Children and Families Bill: a boost for working parents, or just ticking the box?

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According to the government, the newly-unveiled Children and Families Bill will modernise how parents balance their lives while improving future prospects for SEN children. However, some experts are unconvinced.

Ministers say the Bill, whose plans are due to be published today, will allow parents to choose how they share parental leave to care for their new-borns in the critical 1st year.

Mothers will have more say in when they return to work, while fathers will gain a bigger role in childcare. Between them parents will also be able to 'mix-and-match' their childcare leave, taking time off together or in turn as they wish.

Describing present working arrangements as "rigid" and "old-fashioned", business minister Jo Swinson said: "The Children and Families Bill will bring the way mums and dads balance their lives at work and at home into the 21st century."

With children who need care currently forced to wait some 2 years before entering a new family, the government wants fewer holdups in adoption. The Bill also aims to make sure that children can still enter genuinely caring families even if their ethnic match is only partial.

Another goal of the Bill is to end bureaucratic delay by limiting to 26 weeks the time courts can take when deciding whether to place children in care.

Another part of the Bill, covering Special Educational Needs (SEN), proposes a birth-to-25 care plan, designed to protect youngsters' further education and training needs.

However, experts have expressed caution about the Education, Health and Care Plan. Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the children's charity Scope, noted ministers' assertion that SEN reform would stop parents being forced from "pillar to post" and caught between different authorities.

"Parents say it's a battle to get their children support such as childcare or nursery places, appropriate schools, essential therapies or even healthcare in their local area," Mr Hawkes said.

"But buzzwords such as 'culture change' and 'local frameworks' will do nothing to alleviate the stress and anxiety parents feel."

Emma Pearmaine of Simpson Millar LLP agrees. "The right support is essential for children, and parents have to know it's there when they need it," Emma said.

"The problem with the new plans is that, in reality, nothing's as black and white as the Bill implies. The subtleties that attend special educational needs in real life are being overlooked in favour of fashionable, tick-the-box jargon."

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