Making our voices heard
The North East is a unique and wonderful place to live and work with so many positives ranging from the fantastic environment to the cost of living. As a region we have been thinking hard about what makes us different and how that should shape the way in which we work with children, young people and their families. The strengths of community, identity, creativity and passion cannot be underestimated and should shape our aspirations and ambitions for the future.
I have to confess at this stage I have only lived in the region for the last three years, so I’m technically still an outsider, but it certainly doesn’t feel like that in my adopted home. I have been really struck by the natural resources that are evident in the region and also how little I understood it before I moved here. I think that lack of awareness, particularly from policy makers is something that has created a frustration for the region. To rectify this, we have started to make a conscious effort to have our voice heard and champion the region nationally as far as possible. We are geographically a long way from London but that can’t be a barrier to being heard (and some of us are quite loud!).
A really tangible strand of this work has been to start developing a ‘regional narrative’ to help us articulate better our priorities and importantly the context in which they are framed. We are challenged on a regular basis in relation to high and increasing levels of children in care, poor educational outcomes in the secondary sector, and poor health outcomes, along with other measures on which we are considered outliers.
Clearly these are all things we must focus on improving but that cannot be achieved without understanding context. As ADCS President, Rachel Dickinson, so clearly articulated in her excellent speech to the ADCS Annual Conference two weeks ago, the impact of poverty on the lives of our families is fundamental to increasing levels of need. Decisions made in Whitehall on welfare and education as well as a decade of austerity have had a hugely disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable children and families. We work hard to achieve the best for our children and families but a series of conflicting national policy initiatives have increasingly affected our ability to provide the very services they rely on and regions such as the North East have been hit hardest. As we move into even more uncertain times all the evidence suggests this will continue to be the case, so therefore we need different responses from government.
We must have system wide approaches to tackling the underlying causes that drive the inequalities we see on a day to day basis. The North East currently has the lowest economic growth of any region in England, lowest gross weekly earnings and the highest percentage of children living in low income families, all while funding for local authorities has fallen by 49.1% in real terms since 2010 (NAO, 2018). These are not excuses but are simply the realities of our context and unless these issues are tackled our services will only ever be mitigating the impact of national policy.
That is why it is essential we have a loud regional voice and help national government better target the resources that are still in the system. Let’s focus on long term sustainable change rather than quick fixes funded by one off pots of money. Let’s look at education through the lens of the issues that prevent children engaging with the curriculum and not solely focus on improving teaching and learning. Let’s build a system that works with families in a strengths-based way and is flexible enough to respond to the inevitable bumps in the road, rather than fitting families into what works for our organisations.
There is huge potential in the North East and it is essential we work together regionally and nationally to realise that potential so our children and young people get the opportunities and future they deserve.
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Grow your own
As I sit down to write this blog the ADCS Annual Conference 2019 has just finished. If you didn’t get a chance to catch Rachel Dickinson’s amazing speech or attend all of the conference sessions you can catch up on them, here. There were so many interesting ideas and experiences shared, and it was a great chance to network with colleagues from across the country to discuss the issues we are all grappling with. Given the inspirational work happening across the sector, I almost hesitate to say that what we are doing in Nottingham deserves any special attention but…here goes…we have a really great ‘grow our own’ (GOO) social worker initiative.
Those of you who know me will know that I am that person who says, “my dinner’s great, would you like a taste”, and you hesitate, in case I ask for a bit of yours. Well – this is a gift, no exchange required!
Nottingham’s GOO programme is our own design; built on a leap of faith and our fantastic partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). It aims to encourage new social workers to work for our local authority. I really believe that GOO offers many answers to our workforce challenges in social care. If you value life-experienced, emotionally intelligent, hard-working and committed folk, who would not be able to afford to pursue their dream career without a little help - then GOO could be part of your solution to the challenges of recruiting the next generation of social workers too.
Over six years ago we ended our in-house social work sponsored training scheme. Our unions, councillors and colleagues wanted options to replace it as did I. The task I set colleagues was to develop a service specification, based on the premise that we could support a range of our staff who want to qualify as social workers. We needed a locally delivered course that:
a. was part time (max three days a month directly taught)
b. could take account of prior experiential learning to reduce the overall length of study
c. was affordable as applicants would need to self-fund
d. could be cost neutral to the council, as we did not plan to backfill posts whilst staff were on placement.
Clearly, this was a lot to ask…but there are choices to be made and you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs. During 2016, my hard-working, dedicated team not only took the ingredients and made dinner; they delivered a Michelin starred banquet.
As a result, we now have a locally delivered social work degree based on an average two days direct teaching a month (with some days delivered in blocks of study where immersion is needed). A staggered placement window helps us manage without backfill in the main. A career loan helps our staff pay for their studies, repaid in the long term.
It was still a leap of faith for all concerned - MMU, for our services who were releasing colleagues with no back-fill (including Family Support, Play & Youth, Youth Justice, Business Support and Children’s Residential) and for the colleagues signing up for the programme.
For our first cohort starting in April 2017, Derbyshire joined us taking up four places and Nottingham City filled 18 children’s and four adults places. Our students graduated this summer, achieving solid degrees and a number of First Class degrees (one colleague even achieved the Highest Academic Achievement Award for MMU). We have 18 new children’s social workers who believe in themselves and in Nottingham City Council. With great local managers, an innovative partnership with MMU, the support of councillors and tremendous effort from our students, we have proven that our collective leap of faith was worth it.
Celebrating their success with our Leader, Councillor David Mellen, one of our graduates told me; “this was hard work but it’s changed my life. I could never have afforded to do this without Nottingham City’s help and I can now help change other people’s lives”.
Our graduates are local, from diverse backgrounds and are committed to making a difference to the lives of people living in Nottingham. Cohort Two has started (they graduate in 2020) and Cohort Three has been commissioned, with others in our region joining us again. I can’t recommend GOO enough!
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Our plea to the next Prime Minister
At the end of July, we will know who the next Prime Minister is, and we should have a good idea about what some of their priorities will be for this country. The main focus of the recent debates between the candidates has understandably been on Brexit, this issue has dominated the time and attention of ministers for over three years. Brexit is important, but I’ve been particularly interested in hearing about the other policy areas the candidates will focus on too.
Going forward, there is a real opportunity to put children at the heart of all policy and spending decisions and to give our vital public services the investment and support they sorely need. For children’s services there is plenty on our wish list, but I would urge the next Prime Minister (whoever that may be) to give particular attention to these pressing issues:
Child poverty is rising. Currently, four million children live in poverty, two thirds of whom are from working households and it is estimated that this will soon rise to five million. Recently, Professor Philip Alston’s damning report on poverty in Britain brought the bleak reality for many children and families to the fore. Behind each of the statistics are children and families going hungry, having to rely on foodbanks for their next meal and making tough decisions between keeping warm or paying the bills. This is not acceptable, nor is it inevitable. A national focus on tackling both the symptoms and root causes of poverty is long overdue, and the new Prime Minister must take the opportunity to lead this endeavour from the front as a matter of urgency.
Increased political and press attention on serious youth violence and knife crime in our communities has resulted in extra funding, campaigns being rolled out and programmes developed to help tackle this issue. This is welcome and I am pleased that the current Prime Minister has acknowledged we cannot “arrest” our way out of the problem, but there is a need to go further than the actions already being taken if we are to keep our children and young people safe on our streets. Treating serious youth violence as a public health issue is a must. We need to put our efforts into tackling the causes, not just the symptoms of violence through multi-agency working and learning lessons from each other about what has worked well in other areas but also what hasn’t.
We know that prevention is better than cure and investing in early help and preventative services is the most effective way to stop the problems children and families’ face from reaching crisis point. 30 years ago, The Children Act 1989 received Royal Assent and this important piece of legislation included within it preventative duties for local authorities which have never been sufficiently funded. Local authorities must fund statutory child protection services where need exists, even if there is no room in the budget to do so. As a result we are increasingly having to divert funding away from non-statutory parts of the system such as children’s centres and youth services that support children and families earlier. The Troubled Families Programme has shown us the rewards early help can bring and recent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that children’s centres improve health outcomes for children and consequently relieve pressure on the NHS. However, the government’s current approach to funding local authorities doesn’t support the sort of investment we would like to see in early help and prevention. If we are truly ambitious about children and families then we will do everything we can to support them at the earliest possible opportunity, as and when needs arise.
I suppose the common thread running through this blog is the issue of funding, or lack of it. Since 2010, local authority budgets have been cut in half but the level and complexity of need in our community has not. Pressures on the SEND system and an increasing number of duties for us in relation to children, which are not always fully funded only exacerbates the pressures we face. Without a sustainable and long-term funding settlement for children and their families we cannot make the sort of difference we want to in their lives.
So, my plea to the next Prime Minister is – please invest in our children and their families and the full range of services they rely on. Not only is this the right thing to do but it makes absolute sense for the future of our country.
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Local authority children’s services does something good for...
Local authority children’s services does something good for local family… Seems like an unlikely news story doesn’t it?
It’s hard to think of a job more important than child protection. While most children, young people and families thrive, for some a little extra support is vital. To protect the privacy of those we work with, thousands of good news stories go unheard but each and every day, hard-working dedicated professionals in children’s services and beyond are making a huge difference in the lives of children and families - working with them to protect them from harm and supporting them to overcome the challenges they face.
Imagine a news story focussing on the young people being supported in flexible and innovative ways that are tailored to meet their needs and fit their preferences, with a wrap-around care package, sometimes in settings that don’t fit Ofsted criteria for registration, but which are nevertheless the most appropriate match for that individual - rather than a sensational headline about children ‘abandoned’ in unregistered accommodation?
Or one which celebrates the social worker who has been part of a duty team for seven years and helped literally hundreds of families to achieve positive outcomes supporting them to keep their children safe and to stay with the family?
Perhaps a case study of the parents who were offered intensive support after their first child entered the care system, to ensure they were in a much better place to parent their second child and to establish the loving family they longed to be - and are now a real success story?
Or celebrating the work of foster parents, by telling the story of a child in care in their own words: “When I first heard I was going to join the family I thought ‘Oh no, an old married couple who watch Bake Off!’ But when I met them they were nicer and younger than I imagined. I now feel part of the family, and when I didn’t have any brothers or sisters before, I now have more than enough!!”
Or the inspirational young lady who was not only nominated for a local ‘Young Stars’ award for her exceptional work in ensuring the voices of her fellow children in care were heard loud and clear, but ended up on stage with the Leader of the Council announcing and presenting the awards to other young people?
Or one about the Ofsted report recognising that the majority of children and families have a positive experience and that the strong multi-agency partnership working has really paid off!
The idea of good news stories dominating the headlines might be somewhat fanciful, but the stories here are all real and are precisely what helps me keep a perspective on the days when the meetings feel interminable, the media appetite for horror stories seems insatiable and there is someone else baying for my blood. There may be days when it feels like a thankless task, but a DCS has to be resilient to brush off the trolls and hold on to those good news stories when the opportunity arises, in order to maintain their passion and commitment for making a difference for children, young people and families. Because they’re worth it!
Now I’m sure that could make a catchy sound bite for something…
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Far less than they deserve
On 22 May I joined many other people in watching a Panorama programme exposing the cruel and callous treatment of staff towards people with learning disabilities and autism in their care at the now infamous Whorlton Hall. This programme came after an eight year period of reform in this area, including the Transforming Care Programme, following a similar Panorama programme that exposed shocking abuse at Winterbourne View. It seems that some of the issues endemic in the sector remain the same despite almost herculean efforts to tackle them.
May also saw the publication of the Children’s Commissioner’s report Far less than they deserve. The report focuses on the experiences of children and young people with learning disabilities and autism receiving treatment in mental health hospitals and found that at the time of the research there were 250 children receiving hospital care. Whilst the report did find evidence of good practice, many of the children and young people spoke of “traumatic” experiences during their care as well as high levels of restraint. Many were placed a long distance away from their families, and some described experiences of seclusion in dark, bare rooms.
I started my career in the heyday of ‘community care’. This was a period of high optimism and aspirations for people with learning disabilities, autism and mental health needs. Money was invested in communities and long stay institutions were dismantled. Government initiatives focused on the person-centred needs of people and their families and it was a time which included big programmes of reform such as Valuing People, People First and Self-Directed Support. It felt at this point that the world would be recast and that people with learning disabilities would be given the life chances and respect that they deserve.
In the South East we have conducted work across all 19 local authorities looking at the needs of our most complex and vulnerable children. We analysed how those needs are met and looked at the children’s outcomes, and what has become crystal clear is that we do not have sufficient community and specialist residential support available. Our plan now is to work collaboratively across the region and with provider partners to co-produce solutions for the specific gaps we have outlined.
Given these challenges, I would endorse the findings outlined by the Children’s Commissioner in her report, particularly where she calls for cross-government plan to provide community support for children. She rightly points out that Transforming Care has not focussed on the needs of children and young people and that this must change. However, she also points out that, crucially, we need more funding and focus in this area if we are to see real change.
I think we need to urgently create a coalition which will bring together the NHS, local authorities, providers and children, young people and their families to work out what is best to support those children and adults who need our support the most. I believe passionately that as a society we can do better, but I also believe that there is a way forward. All local authorities are ambitious about making sure children and families have the best possible outcomes in life, so come on, let’s give them a future that they truly deserve.
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From and to our friends in the North
It is nearly a year since I started in Blackburn with Darwen as the Director of Children’s Services and Education. I had the opportunity of taking over the role from a highly regarded predecessor, working for a council that had just achieved the accolade of being awarded Council of the Year. Although I have worked in senior leadership roles before, the responsibility of this role and its stretch across the Borough that I serve, has at times been overwhelming, humbling and always a privilege. As an individual I thrive on new challenges and have had the opportunity of working within a broader Corporate Team who are both dynamic and experienced which is just as well really!
All local authorities are facing their own challenges, particularly in relation to managing reducing budgets and increasing need for services. Our council has faced a 68% reduction in its budget over the last 10 years but has managed to continue to put the needs of children and young people at the top of our agenda due to the skill, hard work and commitment of our staff, elected members and partners.
As a social worker I have a strong inclination to assess and analyse everybody and anything, perhaps reflecting for far too long on what to do next. Given the burning platform of rising demand for children’s statutory services and significant budget pressures in our council and region it is clear to me that we have to work with our partners and in our communities to ensure that we are making best use of our shared resources. I have found the recommendations in the Children’s Commissioners Report “Growing Up North” particularly powerful and can only stress the positive impact that our children, young people and families would experience if the government would “provide additional investment in the most disadvantaged areas to support local councils and partners to improve children’s outcomes and life chances – this should start in the North.”
Alongside our increasingly strong partnerships in Blackburn with Darwen, I would like to see a much stronger partnership with central government in tackling child poverty, complex safeguarding, with purposeful action taken to address the emotional health and wellbeing of our children and young people.
I have had the opportunity to listen to our bright, brilliant and at times angry young people at our Take Over Challenge Day at the end of last year. As they were setting out their priorities for the coming year they discussed some of the pressing issues in their area such as the reliance on food banks for many children and their families, dealing with period poverty and limited access to early support for their emotional health and wellbeing. Listening and acting on what was at the top of their list ensures that these priorities are at the top of mine.
Professor Donald Forrester in a recent paper summed up the responsibility that comes with being a social worker and public servant when he wrote, “an act of kindness or the ability to empathise is important not merely because it may influence “outcomes”, but because in such acts of human respect and care we embody the just, humane and caring society we seek to create.”
After twelve months in this role that’s what keeps us all rising to the challenges we each face every day and if the Minister and Secretary of State for Education would like a trip up North to find out more about our challenges and our solutions then I am sure that we could make it a grand day out.
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The precarious state of local government funding
The precarious state of local government funding continues to capture the attention of the media and just this week I’ve read several articles on this topic.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ (IFS) recent analysis of local government funding highlighted the extent of government cuts to date. It found that on average local government spending on local services had fallen by 21% since 2009/10 and that the poorest parts of the country had faced the deepest cuts. The report also highlighted significant variation at a service level with local authorities prioritising spending on children’s and adult’s social care and spending less on other services that our communities rely on such as parks, transport and leisure services. These decisions are not taken lightly but are necessary in order to manage reducing budgets and rising need. It therefore doesn’t come as a surprise that the IFS has warned that funding for councils will soon become ‘increasingly inadequate’. Indeed, in recent months a growing number of local authorities have suggested that they may only be able to provide core services in the future.
It’s estimated we will soon be facing a £3 billion funding gap in children’s services just to stand still and separate analysis by the BBC found that several councils will have exhausted their reserves in the next few years, provided nothing changes. Although the level of reserves held by a council can be seen as a sign of financial security it’s important to recognise there are good reasons for holding them. Reserves are necessary to cover any unexpected expenditure and to fund our response to emergencies, such as floods and terrorist attacks. However, in order to meet growing demand for children’s services, we are increasingly having to use this money and divert funding away from other services our communities rely on, such as children’s centres, youth services and libraries. Moreover, we have a long, and growing, list of statutory duties in relation to children, young people and families, few of which are fully funded which only exacerbates the pressures we face. Put simply, there is not enough money in the system to meet the level and complexity of need in our communities.
Local authorities are ‘place shapers’ meaning we want to create great places where people want to live, work, do business and visit. We are ambitious for our communities and want to ensure that the ingredients which enable local people and the local place to thrive are there. Key to this is securing a sustainable financial future for us.
In the forthcoming Spending Review, the Treasury faces some stark choices about the sort of country we will be going forward. We cannot continue as we are, and we can’t afford to lose sight of what’s really at stake here – our local communities and our children’s futures.
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Is this what an inclusive society looks like?
Earlier this month Edward Timpson’s long awaited review of school exclusions was published and it certainly made for an interesting read. The report highlighted the increasing rate of fixed term and permanent exclusions with this cohort disproportionately made up of vulnerable children and young people such as those with special educational needs or Children in Need. These are often the very learners who could benefit the most from a supportive and stable learning environment. Although Timpson’s review recognised that most schools work hard to be inclusive, it doesn’t paint a picture of an inclusive education system that meets the needs of all pupils. We must support and encourage schools to give all pupils every chance to succeed in life but, in order to do this, central government must create an education system that doesn’t discriminate. This is a central component of a successful social mobility agenda.
Increasing child poverty is one of the biggest problems facing this country right now - an issue which has been considered in several reports in recent weeks and months. Despite the raft of evidence that shows the causes of poverty and its harmful impact on children in terms of their health, educational outcomes and their future life chances, it still continues to grow. Only this week, Professor Philip Alston’s report on UK poverty found that there is “exacerbating inequality and poverty” in this country despite it being the world’s fifth largest economy. There is much that the government can and should do to lift children out of poverty and close the inequality gap, and there is an important role for education here that needs to be recognised. Education can empower children to break through societal barriers and set the foundation for a better adult life, but they must have the support from a stable school environment in the first place.
I’m proud of the heroic work that teachers up and down the land are doing every single day with dwindling resources to support their pupils. That said, our education system still lags behind in that not all of our learners, including the most vulnerable, are having their needs met. The fact that children on free school meals are over four times more likely to be excluded than their peers is not the sign of a meritocracy, nor does it fit with government’s rhetoric of improving social mobility for all. Being out of mainstream education for any period of time is rarely in a child’s best interest but for our most vulnerable pupils it is likely to further entrench inequalities and disadvantage. An estimated 4 million children in this country currently live in poverty, two thirds from working families - soon this will increase to 5 million. I am left wondering what our ambitions for children who live in poverty are given the government’s response to this issue. Vital early help services are severely lacking investment and schools are having to pick up the pieces while simultaneously lacking the incentives and resources to help those pupils who need it the most.
Schools are rewarded for academic outcomes above all else which means that the stakes for headteachers who want to be inclusive are high. That is why we need a culture change right across the system from Whitehall to classrooms up and down the country. The new Ofsted Education Inspection Framework’s focus on the whole educational experience at school is a positive start but it’s also up to the government to back this up with the extra funding needed and to re-consider taking forward some of the recommendations in the Timpson review that were not addressed in its official response.
Schools do much more than simply prepare children for academic achievement and every day really does matter. They provide children with a safe environment to go to each day, help them build resilience and prepare them for independence and adulthood. We need to do everything we can before taking that away from them.
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Prevention is better than cure
I’ve been spending quite a lot of time on trains travelling to meetings and speaking at conferences on behalf of ADCS recently. This has given me some valuable time to do some reading (as well as the obligatory emails!), but it also leaves time for reflection.
During the Northampton to Taunton leg of my journey I read some highlights from the debate on serious violence in the House of Commons earlier this week. The discussion was rich and wide ranging. Cuts to policing in both monetary and workforce terms featured regularly but so too did the impact of youth services being scaled right back; school exclusions; the closure of children’s centres; the use of unsustainable grant funding to tackle complex issues; the loss of family support services and disinvestment in youth offending teams. As a director of children’s services and a local systems leader, these matters are never far from my mind but they don’t often seem to feature on Westminster’s agenda despite the Home Secretary describing the levels of violence on our streets as “a national emergency.”
The government’s plan to place a new duty on organisations, including local authorities, schools and the police, to work together to protect children, young people (and adults) from serious violence was frequently raised in the debate. Thankfully the proposed duty is not aimed at individual social workers, teachers, nurses and police officers, who are already working hard every day in increasingly difficult circumstances. Instead, it has been pitched as a public health approach but it is difficult to see what impact this will have. We all already have “due regard” to children and young people’s safety and wellbeing, this collective endeavour sits at the heart of our safeguarding system.
The only way to make headway with the complex and interrelated issues of knife crime, trafficking, modern slavery and criminal and sexual exploitation is for all parts of the public sector, including government, to genuinely work together in a coordinated way with voluntary and community groups under the auspices of a holistic public health strategy. A huge amount of activity has been initiated in response to increased political and media focus on serious violence with national summits being held, research commissioned, new units and programmes developed, campaigns rolled out and different pots of funding launched by the myriad government departments who lead on different aspects of adolescent policy. However, it’s not easy to see how all of these things fit together and what the goal is that we’re all working towards.
As a system, we need to focus relentlessly on vulnerability, be able to identify vulnerable children early and respond effectively, however, this relies on there being enough funding to resource it. We know there are various risk factors that can increase the likelihood of children and young people being drawn into criminality or exploited including being out of school, poor employment opportunities, a lack of positive activities in the local area as well as inequality, deprivation, trauma and poor mental health. Research shows there is a link between higher levels of inequality and higher levels of violence. Yes, we need to understand and address individual risk factors but without turning our attention to the societal determinants, such as rising levels of child poverty, it’s unlikely that meaningful progress will be made.
We need to stop reacting to violence in our communities and focus on preventing it. There are no quick fixes but if we all work together, united behind a shared goal, pooling our collective resources and experiences, I believe we can make a difference to communities and to children’s lives.
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A little kindness goes a long way
Last week I attended the Greater Manchester Contextual Safeguarding Conference and was privileged to hear Dez Holmes from Research in Practice speak. Dez always provides me with a golden nugget or two to reflect on.
As the new Director of People at Bolton Council, I was motivated by her challenge to the senior leaders in the sector to think outside of our service boxes and remove the rather notional line that separates a vulnerable child from a vulnerable adult across our partnerships.
To be truly impactful as directors of children’s services I think it is time to rethink the system – to focus on people, their strengths and their flaws and rebuild community resilience. To do this we need to reclaim our authority as statutory leaders and provide the safe space needed for innovation, for relationship building and for compassion.
Some of you may well think you have this nailed down and if so, well done – it’s not easy to achieve and even harder to sustain! I know I am still on a journey and to inform my thinking I started reading Kindness in Leadership, edited by Gay Haskins et al. If you haven’t read the book, I can recommend it. The book outlines several ingredients for kindness such as compassion, authenticity, humility and humour, and discusses the costs of being a kind leader. Let’s be clear, being kind is not a soft option. It requires us to value people for who they are in their own right and it requires challenging, engaged and empowering leadership.
Of particular interest to me was a section in the book that asks what could prevent us from being kind. Consistently individuals listed workload, stress and budgets. This shouldn’t surprise us and partly explains why ‘kind leadership’ can be exhausting because it requires regular attention as well as being open to listening and leading with compassion.
It is my opinion that before we start rebuilding the communities we serve, we have a duty to ensure our approach to leadership creates an environment for our staff (our best resource) to thrive. This requires us to be consistently and deliberately kind… really, stick with me!
Our workforce faces unprecedented challenges, with growing caseloads and greater scrutiny. Unless you have a spare £5 million or so to recruit a lot more staff you need to create a system that allows them to thrive despite the challenges. And one that makes them want to stay in your local authority. We therefore need to push on with increasing flexibility in working hours, become more open to people friendly services that take into account any caring responsibilities and appreciate that there is a limit to what individuals can do, whatever the make up of their personal lives. This is key to preventing ‘burnout’. Fundamentally, if we fail to look after our staff and build relationships with them we shouldn’t be surprised if they are unable to create the necessary lasting and meaningful relationships with vulnerable children and families.
We know poor parenting can result in poor outcomes and as ‘parents’ of some very large families we need to rise to the challenge. No amount of culture change will work unless it is in the hearts as well as the heads of strategic leaders and no amount of strategic planning will replace the need for a professional love of our staff, our vulnerable children and adults, and ourselves. The system is creaking, kindness is critical and being curious and open minded will teach us more about the people who work for us and in turn, allow them to support the families they work with. The challenge for us as leaders is to first be good role models, encouraging, cheerleading from the side-lines and celebrating the baby steps that collectively lead to better outcomes for our children and families.
In the words of Dr. Seuss: “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”
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Continuing the leadership theme
Earlier this week I attended a development day on Ethical Leadership in Public Services, run by The Staff College. There were very good inputs from all three speakers - Kathryn Perera (NHS Horizons), Sherry Malik (NSPCC) and Martin Kalungu-Banda – I was left thinking about Martin’s emphasis on what he sees as the three most critical challenges of our time (clip starts at 8:00) - the ecological divide, the social divide and the spiritual divide.
Whilst each are important in their own right, the one that we DCSs probably pay most direct attention to is the ‘spiritual divide’ (mental ill-health), both the perennial problem of securing sufficient CAMHS provision for our most vulnerable children and young people, and our request to colleagues in adult mental health services to ‘Think Family’ when it comes to their practice and to ‘see the child’ whenever they are working to support an adult with mental health issues who is a parent too. The impacts of poverty and inequality (the social divide) are well-evidenced in research and felt throughout our work as well. And even though we may usually leave worries about climate change (the ecological divide) to other council departments, if we act on Martin’s exhortation to “listen to those not yet born”, it follows that as children’s outcomes matter to us, then our children’s children’s outcomes should matter too, and so on. If this is the context, what kind of leaders do we need? Leaders who can prioritise how many fingers we need in each of the many pies – and how deeply we need to poke at them!
This week ADCS published its latest DCS data; covering turnover, use of interims, longevity in post, twin hat arrangements and diversity, to name a few. I am pleased to see there has been a drop in turnover compared with last year’s volatility, but it’s still the case that the average length of time a ‘permanent’ DCS is in post is 37 months. Given what we know about how long it takes to really embed sustainable change, this is still much more churn than we would like to see.
This begs the question of what can we, and central government, do to create an environment which encourages people with the ambition and capability to become leaders to take on the role, and to support DCSs to stay? In the ADCS position paper “Building a Workforce that Works for all Children” we pressed home the point that in a context where senior leaders must find solutions to complex problems with diminishing resources, it is vital that [we] have the tools and support to meet these demands. This requires investment in systems leadership programmes for aspiring and existing DCSs. To their credit, the DfE is listening. They are currently in discussion with DCSs and others about what a programme for aspiring DCSs should cover seeking input across four main areas. Here are my preliminary thoughts:
Skills and capacities
DCSs are system leaders and champions for children. We can’t acquire every skill that’s deployed across the children’s workforce, nor can we know everything there is to know about such a wide remit. So, capacities are more immediately important than skills; capacity to learn from those around us in complementary roles, capacity to search a range of sources, judge their utility and assimilate detail quickly; capacity to recognise quality in outputs we may never have had a direct hand in producing ourselves. For everything else, there’s a masterclass. (Or there should be!)
Support and networks
Other DCSs are the primary source of help and support for new DCSs, DCSs taking on a new local authority or facing a challenging situation. We’re lucky to be able to scramble about on the shoulders of giants. I benefitted from an experienced mentor when I first became a director, as I know many of my colleagues will have, and many do today through the ADCS DCS Mentoring Scheme. Peers from my aspirant DCS programme were learning and growing alongside me when I was new in role and as an established DCS I have still needed the wisdom and collective resilience of the regional and wider networks I’ve been part of. DCS development needs to combine cohort building for solidarity with mixing /integrating networks so that new connections are made.
Motivations, talent attraction and diversity
Some DCSs come decades-steeped in children’s services, often via teaching or social work, others are more recent arrivals in the sector, but regardless of background, all of the memorably good DCSs I have met have been fiercely committed to making things better for children across all domains of their lives. The very best centre that work in family and community. What encouraged me to be a DCS was seeing other DCSs in action, thinking ‘that’s what I’d like to do’ and also ‘that’s how I want to do it!’ We mustn’t shrink the role to encourage others to step up, but rather promote the joy of a job with such breadth and the scope to impact positively on so many lives.
