Published: 08/01/2004, Volume II4, No. 5886 Page 25

The emphasis placed by the children's minister on education departments misreads the need for integrated children's services, says Graeme Betts

Councils believe the government's green paper on joined-up services for children, Every Child Matters, is too prescriptive.

They want greater freedoms at a local level.

At last year's Local Government Association conference, children's minister Margaret Hodge spoke about bringing children's services together in the council's education department:

'Education is the universal service which touches every child... we are constructing an entitlement, into which we shall place the essential targeted support that some children will need.' She saw this as part of 'a genuine determination to break down unhelpful professional boundaries - to create a better integrated service which values each and every individual professional contribution'.

This logic is flawed and does children no favours.

Schools are increasingly independent from education authorities.

What is more, education does not always handle specialist care, such as child protection, adequately. Nor does it have a wealth of experience in other specialist areas.

Neither is education the only universal service. Every child will be touched (literally) by a midwife, every child will see a GP and most will come into contact with a wide range of other health services. But this does not mean that health, any more than education, should be the only option in developing new approaches to delivering children's services.

We need to break down professional barriers. But allowing one partner to dominate will cause other professions to be subsumed, undermining them and their credibility. Already, rather than focusing on service models and care pathways, this debate often boils down to whether the director of education or social services will get the top job.

It need not be like this. Areas such as teenage pregnancy, Sure Start and the Children's Fund have demonstrated that there are new models for delivering children's services which engage children and young people and their families, and these cut across traditional organisational boundaries.

The green paper offers a real opportunity to improve children's services - but we must be less prescriptive. The government should consider alternatives to placing children's services in local authorities. Primary care trusts combine the delivery of universal and specialist services and are integrated effectively with a wide range of primary and community services. In fact, using PCTs would make it easier to bring GPs and primary care more effectively into a wider range of children's services.

Or we can go further and establish independent children's trusts.

Nothing will get to the heart of organisational culture - a key success factor - like the knowledge that everyone is jointly accountable.

These new independent trusts would have representatives from a range of agencies and would provide an opportunity to acknowledge that 'one size does not fit all'. The ethos of the independent children's trust would be that every child's pathway is unique, and services must respond to the needs of each child.

Graeme Betts is chief executive of Hillingdon primary care trust and a former director of social services.