something of a shock to me to find that such a small proportion of children were actually being looked after. Even given the constant complaints from Government about the lack of ‘parenting skills’ in the population, I would have assumed that most children were at least being clothed and fed. You don’t see that many ragged children anymore. I thought I saw some the other day but it turned out Primark had got in a new stock of its popular Vivienne Westwood range. Even more baffling to me is why the government is proposing to concentrate on these rather than the children who aren’t being looked after. I suppose it’s much easier.

Wading through the copious reports in search of a hint of what might be afoot for these pampered few, I realised my mistake. ‘The Kid’ was referring to ‘children in care’. It’s another of those instances where an expression has changed to make it sound more touchy feely. In fact, it looks to be the opposite of what it actually means. Presumably it’s a nod to sensitivity. You want to make children in care think they are being looked after when all the evidence points to their systematic neglect.

This flurry of action promising the usual flummery of ‘rafts of measures’ and ‘wide-ranging proposals’ was launched along with lunch at Downing Street today. The Kid was knee-jerked into action following damning reports by both Barnados and Specialist Schools and Academies Trust Chair, Sir Cyril Taylor last month. On Friday, National Children’s Homes (NCH) leapt in, calling for reforms too, conveniently forgetting that they are the country’s largest provider of care places for children. A neat smoke and mirrors side-step.

So what’s the problem then? Where to start. Around 75 per cent of children in care will leave school without any qualifications at all. Half will end up unemployed and around 20 per cent will end up homeless. Only one out of every hundred will make it to university. Yet a place in one of our failing children’s homes costs an average of £100,000 a year. That is four times as much as an average family of four in this country requires to live a fairly comfortable and decent life. The term ‘haemorrhaging cash’ springs to mind.

A championship fuckup to be sure. It has to mean that virtually no one is doing their job, at all, ever. The Kid proposed, with a gravitas that recalled Warhol, an overhaul of the system so that it does ‘what it says on the tin’. The tins in question are not Campbell soup but Jamie Oliver prepared tins of Omega 3 enriched salmon and asparagus chowder. Children in care homes will be fed these three times a day in order to build up their brain power. If that doesn’t work at least they’ll be prepared for the soup kitchen once the Government cuts them off without any further support, having imparted not a single life skill.

No Government initiative can begin without the obligatory launch of a consultation exercise. ‘I think we address (that) through first ensuring that the child's voice is heard, The Kid explained on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. My goodness, if only Charles Dickens had had this level of foresight. I suggest if the Education Secretary would like to experience hearing children’s voices, he might like to take a ride on the top deck of a 254 bus around 2.45pm on a school day.

The Prime Minister who so helpfully launched the consultation exercise this afternoon (and reportedly monopolised the coronation chicken vol-au-vents), intoned, ‘What always strikes me is when I meet them [looked-after children], they are so much more talented and able than you anticipate. They have a tremendous ability and potential that is undeveloped.’ This is puzzling me. Children in care get through an entire lifetime without anyone once hearing them or noticing what they can do, yet the Prime Minister seems to have instantaneous insight. Surely this could be used somehow. Maybe Derren Brown could be drafted in to channel the Prime Minister’s extrasensory perceptions. Derren could also give dietary advice to Government ministers who have trouble controlling themselves at the executive finger buffet.

The Kid eventually announced that the Government intends to commit to being a better ‘corporate parent’ to the 60,000 children in care. Just prior to devouring an entire tray of brie and cranberry blinis, he pledged an extra £100 annually for each child and a £2,000 bursary to help them go through university. It’s occurred to no one that the one thing that keeps children from becoming destitute at any age between birth and middle age, is that parents are a constant source of funds. The hundred quid offered will go in ring tones on day one. Is this ‘corporate parent’ going to stump up when the credit cards max out or help out with the deposit on a flat? Is Mummy state going to do junior’s washing, drop around with groceries, keep a ready supply of Pop-Tarts or provide a Sunday lunch that will stave off the hunger pangs until Wednesday?

My advice to any young people summoned to participate in the ‘consultation’ is this – stuff as many canap├ęs into your rucksack as you can get away with and SHOUT!!, as Government ministers seem to be somewhat hard of hearing.

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