Working in partnership
In local government, multi-agency teams bring the best of social work, education, policing, health and other disciplines together. Safeguarding boards and partnerships promote multi-disciplinary training locally. I’ve delivered DCS input into training at the College of Policing, and heard from voluntary sector and health leaders in training for aspiring and current DCSs. Central government could take lessons in collaboration from us. In particular, DCSs would like to see the impact of DfE in child and family centred action from the MoJ, Home Office or DWP – then we’ll know we have something to learn from central government on this issue.
Whether you share my views or disagree, if you would like to input to the DfE’s design of leadership programmes for aspiring DCSs but can’t make it to the workshops they have established for this consultation, Louisa Ellisdon at DfE is happy to take input by e-mail. You can contact her on: Louisa.ELLISDON@education.gov.uk
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Leadership and a duty of optimism...
“Every day the opportunity for leadership stands before you” - Heifetz & Linsky
“Many people over-estimate their leadership skills and under-estimate the importance of practice” - Keith Grint
I found both of the above quotes in the beautifully bound purple and white folder from my National College DCS Leadership Programme in 2009. It is the 10th anniversary of that programme this year, and I was prompted to dig out my folder after spending a day a few weeks ago with ADCS Council of Reference colleagues in the morning, and honoured guests at Rachel Dickinson’s Presidential Reception in the afternoon.
Rachel gave an excellent and impassioned speech setting out the Association’s priorities for the year, as well as reflecting on the strong leadership shown by her immediate predecessor, Stuart Gallimore. Both Stuart and Rachel were part of Cohort 5 of the DCS Leadership Programme and for many directors of children’s services of that era, their cohort became peer friends and colleagues for life.
I first became a DCS in 2005, which equates to the Paleolithic Age in DCS terms, and was in Cohort 1 of the Leadership Programme – very much the Vintage Claret to the Beaujolais Nouveau of Cohort 5. Of the 26 members in my cohort, only three remain as serving DCSs today, emphasising the churn in senior roles within our sector as confirmed by last year’s data on DCS turnover. Next week ADCS will be publishing the DCS data for 2018/19, watch this space.
The amount spent by government in 2009 on our development programmes dwarfs anything they have spent on it before or since. The Department for Education is currently procuring a new leadership programme for aspirant and serving DCSs and it will be interesting to compare it to the National College model of 10 years ago.
Back in 2009, we were each invited to identify the “wicked issue” challenging our leadership. Mine was “the scale of the financial challenge…decision making about which services are de-commissioned in order to avoid unmanageable pressure on demand-led services, particularly child protection and children in care”. Plus ça Change!
Seeing that 10 years later our biggest challenges remain the same could induce pessimism, yet I found reasons for optimism which I will return to later.
The inauguration of a new ADCS President is always a time for optimism and reflection, looking forward as well as looking back. Rachel, Stuart and our new Vice President Jenny Coles will be an excellent leadership team for the Association, continuing its forward momentum supported of course by our members. As our 14th President, Rachel set out an ambitious and aspirational agenda to “reclaim” some of the territory created for DCSs in the Children Act 2004. As Rachel pointed out, it is 15 years since the Children Act 2004, and 30 years since the 1989 Act, received Royal Assent. We could do worse than celebrate that by reminding ourselves, and government, of what those Acts say we can and should do for all children.
Which brings me to optimism. I believe as leaders we have a duty to both project optimism and be optimistic. How could we not, given the privilege we have of working with and for children and young people every day? It is easy to be pessimistic in a time of political and economic uncertainty. As Chair of the ADCS Resources & Sustainability Policy Committee, it is practically my duty to be pessimistic about money, and lord knows, there is enough reason to be. And yet ... I find it cheering that in the 10 years of austerity since identifying my wicked issue, we have professionally managed an increase in demand for children’s social care caused by cuts to preventative services, while maintaining or improving quality overall. All this despite a 50% real-terms cut to local authority budgets, since 2010.
The issue of spending effectively on prevention remains central 10 years later, but as an Association we have now assembled compelling evidence to put to the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) and the Treasury of the extra investment needed. With potentially as much as £18bn new money at play in the next CSR period for public spending, and with our sector leadership, we should be both determined and optimistic we will get a fair share for children this time.
And don’t say “I’ll have a pint of whatever he’s drinking…”
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Continuing the legacy of a country that works for all children
Last week I had the great privilege of delivering my inaugural speech as ADCS President to a room packed full of colleagues, peers and many others working in the sector. It was a chance to look ahead to the next 12 months and affirm the Association’s policy priorities, but also to reflect on some of the outstanding achievements of ADCS past presidents. During the speech, I promised to continue the strong legacy set by Alison and Stuart to make this a country that works for all children and this made me reflect on where we are two years on since that excellent paper was first published in October 2017. Although a lot has changed since then, many of the same challenges remain. The paper notes the country’s lack of focus on children as the nation’s attention turned to the economy, growing pressures in the NHS as well as Brexit (sound familiar?). These certainly are ‘wicked issues’ but as we address them nationally we must not lose sight of children and young people. Despite the current uncertainty, their needs can’t be simply put to one side.
In our policy paper, we called for the government to invest in children and young people to put them at the heart of all government policy so that the impact of new reforms on their lives is clearly understood. I think that we, and many others in the sector, have done a great job of highlighting real-terms cuts to budgets in children’s services and finally putting this issue on the same footing as the financial pressures in adult social care. As Stuart Gallimore noted in his most recent blog,while there is more to do, over the past year there has been some recognition of these pressures with some extra funding for children’s social care featuring in the Chancellor’s last Autumn Statement for the first time in a long time, but it wasn’t enough. We need a sustainable long-term funding settlement for the totality of children’s services. Take the rising costs associated with the 2014 SEND reforms, which were rightly ambitious, but over the past four years we have moved from a position of a net surplus in the system to a deficit. Although last year’s announcement of £250 million additional funding over two years to provide specialist support was some recognition of the level of demand we face in this area, the scale of the challenge is far greater. A recent report from ISOS found that local authorities will have a collective deficit in their SEND budgets of £1.2 billion - £1.6 billion by 2021. This doesn’t sound like a country that works for all children to me.
The reality is that children are often impacted the most when things go wrong and we continue to see this with almost a decade of austerity. The effects of poverty on children and families are wide ranging and go beyond not having any pocket money. Many children are living in cramped, unhealthy conditions with, at best, a poor diet and we know that benefit changes, poor housing and the prevalence of unstable employment have an impact on children’s life chances. Sadly, this does not grab the headlines and I fear that we are becoming immune to it as the sight of collection points for food banks in supermarkets is all too common. It is a national disgrace that we now have period poverty boxes in our schools, but a welcome step that the DfE has recently pledged to provide, and fully fund, free sanitary products to girls in all secondary schools and colleges across England, and has extended this to all primary schools too.
Tackling this inequality should be our biggest priority which is why I want to see a more robust response from the government - it is within their power to do something about it, starting with the development of a child poverty reduction strategy for England. We are the only country in the UK not to have one. If we transferred some of the time and energy that is being put into Brexit to solving this problem, just imagine what could be achieved.
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Setting our priorities for the year ahead
Yesterday, I was extremely proud to deliver my inaugural speech as ADCS President 2019/20 at an event in London. It was an excellent day and great to see so many colleagues and past presidents who have helped make ADCS what it is today. I must also give special thanks to my colleagues in Barnsley who have been fantastically supportive; allowing me the opportunity to take on this national role and for being there yesterday to cheer me on. The past year as Vice President has flown by and I can’t wait to get stuck in, continuing to strive to make this A country that works for all children, supported by the new Vice President, Jenny Coles, and building on the excellent legacy of Stuart Gallimore and Alison Michalska, who led the call for a country that works for all children.
Looking forward to the year ahead, 2019 seems to be a year of anniversaries, not least for being 30 years since The Children Act 1989 and 15 years since The Children Act 2004 were both given Royal Assent. We need to celebrate what has been achieved over the last three decades, but also not lose sight of the challenges ahead. Much has changed since 1989; children and families face new and often more complex challenges, such as contextual safeguarding, but the core principles of the Act remain the same.
During my speech, I set out the Association’s priorities for the coming year, you won’t be surprised to hear that continuing to press the government for a sustainable and long-term funding settlement for children’s services is high on my ’to-do’ list. A core principle of The Children Act 1989 is prevention and the provision of early help, yet delivering this kind of support is becoming increasingly difficult. We simply do not have enough money to do this well.
Other priorities include a re-assertion of the systems leadership role of the DCS as a champion for children, particularly in relation to their education. A decade of education reforms have left us with one of the most autonomous school systems in the world but this has resulted in fragmentation of oversight and responsibility. I also will not shirk from re-voicing the language of closing the gap in children’s outcomes. I feel passionately that the best way to do this is to incentivise inclusivity in mainstream schools.
Another priority of mine will be continuing to shout about the disgraceful level of child poverty in this country which is continuing to rise – government figures released last week showed that 4.1 million children were living in poverty in the UK. The Institute of Fiscal Studies predicts that this number will pass five million by 2020, many of whom live in working households. I am in no doubt that the impact of austerity has been felt hardest by the most vulnerable people in society and this is another painful reminder of the extent of the challenge. The government says that it is committed to tackling child poverty but I’d like to see parliament commit as much time and energy to addressing this crisis as it has to Brexit. I will use my year as ADCS President to hold it to account and advocate for those vulnerable children and families who are suffering the impact of a decade of cuts to services and significant reductions in resources.
Closer to home, it’s also 50 years since Barry Hines published his classic novel ‘A kestrel for a knave,’ which was set in Barnsley. The pages crackle with local colour and choice northern language but the protagonist, young Billy Caspar, is a working class boy living in poverty. His home has no carpets or heating, he is disengaged from learning and suffers abuse at the hands of his brother, Jud. I recently reread this book and I found myself wondering how different life is for children and families living in poverty where tough decisions have to be taken every day between eating or keeping warm and how this impacts on children’s lives and outcomes.
It’s going to be a challenging year but it’s a challenge that I can’t wait to get started on. With the support of the excellent ADCS policy committees and the commitment of our members across the regions, I feel very confident for the year ahead. I look forward to working with all of you over the next 12 months and championing the rights and needs of all children.
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Good things come to an end, so even better things can begin
Completing this blog has been one of my final acts as President before handing over the reins to Rachel Dickinson, Barnsley’s DCS and our President for 2019/20, who I know will be brilliant. I’m not sure how the year has gone by so quickly, must be an age thing, but it has prompted a period of reflection on what we have achieved as an Association. As we know, presidents come and go and get to do the spotlight bit by speaking at the ADCS annual conference or attending meetings with ministers and such like, but the continuity and real work is done by our Council of Reference, regional groups and policy committees, brilliantly supported by our staff team in Manchester, who hold it all together and make the magic happen.
Due to this collective effort we have achieved much to be proud of, we have delivered two policy papers, A vision for an inclusive and high performing education system which we launched at conference last year and our workforce paper published last month, which called on government to focus and, crucially, invest in the wider children’s workforce. Both papers make an important contribution in their respective area and speak with confidence about the art of the possible whilst not shying away from asking the difficult questions as well as providing solutions. We have seen our media profile increase with our latest Safeguarding Pressures report taking centre stage on BBC News at 6 and being strongly covered in the broadsheets.
Speaking about the resources needed to make this ‘a country that works for all children’, has been a theme of my presidential year and at times I have felt like a stuck record. It will be a baton that Rachel will pick up as we look to this year’s Spending Review and even though I have not been as successful as I would have liked, the needs of children, and the funding needed to meet these needs, are being talked about for the first time and have been elevated onto the same list of concerns as adult social care. Whilst the money announced by the Chancellor back in November was nowhere near enough, it was at least a recognition of the difficulties we face and something to build on. We have also completed the pilot year of Regional Improvement Alliances where every region works with partners to own and craft their improvement journey. This has been a remarkable achievement for the sector wrestling back the agenda into the hands of those who have their feet firmly in the arena rather than spectating from the sides (at considerable cost…) Clearly there is still a way to go but on my regional visits I have been struck by how this has energised regions and provided renewed confidence where it was needed.
While those are the headlines, we have been involved in so much more through our engagement with government, Ofsted and the LGA, to name just a few, but where we really come into our own are the hundreds of unseen acts where a DCS picks up the phone, texts or has a beer with a colleague who is struggling to provide much needed support. It can be a lonely job but it’s also the best job in local government and folk only get to enjoy that opportunity when we keep an eye out for each other, give a word of encouragement, a courageous conversation, or a helping hand. Let us never lose that generosity of spirit as an Association, it’s something that we can all play a part in.
Well I think that’s enough from me, being the President has been a real privilege but I can’t finish without thanking my team in East Sussex (who I know are concerned that I will be returning to get under their feet), the ADCS team, you are stars who have consistently made me look better than I am, our former Immediate Past President, Alison Michalska and former Vice President, Rachel Dickinson. Thanks for the wise counsel, friendship and fun, and all ADCS members for their encouragement, support and supreme tolerance over the past year.
I will close with the words of another former President, Theodore Roosevelt, they sit on the side of my fridge and were given to me by a friend when I started as President. Those of you who were at conference will have heard them before so forgive me for repeating them but I think they capture what we do and why we do it brilliantly and I am sure he wouldn’t mind me updating this for a different time…
“It is not the critic who counts; not the person who points out how the strong one stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends themselves in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if they fail, at least fails while daring greatly, so that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
- Theodore Roosevelt
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Celebrating social work
Last week it was World Social Work Day and I was privileged to open an event celebrating the day with 100 of Walsall’s social workers from across adult and children’s services. When preparing for it I found a copy of the picture that I used for my ID pass when I first qualified in the same local authority too many years ago to mention. It set me off thinking about the differences between the profession then and now. Caseload sizes continue to increase and present new and complex challenges but for me it was about how old I was – the staff member who said I looked about 10 years old shall remain nameless as will those that laughed at my “bubble” perm – and looking forward to being a real social worker and no longer a student. At the time, I was what you would call a generic worker, working across both children and adult services, with a workload ranging from vulnerable older people and those with mental health issues to children in care.
During the conference, I found myself trying to describe this to an audience of people most of whom had qualified post the separation of adult and children’s services and, as a consequence, rarely even meet with each other let alone share work. Despite this, what became apparent during the day was that there remain many shared values including a focus on human relationships and making a real difference in the lives of others that underpins social work practice as it did all those years ago – the only difference is the perm has gone!
In reality, children’s social workers will come into contact with both children and adults on a regular basis so it’s essential that their needs are viewed in the round. For example, domestic abuse, poor parental mental health and substance misuse are becoming more common among the families we work with and we know that when adult need is left unmet, due to the lack of support services available to them, it is difficult for us to make a sustained difference in the lives of children. World Social Work Day was a great opportunity to reflect on the cross-over between adult and children services but also to think about how we can improve ways of working together. Supporting both children and adults requires specific knowledge and understanding of needs but their overlap is unavoidable, and we must not lose sight of this. The relationships we form with children and young people are incredibly important but making sure that they are sustained into adulthood is equally crucial.
I am told that bubble perms are back in fashion although I have no intention of going back there and I certainly think it’s unlikely we will go back to the days of generic social work. However, the focus on relationships for World Social Work Day this year has focussed all our thinking on the connections that still exist despite some of the artificial divide in our ways of working. After all, each day, up and down the country, both children’s and adult social workers are working tirelessly to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in society and that’s certainly something we can all get behind.
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Being ‘ACE’ aware – a helpful or harmful approach?
I am passionate – as I know many people are – about relationship-based approaches to supporting and empowering children and young people. I’d heard of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) but hadn’t explored it in detail. So, last year when our head of early years excitedly and enthusiastically reported back from a conference she’d attended, I was really interested in what she had to say and how it might inform our work in Derbyshire.
I was therefore very happy to accept an invitation to attend an event about the work of the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative. The event focussed on how Blackpool, as a Better Start area, is working closely with them, making use of brain science to transform their approach to early years and reframe early child development.
My guess is that many of you reading this will also have heard of ACEs and some will know a lot about it. The rapidly increasing interest in the approach – if it is an approach – is being described by some as a ‘movement’ or ‘campaign’. Scotland is even working on becoming the first ‘ACE aware nation’.
My initial response was one of real enthusiasm and a sense that much of what I’d previously understood about the impact of childhood trauma was brought together in a straightforward framework. In Derbyshire, our Future in Mind plan includes a programme of ACE awareness and we have a number of conferences planned. The consideration is whether there is scope for the development of an informed county wide approach across all partners. I’m aware some areas have already developed such an approach.
However, the more I have looked into the subject and read about it the more I realise that it’s not quite as straightforward as I thought. As with most evidence-based approaches there can be very differing views!
So what are ACEs?
ACEs are specified traumatic events that children can be exposed to during childhood. The original ACEs study (Felliti, V. J et al,1998) identified ten kinds of adverse experiences; five that involved direct harm to a child (physical, sexual and emotional abuse; physical and emotional neglect) and five that affect the environment in which they grow up (domestic violence; substance misuse; parental separation; mental illness; incarceration of a family member). The question here would be, what about other adverse experiences such as loss and bereavement? And what about resilience – what makes one child more resilient to the impact of these experiences than others? My thinking is that there is nothing to say that adversity can’t be viewed more widely than the original study, which I know others are doing.
The research concludes that the more ACEs a person experiences the higher the risk of poor outcomes in later life. The evidence shows that being exposed to ACEs in childhood can change the way the brain develops which can impact on a child’s ability to navigate everyday demands and can increase the risk of developing health harming behaviours.
I don’t suppose it’s anything we didn’t already know – that traumatic experiences occurring early in a child’s life can have a lasting impact, but what I have found interesting and useful is the effect that toxic stress has on brain development. It’s also fascinating to see the brain science and hope behind efforts to improve the impact of this stress.
Scoring – additional trauma?
What seems, however, to be a source of concern is the ACEs ‘scoring’ tool which is a checklist of the experiences named above that produces an ACE score of 1-10. The research has shown that if a person has a score of four or more ACEs they will have a life expectancy of 20 years less than those with no ACEs. The notion of working through a clinical checklist of ACEs with a person, I agree would be a concern and could potentially add to a child’s trauma. Any mechanistic way of trying to categorise human responses to events will have opponents and used badly could be destructive. Surely it’s about appropriately skilled practitioners not reducing a child’s lived experience to an ACE score, but instead using this awareness to reference the adversity in a constructive, person centred way in order to support positive change and build resilience?
So, I can’t see the harm in understanding and talking more about the impact of adversity and the science of the brain. Neither can I see an issue with how this awareness can be used to inform practice and interventions that take into account the complexity of childhood trauma and toxic stress and support the development of resilience. If it leads to greater awareness among a wide range of multi-agency professionals, engenders increased compassion and care and opens up possibilities such as responses to behaviours that are often found to be a challenge, then surely this is a good thing?
There are many questions and this blog only lightly touches on the subject. However, for me, as with any model or approach, it’s about ensuring that the intent and the application of it supports positive change and improved outcomes which is our ongoing strategic challenge.
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What’s the purpose of auditing casework?
What’s the purpose of auditing casework? I have been pondering this for a while. It has a genuine purpose, done well it tells managers about the quality of practice in the system and if thresholds around risk feel right or not. Done poorly, it tells us nothing and, at its worst, fools us into thinking practice is better than it is.
What audit doesn’t particularly do well though, is improve the quality of practice. I tend to find that workers see it as something that is done to them, leaves them a list of corrective actions and tends to say, “you aren’t doing well enough”.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes there is a need to audit to understand the state of practice or themes and elements, but let’s be clear, that is what it is doing and nothing more.
Here in North Yorkshire, we had a good look around the sector for what others were doing in this space and found some great practice and ideas – sector led improvement at its best – which led us to developing a new model for the local authority and we introduced this new approach over a year ago. We refer to it as “a learning space” and its predominant aim is to improve practice.
The monthly learning space takes place as a reflective conversation between the allocated worker, their line manager (the reviewer), and a peer manager (the moderator). The reviewer is asked to review a case within their own team alongside moderator who is from a different team. The purpose of an independent moderator is to achieve consistency across all teams over a period of time, to enable learning to be shared more widely and provide an important element of challenge to the conversation. This process seeks evidence of strong practice including capturing the voice of the child and family to further enhance our understanding - receiving direct feedback from children and families, and partner agencies is critical to the learning. A monthly report is presented to the Children & Families Practice Improvement Forum and monthly business meetings where progress against recommendations are tracked. A quarterly report is produced for myself and the senior team which collates all of the Quality of Practice activity and creates a learning feedback loop for the service as well as further fostering a culture of continual improvement.
I think it’s a win win. At the heart of our practice model is doing things with children and families, not to them and it’s only right that we also model this behaviour with each other. This is a strengths based collaborative learning space, done with the worker and manager, not to them. They explore practice and improvement, I get a report telling us about the state of the quality of practice around the local authority, what’s working well and what we jointly need to improve.
Staff feedback has been positive, although it remains a challenge in making sure people fit them in, but this has improved over the year as people see greater value in them. We gathered feedback after 12 months and used staff suggestions to further develop the approach, co-creating the process and the tools as we refine and evolve.
It must be noted that this sits as one part of a wider framework that mixes data, quality and user feedback. We call this our Quality and Learning Framework and is based on the very good practice guide developed by Research in Practice.
I am not suggesting this is the only answer, my thanks goes to colleagues for sharing their ideas, but I am confident that this is leading to learning and improvement through audit in a way that the system we had before didn’t achieve. It’s worth pondering!
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How and when should we use technology in social work?
Everyone who knows me or has heard me speak knows how passionate I am about targeted prevention, using the option of care wisely and sparingly, and holding risk in the community with children and young people’s families. So, it might surprise you that in this blog I am going to write about the much less sexy topic of record keeping. This requires urgent attention, for three simple reasons:
- social workers spend so much time recording
- many IT systems do not easily support social work practice; and app development has been piecemeal
- the pace of technological development means that there is an urgent need to consider the ethics of artificial intelligence and machine learning
Many of you will be aware of BASW’s 80/20 campaign, to increase the time social workers are able to spend in direct work with children and their families. Although it was a self-selecting survey of social workers, it found that social workers spend only 20% of their time working face-to-face. In Essex, we found that our staff spend 40% of their time in direct work. Good, you might think; but social workers also spent an average 15.7 hours per week on laptops recording their work. So, if we want social workers to spend more time using their skills to work with families to improve outcomes for children, it is probably time to revisit recording practice. After all, it is now 16 years since Walker, Shemmings and Cleaver produced Write Enough: Effective Recording in Children’s Services.
Like other authorities, we’ve put a lot of energy into working with our software suppliers to improve the look and feel of our recording systems, and I am sure we have all had some success in making them more user-friendly. However, these systems are, for the most part, based on the old Integrated Children’s System (ICS) standards. Long before Eileen Munro delivered her final report into child protection in 2011, the inadequacies of the ICS systems were well documented. Although the ‘workflows’ built into these systems were switched off, there has been no significant change to their design.
I think there are several practical difficulties:
- The use of voice or handwriting recognition software to record is not widespread. Yet for most social workers, how much easier would it be to record their work while they are on the move? Harry Ferguson’s notion of mobile social work reminds us of the importance of time spent in the car, talking and reflecting on our work. Yet, even if this were slick, what type of recording does it lead to?
- Records can often only be searched by record type: ‘visit’, ‘telephone call’, and so on, and then, we often have to open each record in turn to find the one we want. Imagine how much more powerful the record could be, if social workers could search for ‘drugs’, ‘domestic abuse’, ‘mental health’ etc.
- Furthermore, relationship-based practice is free-flowing. It requires a narrative record. For those of us who were social workers before digital case recording, we can remember the feel of the record, see the story it told, and judge complexity, almost by the weight of the file! Digital records are very limited in this regard.
Of course, we have to acknowledge the benefits of technology too. To give just one example, I don’t have to travel from Chelmsford to Harlow to read a case file for my monthly contribution to our case file audit process.
Yet there is something more pressing: the technological advance in predictive analytics.
Writing in The Guardian, Richard Godwin reported how babies’ data is recorded, by socks (yes socks!), amongst other things:
‘We can create information about how a baby’s doing in the home and then use that data to run machine-learning and build artificial intelligence. We’re starting to develop algorithms that can tell you the best time to put the baby down for a nap.’
So, it seems parental judgement could now be replaced by a reliance on the accuracy of an algorithm.
And social work is not immune: algorithms have been used in the United States to replace decision-making at point of contact. This raises many questions, including:
- do we record the right data;
- who owns the data and what consent is required;
- can/should it be used by third parties;
- how is it applied – to make the decision, or as a tool to reach a decision;
- is its design transparent;
- does it reinforce stereotypes of marginalised and vulnerable groups?
It is now time for the profession to take a very careful look at the application of technology to predict abuse. Indeed, just last month the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care sought partners to apply machine learning to social work records and proposed a debate on the ethics of it.
Personally, I do not think we want to replace social work judgement, any more than parental judgement, with a reliance on the (in-)accuracy of an algorithm.
But should we be alive to how technology can help create the time, space and even environment where that judgement can impact most effectively? Absolutely.
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Essential dates for the diary
I can’t be the only person walking around with a smile on my face, enjoying the longer days, seeing daffodils appear and generally enjoying the warmer weather.
The year is moving forward at a pace and today I had reason to look forward in my diary to make sure Our Big Day, Rochdale’s celebration event for our children in care, on 6 July was booked in. It’s that day of the year that makes my heart sing. I’m afraid it reduces me to a snivelling heap every year, relying on my Chief Executive’s tissue supply, who then snatches them back for his own use.
What caught my eye was that Our Big Day is preceded by the ADCS Annual Conference, another essential diary event, which takes place on 3 – 5 July. Truly a week to look forward to! Conference is something I prioritise every year since I first had the opportunity to attend back in 2007 and I always look forward to it, knowing the benefits I get from taking part. It makes me stop spinning plates for three days and gives me time to think and reflect on the challenges we face alongside others in a similar position - those who understand what my job feels like because they feel it too. It’s also a chance to learn from some amazing contributions that I wouldn’t otherwise come across (or have time to read about after a long day /cabinet /budget council meeting).
You may have heard local authority colleagues talking about the importance of sector-led improvement, working regionally, and cross regionally, to share learning and best practice so that our services are the very best they can be for children and families. Conference is an ideal time for this and creates opportunities to work with other people who I respect or those I have never previously met but am glad I did. It even provides time to talk with colleagues from other local authorities who we always mean to have that conversation with, but somehow never get around to.
Conference is open to all ADCS members but I know that some colleagues may choose not to attend and that’s a decision I respect. I recall during 2010/11 a number of colleagues felt that financial pressures meant that attendance was a thing of the past, something I considered myself at the time and reached the conclusion that it was something I couldn’t afford not to do, because the huge benefits from attending were not worth missing out on. It also caused me to ask a question about whether we know our worth? Don’t we advise others to prioritise their well-being and professional learning? Sadly, we don’t always apply the same for ourselves.
Those of us in senior leadership roles can be a commodity that struggles to last for any length of time. It occurs to me that if we want to be the best we can be in our respective roles, develop strong teams around us, get better at succession planning, understand what sits behind some of the issues and pressures we manage every day and help to deliver the best for our children and young people, we probably need to take time out occasionally. We need to reflect, to use the research that we advise our staff to use, to get a better understanding of what evidence tells us and to understand that in these challenging roles we are not in it on our own.
I recently had an interesting conversation with colleagues at an ADCS event about what we gained from attending conference. The striking point was that the colleagues I was talking to were from other parts of the country and people I would never have met, let alone worked with, had it not been for the fact that we met at conference. Those meet-ups created chances for us to build effective relationships, share ideas, offer peer review support, contribute and gain from policy opportunities, developing skills that helped us make career decisions. Importantly there is even the chance to spend time over a glass of red, putting the world to right, with some lovely people.
If you haven’t previously given conference a try, I can thoroughly recommend it. If you do come along, approach a complete stranger and have a chat. You never know where it could lead.
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12 Years with ADCS
This is my last blog as a member of the ADCS Council of Reference, as I’m standing down as Chair of the ADCS Associates Network at the end of March. I’m retiring from even part-time work and a couple of other appointments, including being the Chair of NCER. (“Finally!”, I hear some colleagues say, and “about time too!”) I’m retiring in large part for family reasons (three sons in Australia… don’t ask …) but more importantly I have come to the view that I’m increasingly grumpy and a ghost at the feast, too frequently tempted to say “We tried that in 200X and it didn’t work then, and it wont work now”, or sometimes, “Been there, done that, got the tee-shirt’. And of course, I haven’t been a serving director of children’s services (DCS) since 2009 – a long time ago!
The reality, of course, is that there are now very few people around who have shared the ADCS journey from that first cohort of DCSs back in 2005/6/7 when appointments were a matter of local chance – whether it was an ‘education’ person or a ‘social care’ person. Certainly, there is no-one now serving on the ADCS Council of Reference who was there in the very early days of the Association. So, I’m indulging myself with some reflections on the path that leads up to 2019, with Stuart Gallimore soon to hand over the Presidency to Rachel Dickinson.
Back in 2005, following the passage of the Children Act 2004 and the introduction of the requirement for local authorities to appoint a DCS, there was a flurry of local authority restructuring and associated appointments – I was appointed in July 2005, having been Director for Education and Lifelong Learning. It was obvious to us all that we needed to reconfigure the national associations, Confed, SCEO and ADSS, but it was by no means obvious how that should be achieved. Confed and ADSS were markedly different organisations, with different histories, structures and ways of working, and we spent several months discussing the problems without coming close to a consensus way forward. (Does that remind you of anything?) During the summer of 2006 progress was made, though, when both ‘sides’ appointed a small group of colleagues to reach an agreement on behalf of their parent organisations. I was part of that group as Confed Vice President and then, for a matter of a couple of months, President.
In the midst of everyone’s wildly different points of view, it struck me forcibly that what was needed was someone nerdy to draft a constitution and to mould it into a shape that was acceptable round the table. I volunteered to have a go, and while I was the author of the first constitution, I was very much the ‘hand that held the pen’, working to find acceptable compromises.
The whole thing crystallised in the late summer of 2006 at a summit meeting at the Hinckley Services on the M69, leading to the now-all-but-forgotten ‘Hinckley Accord’ that opened the way to the new organisations, ADCS and ADASS. The final piece of the jigsaw was that John Coughlan and I, who both might have been President of the new ADCS, decided that the common good dictated that we should together become Joint Presidents for the first year (actually, 15 months from 1 January 2007), with elections for single Presidents from year two. Looking back, I remain genuinely proud to have been part of the process that led to that first Constitution, which has proved robust and resilient, so that almost all the features we introduced then remain in place in 2019.
Having launched the new ADCS in January 2007, we were all then able to go back to the day job of improving outcomes for children, both in our local authorities and nationally. Looking back, again, there were many issues on which we debated long and hard with Department for Children, Schools and Families (now DfE) officials and Ed Balls, but on the whole it was a time of real dynamism and optimism, and of shared purpose. While much has changed, and structural tensions abound, alongside austerity across the public sector, ‘Every Child Matters’ and the notion of joined-up services still have enormous resonance. ADCS as an organisation, and ADCS members individually, have held the faith and provided outstanding professional leadership and advocacy for children, and, notwithstanding the huge financial pressures, local authorities have been well-led in making some of the most difficult policy and practice decisions there could be.
Over the years, I have been repeatedly struck by the changes in the detail of the debates within ADCS while the fundamentals have remained unchanged – “How do we do the best for our children?”.
I’m proud to have been part of ADCS from the very start, and offer my thanks to all past and present members, office holders, and staff who have made ADCS what it is. Thanks to you all, and best wishes for the future, especially to Rachel Dickinson!
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The importance of celebrating diversity
My name can be a bit of a give-away, and if your assumption was that I have a non-UK heritage you would be correct – but I do consider myself to be British, although not just British. Thankfully, I’m now rarely asked to provide my ‘Christian’ name and people generally no longer ask me where I come from either. But as a child and younger adult, questions and assumptions such as these had the consequence of making me feel somehow ‘other’ from the mainstream of society. As a child, I often didn’t feel like I really belonged and there were not many role models I could look up to who had a similar background to me – especially given that I am of dual heritage. When you don’t see your identity out there, and people casually assume that you’re not one of them, you start to seek identity elsewhere. For some that can lead to negative or destructive identities and this is something that concerns me as increasingly xenophobia appears to be more prevalent in popular media.
The racism that I experienced when I was younger – the National Front, the language of ‘half-caste’, golliwogs and ‘Mind your Language’ might have changed, but unfortunately bias and racism still exists and the experience of some of our citizens does worry me. Young Muslims for example, who can be made to feel as not legitimately British, may come to self-identify themselves as such. This cannot be right. Eighteen months ago in Brighton & Hove we published a Serious Case Review following the deaths of two young brothers and their friend in Syria. Amongst other things this identified historic racism that together with the trauma of long-term domestic abuse contributed to the boys feeling unconnected with their local community. This review was a warning to the city, but cases like this must serve as a wider warning to our country as a whole that we need to celebrate diversity, be more inclusive of difference and more aware of the trauma that some of our young people might have experienced. We also need to be better at reaching out.
As a director of children’s services I don’t have the power to change society but I do have the advantage of being able to address some of the symptoms. I’m pleased that in Brighton & Hove we still have an ethnic minority achievement service that is bought back by most of our schools and is able to provide both initial support to children and families and on-going advice and support to schools. This team is particularly helpful in supporting some of our refugee families.
Local authorities are working hard to recruit a workforce that reflects the communities they serve, however, our social workers are mainly White British, yet they are increasingly working with more minority ethnic children, young people and families. The risk of unconscious bias increases and so, in Brighton and Hove, we are about to carry out a thematic audit to ensure that, if this does happen, such cases are appropriately managed.
I’m really pleased with the growing diversity of the city, but I recognise that our staff do not yet fully reflect this. We are therefore trying to be creative in how we can both attract a more diverse workforce and also support minority ethic staff to reach more senior positions. Unfortunately, at a senior level in the Council we don’t have enough minority ethnic managers and leaders, or enough minority ethnic directors of children’s services across the country. We need to take collective responsibility to address this, because it is the right thing to do, to avoid losing talent and to ensure that children today who might consider themselves ‘other’ can find the role models they need to help them to find their place in our society.
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And the answer is?!
Since my last blog, the National Audit Office (NAO) published its report Pressures on Children’s Social Care. It’s yet another report that illustrates what we already know with regards to the increasing pressures facing children and families and children’s services across the country.
Crucially, the report found no correlation between local authority spend and a positive Ofsted judgement which implies that the DfE’s policy making is not underpinned by evidence. We absolutely need more funding so that all children and families are given the help and support that they need but with local authority budgets cut in half we are continuously being pushed to make savings, yet many of the factors fuelling the need for our help are outside of our control. The NAO’s analysis suggests that local authority characteristics may account for 44% of the variation between different local authorities over time in how we respond to demand. Different levels of deprivation could explain 15% of the variation and 10% may be accounted for by changes which affect all local authorities equally, such as legislative changes. The report also points out that the relevant characteristics of local authorities and their areas account for the greatest cause in variation. These characteristics include custom and practice in children’s social care, local market conditions and historical patterns of demand. Taken together, the breadth of variation reduces significantly. When I look at the succession of reports on my desk all pointing to the chronic under-funding of children’s services, despite the valiant efforts of local politicians to protect them, you begin to wonder whether the need for more resources isn’t just an inconvenient truth at a time of significant economic uncertainty. I certainly hope this is the case otherwise the only alternative is wilful blindness.
The NAO recommends that the DfE promptly improves its understanding of children’s social care and builds on their research to help explain demand and local variations. Clearly, as an Association, we will provide whatever assistance we can but I do wonder how often we need to identify the impacts of austerity, rising child poverty, deprivation and the increasing prevalence of domestic abuse, substance misuse, poor parental mental health as well as the growth and complexity of contextual safeguarding. Added to this is the growth in demand for services to support children with special educational needs and disabilities. Whilst the one off sums of money for social care were welcome in the budget announcement last autumn (for my own authority it has meant we can delay cuts to early help and safeguarding services for 12 months!) these one off sums and time limited funding pots are not a solution to the crisis we face. Only through changes to national policy, so that children and families are prioritised, will we begin to see a reverse in the trend of rising demand for children’s services. In England, we’re the only country in the UK without a national child poverty reduction strategy yet this would be an ideal starting point. Until central government faces up to the need for action, outcomes for children and families will get worse, not better, and that cannot be right.
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Reflections on a year in intervention
To all those colleagues who have worked or are currently working in authorities judged Inadequate by Ofsted, I salute you! It’s a tough place to be, requiring bags of resilience and a steady nerve under relentless scrutiny. All Directors of Children’s Services (DCSs), irrespective of their Ofsted judgement, are wholly committed to improving the lives of all the children and families that they are responsible for and we know how demanding a job this can be. Having recently completed my first interim role and my first time working in intervention, I experienced both the challenges and rewards that this can bring.
One of the first questions I was keen to find an answer to was whether things were as bad as Ofsted had judged them – and my experience was to find that the answer was both yes and no.
Yes, in that although I thought I knew what I was getting into, I was still pretty shocked at the extent to which poor standards had become entrenched, so that in some ways there was almost an acceptance of this and an attitude of “what can you do?” When I asked a very experienced DCS to come and spend a day observing and talking to staff to get another view, I asked him at the end of the day what had bothered him the most. He thought long and hard before giving the answer that it was the strong sense of learned helplessness that he encountered.
No, in that there had always been areas of service that had remained effective and well-functioning and there had always been some outstanding practice and practitioners, though that can all get forgotten. And no, in that the fundamental problems did not lie with the quality of frontline staff, it was just that they had not had the experience of a culture that was focused upon practice and getting the basics right, nor of an environment which enabled them to practice effectively. A sustained period of austerity and a 50% reduction in LA budgets only exacerbates these problems and impacts the staff directly. The large majority of staff that were there when things hit rock bottom will be the same staff who return things to an effective service and beyond. Not just my lesson, but one shared by others who have been on this journey, not least in Rotherham and Doncaster. These are skilful and committed staff, and boy do we need that commitment as we set about re-building. The challenge was to ensure we were all focused on doing the right things for children and families, and to ensure that we had the right people to be able to deliver this.
Probably the most immediate leadership that I brought to bear was in re-setting the priorities in a completely re-written improvement plan. This involved an intense rapid process of consultation with staff and then setting the focus on practice, on supervision and on caseloads.
Retaining and recruiting the right people proved to be the biggest challenge and one of the common handicaps that a poor Ofsted judgement delivers. Whilst the overall staff group was reasonably stable, this was not true of our frontline child protection teams where social work turnover was very high, and the same was true for leadership and management roles. That meant two rounds of senior recruitment, for a new interim team to accelerate the pace of improvement, and then a permanent leadership team to provide continuity and take on the next chapter of improvement.
The watchers sure take up a huge amount of time! And that’s a DCS’s job to deal with so that the service has the space to get on with the important stuff. Improvement Board, DfE, DfE Intervention Advisor, Ofsted, improvement partners – all on top of the heightened scrutiny of progress from Leader, Lead Member, Cabinet, all members, Chief Executive, corporate colleagues, and senior partners. Restoring the confidence of all these stakeholders, that we knew what we were doing, was a key task but inevitably takes you away as DCS from the actual doing of improvement. This can all feel pretty imbalanced though, and I do think that one flaw of the crude headline judgements applied by Ofsted is this overload, and that so much of that changes on the magical day when the world jumps from Inadequate to Requires Improvement (or even Good…).
Ah yes, Ofsted… Whilst my experience of our working relationships with the Ofsted team was positive, I do think that their approach to intervention is problematic in a couple of respects. The first is that every quarterly monitoring visit is experienced as a mini-inspection and so the demands of this can feel relentless and not always helpful; and the second is that there is a mis-match between the wider world’s interpretation of the outcome of each visit as a key measure of overall progress, and Ofsted’s insistence that the visit is only giving a comment on the narrow area of service it is looking at.
Personally, I found the year hugely rewarding, for all the challenges, and a chance to make a real difference. Upon reflection perhaps the most important thing that we were working to develop was the culture. To move away from an exclusive focus on process and KPIs to concentrating upon relationship-based practice and quality; to move away from a punitive and directive approach to poor practice and improvement, to an approach characterised by motivation, encouragement and learning; to move away from a risk averse and decision averse approach to one of confidence in managing risk and taking responsibility. And always, always to celebrate success, achievement and commitment.
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We must not lose sight of children
This week the government published its Domestic Abuse Bill and a suite of related documents. The Bill has been described as a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to tackle the devastating and lifelong impact that domestic abuse can have on victims and their children. I absolutely welcome the government’s focus on this area, however, there needs to be much greater attention on preventing abuse from happening in the first place given its huge human, and financial, costs. Recent research from the Home Office estimates that domestic abuse cost the nation at least £66 billion in the year ending 31 March 2017, of which £47 billion related to the physical and emotional harms incurred by victims. This is likely to be an underestimate.
Domestic abuse can happen to anyone, anywhere. Both men and women can be victims or perpetrators and it can be fatal. It’s also the most common factor in situations where children are at serious risk of harm today. It’s estimated that upward of two million people, aged between 16–59, were victims of domestic abuse last year in England and Wales and around three or four million children and young people have been exposed to at least some form of domestic abuse in their lives. I repeat, three or four million children and young people. We should not accept this reality for any child or young person yet all too often we see domestic abuse cited as a primary reason for referrals to children’s social care.
So, what more can we as a nation do to support children and young people who are victims of domestic abuse and prevent it from happening in the first place? Seeing the issue through the eyes of children and young people is crucial and making sure they can easily access emotional, psychological or practical support when and where they need it is important. But we cannot overlook the impact of nine years of austerity on the work that councils and their partners do to keep children safe from harm. The recent joint targeted area inspections on children living with domestic abuse found much good work is being done by local authorities and their partners across the country to protect children and victims, but the huge scale of the issue means that we have no choice but to focus our limited resources on those who are at immediate risk of harm, at which point the damage has often already been done.
The Domestic Abuse Bill is a welcome start but we need more action and, crucially, investment to enable local authorities and their partners to effectively prevent this abuse from occurring and to repair the damage that it does. I worry that the government still doesn’t appreciate the importance of early help services in preventing domestic abuse from affecting millions of victims each year. The introduction of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner is an encouraging start, but can one person really have enough influence over the many government departments involved in responding to this issue?
Domestic abuse is a crime that has more repeat victims than any other and preventing this cycle is key. Resources must be put into identifying and working with children and families at risk at the earliest possible opportunity if we are to truly tackle this crime and we must not lose sight of children.
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Other people’s children
It looks like it’s going to be a busy period for the ADCS Standards, Performance & Inspection (SPI) Policy Committee. Just before Christmas, Ofsted announced their new themes for Joint Targeted Area Inspections (JTAI). These themes, in case you missed them, are going to be early help and prevention, children’s mental health and contextual safeguarding. On January 16th Ofsted also launched a consultation on the new draft inspection framework for schools.
When considering the upcoming JTAIs, you might think that I’d be pretty jaundiced about such inspections given my role as Chair of the SPI committee and being the DCS for two local authorities giving me double doses of inspection joy. In reality I actually welcome these new inspections and I will tell you why.
Firstly, and most importantly, these inspections focus on the whole system for children (remember that language? No-one has yet revoked the Children Act 2004) although I might take issue with the ‘whole’ bit. By focusing on how organisations work together to protect children, inspectors can get much closer, in my view, to the lived experiences of children in an area. The JTAI thematic reports that Ofsted have produced thus far have been compelling in national policy terms. Ofsted’s focus on the ‘gaps in between’ services is really important and, crucially, as system leaders it gives us leverage with our partners in the police, health services and other agencies to ensure that we close those gaps. Too often, vulnerable children are still ‘other people’s children’ until the point at which they reach the threshold for children’s social care services when they are well and truly ours.
I really want to hear what the inspectorates say about the totality of early help services and mental health provision. Around the country, early help services are being pared back as funding grows ever tighter. A national perspective from the inspectorates on what we are losing might well be helpful. Equally, children’s mental health services have not benefited from the fragmentation and apparent isolation of such services. I hope that the inspectorates will look closely at the interplay between children with mental health difficulties and the rising number of children in care. In my experience, children’s social care services too often have to pick up the pieces when children have ‘no diagnosable mental health’ problems so they end up becoming ‘other people’s children’ again.
So it is exactly right that inspectorates should be looking at the gaps in between services, which brings me on to the new schools inspection framework. Schools are hugely influential to children’s lives and arguably even more influential to the lives of vulnerable children. Yet when I hear of schools being graded as ‘outstanding’ when they have off-rolled 19 pupils (18 of whom were on free school meals), inviting them all to be electively home educated; or when I hear of the schools graded as ‘good’ who are giving out hundreds of fixed-term exclusions per term, I despair. These, of course, are obviously ‘other people’s children’ to worry about. They will be the children who are most vulnerable to contextual safeguarding issues, require early help and will be more likely to experience poor emotional wellbeing.
Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, assured us during a recent speech that such actions will be taken into account in future inspections and poor behaviour in this regard could lead to schools being downgraded. I welcome this focus on inclusion, exclusions and off-rolling but I worry that the gaps in home education legislation means that Ofsted’s plans do not yet fully close that loophole in terms of families being ‘encouraged’ to home educate as a means of avoiding a permanent exclusion. That home education is a positive choice for some children and families is not in dispute and finding evidence of coercive practices can be very tricky, however, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t explore ways together to ensure that schools who do so are held to account for their actions. I wonder if a conversation with the local authority to triangulate what inspectors are being told would be useful if concerns about the numbers of pupils out of school or leaving the school roll in-year arise? I also wonder whether there is more that the new framework could do to enshrine the principle that schools are a part of the whole system for children in terms of their role in early help, for example? As a sector, we really need to get behind this joined up approach to inspection and I encourage all of our members to contribute, through your regional representatives, to the Association’s written response to this consultation, it’s vital that we are able to reflect the sector’s views.
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Reflection, recognition and reward
The turn of the New Year is a time for many to look back at the previous year and also to look ahead to future challenges. I’ve been considering this recently, whilst thinking about the complexity of working with children, young people and families, and how it’s possible to develop a culture where we put as much emphasis on celebrating good practice and achievement as we do on committing to learning from mistakes.
No-one working in children’s services does it for the reward and recognition. There are many more people working tirelessly for children, young people and families than could ever be given an award, but the reality is, like most parts of our strained public services, the safety, wellbeing and outcomes for our children depend on people going over and above the call of duty, day after day, for little or no reward. It’s our job as leaders to ensure that we recognise and acknowledge this.
That’s why I was personally delighted to see some recognition in the New Year’s Honours list for colleagues who have made an immense contribution to services and outcomes for children. Not because they are the only people worthy of such accolades, but because it is a recognition of the skill, bravery and commitment of all those who strive to safeguard, support, and promote the wellbeing of children, young people and families up and down the country.
None of us get it right all of the time. The work we do is complex, unrelenting and challenging and it is only getting more so. Our frontline practitioners make important decisions every day, many of which have to be taken without perfect knowledge and which rely on their judgement and experience. We make mistakes because we are human but our role as leaders is surely to promote the right sort of positive error culture, which means we reflect, learn, highlight good practice and create the right conditions for good decisions to be taken.
I think there are four parts to this:
- Firstly, accepting that mistakes will be made and that we reflect and learn from them. We should create a culture of learning and support that enables our skilled, committed professionals to work our families
- Secondly, taking more time to recognise and highlight good practice, focus more on good outcomes and learn from these, just as much as we do when things don’t go well
- Thirdly, rewarding those professionals across all of our services who do outstanding work. For many, this will not be receipt of an award, (and some would not want this at all) but it might be a word of thanks or a note of appreciation to acknowledge a job well done
- Fourthly, ensuring the right support and tools are there – the systems, the extra support, the forms, the ICT – to enable our skilled and committed workforce to continually improve and ensure they are able to spend more time where they can make the most difference working with the families who need our help and support.
As we embark on what will undoubtedly be another extremely challenging year, it is more important than ever that we continue to recognise our role in using the power of reflection, recognition and reward as part of our commitment to building a workforce fit for a country that works for all children, young people and families.
That’s a resolution I hope we can all make.
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New Year’s Resolutions
I would like to wish you all a very happy New Year after what I hope was a rejuvenating Christmas break. Many of you will have kept up with the tradition of choosing a New Year’s resolution whether it be getting back into the gym or taking time to read that book that’s been sitting collecting dust. As an Association we will continue to call for a country that works for all children whilst ensuring that children and young people remain at the forefront of all that we do.
Reflecting on 2018 there is much to be proud of – ADCS has published and been involved in some great work, none of which would be possible without the wealth of knowledge and experience from our members. Much of this work is achieved through the hard work of the ADCS policy committees who are the focus of my blog today. (I would encourage any of our members who have not signed up to one of our six committees to do so in time for the first round of the meetings beginning later this month.)
The committees have supported and contributed to a wide range of projects to help influence the national policy agenda. The chance to meet with colleagues from across the country, away from the busy office, to discuss the pressing issues of the day is invaluable and these committee meetings provide just that opportunity. People often remind me of the unique help and support they get from the sharing of best practice with other local authorities or the opportunity to directly engage with various government departments, Ofsted and other stakeholders. The chance to do this seems too good to pass up!
Last year, the Educational Achievement Policy Committee led on our Elective Home Education Survey while the Workforce Development Policy Committee recently contributed to the development of four new children, young people and families apprenticeships. There are of course many other brilliant pieces of work that I haven’t mentioned that have been completed across all of the committees and I urge you to take some time to look through the ADCS website at some of these other achievements. It is through having as many members as possible engaging with our committees that we can keep making our voices heard across government and It’s also a great way to ensure that the views and experiences of your local authority are captured in our work.
Already, 2019 promises to be a challenging year for children’s services. Many of these, such as a lack of funding or long-term planning for the sector, remain the same and uncertainties around the impact of Brexit on children and young people will bring new challenges. The collective voice of ADCS will be hugely important during this time and already the first round of committee meetings will be tackling some of these issues with representatives from the DfE coming to talk to our Educational Achievement and Resources & Sustainability policy committees about SEND funding pressures as well as ISOS coming to speak about their latest research in this area. Committees will also be focusing on dealing with shortages of secure placements for children and young people as well as a new policy position paper on building a workforce that works for all children that is being led by the Workforce Development Policy Committee.
For me, 2019 poses as many opportunities as it does challenges and the ADCS policy committees will continue to represent our members to help improve the lives of the most vulnerable children and young people. So, if you’re already an ADCS member, I urge you get involved in a committee and add your expertise to what is sure to be a hugely important year for children’s services.
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A year of successes and challenges
Firstly, can I start by wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and all the best for the New Year. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all of our members and everyone involved in the work of the ADCS. Our amazing staff team, those who chair and attend our policy committees, members of our Council of Reference and Board of Directors and all those who work tirelessly in the regions; your work and contribution to the life of the ADCS is greatly appreciated and without it the Association would be a pale imitation of what it is. The greater people’s involvement, the greater our reach and influence becomes. I guess it is inevitable at this time of year to reflect on what has gone before and what’s to come and although it’s a season of hope, it also helps to travel with a big sense of realism.
One of the joys of this year has been visiting the regions and looking at the enthusiasm and drive that is being put behind Regional Improvement Alliances (RIAs). As we have moved through the shadow year we have grappled with some knotty issues but I feel that we are in a good place before we come together to review progress at our Policy Seminar in February. At the end of the day, RIAs will be rightly judged by the difference they make to the lives of children and their families up and down the land, but the early signs are encouraging.
The other big issue we have kept returning to is that of the money and this will continue to follow us into the New Year. As an Association we have been clear in stating there is simply not enough in the system to meet the level of need in our communities that we are having to respond to. The Safeguarding Pressures Phase 6 report was a stark reminder of this which showed significant increases in activity at a time of rising child poverty. I am often left wondering, what do families crammed together in Bed and Breakfast accommodation, reliant on their local food bank, make of the Christmas adverts on TV? I fear the reaction is too often to increase levels of household debt so that it isn’t their child that feels they are missing out. It is for these reasons we will continue to campaign for sustainable funding now and into the New Year and champion the needs of children.
I am not sure we have got any closer to our policy aim of this being a country that works for all children but it remains an ambition we will continue to pursue and, with your continued help and support, one I sincerely hope we will achieve.
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Biggest reforms in a generation or the nail in the coffin for a...
Having recently had our Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) provision inspected by the Care Quality Commission and Ofsted, and received a report to be proud of, I thought I would reflect on whether the “biggest education reforms in a generation for young people with special educational needs” have really met the aspirations of children and young people or whether, in reality, they are falling considerably short.
I recall, a few years ago, talking to parents who were optimistic about the future. They were excited by the prospect of a system which provides them and their child with a stronger voice, a focus on long-term outcomes, closer co-operation between education, health and social care, the option of a personal budget and a clear description of services in the local area – exactly what was needed!
Schools, local authorities and health providers also shared this optimism. They were delighted to see an emphasis on greater collaboration, a Local Offer setting out all multi-agency and community services available for families and the opportunity for more parental control. However, the reality is far from the rhetoric.
A report by SQW on the impact of the reforms concluded that, although a reduction in the level of dissatisfaction has been sustained, this has not been accompanied by an increase in overall parental satisfaction, which is where I am most disappointed.
So, what has been the impact? Unsurprisingly, we have seen a significant rise in demand pressures:
- The number of children and young people with education, health and care plans has increased by at least 35 per cent in five years
- The number of children and young people educated in special schools and specialist colleges has risen by at least 24 per cent during the same period
- Rather shockingly, children with SEND account for half of all permanent exclusions despite representing only 14 per cent of the school population. Further, of the children in pupil referral units, over three quarters have SEND
- The number of pupils identified as needing SEN Support (formerly School Action and School Action Plus) has steadily fallen – this may be because school staff are getting better at intervening early to help pupils ‘catch up’ with their peers, but it is possible that there is an underestimation of needs and that some pupils are not benefiting from SEN Support early with needs escalating and pupils disengaging from education.
So why haven’t the reforms delivered? Was the context understood? Were the solutions impractical? I suppose when you extend the age limit for statutory support from 0 to 25, and when medical advances mean that more children with complex needs are thriving, the reforms and the financial impact assessment appear to have missed the bigger picture. I fear that the changes to a system which was considered by government to be too “bureaucratic, bewildering and adversarial” have not met its expectations and I argue strongly that this is not due to local leadership or lack of local ambition, but due to a chronic lack of investment, a focus on the wrong things and a naivety about the bigger context.
The financial position is close to ‘imploding’ according to evidence given by Dave Hill (Director of Children’s Services at Surrey County Council) to the Education Select Committee and I couldn’t agree more. Recent reports indicate that more than half of local authorities are reporting a deficit in their SEND budget which could translate to a national deficit of £536 million, compared to the projected national deficit of £267 million in 2017/18. This reinforces to me that it is not a local leadership challenge and instead requires urgent national action. However, this is not just a challenge for the Department for Education (DfE); the Department of Health (DoH) must appreciate that its current Continuing Healthcare framework is woefully inadequate to drive forward integration.
The other area where progress appears to have been limited is the use of the Local Offer. Many inspections of SEND provision are critical of local areas for not doing enough to promote this, but I don’t believe that signposting is enough on its own and to even think that a local offer would be the only solution fails to comprehend the various and complex needs of families. The focus is on the wrong solution.
Finally, I challenge the concept that personal budgets would be the best mechanism to give parents a voice. The market of service and support provision has been slow to adapt to the shift from a supply-led to a demand-led model, and many parents tell me that they don’t want to be responsible for finding and overseeing services. It may work for some, but for others, their lives are complex and busy enough.
So, if I had three wishes, I would ask for a focus on the following issues:
- Funding which meets the ambition of the reforms across health, care and education - this will need not only a response from DfE but a commitment from DoH to review the Continuing Healthcare assessment framework
- Workforce development so the whole children’s workforce is sufficiently prepared to support children with SEND needs
- An inclusive education system where the enhanced needs of children with SEND are cherished.
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Being important in the life of a child
“One hundred years from now, it will not matter what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, how much I had in my bank account, nor what my clothes looked like. What matters is the world may be a little better because I was important in the life of a child” – Forest E Witcraft.
I should start by saying that my mum has agreed that I can share her story, which she insists is one of hope, and happiness. My mum, who is nearly 80 now, spent most of her childhood in hospitals and the care system. The quote above is the opening to her unpublished book and it reminds me why our work is so important. When born, she was diagnosed with Talipes Equinovarus a deformity of the feet, often leaving the forefoot turning inwards. It occurs in one in 1,000 births and thankfully nowadays, in most cases, treatment is non-invasive. However, for my mum, her early years were marked by years of pain, immobility and successive surgical operations, which included two years spent in hospital receiving treatment. She lived in abject poverty and was removed from her mother due to neglect at the age of seven. She therefore didn’t have the best start in life. Having the best start in life is often a statement we all use in our strategic plans and in our care system. In my mum’s case she couldn’t walk, had made limited progress in communication and spent an enormous amount of time trying to bond with people. Fortunately, we now have systems in place to ‘catch people’; the role of our early years services and working with our partners is critical during these early stages, particularly in spotting communication and functional deficiencies and working with families to support them. When working with children with disabilities and their families, building emotional health and well-being should be at the core of what we do.
My mum’s life changed when she entered residential care, she said she felt safe and secure, people cared for her and she experienced her first ‘family’ experience and personal bonds, living with 90 other girls and 120 boys (who were in another part of the grounds!) My mum said that the care home worked hard on her communication skills and relationship building and although it was a ‘strict’ regime it was also ‘character building’ and a very happy time in her life. I was therefore struck by the words of Junior Stringer, a care leaver who recently spoke at the National Children and Adult Services Conference last month. He finished his presentation by saying that giving children a positive experience in residential care is essential.
Whilst the majority of children in care are placed in foster care, residential care is the right placement option for some children and young people and it was a positive part of my mum’s life. In his review of residential care, Sir Martin Narey recognised the generally good quality of care provided by many children’s homes across the country and some outstanding practice and we should acknowledge the significant part that skilled and dedicated staff can play in a child’s development.
My mum was eventually fostered and then adopted in her later teenage years. These family environments enabled her to develop trust in adults, built her confidence, and developed self-belief in who she was as a person. It prepared her for the next stage in her life and enabled her to become an accomplished business woman, a fantastic mother and the happy person she is today.
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Celebrating children in our care
I recently had the pleasure of attending our Herts Awards, organised by the Virtual School for the children and young people in our care. There were over 600 entries, the highest number since the awards began 15 years ago. I don’t think anyone could attend one of these fantastic events without experiencing a full range of emotions from excitement for the children and young people for their achievements, anxiety that they might trip as they race onto the stage to sheer joy at how proud our children are to achieve and receive their well-deserved awards. A foster carer on my table told me how he can hardly wait at this time of year to see if an envelope drops through their door with an invitation for the young person in their care - this year she received a gold award and everything was brilliantly captured on video. The event was made all the more special as a whole range of children’s services staff and councillors helped out ensuring that it ran smoothly and, most importantly, that the children and young people had fun. What I take away from events like these is the important emphasis on what children in care can do… rather than what they can’t.
And it’s those last few words that I want to pick up on for this blog and the inspiration behind an essay contributed to by Kelly, Jemima and Tory from Hertfordshire, ‘Are We Valuing Care’ (a collection of essays, published by iMPOWER, on children’s services). How often do we hear about, and indeed contribute to, the negative perceptions of those children and young people in care? Unfortunately, we often hear about “poor” educational outcomes, “poor” career prospects, “over” representation in this area and that area, and our Children in Care Council and care leavers group have articulated how it feels to think that you may be one of those statistics. A young woman once described to me her emotions when a social work lecturer, talked about the poor outcomes for care leavers.
Herts’s young people in care are challenging us to take their Project Positive approach, to stop quoting and reinforcing statistics and speak confidently about how young people in care can achieve their goals and should “not be defined by what happened to them”. (It also makes you reflect on the current emphasis on adverse childhood experiences but that’s for another blog.) I know there are similar projects happening across other local authorities and through social media, care leavers are increasingly celebrating the whole range of their achievements. In fact, we heard from two impressive young ladies on this topic from the City of York Children in Care Council at the ADCS conference earlier this year. And many of you will have watched Superkids: Breaking Away from Care earlier this week if you haven’t make sure you do. It showed the strength of several superkids and their achievements as they expressed their experiences of care through poetry – at the end they read their poems in front of a packed audience on stage at the Belgrade Theatre.
So let’s celebrate success, strength and bravery throughout the year, campaign and change perceptions – this is what being a Corporate Parent is really about!
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What have you done to make you feel proud?
Since becoming a Director of Children’s Services in May 2010, I’ve never known a time when we haven’t had to make difficult decisions due to budget cuts and rising need for our help. Working in a relatively low-funded local authority means that we have had to ‘transform’ our services on a regular basis, and as the Revenue Support Grant has dwindled we have had to become ever more skilful at chasing opportunities to bid for short term, time limited pots of money from here, there and everywhere. However, there still isn’t enough money in the system. It is true that out of adversity comes opportunity - our staff take chances, put themselves out there and as a result we have some brilliant ‘supporters’ from people working in academia and charities, as well as the invaluable work from Research in Practice, who go the extra mile to help us become the best we can be. Their enthusiasm and respect for what we’re striving to achieve sustains us when the going gets tough - especially when we get positive tweets!
In North Somerset, we are very fortunate to have Dr Karen Treisman working with us again on developing our trauma informed and trauma responsive system. I found the first day both affirming and painful. Affirming because when listening to my colleagues around me, I felt proud to be able to play a part in creating the conditions for them to work sensitively with children and their families from a strengths based perspective. But it’s also painful to hear about children’s trauma, how we can sometimes retraumatise them, albeit unintentionally, and then to reflect on the fact that the environment in which we practice grows ever more challenging, as budgets reduce and need increases.
Through ADCS we continue to highlight the very real pressures that children’s services and, crucially, children and families themselves face and the need for sustainable and equitable long-term investment in children. We want a country that works for all children, one that recognises the importance of investing in them and their families because it’s the right thing to do, sadly, I don’t see much evidence that things are going to change any time soon at a national level. Back in North Somerset, on our journey to becoming a trauma informed and trauma responsive organisation, it’s likely to be an intricate, testing process but because we all believe it’s the right thing to pursue for our children and families, we’ll do it and I thank Karen Treisman and my colleagues for bringing us the opportunity.
“When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” (Alexander Den Heijer). Because we’re committed to achieving better outcomes for our children and families we’ll never give up trying, despite all of the challenges – it’s what they deserve.
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NCASC 2018 Round-up
The National Children and Adult Services Conference 2018 opened on Wednesday 14 November in Manchester with speeches from ADASS President Glen Garrod, ADCS President Stuart Gallimore and Councillors Antoinette Bramble and Ian Hudspeth from the LGA.
In his opening speech to the conference, Stuart spoke about how the story of Graham Gaskin has inspired him throughout his career in doing his upmost for all children and young people. He went on to speak about the increasing pressures on children’s services and highlighted evidence from the Safeguarding Pressures Phase 6 report, published last week, which shows how significant increases in initial contacts and referrals made to children’s social care over the past decade and rising levels of poverty have impacted on services. Stuart went on to talk about last month’s autumn budget announcement and the funding allocated to children’s services. While he welcomed the acknowledgement that more funding is needed, he stressed the need for long-term, sustainable funding to support the sector as a whole so that children receive high quality services at the earliest possible opportunity, such as early help services which support children and families with complex problems that require long-term responses. Finally, and in bringing his speech to an uplifting finish, Stuart spoke about the brilliant job that children’s services are doing despite these challenges and our need to be both the conscience and the ‘noisy neighbours’ of central government.
Conference delegates were kept busy in sessions that ran throughout the morning and into the afternoon. In an interesting session that morning, Amanda Spielman (HMCI) and Yvette Stanley from Ofsted, spoke about new inspection frameworks for schools and local authorities. Amanda Spielman’s speech can be found here. During the session, Amanda spoke about missing children and the threat of county lines before announcing the publication of the findings from Ofsted’s most recent joint targeted area inspection into children who are criminally exploited. Later that day, in a very informative session about child poverty, president Stuart Gallimore spoke about the rising numbers of children living in poverty, many of whom in working households, and the challenges this presents to local authorities. We also heard from Lucy Butler from Oxfordshire County Council about tackling sexual abuse and exploitation. Throughout the afternoon, delegates were able to choose from a variety of workshops such as understanding youth outcomes, integrating children’s services and supporting those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) where research commissioned by the LGA and delivered by ISOS on developing an effective local SEND system was published.
On Thursday morning, delegates chose from another diverse range of workshops including a particularly interesting session on contextual safeguarding across transitions, the role of Performance and Quality Assurance in social work, as well as hearing from Donna Malloy from the Early Intervention Foundation about the importance of offering support earlier. Leading into the afternoon, there were engaging sessions on tackling criminal exploitation and gangs, and the National Transfer Scheme for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and the funding challenges that local authorities face. Later in the day, Stuart Carlton spoke about North Yorkshire’s ‘No Wrong Door’ programme before we heard from Junior, a care leaver from North Tyneside, who sits on the What Works Centre’s Children and Young People’s Panel, about the need to work with families at the earliest opportunity.
ADCS also published the 2018 Elective Home Education Survey on Thursday. This is the third consecutive year of the survey and approximately two thirds of local authorities provided data on the growing number of children and young people known to be home schooled. The report estimates that nearly 80,000 were known to be home schooled at any one point during with 2017/18 academic year, and you can read the full report here.
In the afternoon, the Minister of State for Children and Families, Nadhim Zahawi, addressed the conference and spoke about working closely with the sector and announced the opening of the bidding window for the early outcomes fund for local authorities in improving early language outcomes. Finally, Carol Brookes presented the findings of the Safeguarding Pressures Phase 6 report. The longitudinal study compares ten years’ worth of data showing the growing demands in children’s services. Carol thanked the 140 local authorities who took part in the survey, covering 95% of England’s child population. The day ended with a series of fringe meetings followed by the annual Guardian quiz. The ADCS team looked to defend our crown as last year’s champions and, despite a valiant effort, we finished in a respectable fourth place.
A variety of sessions ran throughout the final morning of the conference which included creating a continuous improvement environment for Children’s Social Care as well as modernising adoption and supporting Special Guardians.
In the afternoon, we heard from Matt Dunkley, Chair of the Resources and Sustainability Policy Committee, in a session about children’s services funding. Matt spoke about the many and complex pressures impacting on children’s services and the difficult choices that local authorities are having to make in meeting rising demand with a lack of adequate funding available. In the final plenary session of the day, The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, addressed the conference and spoke about the importance place and public services working closely together to help their communities while keeping people at the heart of what we do.
There was lots of Twitter activity over the last three days. Search #NCASC18 or see @ADCStweets for a summary of events.
Speeches and presentations from the event will be posted onto the conference website and shared via the ADCS bulletin when available. Here’s to what has been, yet again, another enjoyable conference. We hope to see you all again next year for plenty more interesting discussion and debate in Bournemouth.
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Making a difference
Listening to reports of yet more serious youth violence in the last few days and feeling sick to my core at the tragic and senseless loss of young life, and the devastation of family, friends and communities, I reflected on the continued challenges we face in trying to make a difference to the lives of families in increasingly difficult circumstances. Whilst last week’s Budget provided something for children’s services, it did not go far enough as children’s and adult services remain woefully underfunded. With responsibility for both of these services in Salford City Council, I find this hugely concerning, as do colleagues across the country. By failing to invest in children, particularly the most vulnerable, I wonder what message they are receiving about their value to society and to us all?
We increasingly know what works; relationship-based practice focused on strengths and personalised support, but with an understanding of the impact of trauma and the distress that lies behind so much of the challenging behaviour we see, to enable people to grow and recover. It takes time, commitment, skilled people and of course money!
Although our evidence base of what works is growing, without properly funded children’s services that help children and their families earlier before they reach crisis point, our capacity to deliver is shrinking while levels of need are increasing. There is no shortage of commitment in local authorities to do our best for children and families and we will continue to find ever more creative ways to ensure that the voices of the most vulnerable are heard, in a way that makes an impact and delivers resources as an investment for the future. Headline figures from the latest phase of ADCS Safeguarding Pressures research provides us with yet more compelling evidence of the increasing pressures on children’s services. Over the past ten years we have seen a surge in demand; the number of initial contacts made to children’s social care has increased by 78%, referrals by 22% and the number of children in care by 24%. The report highlights the desperate need of so many children in our country and the increasingly complex world of safeguarding. This reinforces the need to provide those skilled services that we lead with enough resources and support so that we can provide a range of high quality, safe services that support children and their families earlier. It makes sense to invest in children now, they are the adults of tomorrow.
Despite these difficult times, I am often reminded of what a privilege it is to have the opportunity to be a director of children’s services and see lives change for the better. (I would say it’s one of the best jobs in the public sector). We, like so many of the families we serve, have developed resilience in the face of adversity by working together, learning together and supporting each other. Amongst the staff in our services there is a clear passion for making a difference which will continue to thrive. At the Greater Manchester Care Leavers Award ceremony a few weeks ago, I witnessed the determination and pride of so many care leavers from ten authorities, achieving great things and overcoming adversity because of the support they have had to help them to grow and believe in themselves. Whatever else we do in these next few weeks, let all of us take some time to read the latest Safeguarding Pressures research, if you haven’t already. Let us get the needs of children, families, and the services that help and protect them, high on the priority list, locally, regionally and nationally. Together we can make an even bigger difference as we strive for a country that works for all children.
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Budgeting for the long-term
Local authorities are ambitious about improving outcomes for children but our ability to do this is being compromised by a 50% reduction in our budgets since 2010 whilst at the same time more children and families are in need of help with increasingly complex needs. We also estimate that over 100 new statutory duties have been placed on local authorities since 2011, many of which are woefully underfunded. No one can underestimate how hard we have worked to minimise the impact of cuts on children and their families by reshaping and remodelling services and making efficiencies but cuts to vital, preventative services that keep children and families together and prevent future demand have had to be made. This is not in children’s best interests nor is it the right thing to do, but without proper funding we are left with little choice. We need long-term, sustainable funding for children’s services which enables us to invest in both statutory child protection and early help services at the same time.
With the growing pressures facing children’s services in mind, I like many others, waited for the Budget on Monday with a mixture of hope and apprehension. Would there be anything for children’s services, providing some respite from years of under-investment and crippling cuts? What, if anything, would there be for schools? And would there be any recognition of increasing pressures on SEND and high needs budgets?
The Chancellor announced £400 million for schools to spend on the ‘little extras’, £410 million in 2018/19 for adult and children’s social care and £84 million over five years for 20 local authorities with high numbers of children in care, amongst other things. (More was announced for potholes!) Although any additional investment in services for children and young people is to be welcomed, it falls short of the sort of long-term investment in children that we would like to see and in some ways shows a failure to recognise the extent of the pressures facing schools and local authorities; the omission of SEND or high needs funding from the announcement, one of the biggest financial risks to our budgets, was of particular concern.
There is not enough money in the system to meet the level of need that exists, and we are becoming increasingly concerned at the government’s current approach to funding children’s services. Small, one off pots of time limited funding is not the answer to the problems we face. Earlier this week, the Early Intervention Foundation published a report on early intervention which supports this view, it clearly stated that ‘small, short-term, single-issue funding pots from national government’ are unhelpful in comparison to the benefits of long term funding for services. The mounting evidence for strategic, long-term investment in children’s futures needs to be listened to, and soon.
Next week ADCS will publish the sixth phase of its Safeguarding Pressures research which will sit alongside a growing body of evidence illustrating the increasing pressures on children’s services. Clearly, we can’t go on as we are, a country that works for all children must invest in children and families and we will continue to work hard to make this case to the Treasury ahead of next year’s spending review.
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Do we know what Brexit means for children?
The outcome of the ‘Brexit’ referendum in 2016 has triggered the single most significant constitutional shake up in living memory. Extricating ourselves from the European Union (EU) will have huge economic, legal, social and cultural consequences, some of which we are just beginning to get to grips with whilst others remain totally unknown.
I appreciate that the negotiating team have 1001 issues to deal with but the ongoing absence of children and young people’s rights, their welfare and safety from the debate is worrying. They aren’t in a position to stand up for themselves, they are reliant on adults to advocate on their behalf. We need to secure a robust legal framework that protects their best interests; EU laws and regulations on everything from toy standards and TV advertising to environmental protections and food safety standards directly benefit children’s lives. There are also dozens of EU instruments which impact on child protection as well.
Immigration was writ large in the referendum and two years on remains at the forefront of negotiations (alongside elusive trade deals). Despite this focus, life changing questions remain unanswered for children who live here but were born elsewhere or who were born here but their parents were born elsewhere. The Children’s Commissioner has rightly highlighted the impact of this uncertainty on children’s well-being whilst the Coram Legal Centre have also sought to draw attention to the immigration status of children living with relatives under the provisions of Dublin III arrangements and EU-born children in the care of the state.
We still don’t know if Brexit will curtail young people’s opportunities to work, travel and study overseas, or if the countless EU nationals we rely on to keep our public services, including schools and hospitals, going will be able to stay here. Perhaps the more pressing question is, will they want to stay given the spike in hate crime since the referendum? Will the European Social Fund, which has been an important source of funding in these austere times, be replaced as per the recommendations of an inquiry by the Work and Pensions Select Committee and what will the jurisdiction of our family courts be? An impact assessment on these decisions and some assurances from the relevant government departments would be most welcome, even at this late stage.
Children remain bystanders in the Brexit process, they didn’t get a say in the referendum and remain powerless as politicians and negotiators shape their future. I would urge the government to engage with children, to listen to their concerns and offer them meaningful opportunities to input into the future direction of our country. After all, they will live with the consequences of this collective decision longer than any of us.
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Should we be worried about algorithms?
There has been some recent national media coverage about local authorities using ‘algorithms’ to predict the likelihood of a child being abused. Should the prospect of a ‘Big Brother’ approach worry us, or should we be encouraged by the possibility of improving outcomes for children?
Algorithms, machine learning and AI tend to get confused. A useful starting point is that algorithms don’t need computers. The word itself derives from a Persian mathematician based in Baghdad, al-Khwarizmi, who was working around the time of 780 CE – no computers were available then! An algorithm is just a list of instructions showing how to accomplish a task.
Daniel Kahneman in ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ (if you haven’t read it, you must!) shows that almost all of the time, we ‘think fast’ using limited data, without thinking about how we are thinking – working unconsciously, on autopilot – and then drawing rapid conclusions before taking action. Fast thinking follows what Kahneman calls ‘heuristics’ – learned responses or simple rules of thumb – like ‘bigger is better’ or ‘if some of X is good, more of X is better’. Often this is fine, but where there are many complex variables or complex situations, we very often make mistakes unless we deliberately ‘think slow’ – consciously working things out so that we don’t miss the trees for the wood.
Kahneman’s ‘heuristics’ are algorithms, but they are very limited. Conscious or ‘slow’ thinking uses more complex algorithms, and in the professional world these are often codified into ‘flow diagrams’, ‘process charts’ or ‘operational descriptions’. Even the most talented professional needs an aide memoire to avoid slipping into ‘fast thinking’. (The downside is that these developments can be said to ‘de-professionalise’ practitioners, but I’d much prefer to have a surgeon who went through a checklist with their team before cutting me open rather than a prima donna who thought things looked OK and went ahead without checking…)
So, we’ve all been using algorithms for years. What’s new is clearly the operation of computers in applying the algorithm. Now, I have a 45-year track record in using data and IT (from my PGCE dissertation ‘The use of a computer program to analyse objective tests in science education’ to being Chair of the National Consortium of Examination Results) and I’ve come across most of the advantages and the pitfalls from personal experience. The GIGO law ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’ was invented by early computer scientists: if the data is poor, any analysis using that data will also be poor, even if the computer is working properly and is well-programmed. Machine learning can be extremely powerful – Google Translate enables me to talk to the Spanish-speaking members of our extended family with barely a glitch – and computers now routinely beat even the best chess players. But unless machine learning is fed the appropriate information, we will get garbage out that reinforces our own biases.
What do I conclude? Perhaps it’s obvious, but a computer-based algorithmic system is likely to be effective and rapid if it is fed accurate and relevant data and is properly set up to assess and take account of missing or partial data. Compared to a human decision-maker with the same data, the computer-based system ought to be better – computers don’t get bored or have off-days. However, it’s important that algorithmic systems are checked to ensure that they do not simply codify and automate human biases such as ‘tattoos are bad’. (Kahneman gives an excellent (if scary) analysis of the variation in the proportion of prisoners granted parole by US courts according to the length of time before lunch.)
Computer-based algorithmic systems are the future, but so are professionals, both to ensure the algorithms themselves are appropriate, and to ensure that the output of the algorithm is reviewed intelligently and not applied blindly (‘computer says “no”’).
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Evidencing safeguarding pressures
I continue to be amazed by the extraordinary efforts of the staff working in local authorities to support their towns, cities and communities. As Alison Michalska perfectly summed it up in her blog earlier this year, ‘the impact of local government on people’s lives is difficult to express, we don’t just fulfil one role, we fulfil thousands’. And we do it all against a backdrop of reducing budgets and increasing demand.
In children’s services departments, up and down the country, hardworking, dedicated staff are working tirelessly, together with their partners, to make sure that children and young people are kept safe from harm and are given every opportunity in life. This is no easy task as the need for our help and support shows no sign of easing and we face a £2 billion funding gap by 2020. Despite this, local authorities are having to divert funding away from essential services such as bin collections and filling pot holes, whilst we are having to cut the very services that we know protect children and families from reaching harm in the first place.
Next month, ADCS publishes the latest phase of its Safeguarding Pressures research and we hope the evidence from this will inform the DfE’s submission to the Treasury’s 2019 Spending Review. ADCS has been completing this exercise since 2010 by collecting and comparing data from local authorities in six phases spanning 2007/8 to 2017/18. This means that, for the first time, we will be able to compare a decade’s worth of data and helpfully 140 local authorities, covering 95% of the total child population in England, have submitted their data. This valuable evidence base will give us a much clearer picture of the pressures local authorities are facing in children’s safeguarding activity.
Over the past ten years, we’ve seen the need for children’s services grow as funding has reduced, and while local authorities have done everything they can to mitigate the impact of these cuts, there’s now nowhere left to turn. Instead, we’re forced to make counterintuitive decisions, like targeting early help services, which only adds to pressures further down the line. Current resourcing simply doesn’t meet the levels of need we’re seeing, yet we still have statutory obligations to fulfil. The money has to come from somewhere which means that other vital, preventative services are cut even further, not to mention the wider services that communities value, like parks and libraries.
Safeguarding Pressures Phase 6 will bring the evidence base up to date for today’s context and the findings will seek to build upon the huge array of research and reports already out there which clearly show the pressures that local authorities are experiencing. Only this year, reports from the APPG for Children and the Children’s Commissioner and Institute for Fiscal Studies have evidenced the effects that cuts to children’s services have had on children and families. The evidence base will continue to grow but we need to start seeing change. We simply can’t go on as we are, the findings from this research must be heard and acted upon before it’s too late.
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Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve…
One of the privileges that come with being the ADCS President is that you get to represent the Association at a range of interesting events. Last week I attended the first Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse Mandatory Reporting Seminar to speak on this subject. The government has previously rejected proposals for a mandatory reporting duty and a duty to act after a full public consultation on these issues. The evidence received, from a wide range of sources, had not “demonstrated conclusively that the introduction of a mandatory reporting duty or a duty to act improves outcomes for children.”
As an Association our position is clear; there is no evidence that mandatory reporting systems will provide greater protection for children and young people. We believe the existing reporting arrangements are sufficient and there is no evidence of professionals routinely failing to report. My task, in the seven minutes that were allocated to each speaker, was to outline the existing obligations on social care professionals to report concerns about child sexual abuse and restate the Association’s position and the basis for it. Namely, new duties would have the potential to undermine the judgement of professionals and could lead to increasingly defensive practice which flies in the face of the hopes and aspirations that underpinned Munro’s review of child protection. What soon became apparent was that this view was shared by the other professionals who spoke for the DfE, the police, health, and the voluntary sector, although some did feel that mandatory reporting in closed institutions had some merit. An uncomfortable aspect of this seminar was that this view was at odds with everyone who represented victims or survivors, or were themselves victims or survivors, who spoke powerfully for the need for mandatory reporting based on professional failures in their own lives or those they worked with.
That afternoon we heard from speakers from Canada, Australia and Ireland who each have mandatory reporting. They, again in seven minutes, outlined the whys and wherefores for mandatory reporting. In some countries this duty extended to the general public, with an associated criminal offence for non-disclosure of a suspicion of child abuse. Interestingly, whilst they had seen a significant rise in reporting post the introduction of mandating, the number of reports remained below those of this country based on child populations. Hopefully the second seminar will provide an opportunity to get underneath that and delve more deeply into the pros and cons of mandatory reporting which the Inquiry will subsequently report on.
At the end of the session, I am not sure those who attended will have changed their views. The seminar reinforced the complexity of the issue and the danger that in trying to solve one problem you may be in danger of creating another. What struck me powerfully as I left was the need to continually work to ensure that our staff and the wider workforce not only recognise the signs of abuse, but that they know what to do and who to report to. It is just not good enough that victims and survivors report that the wider children’s workforce are still telling them they do not know what to do or that they lack the confidence to report. Getting the basics right should not require mandating and getting the basics right will ensure children are protected.
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Directors of children’s services (DCSs) are all kinds of different characters, but if you’re at all like me, one of the things you’ll cherish is the opportunity to spend time among children, young people and the wider communities in the area you serve. And one of the things you’ll enjoy about that is the diversity of the people you spend time with.
People differ from each other in a variety of ways, but for the purposes of this blog, I’m thinking particularly of racial and ethnic diversity. As a nation, our increasing diversity is a generational thing as today’s generation of children at school are far more diverse than previous generations. In my borough of Merton, 37% of the population are from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background; by contrast in our schools that’s 68% (which is nevertheless lower than the London average). That varies widely across the country, of course (the figure is about 30% across England, I think), but everywhere it’s changing.
Increasing diversity is a good thing, bringing with it a richer life experience, diminishing discrimination, opening up new perspectives for all of us, increasing our understanding of the world and helping us to generate new ideas. But do our children and young people see themselves reflected in the professionals who impact so profoundly on their lives?
Quite often the staff in the ‘people’ services in a council are more diverse in background than those in other departments, and may be as diverse (or more diverse) than their local community, but it’s fair to say that as we move up the organisational hierarchies the picture changes. In June this year we dedicated an hour at the ADCS Workforce Development Policy Committee to diversity in our workforce and in children’s services leadership. We heard from Meera Spillett about our Leadership Imbalance (Black and Asian leaders missing in action) and considered The Staff College’s Cultural Competence toolkit for promoting leadership and organisational change, issued in the ADCS Bulletin in February of this year. In the discussion we had to confront the uncomfortable truth that our organisations and our own unconscious biases can create obstacles to BAME advancement. A month later this was somewhat evident as DCS and AD colleagues met in Manchester for the ADCS Annual Conference. It was a great event, no question, but if you looked around the room with an eye to diversity, you would certainly have noticed that we’re nowhere close to 30% BAME representation.
Representation matters because: “you can’t be what you can’t see”. We are more likely to aspire to progress to roles where we can see that people like us have already succeeded, so in August I wrote to ADCS regional chairs to promote the idea of taking a closer look at cultural competence and what it means for our workforce and our leadership.
More recently, Ian Thomas (formerly DCS at Rotherham, now Chief Executive at Lewisham) writing in the Municipal Journal made two practical and readily implementable suggestions to increase BAME leadership in local government: increase the diversity of appointment panels and offer mentoring for aspiring BAME leaders.
I’d like to encourage my DCS and AD colleagues to consider putting these suggestions into practice.
Linked to this, The Staff College is seeking to better understand the longer term outcomes for participants in previous cohorts of the Black and Asian Leadership Initiative (BALI) programme and to further strengthen it as a result of this learning. There’s an event for BALI alumni on 11 October, which I hope will be well attended. I’d like to think that the steps we are taking will increase the racial and ethnic diversity of our workforce and our leaders over the coming years, so that all of our children and young people will see, and know, that they can be.
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Words may be mightier than the sword…
Now that the first few weeks of the school term are behind us, I’ve taken time to pause and reflect on the challenges and highlights of the summer months. As holidays become a distant memory and we build up to the inevitable budget planning round, I’ve found myself thinking about the summer experience for many of London’s young people. On the one hand there have been amazing opportunities to participate, volunteer, engage with each other and, dare to say the word, have fun. In spite of dramatic and counter-productive cuts that have had to be made to youth services, hard pressed councils, resourceful communities, voluntary and community sector organisations, and amazing groups of young people have planned, resourced, delivered and enjoyed a rich variety of activities. I am sure that there has been a similar experience up and down the country even if every year it gets harder and harder to do. There has also been the drama and excitement of exam results as thoughts turn to possible futures. You only get one chance to be a teenager so whatever the context that’s the one you have to take, and most young people do just that.
But for some young people the summer has also brought vulnerability to exploitation, the threat of ‘county lines’, fear and anxiety, and the trauma of violence. This group of youngsters get much media attention and little public understanding. Directors of children’s services and their colleagues across the capital have given a lot of thought to how we, as systems leaders, champions for young people, and corporate parents rise to the challenge of addressing the spike in serious violence, particularly knife crime, and the conditions that allow it to occur (it is worth saying this is not a problem unique to London as many areas are grappling with similar challenges). In the spring we brought together a cross section of practice managers from youth work, youth offending teams and social work to think about how we respond to these events when they occur and how we build a resilient workforce who can make a real difference to young people who, in some cases, are literally on the threshold of life and death. You can read the report from that event here.
The leadership challenge has been to resist simple single factor explanations or knee jerk responses and to recognise that reducing the risk of young people being drawn into the cycle of violence requires whole system thinking and a whole system response. This is sometimes referred to as a “Public Health” response. In my own authority, members, officers and partners have worked with communities and young people to better understand and respond to rising levels of youth violence through a Youth Safety Taskforce. This work, which started last December, was given extra impetus when two young men sadly lost their lives in separate incidents on the same night in February. The conclusion and associated recommendations are organised across five themes: prevent, identify, support, disrupt and enforce. Because of this, across the partnership we can ensure we have a whole system response which reduces the likelihood of involvement, helps those most at risk, disrupts the conditions where exploitation and violence can occur and takes action to keep young people and communities safe. There are no quick fixes but we have already seen some of the benefits.
So why have I referred to words and swords in the title of this blog? Well, when reflecting on the last few months, there were two points at which the power of words to frame our thinking about this issue seem significant. The first was in planning the taskforce, which originally had a working title of the Youth Violence Taskforce. Had the work continued on that basis I think our response, and certainly that of the young people whose insights have been so powerful in developing the recommendations, would have been very different. The other was a moment when, like many of you, I received another email from the police reporting a knife incident and referring to the injuries as “not life changing or life threatening”… and whilst I understood what this meant, I defy anyone to experience the trauma of being stabbed, or indeed doing the stabbing, and for that not to be profoundly life changing. For those of us privileged to lead in children’s services, we should never let the language we use minimise the impact of violence on young people’s lives or our determination to do something about it.
*The final report from Camden’s Youth Safety Taskforce proposes collective community response to break the cycle of exploitation of young people in the borough - click here to read.
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Children’s Funding – It’s “Code Red!”
“Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away…”
(A short excerpt from “Antigonish” by William Hughes Mearns.)
As a child I was always intrigued, and slightly spooked, by this poem. Little did I know that it was preparation for how it feels to be a DCS in 2018, when making arguments about the funding gap for children’s services.
By September, budget planning is well underway in local authorities and I imagine many of us are having similar experiences contemplating unpalatable and counterproductive cuts to preventative services, in order to protect already overstretched statutory services.
We do so against a background of national debate about children’s services funding. For the first time this summer, we have seen children’s funding commanding as much national attention as adult services and health. While this is a good thing, some of the responses from the DfE, Treasury and Ministers have been less encouraging. Put simply, the general response has been, “funding gap? Prove it – it looks more like variable performance to us”.
That’s where “the man who wasn’t there” comes in. Whereas local authorities experience stumbling into the funding gap and its consequences daily, it seems to me central government doesn’t see it that way at all. The gap they see is one of performance, not funding. That is because they see some local authorities are performing better than others with a similar level of resources, leading them to conclude, QED, that the funding gap is not there. Well if it isn’t, “I wish, I wish it would go away” to paraphrase Mearns.
Leaving aside for the moment whether this test is being applied to any other part of the public sector, let’s briefly consider the evidence on both sides of this argument.
On the one hand, we have various national reports confirming the lived experience of most of us i.e., 40-60% cuts in real terms to non-statutory services over 10 years, including early help, years of rising demand across SEND, early years, child in need and child protection as well as children in care. Rises in child poverty and homelessness, the impact of the welfare reforms and continued financial pressure on families with children. In the face of this, most councils have chosen to divert resources from other services to protect children’s social care.
On the other hand, we have the argument that, measured by Ofsted judgements, local authorities perform variably well with similar resources. Some authorities are judged ‘outstanding’ on current funding, therefore what’s to prevent all of us doing so?
While we know good safeguarding performance isn’t all down to money, we need to find a way to counter this false dichotomy between Ofsted performance and funding. At the same time, we must work together to secure greater investment in children’s futures as a matter of urgency.
Happily, this summer has given some helpful evidence. Our colleagues in North Yorkshire, East Sussex and Bexley have achieved the first overall ‘outstanding’ judgements of the new ILACS regime (take a bow Stuart, Stuart and Jacky!). Those reports show three authorities where great social work is underpinned by well-integrated early help and preventative services, put together in a planned way by outstanding leaders. Without those early help and preventative services, outstanding safeguarding performance becomes impossible, QED. Leaders of outstanding authorities are now able to evidence that they will not have enough money to maintain that performance.
The DfE’s own actions on performance support this. The huge extra resources thrown at intervention and the up-front investment required by the Innovation Programme show that change and improvement need extra resources, and are not scale-able without it… A question remains around what will happen to services funded through the Innovation Programme when budgets are tight and time limited pots of funding run out.
When I worked in Australia we had a wonderfully robust framework for managing the risk of bush fires to rural schools. On “high risk” fire days, when strong winds and high temperatures arrived, we would declare “Code Red”, and a smooth and well organised evacuation of schools would take place. As we contemplate our perverse options to balance the budget next year, it is surely time to declare a “Code Red” for children’s services funding nationally.
“The man that wasn’t there” is here now, and larger than life.
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An inspired corporate parent
Brave, brave, brave! This was the word bounding around my head as I sat beside three care experienced young people during a public meeting of the Council’s Cabinet. They were sitting in a packed Cabinet meeting, attended by the Leader of the Council; the Deputy Leader of the Council; the full complement of cabinet members; democracy support officers; the senior officer leadership team and members of the public and the press.
What were they doing? They were reporting to Cabinet about the progress of Takeover Day in Barnsley over the last few years, the impact that it has had on their lives and the plans for next year’s Takeover Day and beyond. They talked directly and openly about their individual experience, the difference it has made to their own aspirations and plans for the future.
This room was packed! Some might say it was overcrowded, it was certainly very hot – both in terms of room temperature and spotlight. In front of this large audience, these three remarkable young people delivered their messages clearly, coherently and with passion. You could have heard a pin drop. Not only because the members of the audience take their corporate parenting responsibilities very seriously, but because these three young people had, in their direct and respectful presentation, effectively commanded their audience’s attention.
Their overall message? You delivered on your pledge to children in care, you have high aspirations for us, you are helping us to have high aspirations for ourselves. Through Takeover Day you are taking one opportunity of many to give us the support we need to be the best we can be and to achieve everything we want to. Don’t stop, keep working with us to make it bigger and better. It’s not now restricted to a single day but runs over a week to a month, so why not year-long?
The response? Resounding support from the Council Cabinet to maintain their commitment to Takeover Day and beyond, to continue to deliver their pledge to support high aspirations for all of our children in care and care experienced young people. As corporate parents, to continue to explore every avenue in securing work experience, internships, apprenticeships and jobs for children in care and care experienced young people.
Their reaction? On leaving the meeting the young people were quite rightly proud of their performance and pleased with the response to their presentation. They had carefully prepared for an event that they found daunting, they had managed their understandable anxiety really well and used it to help them deliver a brilliant presentation. They had gained very valuable experience and were full of enthusiasm for it to be even better next time. They were also (and very delightfully) giddy.
My reaction? I was a proud corporate parent; there can be no greater pleasure than seeing young people face something new, something daunting and challenging, and achieve – that’s inspirational.
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Growing into the role
It was just about two years ago that I took up the role of Director of Children’s Services (DCS) at Staffordshire County Council.
This was not my first chief officer role; in fact it was the fourth, but my first within children’s services. Whilst I realised that my decision was not without risk, both for the organisation and for me personally, I wanted to try and make a difference to the lives of vulnerable children and families in my county.
But, if I am honest, it was with trepidation that I attended my first meeting of the regional ADCS group. How would this band of professionals view my appointment? Would I be able to contribute anything to the regional debates or would I be a bystander?
Well, two years in and as Vice-Chair of the ADCS West Midlands region (WMADCS), I can categorically state that my fears were unfounded. Although there has been some churn within the group, I have drawn great strength from the mutual support provided and excitement from their determination to improve outcomes for children and young people across the whole of the region.
In autumn 2016, the WMADCS group came together at Warwick University. This valuable time away gave us an opportunity to focus on our regional priorities for improvement, through a candid assessment of current performance, and to reflect on how effective we had been as a group thus far. There was agreement that we had created too many diverse priorities and that our oversight could be more effective. There was no doubting our ambition for the region but we needed to focus our vision on a small number of key priorities that would make a real difference and have an improved impact.
We agreed to concentrate on workforce and leadership; quality of practice; and education, skills and economy. Underpinned by: shared principles regarding managing risk and demand; improved commissioning; and effective governance whilst not losing the tools that have been effective, such as our agency workers protocol, self-evaluation and peer challenge.
A lead DCS was identified for each work stream alongside a lead chief executive officer and lead member. The work streams have driven the focus of the group ever since, aided by a small but effective support team.
So, where are we now? Has anything changed for the better? We have successfully secured an additional £3.5m through the MHCLG’s Controlling Migration Fund and £1.5m from the DfE’s Innovation Fund for ‘Future Social’. This is a regional initiative to create a stable and skilled workforce for the benefit of the whole region, involving one teaching partnership. We also continue to work on our Regional Improvement Alliance.
Our regional and national relationships have strengthened on the back of our improving reputation and appetite for innovation. Our Ofsted inspection outcomes have improved and educational attainment is heading in the right direction. We know that we still have a long way to go but it has been apparent that we are far stronger when we act collectively.
At a time when our services are under the cosh: more children and families in our systems; more savings required at a time of increasing demand; and difficulties in recruiting staff, the WMADCS group now provides a ‘safe space’ to share our individual concerns. It offers mutual support but also creates an environment to receive honest feedback when pressing concerns arise.
So, in the last two years I have moved from being a novice DCS to becoming part of the WMADCS establishment. I am grateful to my regional colleagues for their welcoming approach and heartened by the shared determination across fourteen DCSs to ensure that children, young people and families across the region get the best shot at living as happy and safe lives as possible.
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When fact is stranger than fiction
Returning home from my summer break was one of those occasions when fact was stranger than fiction.
On the flight, one of the films on offer was Kingsman starring, amongst others, Colin Firth. I won’t spoil the plot but it basically involves a spy organisation who recruit a young person with a particularly troubled background and who is heading for a life behind bars. Not the usual James Bond recruitment ground. It therefore came as some surprise, and no little shock, on my return to find references to children and young people being used as covert human intelligence sources under the auspices of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Since my return I have spoken with colleagues working in local authorities across the country and it seems many, if not all, directors were unaware of children being asked to take part in covert operations.
In the most extreme cases this practice is clearly at odds with the basic principles of safeguarding vulnerable children and young people. I don’t believe we have been consulted either nationally or locally on a case by case basis on the principles of this policy, yet directors of children’s services have a legal duty to protect and promote the health, safety and welfare of all children and young people. We also remain completely in the dark about the criteria used to select children to fulfil this role, the kinds of situations they are being sent into or the support they are offered before, during or after undertaking this role. We don’t know the numbers involved nor the age and profile of those who are gathering intelligence on behalf of the police or security services. Whether any of them are in care is a significant concern given our corporate parenting duties.
When questioned by the Chair of the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, the Minister of State for Security and Economic Crime at the Home Office indicated that previous criminal activity is a main factor for selecting young people. However, this overlooks the inherent vulnerability of children who are criminally exploited by unscrupulous adults and are coerced into committing crimes. The risks appear huge and, whilst I am aware of the longstanding use of children and young people to support trading standards operations, there’s an enormous difference between a 15-year-old being asked to buy cigarettes from a corner shop and them engaging in risky, and potentially dangerous, situations to help build a criminal prosecution case against violent sex offenders, radical extremists and drug dealers.
I’m pleased that members of the Scrutiny Committee have highlighted this issue and will be examining it further in the coming weeks. Without their challenge to the Home Office in response to a seemingly routine amendment to the legislation process, we might have remained completely ignorant of this situation.
Whilst things turned out rather well for Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, the gang protagonist in the Kingsman, I fear there won’t be the same happy Hollywood ending for other young people drawn into this world and I will take a keen interest in how this matter unfolds when it goes before the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
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Let's talk about local government funding
It’s the summer holidays yet negotiations are already underway in Nottingham to identify the next round of ‘savings’ required for the 2019/20 budget. With each year that passes this process gets harder, takes longer and feels increasingly counter-intuitive. In the beginning, there was some rationalising to be done but the services now being removed are the ones that our communities hold dear to their hearts – more libraries are closing, potholes remain unfilled, bins get collected less frequently, meals on wheels go undelivered, children’s centres are closing and community assets are being sold off.
In recent weeks the perilous state of local government funding has finally hit the headlines and I think it’s safe to say we’re entering uncharted territory as the first council edges towards bankruptcy and the list of others issuing similar warnings grows day by day. Whilst in some senses I was glad to hear these issues finally being debated on Radio 4 and reported on the evening news, I was sorry it took such a tragedy to get us to this place. Earlier this year the National Audit Office estimated that councils have experienced a 49% real-terms reduction in funding since 2010, for those who doubt the severity of our situation, I’d urge them to read this memorable interview with the Mayor of Liverpool last year. He spelled out our dilemma in no uncertain terms - even if he closed all of the city’s libraries and leisure centres, stopped maintaining its 140 parks, filling potholes or cleaning the streets and switched off 50,000 streetlights, he still couldn’t balance the council’s books by 2020.
Years of austerity are taking a toll on our communities and more families are tipping into crisis and requiring our help and support. There are now four million children living in poverty, two thirds of whom live in working families, and this number is expected to rise to 5.2 million by 2022. I’m always surprised and then saddened by how little outrage these shocking figures generate. Health, adult social care and the police have recently secured promises of extra funding thanks to widespread public support. This is understandable, everyone uses the NHS, most of us have an elderly relative or neighbour who needs support to stay well and live their best life and we all want our streets to be safe.
In truth, the impact of local government on people’s lives is difficult to express, we don’t just fulfil one role, we fulfil thousands. Millions of dedicated public sector staff work round the clock to build communities, to keep them clean and safe, to offer help and support to local residents young and old in difficult times. Over the last year or so council staff have also been at the forefront of responses to devastating floods and terrorist attacks, long after the emergency services have fulfilled their role. I wish I could adequately convey the pride and enthusiasm of the majority of staff I’ve met and worked with over the years; this dedication, this social capital, has sustained our services over the last few years in the face of continued challenge.
Relatively few people come into contact with children’s social care so it’s more difficult to persuasively make the case for investment, yet our ability to support children and young people who are growing up in violent, chaotic households or who are being exploited by the very adults they thought they could trust is diminishing. They are not to blame for their own abuse and neglect, nor are they to blame for their parent’s issues. ADCS is working on the sixth iteration of our ‘Safeguarding Pressures’ research which we hope this will provide the evidence the Treasury requires to commit to investing in children’s futures (and their education).
No one should underestimate how hard local government has worked to make efficiencies, to innovate and be creative. I recently re-read an interview with Dame Louise Casey in which she said: “… the best of local government is better than any part of Whitehall I’ve ever seen. Local government at its most effective is jaw dropping. It can inspire citizens. It can stand up and do things that are right. And sometimes I feel ‘come on you lot, show the country – show the bloody country – local government is worth something.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
We desperately need a sustainable, strategic, long-term approach to funding services for children and young people and indeed all of local government. A question mark hangs over our funding post-2020, which is impacting on our ability to plan for the future. A greater reliance on business rates has been mooted but I fear this will only result in greater inequalities in economically depressed areas, and more challenges. The LGA estimates that there will be a £2 billion funding gap in children’s services by 2020, that’s what’s required just to stand still, to turn the tide we’d need a reaffirmation of the value of preventative services, particularly in the early years and in children’s mental health services.
Failure to invest in children’s futures is a false economy and is only storing up greater human and financial costs in the future. It’s time for change.
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Secrets to a good peer review…
The secret to a good peer review is a great team. In any review there’s always a lot to do, both individually and collectively, in a very short period of time. There’s a huge amount of information to gather and a local context to understand if you’re going to be able to turn it into something meaningful.
The whole thing runs on teamwork, trust and usually a lot of coffee. Even though it’s acknowledged that this isn’t an inspection, there’s always the heavy weight of expectation that the peer review team will be able to create some new insight which will help the host make a breakthrough.
No pressure then. So, it’s critical we keep looking at ways to make our peer review teams as effective as possible. Here in the South East, we’ve been exploring the value of working in triads (not the organised crime variety) with three directors of children’s services (DCSs) working together as host, review lead and observer. I’ve done a couple of these now and it’s been really powerful having two DCSs on the review team, with the observer being able to provide support and challenge, keeping things on track and stopping theories from developing without sufficient evidence to underpin them; a trap which is surprisingly easy to fall into.
We’re also experimenting with multi-disciplinary review teams that go beyond children’s services. I’ve not long led a successful review looking at the response to neglect in Oxfordshire with the benefit of having the local area police commander and the principal social worker for adult services on the team. It meant a larger than usual review team of seven, but that in turn enabled us to complete an ambitious programme of twelve focus groups alongside eighteen detailed case reviews in a single day. It also meant the review team was able to see things, not just as outsiders looking in, but from the local partner perspective as well.
Too often, peer review becomes all about the process when it’s the people that make it really work. Yes, it’s important to have structure, but getting the right mix of skills, knowledge and experience within a team is what really makes a review fly.
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Putting collaboration on the agenda
We have a strong history of collaboration in Yorkshire and Humber and I’ve plenty of cause to reflect on this; at the time of writing this blog, I’m preparing for this week’s regional meeting where DCSs (or their representatives) from the 15 local authorities in Yorkshire and Humber come together, along with a representative of Doncaster Children’s Services Trust, to support and challenge one another in our collective endeavour to deliver better outcomes for children and young people in the region.
The agenda has just three key topics for discussion; leadership development; sector-led improvement; and Children’s Social Work Matters.
For the discussion on leadership development we will be joined by Jo Davidson, Principal of the Staff College. We share a concern, indeed a deep anxiety, about succession planning and strongly support the call for a national development offer. A dwindling number of us in Yorkshire and Humber benefited from the DCS leadership development programme that Jo referred to in her recent blog. As systems leaders operating in turbulent times, we have a continuous need for experience, skills and knowledge development.
In Yorkshire and Humber we have a strong leadership development offer for middle leaders, one which draws on capacity within the region and is strengthened by years of collaboration with the Staff College. We are really keen to feed into the future development of the Staff College, Jo is equally keen to hear our views. I’ve no doubt that within the discussion we will see many of the leadership behaviours that Jo discussed in her blog: nurture; challenge; support; collaboration; and drive, not forgetting cheering from the sidelines.
We will move on to spend a significant amount of time on sector-led improvement (SLI) as a Regional Improvement Alliance. Like many regions, our SLI work is supported by a Memorandum of Understanding and funded through individual authority annual contributions. The Memorandum has been progressively strengthened since it was first signed off in 2013 to reflect our learning and growing confidence in the value of collaborative SLI. We are currently on our fifth iteration.
The SLI Executive, chaired by Jon Stonehouse from York, will meet the previous evening and we will receive an activity report by exception. We will be asked to consider a range of proposals around securing greater accountability and a further tightening of our processes and systems for SLI. As an important part of the discussion, the meeting will check our progress on providing coherent regional support for individual local authorities where the need is greatest.
To date 35 peer challenges have been completed in Yorkshire and Humber through our SLI arrangements and we will hear about the headlines from the latest two. Our peer challenge methodology is becoming increasingly bespoke and I will be sharing Barnsley’s experience of the peer challenge of our ‘front door’ undertaken by a regional Partner in Practice; East Riding in June. One of the most important elements of the feedback I’ll be giving is the positive experience of Barnsley’s front line practitioners and team mangers. Finally, we’ll be thinking ahead to our next regional meeting when we will be joined by our DfE Regional Advisor for SLI and consider how to collaborate across regions following my recent trip to the North East where I heard about some of the great work taking place there.
The last key topic for discussion will be Children’s Social Work Matters (CSWM). We are very proud of CSWM in Yorkshire and Humber which has contributed significantly to the region having one of the lowest staff turnover rates in the country. Founded in 2011, this project established a website to raise the profile of children’s social work and encourage people to come to the region to study and to work. We advertise all our CPD opportunities and jobs through CSWM, it’s the go-to place for the latest news, webinars and CPD recording. For the first time CSWM will sponsor a national Social Work Award in 2019. The work group driving CSWM forward has submitted a paper proposing an updating of the regional commitment to social work. I’ve no doubt that the discussion will be both lively and collaborative.
Our final piece of business will be to say happy retirement and goodbye to our much respected colleague Stuart Smith OBE, Director of Adults and Children’s Services in Calderdale. Stuart is one of the first generation DCSs; he came into post when the job was born in 2005/6 and we will miss his experience, wise counsel, skillful challenge and very special brand of humour. After over twelve years in the most privileged but demanding of roles, we think he’s earned a break – good luck Stuart!
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School’s out for summer....
I’ve been thinking about education a lot recently as the end of another academic year approaches. As well as being the director of children’s services (DCS) in East Sussex I’m also a Dad to a hard-working lad sitting his A Level exams hoping to make it to university in September and a husband to a fantastic primary school teacher (I’m not biased, honestly). These different perspectives give me plenty of food for thought, about the pressure heaped on our young people by a high-stakes exam culture, about the huge expectations placed on hard working teachers and the lack of coherence in national arrangements for education.
As a system leader I’m still waiting for the ‘Brexit effect’ to kick in. We often hear that there’s no parliamentary time for wide ranging reforms or new legislation, yet the world of education never sleeps. I’ve lost count of the number of reports, green papers, reviews, calls for evidence and consultations that have come out this year directly concerning education or likely to have some impact on our schools. These come on top of the reforms passed in years gone by that are still bedding in e.g. this is the first year that GCSE results will be entirely numerical, 9 – 1 instead of A* - G.
In the flurry of reviews and reports that have come out in recent weeks some of you may have missed the Association’s new policy paper on this very topic, ‘A vision for an inclusive and high performing education system.’ I hope it offers readers an honest stocktake of the current position we’re in in terms of a shortage of school places, muddled accountability, a crisis in staffing, confusing admissions arrangements, stalling social mobility and insufficient funding impacting on our ability to offer support the most vulnerable learners. At the moment far too many children are being excluded or are being educated in alternative provision when they could thrive in mainstream schools with a little extra help and support for my liking. And, it is abundantly clear that the overall quantum of funding allocated to schools is insufficient when parents and carers are buying not just stationary and books for their child’s school, but toilet roll. The paper also includes some suggested actions, largely for government, to level the playing field and make sure that all children have access to the same opportunities and can achieve their dreams. Some of the asks are significant and we’re ready to play our part in creating a coherent vision for the education system and to help design a coherent and equitable admissions arrangements. We need to get this right.
As DCS, one of the times I look forward to the most (apart from Glastonbury) is the end of the summer term and the wonderful opportunity it offers to reflect on and celebrate the successes and achievements large and small of learners as well as the contribution schools and teachers make to the lives of children and young people living in the county. So, enjoy the summer holidays one and all, we’ll be buying our new pencil cases before we know it.
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Harnessing our collective responsibilities to young people
Highlighting the impact of neglect on young people is clearly presented in Ofsted’s Growing up neglected: a multi-agency response to older children. I was taken by some of the opportunities missed in harnessing the insight and expertise of some of our partner agencies, as well as the need to better support the training and skills development of our frontline staff working with teenagers. The latest JTAI thematic report offers an overview of findings from six local authority area inspections. One of the headlines was that older children facing neglect can often go ‘unseen’ as signs of neglect are not as easy to identify as with younger children. This is partly because a practitioner’s focus can be on the presenting behaviour such as anti-social activity and other challenging behaviours, rather than understanding the reasons behind a young person’s actions. Another headline was that better joined-up working from local agencies is needed to identify neglect sooner.
When it comes to safeguarding children, all local agencies hold the same ambition, high standards and determination to protect them. Our different responsibilities mean that each of us has a unique insight into a child’s life. Harnessing all of this knowledge and any other opportunities to prevent problems is key to tackling these issues early. We must also not lose sight of the fact that teenagers are entitled to care and protection from neglect just as much as younger children.
The report raises plenty of important issues and I found the reference to the growing body of evidence regarding a trauma informed approach very helpful. However, I was particularly taken with the messages around the role of health services. As the report points out, identifying neglect in older children can be more difficult and therefore requires a more co-ordinated approach. The importance of GPs, dentists and other health colleagues in identifying, addressing and reporting neglect were noted with some excellent examples of tenacious practice by individual practitioners such as school nurses. Making sure that frontline practitioners who interact directly with young people and their families have the skills to respond and the confidence to share key information with each other goes such a long way. This is especially important in spotting signs of neglect. Multi-agency training in responding to older young people and sharing the good practice developing in some areas is essential so that we have every chance of supporting all children in a family.
Health is an increasingly complex landscape and as we begin to put in place our new multiagency safeguarding arrangements there is an opportunity to reset local relationships and ways of working. This report offers some food for thought in this process, like how we meaningfully engage with a range of partners in preventing neglect of older young people as well as addressing the impact of neglect. For me it is about championing the rights of young people to feel and be cared for as well as finding the best way to co-ordinate our efforts with other agencies within the broader safeguarding context. There is no doubt that positive work is taking place as many staff across multiple agencies do what they can to identify and tackle neglect, however, we must continue to develop our practice to address the needs of young people of secondary school age. There will be new challenges and opportunities in the future with the replacement of local safeguarding children boards, but one thing will remain the same, tackling neglect in families will make a crucial difference to outcomes for young people.
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Developing the leaders for tomorrow
As a proud participant in ‘cohort 2’ of the national DCS programme in 2010, I wouldn’t have predicted I’d be writing a blog as Principal of The Staff College eight years later.
Since I started in April, unsurprisingly I’ve talked with a lot of people about leadership development. A common reflection is ‘I wish there was something for DCSs which prepares and supports us for the breadth and complexity of the leadership role we have’.
Now, this blog isn’t the place for me to plug The Staff College and its offer. Instead, and more importantly, it highlights the need for a clear national development offer.
The DCS role is beyond practice leadership – it is a systems leadership role, charged with improving outcomes for every child and young person. I can’t think of any other major role like this which doesn’t have leadership development and succession planning in place. It would be careless not to.
So what sort of development makes a difference? I’ve been reflecting with others on the quality of the original DCS programme – we felt invested in and supported. We met and created a network with colleagues from all over the country. It was mind-opening and challenged our thinking. It introduced us to international expertise from all sorts of fields we would never have thought were relevant.
It gave us something far better than a large and complex tool kit – it gave us concepts and skills development and confidence. Confidence to keep going and confidence to change tack, sometimes dramatically. It was inspiring not least because it felt like there were people looking out for us and our roles.
That DCS programme also illuminated for me the power and generosity of peers. Not just the moral support, although that’s important, it’s the power of sharing knowledge, of listening, reflecting and extending your thinking so that you can pick your way through to your own clumsy solutions.
A national programme shouldn’t take a sheep-dip ‘this is how you do it’ approach; that’s training, not development. It should be about the supporting of a leadership community, establishing an environment where it’s ok to try things out, to fail and learn from that failure in order to build skills. It should be about opening minds and thinking; about learning from others from within and outside children’s services. It should be about challenging as well as supporting to enable DCSs and their senior teams to continue to develop.
The leadership roles that we inhabit require huge courage and skill – there are not many things we deal with which have simple solutions. DCSs and their teams are leading change and creating the environment for others to lead change with a multitude of professions and with communities and individuals. We nurture, challenge, support, collaborate, drive and cheer from the sidelines, sometimes all in one hour. It’s no wonder it’s exhilaratingly hard.
It’s hugely important therefore that leadership development and succession planning is rapidly rising up the agenda again at both a national government and sector led level. There’s a challenge to set out a proposition for leadership development for the sector and if we’re serious about sector-led improvement, we should seize this moment. Our future lies firmly in our hands.
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Annual conference round up
The ADCS Annual Conference 2018 opened on Wednesday 4 July in a very sunny Manchester. As always the first 24 hours or so of the conference offered a private space for directors of children’s services and a select few guests to discuss the pressing issues of the day. The Rt Hon Lord Justice McFarlane, incoming President of the Family Division, shared his early reflections on the family justice system and the rising volume of activity. We also heard from Indra Morris who reflected on improvement, intervention and children’s social care policy as she moves into her second year as Director General, DfE. Later, Regional Improvement Alliances and the Care Crisis Review were all high on the agenda. Delegates also shared local approaches to tackling some of our shared challenges, including David Williams from Glasgow City Council who talked about some of the opportunities arising from the integration of health and social care in the city in terms of improving children’s outcomes.
Thursday morning kicked off bright and early with a session led by Rachel Dickinson, ADCS Vice President, and Rachael Wardell, Chair of the ADCS Workforce Development Policy Committee, on what a workforce for all children might look like. Ensuring that we have a 21st century workforce that meets the needs of all children and young people is an ADCS priority this year and the discussions in this session will help shape a future policy position paper. Next, our very own Debbie Barnes, Chair of the ADCS Educational Achievement Policy Committee, chaired a session on local area-based education partnerships. In this session we heard from Kathryn Boulton, ADCS Elected Director and Deputy Director Children’s Services at Derbyshire County Council, and Christine Gilbert CBE about the development of these partnerships, exploring the key challenges and opportunities which they bring.
In his opening address to conference our President, Stuart Gallimore, spoke about some of the challenges facing children, their families and the education system. His words were met with a huge round of applause when he raised the insufficient levels of funding in children’s services and highlighted rising levels of child poverty and funding for children’s healthcare too. Stuart stressed the need for a joined up approach to meeting children’s health needs locally and nationally as well as addressing their needs earlier. He concluded by praising local authorities who have shown their strength and determination to do the very best for the communities they serve despite a prolonged period of public sector austerity, a 49% real terms reduction in funding since 2010 and significantly increased demand.
The full transcript of Stuart’s speech is available, here.
That afternoon the Association published a new policy position paper which can be read here. The paper is wide-ranging and sets out a vision for an inclusive and high performing education system, stressing the need for clarity in the education system and parity in access for all learners. It makes several recommendations for government, the Department for Education and Ofsted. The policy paper was picked up in Schools Week, where you can read the article here.
Damian Hinds MP then took to the stage. In his speech the Secretary of State highlighted the pressures facing local authorities in relation to SEND and expressed his ambition for an inclusive school system for all children. He also touched on off-rolling, and alternative provision. We also heard from the Children’s Minister, Nadhim Zahawi MP, who spoke passionately about improving outcomes for all children, particularly the most disadvantaged. This was the first time we have had both the Secretary of State and Children’s Minister attend the conference, we hope this will be the first of many opportunities to engage.
There was an inspiring and thought provoking session on honour based violence and forced marriage from Jasvinder Sanghera CBE, founder of Karma Nirvana, a charity that supports people affected by these issues. The room went silent as delegates were presented with some staggering statistics about the age, gender and circumstances of victims and survivors. Jasvinder urged delegates to use a national helpline run by her charity on forced marriage which offers advice and support for victims of honour based violence and for the professionals working with them. The helpline number can be found on the Karma Nirvana website.
The day ended with four workshops on a workforce that works for all children, inclusive education, commissioning of placements for children in care and responding to parental conflict.
Friday morning started with another round of workshops on supporting care leavers, complex safeguarding and inspection. In plenary sessions later that morning we heard from Yvette Stanley and Lisa Pascoe from Ofsted and Matt Dunkley, Chair of the ADCS Resources and Sustainability Policy Committee, chaired a session on children’s services funding where we heard from representatives from the LGA, Newton Europe and the DfE.
In the final session of the conference, Amy and Shelly from Show Me That I Matter, the City of York’s children in care council spoke about their Aspire to More campaign, which challenges stereotypes, stigma and statistics around being in care, and explored what a country for all children should look like. Their personal experiences and message of hope about children in care bursting with potential ended the event on a high.
We will post speeches and presentations from the event on the ADCS website when available. We hope to see you at the same time, in the same place for next year’s annual conference.
Some of the resources, reports, tools and programmes referenced in the workshops can be found, below:
- The ‘Trapped’ campaign in Greater Manchester aims to raise awareness of complex safeguarding, including county lines which can be found here
- A collation of local responses to increases in violent youth crime across Greater London can be found here with a link to the full report at the bottom of the page
- ‘Achieving Change Together,’ The Wigan and Rochdale innovation programme which works with Children and Young People at risk of CSE can be found here
- More information on the Lincolnshire Ladder of Behavioural Intervention for permanent exclusions can be accessed here.
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Supporting our neighbours
Last week’s blog by Steve Crocker, Chair of the ADCS Standards, Performance & Inspection Policy Committee, got me thinking about improvement in children’s services. Over the past few years this has been a contested arena with a wide range of opinions on the type of support that is needed and where it might come from. In my view, key to success is always to be very clear about the needs assessment and a clear outcomes framework to commission against. For some, the arrival on the scene of Regional Improvement Alliances could be viewed as an added complication. However, they provide a real opportunity for authorities to work together to challenge and support each other to improve outcomes. Support from our neighbours is especially important now as we face significantly increased demand for our services with depleted budgets. As Steve touched on, RIAs will be operating in shadow form in the first year - this will be key to developing something that works and makes sense in each region driven by directors of children’s services and supported by those with an interest in improvement. Although sector-led improvement is nothing new to local authorities I am sure that there will be some real lessons to be learnt from what works, and crucially what doesn’t, during this set up year.
When a local authority receives a poor inspection judgement, there is a tremendous amount of pressure from all quarters to take decisive action before the dust has even settled. It is so important that we, as leaders, fully take stock, develop a clear, overarching narrative and a suitable improvement plan and, crucially, ensure the right support is brokered to assist with the transformation of services. Rushing this risks children’s outcomes.
In the fall out of a poor inspection result the director of children’s services can be overwhelmed with offers of help and support, some more welcome than others, some paid for, some not. The inspectorate and the Department for Education (DfE) will of course have a view about next steps too. Down the years the DfE has taken an eclectic approach to securing improvement - alternative providers have been commissioned, new operating models and partnership ventures have been created. It’s fair to say the results have been somewhat varied but this is not entirely unexpected given the complexity of commissioning (and delivering) children’s services and the weight of expectations. To systems as complex as children’s services there’s definitely no one size fits all solution to improvement.
Thankfully, we are now in a place where we routinely see local authorities being contracted by central government to support colleagues post-inspection. The Partners in Practice programme (PiPs) is breaking new ground in terms of formalising long-standing collaborative sector-led arrangements and central funding is bolstering capacity in a more systematic way. This feels like a helpful space to be in, but we can’t rely on a handful of PiPs to do it all. ADCS believes that PiPs could commission other local authorities to support colleagues with specific aspects of their improvement journeys in the future, some assurance and oversight will of course be required. I understand there is some nervousness within the DfE about this approach but here at ADCS we are clear that everyone has something to offer and something to learn. Whether it’s care leaving services, youth offending, adoption or school improvement, there are talented practitioners working tirelessly and creatively to achieve better outcomes for children and families right across the country.
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Co-operating to improve outcomes for all children
RIAs, RAAs, PiPs, NAO, NCER, CHAT, SPLAT
OK I made up at least one of those acronyms. But the theme that I want to talk about in this blog is co-operation which is inherent in all of the acronyms that I haven’t made up.
As directors of children’s services there is a temptation to look at our neighbours as, in some ways, competitors. We tend to want to achieve better Ofsted results, better adoption recruitment rates, better educational outcomes etc for the children, young people and families in our local areas. I suppose to some degree that is healthy and means that we strive to be ‘the best’, or at least the best that we can be. But the prolonged period of public sector austerity, increased demand for our services, a 49% reduction in local authority budgets since 2010 and new models of inspection mean that we probably need to rethink this – even for the hopelessly competitive amongst us (ahem).
In the South East region we’ve been trying to think through what this might look like, through the RIA. As the DCS for Hampshire and one of the DfE’s Partners in Practice (PiP) there is an expectation that we will support other local authorities. But at the moment we have based that offer on what (we think) we are good at rather than what other authorities in the region may necessarily need. That’s because this year is the first time in which we’ve had an annual conversation with Ofsted and the first time (at least for a while) that we’ve had a regional DfE Improvement Advisor acting as a link between the region and the Department. So, we’ve now agreed to share our self-assessments and the outcomes of our annual conversations between authorities so that we can better identify our collective needs. We’ve also got a regional data set (our Regional Lead is leading on the work to develop a national, real time data set for local authorities – and that work accounts for most of the acronyms above). It seems pretty unlikely to me that one local authority alone - yes, even Hampshire - will be able to meet the likely diversity of needs. So, the question will be how do we bring in the right support from across the region and vouch for the quality of that support? What happens if an authority is spiralling quickly? What should be the role of DfE and Ofsted in the ongoing discussions?
We don’t have all the answers at the moment but like all other regions we’ve committed to having a really good crack at it this year to try to work it out together. I for one am pleased that we have an opportunity to take sensible steps forward, work out our responses, trial and modify what we are doing and learn from how others are doing in this first year – whilst being cognisant that we must deliver improvement for the children that we all work with. This feels so much more sensible than an imposed top down solution but relies on our ability to trust each other, to try new things, honestly evaluate their success or not, to communicate what has worked effectively and yes, co-operate. On the one hand it sounds tricky but on the other we won’t have a better opportunity to shape how to improve services for children. And if it’s not us then who?
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As with so much in life you learn a lot from your children
As with so much in life you learn a lot from your children. It was only when my eldest son wound up his Everquest game by selling his virtual trousers for 150 real dollars that I realised this world was very much part of the real world. And my youngest son helped me to understand that the friendships developed online are as significant as those in the physical world for him. Multiplayer online role-playing games have become increasingly popular with people of all ages, from all professions – in an increasingly digital world it’s important that we are aware of the positives and dangers associated with them.
We are now well aware of the hazards of social media. As a vehicle for bullying and as a means for people with evil intent to gain easy access to children it is unprecedented. Many people rely upon social media for interaction with others and sharing with family and friends what is happening in their life. So the way in which we present ourselves and the feedback received through social media now forms part of our sense of self and sustains our well-being. It’s powerful stuff.
The Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, is leading the efforts of many to press internet service providers to take more responsibility for controlling what they can to make the internet safer for children.
The world of social media raises professional dilemmas too. There are important debates taking place about whether social workers should access social media in order to understand more about the people they are working with. If parents are posting things about their social life and activities on Facebook, is it legitimate to take this into account when forming a picture of family life? Or is this professional stalking?
But social media also operates as a force for good.
Through my Twitter account I have seen the power of personal support for people through times of crisis. The networks which organically form, of people with shared interests, enable connections between people who would simply never meet in the same way in the physical world. And the informality of the environment can also facilitate conversations which are very useful in taking forward important debates.
Over the past six months I have seen a very vibrant set of conversations amongst care experienced people on Twitter. Ian Dickson has successfully generated conversations about the potential for care experienced adults to contribute more to the debate about how we should be supporting children in care. Using the power of networking he has been able to generate lots of conversations to clarify and develop ideas and thinking.
And from this has come the idea of a conference, a physical coming together, of care experienced adults. He’s gained lots of support and it is now clear that this will happen in the spring next year. It’s pleasing to see support from of the Department for Education, Ofsted, the Children’s Commissioner and others with a formal role to play too. The University of Liverpool are on board with not only facilitating the conference itself, but also enabling research to support this area for the future.
And if Ian’s ambition is realised this will contribute to the future for children in care. As he puts it:
“Imagine also if those who made decisions about care had access to the massive experience and understanding of not just one band of care experienced people but could speak with care experienced people of all ages and in all their diversity, including those still in the care system and those who have successfully negotiated it and are now in the community. How services could be improved!”
None of this would’ve happened without Twitter.
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Getting behind SLI
As in all other regions the North East ADCS group has been investing considerable time developing a regional sector-led improvement (SLI) approach that we hope will have a real impact in the region. Having made the mistake of missing a meeting I found myself ‘volunteered’ to take a lead on SLI within the region. After thanking my colleagues for this wonderful development opportunity I started to think about the impact of place and context on improvement journeys. There is a great deal of commonality in the emerging Regional Improvement Alliances (RIAs) nationally and whilst it is good that the building blocks have standardisation, everyone is starting from a different position due to their history and regional context, so our journeys will not be the same.
So what will be the ‘X Factor’ that makes a difference this time from the range of previous attempts to embed SLI? For me it is all about culture and looking at the system as whole, children’s services do not operate in isolation and can’t thrive in a vacuum. The corporate and political context, partnerships, demographics and the geography of a place and region will all significantly influence any change or improvement journey. Understanding that is critical to brokering the right support and for it to be effective.
As a relative newcomer to the North East I have been struck by its exceptionally strong sense of place and identity. This context should provide a sense of place in which a regional SLI approach should thrive but historically that has not been the case. So what do we need to do beyond the mechanics of an SLI model? For SLI to work we need strong relationships, an open culture, an understanding of each other’s challenges and a willingness to share our best practice (and people!) to help not only those who may be at risk, but for all (LAs) to move to the next step of their journey. Ultimately, we must see improving outcomes for all children and young people in the region as a shared enterprise that both ourselves as systems leaders and our organisations are committed to.
In that context I was delighted that the ‘Tyneside Alliance’, a partnership between North Tyneside and South Tyneside, recently became the region’s first Partner in Practice (PiP). I understand why there are opposing views in the sector about the PiP programme but for me this is not only an opportunity to share good practice from within the two LAs, it must be integral to the RIA. PiPs are not and never will be the ‘saviours’ but they do provide another tool that can be used when co-ordinating support and we need to use this opportunity, and resourcing, to have a positive impact both regionally and nationally.
It is important to recognise that all 12 LAs in the North East have areas of good practice and strong professionals so we can maximise the huge potential of the region. One of our initial aims as part of the PiP is to establish a framework of ‘improvement associates’, drawn from professionals across the region. This would be based on the National, Local and Specialist Leader of Education models within the education sector and support the sharing of learning across the region. I hope this will help lever in capacity to drive improvement from all areas of the region as well as provide development opportunities and learning for individuals to take back to their LAs. Our PiP should belong to the region and not our individual LAs and in that way we will have the biggest impact.
If SLI is to work this time it will be because of our collective commitment to making it work.
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‘We lay the foundations so they can soar’
‘We lay the foundations so they can soar’, said Anna, our retiring Virtual School Head, this week at her leaving do. Like so many of our staff in East Sussex, and across local government, Anna has dedicated her life to supporting kids who have had complex and challenging lives, those who operate on the margins and are all too quickly marginalised. Whilst some may hold the view that they may not be instantly loveable (I most definitely do not) Anna would say it’s the love of a stable family that they need which includes consistency, boundaries, and self-belief. This is where local authorities come in with regards to the services we provide.
As I listened to Anna speak, I reflected on the meeting a number of directors of children’s services and other local authority reps attended recently at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). A number of organisations and individuals have picked up on my personal priority as President, and by extension, the Association’s priority around raising the profile of hidden adolescents. At the meeting, which included reps from the MoJ, the Youth Justice Board and the new Youth Custody Service, we were able to highlight our concerns about the secure estate and discussed how we can collectively better safeguard and support our children. Increased incidents of serious violence in STCs and YOIs, is resulting in young people spending more and more time in their cells due to security concerns and staffing shortages. This impacts on their access to health and education provision so is it then any wonder that our most complicated young people who are unable to access this support find themselves least able to succeed when released and return to custody all too quickly?
One of the lessons I have taken from running secure children’s homes is they do provide an unrivalled opportunity to begin to resolve unmet health issues and provide young people with a positive learning environment for the first time. If we are serious about resettlement these really are givens. That said local authorities are not blameless, ensuring the provision of a stable placement on release is both difficult and unsettling and there’s more we can do on this front together, I think.
There is also a real need for us to change the narrative too, these young people tell us they are continually judged on the offence they committed rather than the journey they have been on in custody. This can only happen if they have been enabled to make a meaningful change in their lives rather than simply being locked up in a cell for hours on end. At the MoJ meeting we also talked about the development of secure schools. If we get it right this provision may well take us in this direction although it remains some way off and we should never forget prevention is always better than cure for young people with shaky foundations and we all have a role to play here.
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From Barcelona to Ofsted
It’s January 2018 and Lisa Pascoe, Ofsted’s Deputy Director, Social Care, is addressing a conference about the new inspection framework for local authority children’s services. She’s careful to emphasise that the new framework will be proportionate to each authority, that ‘good’ authorities will receive a short inspection of one week which will feel less intensive than the inspections that have gone before. She mentions the importance of honesty and openness and how senior teams will be rewarded about knowing the practice in their authority well. She warns there will be no room for showcasing just an honest appraisal of what is working well.
Fast forward to 9 April 2018 and Oxfordshire County Council gets ‘the call’. Unluckily for me I am on holiday in Barcelona, I decide to travel back that day.
Once back in Oxford and day two of the off-site week, the inspection had well and truly launched. The first week felt very intense with not only us sending through all of the Annexe A data requests but also taking phone calls from the Lead Inspector on key lines of enquiry (KLOEs). This involved myself, my senior management and key service leads (adoption being a particular focus) taking lengthy phone calls on specific and detailed areas. Additional information was requested on a daily basis.
The inspectors, conscious of the short time they had to come to firm conclusions, were using the first week to interview us to test out KLOEs. This caused some hair-raising moments at times, especially when Ofsted quoted data back at us that they obviously had in front of them, such as a named workers caseload, without prior notice. However, inspectors were willing to accept clarification further to the phone call.
All in all, the offsite week felt very different compared to our last inspection in terms of intensity and also the sophistication of the data analysis Ofsted conducted – we were genuinely impressed with this and felt that they were able to get to know us as an authority quickly because of their analysis.
Once the team got on site the intensity increased significantly. We were able to meet the whole inspection team on day one and we went through the fairly fresh presentation we used for our annual conversation. The first day felt particularly tough with us responding to their KLOEs (17 by this stage) and us attempting to centre their work on the history and context of our authority. We were a ‘good’ authority when Ofsted came to visit but since our last inspection we had had a huge surge in activity which had impacted on our service. The story of how this came about and our response to this was a big part of context setting in day one.
The practice days that followed were true to the guidance and new framework in taking a whole-system approach. For us, and because we had focused a lot of our strategic work on looked after children Ofsted decided to visit our looked after children and leaving care teams on day one, followed by our child protection service on day two, concluding with the front door on day three.
A typical day would go like this: after the KIT they would spend a short amount of time with the Team Manager who was able to give them some context and after that a team of four inspectors spent time talking to every single social worker in the team. They spent a lot of time (8.45am - 7.30pm) with front line staff, either talking directly with them or looking at their case files. They were also looking at case files from similar teams across the authority.
Social workers reported back that they enjoyed spending time with the inspectors and talking about their cases. They found the inspection intense and working with the inspectors for such long hours gruelling.
At the end of the day the Lead Inspector would ring me to go through KLOEs and offer headline feedback. At first the inspection felt very focused on queries about what was wrong with the service rather than a balance of concerns and things that were working well. I was told that this was because it was a short inspection and that it was to give us time to gather evidence in the time available rather than spend time on what was clearly working well. The KIT meetings were robust and challenging but did give us a chance as a senior management team to engage and challenge back where appropriate. We felt a sea change on day three where the inspection became much more collaborative. In hindsight I understand the reasons for getting all the negatives out on the table early so they could be explored, tested and where necessary put to bed and overall it was a helpful approach but at times it felt bruising and anxiety producing.
So, in summary, did it live up to Lisa Pascoe’s expectations that she set out earlier this year? It felt no less intensive than the inspections before. It did feel more sophisticated though and had a real focus on front line practice. The authenticity of the approach is not in question and there really is nowhere to hide. Personally, I felt it lost something by not focusing on partners, the LSCB or the wider environment we work in. I felt the inspection team were well informed and had the tools to get to know us as a council and the journey we were on. To get you through the intensity, I would recommend cake and wine though not necessarily in front of the inspectors.
I would like to thank the staff that work in children’s services in Oxfordshire and my team for their relentless focus on improving the lives of children.
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How serious are we about EHE?
In April the Department for Education (DfE) launched a call for evidence on elective home education (EHE). I don’t know if other colleagues have yet had time to read the consultation paper. It was my badly chosen bedtime reading. I was still awake at 2am asking the question: where is the logic in a system that doesn’t allow parents to take children out of school for a week long holiday, but accepts that we cannot assure ourselves that all children receive a good standard of education, delivered in a suitable learning environment, and that they are safe?
In reading the draft guidance and call for evidence it appears to me that legislative change in this area is unlikely despite the fact that current arrangements were, according to the DfE, “designed for a different age”. My fear is that some will question whether responding to it would be a good use of valuable time.
The government “believes that home education is often good” whilst acknowledging that “there is no assurance that this is always the case”. Is believing sufficient in a country that we agree should be good enough for all children? Would believing that we deliver good adoption services or believing that outcomes for children at Key Stage 2 are good without evidence to back it up be accepted by government? I doubt it.
I certainly don’t know if the current 204 EHE children that I know of in my area all receive a good standard of education at home. Current legislation doesn’t support me in trying to find this out. This is one of the things that keeps me up at night and doesn’t fit with my statutory duty as a director of children’s services. Much more important than that, I just don’t know how many children are invisible; those who’ve never attended school; or move into the area and don’t take up school places. How many are withdrawn from school but don’t receive a good standard of education. This worries me. It’s important to state that I don’t believe that EHE is necessarily bad, but the very fact that we don’t know the exact number of children being home schooled, but we think it to be somewhere in the region of approximately 45,500 children, is not good enough. We also lack the evidence to demonstrate those good outcomes that we want for all of our children.
Two of the most distressing serious case reviews in my career involved serious harm to children who were educated at home. Does that make a difference? Of course it does and the tone of the draft guidance doesn’t assure me children are at the centre of it, where they should be. Rather it focuses on the “rights of parents to educate their children at home”, without the evidence that this works for children. Should that be the focus or should it be securing the best outcomes for all children and ensuring that children and young people are not lost from sight?
Just like in many other local authorities we have also experienced significant growth in our EHE population. Data suggests the increase (of those that we know are home educated), is well over 25%. In the last year, our passionately creative team of two engaged and supported children and families, and challenged concerns about withdrawal, such as “off-rolling”, which emerged. They successfully brokered returns to school in over a third of these cases.
My plea is that we take the time to submit evidence – not because it will be heeded necessarily, but because we owe it to at least 45,500 children to challenge a weak and chaotic system. I think they’re entitled to more than a belief.
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New responsibilities to our care leavers
You cannot be serious… Yes, I have to own that I had a so-called ‘John McEnroe moment’ last month, although this was a silent John McEnroe moment as I work in an open plan office and as a leader l have to be aware of the shadow I cast. It would be most unbecoming if I were to have a good old stomp and shout, even though I wanted to and it would have made me feel better! What made me want to stomp and shout was the grant determination letter I had just opened from the DfE informing me of the amount of money granted to my authority to meet the new duties to care leavers. The money we will receive is woefully inadequate and adds a significant pressure to our already very challenging financial position. I have no doubt that ADCS colleagues nationally feel the same.
I welcome the new duties for care leavers. I take my responsibilities as a corporate parent very seriously as do leaders (officers and members) across the council, and DCS colleagues up and down the country. Extending the cohort of care experienced young people who can ask for support from a personal advisor (PA) to the age of 25 is the right thing to do, this is a new responsibility and must be funded as such. We know that our young people need our support and guidance well beyond the age of 21. As they experience the ups and downs of life, they will inevitably have needs for support that we as corporate parents have a moral duty to respond to. This is the case for any parent and child relationship and all the more so for the corporate parent – care leaver relationship. Acting as corporate parents for us means acting as pushy parents, acting ‘as if this were my child’.
Given this, who could argue with the new responsibilities (I refuse to call them ‘burdens’ – the term often used to describe new legislative responsibilities that come with a price tag), it’s absolutely right that responsibilities to our care experienced young people extend to the age of 25, we want to stay in touch with our care leavers and support them as they get older. What led to my John McEnroe moment was the knowledge that the grant will not even go half way to meeting the financial implications of the new responsibilities. What added to my frustration and disappointment was the reality that these new responsibilities come on the back of a 50% reduction in local authority funding since 2010, the growing demand we face and the LGA’s estimation that the funding gap for children’s services will be at least £2billion by 2020.
We welcomed Mark Riddell to Barnsley last week. We were eager to secure the support of the National Implementation Advisor to guide our work to deliver the collective ambition that we have in Barnsley to provide outstanding support to care leavers. We are in touch with all our care experienced young people and have put measures in place to remain in contact with them beyond the age of 21. Taking a tip from him, we have added to our arrangements for evidencing the services and costs of the services we are providing to care leavers beyond the age of 21 – you should too.
What makes my frustration and disappointment most acute is the knowledge that my feelings are shared by care experienced young people in the borough. I sat down with ‘Amy’ last week; she is a young woman who is care experienced and who regularly and quite rightly tracks progress with me on the difference we are making for children in care and care experienced young people locally. She likes the concept of ‘pushy parents’ the challenge we place on ourselves as corporate parents to respond ‘as if a child or young person were ours’. She has really welcomed the extension of responsibilities to care leavers and the right of access to a PA to the age of 25 and she was very involved in the development of our new Care Leaver Offer. She was delighted to share her thoughts with Mark Riddell about the ‘even better if’ for care experienced young people in Barnsley and nationally. Her reaction to the new grant: “Is the national commitment to care leavers to the age of 25 really a hollow commitment – do they really mean it?”
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Does this improve outcomes for children?
This is my first blog since I took over from Alison Michalska as President of ADCS.
I feel both excited and honoured to be representing ADCS colleagues at a national level and to have the opportunity to give voice to some of the challenges that face children, young people and their families, not forgetting those facing the staff who are called on to support them. I can’t recall a time when our support and the services we provide have been needed more. To that end I am thankful that I can draw on the support and skills of my colleagues who chair, attend and contribute to our policy committees, in the regions and to the Association’s work in other ways, as well as the ADCS staff team in our Manchester office, brilliantly led by Sarah Caton. It has never been more important to have active networks that can support the work of the Association and I would really encourage everyone who can to be an active member.
We have had some remarkable Presidents and Alison, who handed over to me, was certainly one of them. She has worked tirelessly on behalf of the Association to drive improvements and champion children. The work that she led in crafting and launching our policy paper, A country that works for children has made a real impact and is something I am determined to build on with the support of our members and others in the sector. Thankfully, as Immediate Past President, her support and wise counsel will still be available to both me and the Association. Alison you have truly been a star. I am also fortunate to be supported by our new Vice President Rachel Dickinson, DCS Barnsley. (I have known Rachel since we undertook our DCS training together as part of Cohort 5.)
In my inaugural speech I outlined the Association’s priorities for the coming year. I look forward to working with those both in and outside ADCS towards the delivery of these priorities, building on Alison’s legacy of delivering a country that works all for children.
Now, more than ever, we need to ensure the needs of children, particularly the most disadvantaged, are at the forefront of government’s thinking. I made no apology in starting with the need to ensure the system is adequately resourced for the task we face. There is currently a projected £2bn shortfall in children’s services by 2020 which will coincide with an estimated 5m children living in poverty. All of this comes at a time when the demand for services is on the increase. Our arguments need to be crisp and focused whilst pushing on the importance of early intervention and having a confident and competent workforce in place which includes growing the next wave of systems leaders. We will also focus on a range of young people increasingly hidden, missing from education or living on the margins achieving poor outcomes, particularly in terms of education. We will take a wide lens view of social policy, an integrated approach that seeks to ameliorate the impacts of poor housing, family poverty, insecure work, social isolation and mental health, and urge government to do so too. There are new glass ceilings in place for young people today in addition to the old glass ceilings that were never quite shattered.
We will support government where changes that are proposed support or enhance good outcomes and constructively challenge when they don’t, always asking the question, as our members do each and every day within their own local authorities, ‘does this improve outcomes for children?’
I am really excited at the prospect of driving this work forward over the coming 12 months and am humbled that you have elected me to represent you in this way. Rest assured, with your support I will give it my very best shot.
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Making safeguarding personal
This week our 0-25 Together Service organised their safeguarding conference “More than Protection” focusing on children and young adults with disabilities. The messages we all went away with were really inspiring! Dez Holmes from RiP/RiPFA spoke passionately about transitional safeguarding not just referring to our standard definition of transition at 18 or 19 years of age but recognising that transitions happen throughout life and it’s personal to the individual. So we then considered the approach to safeguarding in the adults arena in terms of making safeguarding personal; risk enablement, choice and control and rights based practice where if the individual has the capacity to make their own decisions they must be involved in the solutions to keeping them safe and building their resilience. The complexity of keeping someone safe is still fully acknowledged but it’s also about recognising their choices even if and especially if they are a teenager or young adult and have highly complex needs.
For the last few years different areas of safeguarding have been challenging the children’s and adult’s workforce, young people and families. CSE, gangs and an increase in violent crime including domestic violence and abuse, modern slavery and trafficking are challenging us to look at our models of safeguarding: rescue versus reform and recovery, risk enablement versus risk aversion. Research is growing to help different thinking and encourage a new approach. So what a great opportunity with the new “freedoms” for reformed Local Safeguarding Children Boards and Partnerships to review what they are doing! Local authorities, police and CCGs with their partners and the voluntary sector can promote safeguarding messages in young people and families that support resilience and share and build on best practice on what works rather than compliance, scrutiny and learning from what has gone wrong. Making safeguarding personal doesn’t mean not protecting, it encourages a tailored approach to individual needs. So my Lead Member said at the conference coffee break – ‘I’m up for that!’…and an update on the next steps will be expected for our meeting on Monday no doubt.
And finally…following on from Stuart’s piece in the MJ this week on the enormous impact of domestic abuse on families don’t miss the chance to respond to the consultation on the Domestic Abuse Bill, a really significant piece of legislation.
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Birmingham Children’s Trust: The Journey Starts Here!
I write this on what is my third day outside of the local authority family for the first time in 30 years. On 1 April Birmingham Children’s Trust was born, after what has been a long and challenging gestation! I joined Birmingham City Council in August, tasked initially with getting the Trust to the start line for an April launch. Mission (more or less) accomplished. 1900 staff TUPE-transferred into the Trust (sadly we left one behind by mistake: she will be with us soon!). An agreed budget of £200m is in place, along with some ‘invest to save’ funds. And through widespread engagement with our people, a sense of optimism and collective commitment to succeed has grown, I believe.
Birmingham’s history is well-known. It is a closed chapter, albeit with a legacy we must pay attention to. We are moving forward, with a renewed vision and sense of purpose, determined to improve the quality of practice and improve outcomes for the city’s most vulnerable children, young people and families.
So, what difference does being a Trust actually make? First and foremost, we are a large organisation but with a single focus: better outcomes for the city’s most vulnerable. This will be achieved through an unremitting focus on the quality of family support and social work practice. We are owned and commissioned by the Council, yet we are operationally independent and so free to change policies and procedures, quicken decision-making, to learn from and mimic the best around, all geared to making the Trust a great place to practice and to lead social work.
We will spend our money differently, and spend more of it closer to practice, by making savings elsewhere: in support services, in commissioning and procurement and in placements.
We have got this far with the support of Birmingham’s politicians and managers, and with the support of our staff, all of whom have made the great leap of faith out of the Council and into the Trust.
Children’s Services in Birmingham have been improving, under Alastair Gibbons’ great leadership, over the last couple of years. We now have the opportunity to kick on and make improvement easier and faster, this can only be a good thing for children and families.
What will make the difference for us? A focus on practice, relationship-based and systemic, manageable caseloads and improved learning and development; learning from best practice and research elsewhere; investing time and energy in supervision and better recording systems that support the professional task; helping practitioners be more reflective and restorative; giving the children and families we work with a stronger voice in decision-making that affects them; and working openly and collaboratively with our partners across the city to help find better ways of protecting our young people: these are some of the changes and new approaches that we hope will have impact.
I don’t believe that children’s trusts are a panacea or a solution to service failure. They are a particular type of vehicle that may help in certain circumstances. I am delighted to be in this one.
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Learning from ‘experts by experience’
As I returned to work after the Easter break and with daffodils, Easter eggs and fluffy chicks and bunnies to convince me that it really is spring and a new business year, I reflected back on the last few months and a freezing winter. A few weeks before, I was part of a panel at the launch of the second phase of the Care Quality Commission’s review of children’s mental health services and was honoured to hear a young woman and her mother talk as ‘experts by experience’ about their lives during her teenage years of suffering severe mental illness. I was overwhelmed by their resilience in the face of extreme challenge and inspired by their ability to reflect on their experiences for the benefit of others. The fact that the young woman’s mother gave up her social work career to care for her daughter made their story even more profound.
They really were experts by experience and I love that term and all that it offers us as we seek to develop our strengths based working practices with families. The young people we seek to understand and work with are experts about their lives, with resilience that we too often fail to recognise in our desire to help. Our ability to listen well, respect their expertise and work with their strengths surely has to make us more effective in our work. Mental health is such a huge focus right now and as an Association we are seeking to grasp the opportunities that gives us to work more closely with health colleagues at local, regional and national levels around partnership working for better outcomes. The government’s Green Paper on transforming children and young people’s mental health will bring funding opportunities for more support at an early help level and in our schools, although a long term sustainable plan is still needed. We need to be ready to link that into our other early help work and to encourage joint commissioning and working at all levels and bring together our shared expertise.
Life is tough in our world of children’s services, demand has increased whilst budgets most definitely have not, and it’s not going to get any easier but Alison Michalska, in her year as president, has led us on a great journey and the powerful message about creating a country that works for all children is gaining traction. As Stuart picks up the presidential crown, I know he will help steer the wonderful team that is ADCS through another great year and continue to build the ADCS influence that shapes strategy and policy that works for children. Will that influence extend to more money in the coffers? We can only keep on making the case but I know for sure that if we continue building our partnerships with health and education we stand the best chance of making our shared resources stretch as far as possible. Despite our challenges I love what I do and I love being part of ADCS. We really are stronger together!
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A look back at my Presidential year
Writing this blog was on my list of ‘things to do’ before officially handing over the reins to the wonderful Stuart Gallimore who became President of ADCS on 1 April - although I’m currently in denial that my Presidential year is over!
Almost a year ago to the day I was inaugurated into the role of ADCS President – a role which has been an absolute honour to undertake. I’ve always described the DCS role as ‘the best job in local government’ and being President in addition to DCS has been more than just the icing on the cake - it’s the cherry on top! This last year has been a whirlwind and one which I will never forget and as March drew to a close, I took the chance to reflect on the past year.
My Presidential year was even more special as 2017 marked ten years since the Association was created. You can read my column on how children’s services have changed in the past decade here. Whilst Presidents have come and gone, bringing their unique style and basking in the limelight, behind the scene is the brilliant ADCS team - the one constant that keeps the President well briefed and on the straight and narrow as well as supporting the work of the wonderful ADCS Policy Committees, Council of Reference and Board of Directors.
Presidents are not the only folks who come and go, the churn of Secretaries of State and Ministers continues - no sooner had we got to know Justine Greening and Robert Goodwill they were ‘reshuffled’ and replaced by Damian Hinds and Nadhim Zahawi. Early meetings with the new Education Secretary and Children and Families Minister have been very positive - let’s hope it continues that way.
In my inaugural Presidential speech I talked about the need for ‘a country that works for all children’. I have relentlessly championed this notion on behalf of ADCS and used several national engagements to explore what this might look like, and how we can prepare our children to thrive, not just to survive. I am delighted that we published our position paper in October 2017 and that it is being quoted to spark debate in government.
The baton I pass on is the challenge of how to resource ‘a country that works for all children’. With the number of children living in poverty expected to exceed 5 million over the next few years; growing demand and complexity of need amongst the children and families we work with; and at least a £2 billion funding gap expected by 2020, we urgently need a long-term, sustainable solution to the funding pressures we face, underpinned by a relentless focus on earlier intervention and moving in and ‘out’ of families lives. Without this, the greatest costs will fall on future generations of children and young people.
There have been so many enjoyable moments (and more than a few scary ones too) and I shall be forever grateful for my few minutes on Woman’s Hour not only was this a great opportunity to articulate some of the deepening challenges we face in children’s services but it reunited me with a long lost friend who just happened to be listening and got in touch again.
Managing presidential commitments alongside my ‘day job’ has been challenging but also incredibly rewarding. I would like to thank my team in Nottingham, the ADCS team, our former Immediate Past President, Dave Hill, former Vice President, Stuart Gallimore, and all ADCS members for their love, support and supreme tolerance over the last year. The strength of the Association is in its members. In the next couple of weeks I will, reluctantly, hand over my crown and badge of honour to Stuart who I know will be a fantastic and is determined to continue our commitment of creating ‘a country that works for all children’. Then it’s time for me to quietly return to the back seat, supporting Stuart and ADCS in my new role as Immediate Past President.
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Why social work matters
Judging by the ADCS twitter feed and the DfE website ‘World Social Work Day’ was not only a cause for celebration but it was being celebrated up and down the land. As was the case in many local authorities it was a chance to pause, draw breath and reflect on the amazing opportunities being a social worker presents.
One of our young people was featured on the DfE website saying thank you to her social worker - a remarkable young lady thanking a remarkable professional. Locally, we took the opportunity to present awards to social workers who had been identified by their peers and foster carers for going the extra mile. Later in the evening we had our annual recruitment fair for those completing their social work training who have the opportunity to speak to the folk who were in their position last year, to talk to team managers about what they can expect and to hear a little from me and my counterpart in adult services.
Again, despite the stresses and strains, and there are many, what came out was the sense of excitement and passion from the staff as they talked about being social workers in general and being social workers in East Sussex in particular. What stood out, and it’s no surprise, was the importance of team, the need to give and receive support, whenever and wherever. Talking to those who will be joining our profession it was clear it will be in safe hands, the desire to make a difference in the lives of our children and young was clear to see along with the trepidation that comes with stepping out of university and fully into the workplace. Again, they spoke of the support they received and often a desire to return to the team that had provided their placement.
Perhaps unsurprisingly it all left me reflecting on being in their position in the 1980’s. Driving home that evening I decided that given my time over I would do it all again. This was confirmed later in the week when I was out on a social work visit and saw first-hand the remarkable change great social work can bring about, in one case keeping two children with their parents and enabling them to thrive from a very shaky beginning and, in another, supporting a young boy to remain in his extended family. Walking back from the visit the social worker told me she had worked in East Sussex for 14 years and couldn’t think of anything she would rather be.
It is right and proper that we have a point in the year to celebrate our great profession but it should not be an excuse for not looking for examples to celebrate every week whilst also recognising the work of the wider children’s workforce, as it will only be by doing this will the public will get a true understanding of the remarkable work that goes on day in, day out, in every part of the country.
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The power of ‘us’
It’s an absolute honour to be writing a blog for ADCS and to be representing colleagues as the new Chair of the North East region. I really enjoy the opportunity to work with my colleagues across the region. For some, this might seem like a luxury, in the face of the day to day challenges we all face in our roles. For me, it’s essential to form a team in the region, sharing, learning and respecting each other’s perspectives. I feel privileged to be able to support this from the position of Chair, as I feel the responsibility to ensure we get to discuss and debate the issues for our region.
This past week, I chaired my first (very productive) regional meeting where we discussed sector-led improvement and support, something we haven’t been as good at here in the North East as we need to be, but we are making rapid progress at, with real commitment from everyone. Two local authorities on our patch were also designated as Partners in Practice (PiPs) recently. I would like to congratulate North and South Tyneside Councils on their well-deserved status as PiPs. This is great news for our region as a whole. We also finished my first meeting on time (just about…).
In preparation for my inaugural blog, I have been doing a lot of thinking recently about this sense of team. It’s a truism for many that the biggest asset we have in our roles are the people who work with us. I feel the same: not a day goes by without me learning something new from someone through a conversation, a discussion or a viewpoint. That’s what team means to me – being receptive and open to others, making the most of the different skills and approaches we all have, to make things more than the sum of their parts. We are enriched by these conversations, but only if we enable them, if we connect and accept that we have much to learn by listening to others.
Just this week, I have been able to benefit from the skills and experience of someone working with us on engaging with children in care; from authorities with experience of systemic models of practice where the value of family therapists and clinical psychologists working as part of the team was evident; to the strategic discussion of children’s services with senior leaders in the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector in Stockton. All examples of different conversations, forming different relationships and adding something different to the sense of team effort: our collective pursuit of a better future for children and young people. There is no blueprint for the challenges which face us now and in the future, it is only through the power of our relationships and our sense of team that we will have a chance of achieving great things.
I felt the same sense of team and collective endeavour at the recent ADCS Council of Reference meeting. I feel immensely humble to be part of such a dedicated and committed group of leaders, generous with their time and their knowledge.
It’s a team I want to play for.
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Overcoming life’s hurdles…
I have been reflecting on improvement in children’s services after reading previous ADCS blogs from Pinaki Ghoshal and Stuart Gallimore about the development of Regional Improvement Alliances, as well as hearing from colleagues about how sector-led improvement work is developing around the country. It struck me that the South West region’s journey to self-improvement can sometimes feel a bit like a hurdle race – lots of barriers to overcome just in order to keep up with the pack, let alone truly shine!
Here in the South West we sometimes (literally) feel a long way from the centre of things and even when you have crossed the (soft) border into our region, you may have another 200 miles to go to reach the furthest (mainland) authority. Any attempts to develop and sustain regional working in this part of the country (and I know we are not entirely unique in this respect) will always have to find a way to ensure geography doesn’t become a barrier. With sector-led improvement I believe we have the chance to overcome that barrier through harnessing the enthusiasm and commitment of colleagues across the patch who are passionate about improving what we do for children and young people and who believe, as I do, that every authority has elements of good practice to share, and that the sharing can be a positive and two-way benefit.
Levels of engagement in sector-led improvement across the region have recently been at an all-time high with a fantastic regional summit focussed on sharing good practice and exploring effective leadership strategies to sustain service improvement in November, the director self-assessment and peer challenge processes completed in December, as well as strengthening links with chief executives and lead members. We have also made significant developments in our regional benchmarking data – we’ve shamelessly built on the learning from initiatives that other regions have adopted and so we no longer see ourselves as lagging significantly behind the pace.
But only the best is good enough for our children and young people! Our next barrier is having no local authority with Ofsted ratings of ‘good’ across the board, and so no local authorities eligible to be designated as Partners in Practice (PiPs). Given the DfE’s strong focus on PiPs as a key component in the improvement agenda (with a new wave of PiPs announced this week), coupled with our peninsula geography making distance a challenge for any external PiPs, we risk being further marginalised from the pack. But hurdles are there to be overcome and never daunted we still seek to show the world there is another way!
It isn’t rocket science, but we are increasingly recognising that the route to a successful South West strategic plan for improvement will take a bespoke approach for our circumstances. One that is both strengths-based – making best use of our existing talents and at the same time being really clear about the contributions that we need from other agencies and developing partnerships with PiPs from other regions who can bring great added value in the areas where we most need support.
Nothing less than a podium finish will do!
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The Funding Gap
Earlier this year I had the pleasure of joining members of ADCS Council of Reference at the Association’s Annual Policy Seminar, discussing our priorities for the coming year. It genuinely was a pleasure, as it always is, because amid all of the challenges facing local authorities – and there are very many – there was a palpable sense of purpose and commitment to doing the best we can for children and their families.
At the same time, there was, perhaps inevitably, a sense that we are facing circumstances that are as demanding as any we have known, with decreasing council budgets and more and more children and families in need of urgent help and support. We must continue to think and act in new ways if we are to support all children as they deserve, but this is becoming increasingly challenging with a £2bn funding gap looming large on the horizon. The most important strategic development will be the introduction of Regional Improvement Alliances. The Alliances should give some real traction to sector-led improvement, support and challenge work that is already taking place in our regions so that local authorities can more effectively learn from and share existing best practice, and act collectively to avoid failure – to ‘catch local authorities before they fall’ – critically, before service standards start to slide. I’m excited by the prospect of local authorities making effective use of national, regional and local information, both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, so that we can all support each other better.
Beyond that, my personal list of issues for the coming year includes: how we could work better with both maintained schools and academies, and Regional Schools Commissioners; how we should continue the work of improving educational outcomes for children in our care; how we could move to support children who leave care as well as we support our own birth children; and how we should advocate for a school curriculum that is fit for purpose – a curriculum that properly prepares all children to thrive in the 21st century.
However, all that is to ignore the funding crisis that every single element of public service is facing – children’s and adult services, and across other council services; schools and academies, the NHS, police, and all the rest. After years of austerity-driven cuts, whole areas of public service have been hollowed out to provide critical support where it is most needed, at the cost of preventative work, leading to inevitable increases in the demand for crisis services. The funding gap for children’s services will be a reality, and the challenges won’t be solved by the Treasury shifting the deck-chairs between Departments and budget headings. Unless the funding gap is addressed, too many children and families will be left in poverty without the support they should have in a modern affluent society, however creative local authorities are.
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Resourcing a country that works for all children
LGiU and the MJ recently published their State of Local Government Finance Survey 2018. The survey, which provides a snapshot of the key pressures facing councils and their ideas for the future, found that children’s services is now the most immediate financial pressure for councils – above adult social care for the first time. The survey also found that despite three quarters of councils managing to sustain the quality of frontline services over the past year, evidence suggests that their 2018/19 budgets will see activity further reduced in several key community services including parks and leisure, adult social care and youth centres.
Since 2010 local government funding has been reduced by almost half, at the same time there has been a significant rise in the number of children and families in need of help and support which shows no signs of subsiding. Our Safeguarding Pressures Phase 5 research finds that the number of children becoming subjects of a child protection plan has increased by 78% over the past decade. (Later this year ADCS will publish Phase 6 of this research, bringing the evidence base up to date – watch this space.)
Nobody can underestimate how hard local authorities have worked to protect the services our communities rely on from budget cuts. We’ve cut costs by innovating, re-designing and reconfiguring our services. We’ve merged back office functions and we increasingly collaborate across local authorities to create economies of scale and shape markets. But we are now facing a level of demand and complexity for which current resourcing is insufficient. Neither central nor local government wants children’s social care to be a ‘blue light service’ but with at least a £2 billion funding gap expected by 2020 we cannot go on as we are.
Whilst it’s true the government has invested £200m in the Innovation Programme until 2020 and funding for innovation in children’s social care is to be welcomed, grant funding is time limited and there is a risk that as the funding for the various schemes and projects dries up, councils may have to cut the very same services they established with the fund. There is similar uncertainty around future funding for the Troubled Families Programme which is having a positive impact in many local areas. Our very own Michael Bracey, Co-chair of the ADCS South East region and Director of Children’s Services in Milton Keynes wrote a blog for the Guardian on this very issue recently. Uncertainty still surrounds the government’s plans to fund vital local services, including children and young people services, via business rate retention, rather than central grants.
ADCS, the LGA, Solace and others are working hard to highlight the unsustainable funding pressures facing local authorities and impact of cuts to local authority funding on the vital services we provide. Despite our efforts, it seems that the Treasury believe that there are still endless efficiencies to be found in children’s services. Don’t worry, we are continuing to work with the LGA and civil servants to provide the evidence that this simply is not the case and I urge you all to press your lead members into action to support the work we are doing to achieve a sustainable budget settlement for children.
We urgently need a long-term, sustainable solution to the funding pressures we face, underpinned by a relentless focus on earlier intervention and moving in and ‘out’ of families lives. Without this, the greatest costs will fall on generations of children and young people. It’s all very well striving for a country that works for all children, but how are we going to resource it?
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An essential date for your diary
It’s that time of year again; you can now book your place for the ADCS Annual Conference in Manchester in July. The programme isn’t confirmed yet, but I’ve been holding the dates in my calendar, and I know I’d move mountains to be there. Why?
For me the conference has two main attractions:
- The programme
- The people
I’m confident about the programme, even though I don’t know what’s in it yet. In fact, some of my confidence comes from the very fact the programme hasn’t been confirmed. I know that in organising the conference, ADCS stays attuned to the changing policy and practice landscape, and that as we get nearer to the conference, the most important issues currently confronting directors of children’s services (DCSs) and their senior management teams will all find space on the agenda. Hot topics from previous years have included children missing from mainstream education, support for unaccompanied asylum seeking children, child poverty and sector-led improvement.
This time last year, no one could have anticipated a July plenary session on ‘Recovery from a Major Incident’, but Paul Marshall’s informative and moving presentation about his city’s response to the suicide bombing at Manchester Arena was a vital contribution to the conference. Back in 2016 the Department for Education (DfE) had a slot focussing on the national assessment and accreditation system which provoked a very ‘lively’ response. [Note: no civil servants were harmed in the making of that session!]
DfE ministers get a hearing, as do Ofsted emissaries. Collaborative workshop sessions create exposure for a variety of local authority initiatives and involve partners ranging from universities, think tanks and other government departments to longstanding friends to the sector such as Research in Practice.
Above all, there’s time and space for the people who experience our services to be heard. Children’s words and voices threaded through the 2016 video “Changing the Narrative about the Care System”. In 2017 Lisa and Latoya from Reclaim Project wowed delegates with their head-on challenge to exclusion based on class, gender or race. And people will remember Kerry Littleford’s first-hand account of her family’s experience of the care system for a very long time.
Before, between and beyond the workshops and plenary sessions, the conversations continue. The first day’s DCS-only discussions allow for some no-holds-barred introspection; invaluable time in the company of the only other people who really understand the pleasures and the perils of this role because they do it themselves. We don’t all think alike, so this time can be a useful wake-up call, confronting received wisdom and opening minds to other possibilities. I always come home with fresh evidence to support (or strangle) a proposal, a new approach to try or a different way of looking at things. It can also be a comfort finding others in the same boat; those facing the same difficulties and seeking solutions to the same problems. In 2015 and 2016, when I was leading an ‘inadequate’ authority, my DCS colleagues who had ‘been there, done that’ gave me cause for hope. Last year when we emerged on the sunnier side of intervention, they cheered our ‘good’ result. This is my ADCS family.
As the conference opens up to all members on the second day I’m reminded of how much strength and talent there is across the sector. These are the directors of tomorrow, and the backbone of our services today, so those of us who are directors already have a responsibility to nurture that talent. I’m always pleased when my assistant directors and heads of service are able to attend the conference, and proud when they are presenting their work (though probably secretly hoping that no one else will be so impressed they offer them a better job straight away). I definitely keep my eye out for rising stars and look forward to them appearing in the ‘Little Blue Book’ in subsequent years. If you are an ADCS member wondering whether to give the time to this conference, I would urge you to do so. It provides an opportunity to network and is essential CPD. If you are a director who is hesitating to book, I would say: come along, and bring your top team.
The time away from your home authority, the well-informed camaraderie, the ‘headspace’ to think differently, the wide variety of purposeful inputs and the unapologetic focus on outcomes for children and young people, all make this a very worthwhile 2-3 days in the calendar. I look forward to seeing you all in July.
More information on the conference, including booking forms, can be found here.
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In the space
In the space
At a recent regional meeting of the South East ADCS group we were joined by a couple of Department for Education (DfE) officials who will be providing regional support in the future. I was struck by how frequently the above phrase was used by both of them. Since then, I seem to be hearing it being used more and more, as if, after buying a red Ford Escort (yes I’m that old!) one constantly sees other people driving red Escorts.
Over the last couple of weeks at different events and discussions with ADCS colleagues, Ofsted and the DfE, I’ve been confronted by just how busy our space is. DCS’s are very familiar with juggling, but it feels more and more as if our space is contracting as flexibilities are reduced, while at the same time also being made more complex by others entering the space that we are used to inhabiting. The range of organisations that are interacting with us in our space increases: the LGA, Ofsted and DfE are all of course familiar partners. More recently they have been joined by an increased presence from our neighbouring Councils as part of more robust sector led improvement arrangements, Partners in Practice, Trusts and Commissioners in some areas, Regional School Commissioners, Multi Academy Trusts and ever more complex NHS configurations.
Added to this there are the range or organisations jostling within the school improvement space and others offering magic bullets that purport to help keep children safe. This is at a time of shrinking budgets, increased demands, an unfriendly press and a dramatic representation of a social worker with a hip flask close at hand. Every day I probably delete at least 20 emails from organisations who contact me out of the blue offering some kind of help. I do not have the capacity to read these emails and the help they offer is generally at a price that is not affordable.
Despite all of this complexity, hundreds of balls up in the air at any one time and the wicked issues we have to tackle, we do on the whole deliver our statutory roles well and we do on the whole get things right. However, things are measured, generally things are getting better for children and young people. This is in part, I think, because we are the unique glue that binds things together locally – champions for children, keeping them happy healthy and safe. I’m proud of the work that teams in my area do to make a positive difference for children. I do wonder, however, if we might be even more effective if we were liberated from constantly manoeuvring around an ever-crowded dancefloor in order to have more space to work in partnership with each other, supporting and challenging, but not shouting.
I’ll soon be entering my fifth year as the DCS in Brighton and Hove. I still feel that there is a lot to learn and a lot to do. I’m lucky to be working with great colleagues locally and if I’m not sure about something I know that there are lots of people I can pick up the phone to talk to – DCS colleagues and partners. I’m also lucky to have had the time to understand the city I work in and the complex partnerships locally. There are of course no quick fixes, but by sticking with things, holding one’s nerve and remembering why we are here we can make a positive change for children and young people. It’s a great space to be in.
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Can we fix it? Yes, we can
I imagine we all approached the New Year in a slightly different way. Some of us will be renewed with the optimism a New Year brings, whilst others will have a sense of impending doom when considering the extent of savings that have to be made in the year to come. Others will be focusing on looking back on the things that were achieved in one of the most difficult financial environments many of us have faced. Whatever our individual positions it feels that as a sector there are some aspects we can approach with renewed optimism. For example, Ofsted’s Annual Report 2017 highlights that more authorities are on the up compared to the year before, with more recent inspection reports showing further authorities significantly improving their children’s services.
By the time you read this we will have held the annual ADCS policy seminar where we spent a considerable amount of time focusing on sector-led improvement (SLI) and Regional Improvement Alliances (RIAs). SLI is what it says on the tin - local authorities taking responsibility not only for their own performance but for the performance of the sector as a whole. This is why ADCS is working with the LGA and Solace on developing RIAs – a model of improvement that aims to catch local authorities before they fall and puts the sector in a central role in the improvement journey of children’s services. The DfE has also been involved in these discussions. The development of Partners in Practice (PiP) further strengthens the view that the skills, knowledge and expertise for support and improvement lies within the sector. Thinking back to a couple of years ago this would have been unthinkable, with some holding the view that the experts were outside the system not within it often at significant cost and limited benefit to the local authority involved.
Although a regional approach cannot and will not guarantee authorities don’t go into intervention, a more open regional approach that presupposes all authorities will be open with their peers about the challenges they face, the help they need or the support they can provide can only be a good thing and reduces the likelihood of intervention. Put this alongside a more grown up and proportionate inspection regime and there is cause for optimism that we are moving in the right direction. It is now up to all of us and all our authorities to play our part and get on with it.
Continuing on the theme of sector-led improvement, in my own region, we have seen West Berkshire move from an Inadequate to Good rating from Ofsted with a clear plan predicated on support from the sector. And Hampshire County Council, with its PiP hat on, is doing some amazing work whilst always positioning that work within the wider South East sector-led offer where all authorities in the South East are making a contribution to improve outcomes in other authorities. This is the picture across the country as local authorities are working together to improve outcomes for children and their families. Improvement can never be the prerogative of the few but must involve harnessing the expertise of the many. Even in authorities that are perceived to be struggling there are always pockets of best practice that even the best can learn from. ADCS is absolutely clear that every local authority, irrespective of their most recent inspection outcome, has something to share and everyone has something to learn.
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The role of the social worker
Sarah Lancashire is right up there as one of my all time favourite actresses, her portrayal of exasperated, downtrodden police officer Sergeant Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley set high expectations of how she would play social worker Miriam in the Channel 4 drama Kiri. It’s safe to say she has split opinions. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. On one hand, there was considerable outrage from some social workers who didn’t recognise the vodka swigging, dog toting Miriam as one of their own and were dismayed by the portrayal of managers who appeared to care more about covering their backs than dealing with the aftermath of the murder of a vulnerable child. Others urged people to remember that this was a work of fiction and that very few dramas provide an entirely accurate reflection of a whole range of professions/professionals. Whatever your view, over three million viewers tuned in to the first episode which shows the sheer level of interest in the important work that we do.
As the drama progressed it became more of an expose of the challenges of race, identity and adoption and the juxtaposition of the rights and concerns for the foster carers and the birth family. For those of us at the heart of children’s social care, these dilemmas are all too familiar and, sadly, so too is dealing with the death of a vulnerable child and the complex repercussions.
So, am I disappointed with Kiri and what it is doing to inform public opinion about the social work profession? Well, sort of, but I’m left reflecting on how difficult it is to accurately portray a profession that works in an intensely private arena - right at the heart of complex family lives. We all shy away from the opportunity to have the camera crew follow our social workers no matter how reputable the production company - somehow it’s just not feasible nor ‘right’. It’s not surprising then that we end up with the dreadful, sensational hidden camera from an ‘undercover’ social worker who has infiltrated a trusting social work team - it is unlikely that these sorts of ‘exposes’ will want to show social care workers as the hard working, dedicated professionals that we know they are. Other portrayals come from our favourite soaps and dramas. The Archers did an ok job with the social workers supporting Peggy cope with Jack’s dementia and the social worker supporting foster children when Caroline and Oliver opened their home and hearts to some ‘disadvantaged children from Birmingham’. Apparently Birmingham is quite near to Ambridge… Whilst the social workers were seen in a positive light, I could see the Indian skirt and open toed sandals despite it being on the radio!
So, the big question is how do we improve the perception of social workers when we live in a society where for every tragedy there has to be a professional to blame and, as we know, that blame can all too often fall to the social workers involved with the child? Where every day social workers are transforming the lives of children and families but these successes are rightly not a cause for public celebration?
Part of the problem is many people struggle to articulate what a social worker, particularly a child and family social worker, does. Relatively small numbers of people have contact with social workers and the significant media coverage surrounding desperately sad situations typically colours perceptions. This is compounded by the lack of a clear narrative about this life-saving work. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get messages out far and wide about how social workers can and do transform lives? This was clear in the final episode of Kiri in a scene where four care leavers told Miriam what a difference she’d made to their lives.
Until then we will all carry on doing our job – which I believe really has to be the hardest job in the public sector. Perhaps, knowing that day in and day out we are helping families stay together; that we help thousands of children live safely and that we change lives for the better is recognition enough.
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Invisible to education
I want to use this blog to shine a spotlight on children who are not visible to the education sector and by that, I mean those that aren’t attending mainstream or special schools. It’s a complicated picture and we must first better understand what we mean by children who are not visible to the education sector in order to champion the needs of these children. Imagine a cutlery drawer at home: the whole drawer identifies the cohort, but within each section, we have different groups with their own unique needs.
So, the drawer includes a section on children who are excluded (either legally or illegally) from school, and children educated in other non-mainstream settings e.g. at home, as well as children not being educated at all. It includes children who are accessing illegal schools (although their parents may say they are being electively home educated), and those who move from one school to another and are referred to as “missing from education”, some of whom may be in care.
I am particularly concerned about these invisible children in the sense that they can’t be found or seen in official statistics, so I am grateful to ADCS, the Children’s Commissioner and Ofsted for raising these important issues through recent reports which tell us that nationally:
- Around 38,000 children and young people are exclusively or primarily enrolled in alternative provision – this is a hugely diverse sector with many high-quality providers but not all are monitored or regulated
- The number of permanent exclusions has increased by 44% since 2012/13 – locally we are seeing a reduction in exclusions, bucking the national trend due to the strategic approach of the ‘Lincolnshire Ladder of Behavioural Intervention’ – designed to support schools in achieving zero exclusions and the full inclusion of our most vulnerable students
- Approximately 50,000 children across England could be home educated. We know that many parents choosing to educate at home do so because of philosophical reasons but there is growing evidence that parents can be put under pressure or feel that they have no option but to home educate. This cannot be right
- Ofsted has identified nearly 300 establishments which could be operating illegally as unregistered schools often in poor quality accommodation with no outside space.
We all agree that missing out on a good education is bad for a child’s development and ultimately for their life chances. The social and financial cost of allowing children to get to the point of exclusion are huge. Being excluded from mainstream school means children are more likely to be vulnerable and that for many this is the first step along a journey that ends with adult social exclusion. So, it is essential that we are clear about identifying those who are falling through the gaps in the education system both to prevent this where possible and to champion their right to a suitable education where it is not.
Some potential solutions we have discussed within the Association’s Educational Achievement Policy Committee include:
- Reinstatement of co-ordination of mid-year admissions by local authorities, this should be funded as a new burden
- Local authorities should be able to direct academy schools to accept pupils, especially children in care, to avoid unnecessary delays in accessing education
- The guidance on exclusions should be reviewed with a more robust presumption to inclusion: the independent review panel must have the power to direct a governing board to reinstate an excluded pupil and local authorities might be given the power to fine all schools and academies if local requirements, laid down by the Schools Forum, are not met
- Exclusions and/or managed moves should not be considered unless adequate, properly resourced alternative provision is already in place
- Local authorities should commission alternative provision places where the local area’s schools budget is used to fund. The current funding arrangement for alternative provision free schools does not align commissioning responsibility, funding decisions and accountability. This needs to be reviewed. Where schools commission their own alternative provision, there should be a nationally agreed quality assurance framework which schools use when placing pupils. There is clearly a role for Ofsted to inspect compliance
- It is noted that the inspection regime could promote and reward schools which are highly inclusive. I believe that Ofsted should expect all schools to have an inclusive approach which helps pupils to develop resilience through restorative approaches.
ADCS believes the government also needs to clarify its position on elective home education: local authorities cannot see or speak to children who are home schooled, yet we have duties to make arrangements to enable them to identify, as far as is possible, children in their area who are not receiving a suitable education; and to intervene if it appears that a child is not receiving a suitable education. In the vast majority of cases there are no concerns and there is no evidence that home-educated children are more likely to be in need of safeguarding than any other child. However, there is evidence to suggest that families who wish to avoid public agencies due to abuse or neglect, for example, or send their child to an illegal school, may use elective home education as a legal mechanism to avoid scrutiny. We want the government to work with us and home schooling families so we can understand how we can balance the need for private family life to be protected, whilst collectively ensuring that children who are at risk are safeguarded. This is no easy task, but it must be done.
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To infinity and beyond!
Well this is my first blog since being elected to the ADCS Board in November. I just want to start by saying how thrilled I am to be elected and thanks to everyone at ADCS for making me feel so welcome. I look forward to meeting and working with many of you in 2018 and being the best we can be for children, families and our teams.
Christmas almost seems like a distant memory now but I had the pleasure over the Christmas break to spend a whole day with my daughter and her friends watching a marathon of Disney and Superhero films. Typically in the Jones household this then lead to a rather heated and fascinating debate about which superhero we would want to be when we grow up. I replayed this debate when I returned to work and the consensus was reached amongst colleagues that should I ever be asked at an interview what my five year plan is, my response of being Wonder Woman could potentially be a career limiting response. Or could it…for those of you who know me well you will know I love a challenge… the themes from those films gave me food for thought in terms of leadership and might do the same for others too (full credit to my perceptive daughter and husband here).
We all have a story - Our individual stories that brought us into wanting to make a difference for children and families may not feel as exciting as a Hollywood blockbuster but they matter. The people and teams we lead will resonate with your story…make time to share yours.
Sometimes we need to move out of our comfort zone - We are living, working and leading in uncertain times. I have been part of many discussions about the funding challenges ahead and the need to re-design and deliver sustainable services for the future. As leaders we need to push through the pain factor of these challenging conversations, because if not us, who?
We are being observed - In the same way children learn and model behaviour of others, our teams we work with do the same. Lead in a way that’s worthy of emulation.
Sometimes you have to keep moving – Built in many of our fabrics in the roles we do is our desire to take action when we see injustice and want to help everyone who needs it on the way to achieving an overall goal. The hard part is knowing when to divert and help and when it is time to keep moving.
People desire a mentor to learn - I’ve been really fortunate throughout my career to have met people who have invested time in me and continue to at present (although they may question where their efforts have gone after reading this blog). I know many of you do this or indeed have a mentor yourself. If not identify someone you can give the gift of time and support to in 2018.
Leadership exists to serve people, not be served – As many of you will know I’ve been part of an extensive improvement journey in Norfolk and during my time have experienced many different approaches to leadership. I’ve seen first-hand how powerful it can be when a leader shifts mind-set and unlocks talent around them.
I know, all quite high-level reflections but may give you a bit of an insight into my value base and personality. Hopefully even if just a small part of the above resonates with you, raises a smile, or indeed gets you thinking what superhero you want to be when you grow up then that’s not a bad way to end a Friday.
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Wishlist for the new top team at the DfE after the reshuffle
It’s 3:45pm on Monday 8 January and the cabinet reshuffle is in full swing. I’ve got one eye on the #cabinetreshuffle hashtag on Twitter. Some of the memes are making me smile, but I still don’t have an answer to the question: who’s going to be doing what at the Department for Education (DfE)?
It’s 3:20pm on Tuesday 9 January. We found out yesterday that Justine Greening had been replaced by Damian Hinds. It’s also now clear that Robert Goodwill, who was only with DfE for six months or so, is no longer in post. Who is to replace him has yet to be confirmed.
It’s lunchtime on Wednesday 10 January and rather than a whole new line-up at the DfE, there’s some familiar faces remaining or returning. Under the new Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, Nick Gibb and Anne Milton retain their Ministerial posts for school standards, and apprenticeships and skills respectively; Sam Gyimah returns to DfE, this time with the brief for higher education; Lord Agnew stays as Under Secretary of State for the School System, and Nadhim Zahawi joins the Department in an Under Secretary’s role with responsibilities still undefined at the time of writing.
So, as a DCS, what am I hoping Damian Hinds and his team will pay attention to in 2018 and beyond? Notwithstanding the importance of schools and education to a department with ‘education’ in its title, I hope the ministerial team will focus on the needs and interests of children in a broader way.
This is an opportunity for the team to show system leadership on children’s issues at the heart of government and to reflect back to other departments the impacts of their policies and practices on children, their families and carers. Whether it’s urging the Ministry of Justice to provide a secure estate that actually keeps children safe, challenging the Department of Work and Pensions on the impact of benefit changes to vulnerable families, showing the newly renamed Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government how housing insecurity and homelessness impacts on children’s health and educational outcomes, or pressing the Department of Social Care and Health* on the nationwide commissioning of sufficient Tier 4 CAMHS beds. There is work to be done to make sure policy-makers centre the whole child in their thinking. In their publication “Bright Futures”, the LGA recommended a ‘children and young people impact assessment’ to ensure that the needs of children are central to all policy and legislative changes as did the Association’s recent policy position paper, “A Country that Works for All Children.” I would love to see this become a reality.
Nine secretaries of state ago, my life in children’s services began in early years and I think there’s room for some refocusing of DfE’s thinking here. Although I acknowledge the value to working parents of the extended entitlement and funded places for some two year olds (at the same time as I recognise the significant concerns of the childcare sector about the funding), there’s a gap in our thinking about what good support and environmental enrichment looks like to children under the age of two and their families. I think there’s a policy gap here which needs to be filled with something that isn’t ever more hours in institutions for ever younger children; nor is it parenting classes. The best kind of early intervention doesn’t feel like an ‘intervention’ at all.
Like Alison, in her blogpost last week, I hope there will be a long, hard look at funding, and in particular that the DfE will recognise the way that demand pressures in statutory safeguarding services inevitably eats up budgets and steers funding away from prevention and early help. Yes, we should be striving to steer our funding upstream in our own local authorities, but with a funding gap predicted to be £2billion by 2020, we know this is a Sisyphean task. Fresh funding is increasingly targeted towards novel ideas or services in need of remediation. Perhaps 2018 could be a year of creating funding opportunities to support the basics in all local authorities and making sure those basics explicitly include early help where it is needed?
A greater consideration of early help would necessarily mean a broader view of the workforce too. Clearly the national assessment and accreditation system is still an important focus for DfE, but (gets loudhailer out) it’s not all about social work! There are apprenticeship standards for child, young people and family practitioners and their managers, and there’s scope for an intelligently designed career pathway in work with children, young people and families that encompasses routes into social work, but equally recognises the many other valuable roles transforming children’s lives for the better. I would welcome more Departmental awareness of, and support for, these roles.
Finally, I’d also like to see DfE pay attention to the spluttering noises in the children’s services leadership pipeline. I was lucky enough to receive fully funded professional development before taking on the DCS role; it’s much harder now to secure that kind of training for the DCSs-in-waiting, but no less necessary. Although the data shows the sector is slightly less volatile than it was perhaps a year or two ago, there’s still a bit of a chew-them-up-and-spit-them-out mood, which costs the sector valuable experience and leaves too many of us taking on expanding portfolios in challenging financial contexts, with limited training and support. We need smooth, effective succession-planning to have a cohort of DCSs that are ready to face the next set of challenges, because whoever is doing what at the DfE, there will be challenges aplenty in the year ahead.
* I hope you saw what I did there!
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The year ahead...
I want to start the first blog of 2018 by wishing you all a very Happy New Year. I hope that you managed to get a much-deserved break over the holidays and are refreshed and raring to go. To the social workers, doctors, nurses, paramedics, firefighters, police officers, foster carers and many others who were keeping people safe and caring for others over the festive period – a huge thank you. You play vital roles in our society.
Many of you will have spent the Christmas period celebrating with loved ones, exchanging gifts and eating a little too much! Christmas can also be a good time for reflection and the plight of an increasing number of children and families living in poverty, struggling to afford the basics, heat their homes or pay their rent were never far from my mind. Sadly, this is the reality for many and is in stark contrast to the jolly memories of Christmas many of us have.
It is unacceptable that in the next few years the number of children living in poverty is expected to exceed 5 million. I think we can all agree that one child living in poverty is one too many. I fear we are at risk of becoming desensitised to the deprivation that exists in our communities as we see homelessness and the number of families relying on local food banks rise. There is a danger this could become the accepted ‘norm’ - we cannot allow this to happen. The staggering levels of child poverty in this country must serve as a call to action for the nation to get serious about tackling this issue. England is the only country in the UK without a child poverty reduction strategy.
I have also spent some time in recent days reflecting on the deepening financial and demand pressures in our world of children’s services. Local government funding has been reduced at a time of rising demand for some of the most expensive child protection services. In Nottingham, we have seen our grant funding cut by half over the last three years. There is a similar picture across the country as local authorities are forced to prioritise keeping children and young people safe from the immediate risk of harm over providing help earlier and other vital services and facilities valued by local communities such as children’s centres and libraries. This coupled with reductions in other public agencies, including the police, health and education is having a clear impact on our ability to improve outcomes for children and young people. Preventive work to manage demand is the only way to secure a sustainable fiscal future of local government but more importantly, this investment is the best chance we have to turn around the lives of the most disadvantaged children, by closing the gap in terms of attainment, health and access to services. A preventative approach to improving children’s outcomes should be the golden thread running throughout all government policy now and in the future.
I don’t want to be all doom and gloom, New Year is also a time of hope and positivity. Despite the many challenges we face there is much to be celebrated in the world of children’s services. Ofsted’s latest annual report paints a picture of continuous improvement across children’s services departments and recognises the sterling efforts of dedicated staff up and down the country. In all my years of working in local government one thing rings true to this day – directors of children’s services and their local authorities remain relentlessly committed to working with others to deliver high quality services and improve outcomes for children, young people and families in their local areas. I was pleased to see the hard work and commitment of a number of familiar names recognised in this year’s New Year’s Honours list including Dave Hill, ADCS Immediate Past President, Alan Wood, Former ADCS President and Nick Whitfield, Chief Executive, Achieving for Children, to name a few. Well done all.
It wouldn’t be a New Year blog without a hope for the year ahead. I hope that government reaffirms its commitment to children and young people by listening to the concerns of ADCS, the LGA and others by urgently addressing the deepening funding gap facing children’s services, expected to be £2bn by 2020 whilst also reaffirming its commitment to preventative services for children, young people and families. Without this the greatest cost will fall on generations of children and young people.
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A time of joy for many
As we move towards the Christmas break it does feel to be all around us. Invitations to school events in the in-tray, my annual donning of a Santa suit for the reception classes at my wife’s school and conversations about the trials and tribulations of family Christmases past and planned. For many a time of real joy, a time spent with family and friends, and I wish you a good one however you choose to celebrate. Yet there is sadly another side for all too many.
Whatever your take on the Christmas story there is something prophetic that it centres on a homeless family, fleeing persecution and relying on gifts brought by strangers, at a time when more families find themselves without security of tenure and for whom Christmas will be in temporary accommodation or worse spent homeless. It is hard not to think of the families who were involved in the Grenfell Tower disaster, but we should remember they are just the most visible example of the difficulties families face as a result of local authorities being unable to provide good quality accommodation that allow a family to turn a house into a home.
Similarly, for those of you attending carol services the carols we sing have a similar prophetic ring, the picture of Good King Wenceslas taking food out to the poor in the story echoes with those who are challenged to put food on the table. Our local food bank has been having a major push to restock as a result of being very heavily depleted during the summer school holidays so that families will be able to celebrate on Christmas Day in the same way I hope you and I will be. Whilst I think the work that food banks do is remarkable I don’t share the view of some that it is to be celebrated as a sign of a society that cares but rather a disgrace that they need to exist at all. Surely as one of the wealthiest country’s in the world people should have access to reliable work, earning a reasonable wage and a benefit system which provides for those in greatest need. The recent rise in child poverty, expected to reach 5.1 million by 2022, is not something we can simply accept without comment.
As an Association we have championed the need for a country that works for all children, well having children growing up in families that have a secure home and food on the table doesn’t seem too much to ask, neither does a country that sees levels of child poverty, falling not rising. A good starting point would be an ambitious child poverty reduction strategy. ADCS will go into the New Year resolute in doing all we can to play our part in achieving the vision of a country that works for all children, but in the meantime how about matching the money you spend on food for Christmas on a donation to your local food bank?
Here’s wishing you and yours a peaceful Christmas and all the best for the New Year.
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Leadership – is it time to decrease an ever-decreasing circle?
I thought it would be timely to write about leadership given a number of live conversations underway regarding qualifications required, in the main, for those who dare to enter into the realms of leadership in social care. Within this context, leadership vacancies across children’s services remain among the most difficult to fill nationally, with the circle of talent ever-decreasing and at a time when the ‘Wicked Issues’ (Grint, 2005) facing the sector are multifarious and in terms of complexity, unprecedented.
According to recent research published by Community Care only 50% of directors of children’s services (DCS) roles are occupied by social workers. However, is this any surprise given the tenets of the Children’s Act 2004, which resulted in the merging of previous social services and education departments, with many of the new DCS posts occupied initially by education professionals? To answer the exam question regarding the minimum qualification required for a DCS, one first needs to understand the nature of the role I would posit.
The role is about leading a system that enables children to achieve their full potential, whilst being afforded protection to reduce the risk of impairment of health and/ or development and/ or significant harm. It’s about having a critical understanding of the ‘authorising environment’ (Moore, 1995) alongside a strong political antennae, to ensure the conditions for social work to thrive are in place; commissioning prowess, to ensure sufficiency of provision to meet the ever augmenting plethora of demands throughout the child journey; the ability to mobilise response across multi-agency disciplines, through fostering respectful and productive relationships; and getting the balance right regarding the time one spends, to quote Hefeitz (2002), between the ‘balcony’ and ‘dancefloor’. What matters most is our ability secure good outcomes for children and young people by working with partners to shape multiple systems that impact on the lives of children and their families right across the public sector e.g. schools and health.
The DCS needs to be professionally multilingual. This means being at ease with discourse pertaining to ‘Section 47’ investigations one minute, ‘Progress 8’ another and potential pathways for children with a diagnosis of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder the next. Not to mention advocating strongly for the services children and families rely on in challenging budget negotiations.
Most professionals acquire qualifications very early on in their careers, which they seldom rely on at the most senior level. Those who progress to become great leaders in any sector are, in my experience, characterised by their thirst for learning and continuous professional development. They are authentic, aware of their own limitations and possess the humility to defer to others with greater technical expertise.
They are passionate and through voluntarily transcending professional disciplines, have developed experience which over time gives them the credibility to lead. They also possess emotional intelligence and exhibit empathy with their workforce, particularly when ‘the going gets tough’.
I do concur with proponents of a system mandatorily led by social work qualified professionals, who assert that DCS post-holders should understand practice of social work and know what good practice looks like. I believe this attribute should be a prerequisite for anyone wanting to serve as a DCS. As a systems leader one needs to ‘get it’ and put the conditions in place, through a distributed leadership model for high quality frontline practice to thrive.
This can be achieved by spending quality time with practitioners and ‘dancefloor’ activity, which includes direct observation of practice, so that one has a contemporary understanding of the challenges faced by practitioners on the ground.
Given the above in sum, it is my view that experience, behaviours and resilience, complemented by continuous professional development, are integral to what is required to become a successful DCS, rather than any particular professional qualification. The alternative view, if mandated, would only result in decreasing an ever-decreasing circle, at a time the sector can ill-afford.
My assertion is borne out by the many DCS colleagues across the country, with a diverse range of backgrounds, who lead effective child protection systems and of whom there are too many to mention.
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On the frontline of looking after vulnerable children
Foster carers are at the heart of our care system and carry out an invaluable role on behalf of society. They are on the frontline of looking after vulnerable children who are unable to live with their own families. The love and support offered by foster carers can transform the lives of the children in their care and help them overcome difficult early life experiences.
Below are just some examples of what children and young people have told us about their experiences of foster care as part of our #changingthenarrative campaign:
‘When I was at home, things were totally different. I didn’t really do anything at all. I didn’t feel like anyone cared…
I’ve got someone to rely on now’
Good fostering is about all of these things combined. First and foremost, it’s about providing children with a safe, stable, loving family home.
The overwhelming majority of children in our care are in foster placements. Many children and young people across the country are cared for by loving, dedicated foster carers from a different background to them, this includes foster carers who have opened their homes and hearts to unaccompanied asylum seeking children living in the UK. It was heartwarming to read an article in the Guardian recently which highlighted the love, stability and dedication Muslim foster carers provide to the children they care for. This is the picture across the board.
There is currently a shortage of foster carers - the Fostering Network estimates that over 5,900 new foster families are needed in England to meet current demand. As the number of children in our care increases, so too does our need for foster carers from all walks of life. We all have a responsibility to change the narrative around care and build the reputation of fostering to encourage a more diverse mix of people to come forward.
Local authorities are investing in local and regional recruitment campaigns to encourage more people with the right skills and dedication to come forward so that all children in need of a foster placement get the support they need. For some time, ADCS has been calling for a national foster care recruitment campaign to recruit more foster carers from a range of backgrounds who can meet the needs of the cohort of children in care. A larger pool of foster carers will lead to greater placement choice and greater placement stability – this can only be a good thing for children.
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Young Offenders as Victims
This week I have been reflecting on my early career as a Youth Worker in a semi-secure Children’s Home. In this role I worked directly with many young offenders who, despite their misdemeanors, were all very damaged or mentally ill children. At that time I felt like a lone voice advocating that we should be helping them come to terms with the abuse and harm that they had suffered rather than punishing them.
Sadly, youth justice is still predicated on seeing the young person as an ‘offender’ first.
This focus leads to a simplistic delineation between ‘offender’ and ‘victim’, which can be at odds with the experience of many young people in the youth justice system who are victims of crime, as well as abuse and neglect.
Many children who come to the attention of youth justice services will have been exposed to trauma in their life – either directly experiencing physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse, or witnessing events that cause extreme distress. Some will have experienced repeated and extended ‘complex trauma’ that increases the chance of lasting issues.
Of course it is imperative not to excuse offending behaviour and its impact, but rather to understand and address its causes in order to prevent its recurrence. Signs or disclosure of past trauma may only become apparent after an offender has been in the system for a period of time. The wider discourse on victims of crime largely neglects to acknowledge that young people who offend are disproportionately more likely to be a victim of crime.
The evidence on the relationship between children who offend and children who have suffered trauma is well established. Studies indicate that between 33-92% of children in custody have been affected by traumatic experience. A study of YOT caseloads in London found that:
- Around 50% of children in the caseload have had traumatic experiences, been the victim or witness to crime, abuse and/or violence;
- Around 40% of the total caseload have emotional and mental health needs related to these experiences; and
- Fewer (around 20% of the caseload) receive support for these needs with provisions cited as variable and over-stretched.
The negative effects of unaddressed trauma in young people can include developmental delays, difficulty in developing and maintaining trust, diminished resilience and increased aggressive or risk-taking behaviour. Thus, recognising trauma and understanding its impact can guide how to work with children who have offended to break cycles of offending and prevent further victims.
With this in mind, the multi-disciplinary national Victims Reference Group (which is chaired by a member of the Youth Justice Board) was convened to tackle this challenge. It was tasked with informing a re-focus of the system and influencing policy and practice by considering current thinking and development around trauma, adverse childhood experiences and other initiatives.
Locally, Nottinghamshire’s Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner is also taking forward a project, with the cooperation of City and County Youth Justice colleagues, to identify the nature and extent of the relationship between the victimisation of young people and their subsequent offending in order to inform how to meet their needs and address risks.
The role of schools, parents/carers and the services that we provide are vital in providing support to this vulnerable group. As are:
- Making sure that both victims and offenders have equal access to effective support services (and making sure that they are aware of these services).
- Opportunities for young people to engage in structured and supervised social activities.
- Education and awareness raising for victims, offenders and staff.
- Engaging parents and carers of young people in breaking the cycle of victimisation and offending.
Whilst never condoning violence or serious crimes, I am advocating that we should be working with young offenders, and those at risk of offending, to understand and support them to come to terms with the impact on their behaviour, of poverty and their family experiences.
In exactly the same way, that across partnerships we all play a role in safeguarding our young vulnerable children we need to ensure that safeguarding our teenage offenders is also everyone’s responsibility!
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Our shared focus
It just so happens that the week I was due to write the ADCS blog coincided with a number of connecting factors; of most personal significance for me is a change of employer. This is always an opportunity to reflect on past successes and, perhaps more importantly, to think about what I might do differently in the future.
The same week saw the publication of the Expert Working Group’s report, Improving Mental Health Support for Our Children and Young People, Alan Wood announced as the Chair of the Residential Care Leadership Board and a meeting of the Advisory Group for the National Fostering Stocktake; which I am directly involved with. The Advisory Group is engaged in an important debate on permanence, in all its forms. All good work, all quite distinctly separate.
So I was wondering if it was just me that is struck, when reading reports or announcements on improvement work in the sector or the latest proposals on what needs to change, by the strong principles and commendable focus on delivering the best outcomes for our most vulnerable children alongside an apparent lack of connectedness – in a world that constantly talks of the importance of clear coherent strategic plans and leadership that allows social work to flourish and young people to reach their potential.
I am sure I am not the only Assistant Director who worries that practitioners and our teams will become increasingly swamped in their efforts to deliver the demands of the various initiatives and meet the expectations of inspection, rather than focusing on delivering effective local services that impact on the real outcomes for children, their family and their kin in the communities they live in. That is not to say the former aren’t important, they are. Inspection and new ways of working are an important part of the continuous improvement journey all local authorities are on.
I think locally and nationally we have to strive to develop policy and practice that has a sense of connectedness to the people we serve, and continuity with the broader national policy agenda. This requires dialogue across the sector, and its partners, and across government departments.
A road map is required to provide that clarity on what the offer for the most vulnerable should be and how that is to be delivered, in the context of our diminishing resources. A clear commitment to prevention, linking early years, school readiness, persistent absence to health outcomes and emotional wellbeing for young people is surely obvious. Clear alignment with the work of Public Health is also essential if any meaningful impact is to occur and an acceptance that our work is with children, and children live in families, of many shapes and sizes, who in turn, live in our communities. Communities create social capital, and this, if invested in, will contribute to self-sustainable and strong communities who play, learn, are healthy and safe and will thrive in the future.
Is it not time for us to urgently agree our shared focus and purpose for the collective endeavours of so many excellent programmes and reviews to guarantee that our efforts have meaning for children and families? And if it is measured by anyone, it is measured by their successes not ours.
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Working together has been a bit of a theme over the last few...
Working together has been a bit of a theme over the last few months in the Greater London region, a theme we are sure resonates with other regions across the country, and not just in relation to the statutory guidance currently out for consultation.
We, like other regions, have been working hard to put our Regional Adoption Agency arrangements on a firmer footing. (NB We are grateful to the regions who are further advanced with their arrangements for sharing their learning and to James Thomas, former DCS, Newham Borough Council, who led this process for us before taking up his new post as DCS in Tameside).
Across the region we have a shared passion to make the most difference we can for this important cohort of children, and although across the 33 London Boroughs our current arrangements are all very different in terms of structures, volumes of activity, our individual funding and the outcomes we achieve for children we have a shared aim of improving outcomes for children and young people. Our scale also adds complexity: how do 26+ Boroughs combine services to best effect?
The answer has been through: going back to our shared value set; building on our existing sub-regional collaborations; and ensuring that in our combination of a Central Hub, four sub regional spokes and continued child-focussed arrangements at Borough level we use scale to deliver efficiency and to manage adopter supply. We do this without losing our valuable child level local insight which results in careful matching across the range of permanency options for children.
We have also been working together with London Councils and Borough Treasurers to gain a better shared understanding of the financial pressures on children’s services. Our recent survey found common areas of financial pressures including: social work workforce; placements for children in care and care leavers; costs of supporting UASC and families with no recourse to public funds; SEN/High Needs costs and SEN Transport. 27 out of 30 London Boroughs overspent on children’s social care budgets – equating to £3.5m per Borough or 9.6 per cent of aggregate budgets. The challenges of a growing population, the impact of housing pressures and unfunded existing ‘new burdens’ and new ‘new burdens’ will I’m sure resonate widely. It has however brought DCS’s and finance directors into a closer dialogue which we hope through our combined efforts gained greater purchase with decision makers more widely.
Finally, with our London Safeguarding Board partners we have also been considering the opportunities and challenges of the permission to develop new foot-prints for safeguarding childrens boards set out in the Working Together to Safeguard Children consultation document. As a context, London’s NHS clinical commissioning groups are combining so that each new configuration covers six or so Boroughs and our Borough Police commands are moving to arrangements covering two to four Boroughs. So, in this context of change how do we hold onto what we know makes children safer: strong partnerships focussed on the lived experience of our children built on robust mutual challenge and multi-agency quality assurance?
All of the above are works in progress but all reflect the need for systemic responses to the challenges we face as children’s system leaders and to the needs of children and families. Our alliances and partnership working nationally, regionally and locally are key to our meeting these challenges and advocating for the solutions which will make children safer and improve outcomes for the children, young people and families we serve.
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A proud parent
On Friday night I went to the refectory at Bedes School, one of the independent schools in East Sussex, and had my tea with the Head and over 60 children and young people. This was followed by a performance of 15 young people who had spent two weekends working with folk from the Glyndebourne Opera company and East Sussex Music Service developing a piece of music from scratch, which was truly remarkable. The conclusion of the evening was an inspirational speech from someone who had just submitted their MA thesis and was waiting for the result. Put all of those ingredients together and you have the East Sussex Children in Care Achievement Awards Ceremony. It is always an inspirational evening that brings home the real meaning of being a corporate parent. We are blessed by a partnership with Bedes School who sponsor and host the event and were working with us to provide school places before the government’s Boarding School Partnership programme started. The setting has a real impact on our young people with the inevitable Hogwarts comparisons being made. Similarly the partnership with Glyndebourne is fabulous. As one young person from the Virtual School choir put it, ‘I didn’t know what the opera singer was singing about but it was clearly all about emotions, which became the basis of the piece they produced’.
So why am I blogging about this when these events happen in every local authority in the land? Well it’s because it’s a timely reminder (having returned from the National Children and Adult Services Conference where the talk both inside and outside the conference hall was one of cuts to services and a very real sense we were standing on a cliff edge) of what brought us into the job. As our inspirational Acting Virtual Head said to one of our young people who had nailed his GCSEs, ‘it sounds cliché but seeing you on that stage is what we do this for’. It’s true. Everyone who took to the stage had a beaming smile being cheered to the rafters surrounded by staff and carers who had supported and encouraged them. There is no doubt in my mind that the environment has never been tougher, we have gone beyond working harder or smarter but there is hope in forming effective partnerships sometimes in the most unlikely places and by being inspired by the stories of our young people, who lead the way in overcoming adversity and being resilient. All our partners said they take more out than they put in working with our Virtual School, it’s a bit like my attendance at these events I give my time and come out reinvigorated and inspired. Is it any wonder that the final words from my Lead Member as we left were, ‘just make sure that when we are scraping the bottom of the financial barrel we still have money for this’.
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A family for life
Last month we celebrated National Adoption Week and this year’s theme was finding the right adopters for sibling groups.
There are currently over 2000 children waiting to be adopted in England, of which 61% are waiting to be adopted together with their siblings. Siblings are the longest and most significant relationship most of us will have over the course of our lifetimes. For many children, being adopted with their siblings provides continuity and mutual emotional support during what can be an exciting but overwhelming time.
There are so many immeasurable benefits for keeping siblings together. Siblings support and understand each other in a way that no one else can. They will have shared life experiences and can help each other with new experiences. Children who have siblings often learn to build strong relationships and develop healthier attachments to others and siblings can teach each other social skills and empathy too.
In Nottingham, we are committed to finding homes for children who are considered ‘harder to place’ which includes sibling groups. Although this can sometimes cause delays in our adoption timeliness it is most important to pursue the best placement option for the children in our care. It is vital that we work hard to match the right child/ren, with the right family. We had great success last year when we placed six siblings together, which shows our perseverance does pay off!
Adoption is the best solution for many children in the care system but it is not the only means of securing permanence and stability, options like Special Guardianship are increasingly being used to secure permanent, stable and loving homes for children for whom adoption is not an option. Emphasis needs to be on finding the right permanence option for every child be that adoption, Special Guardianship or, where possible, reunification.
We have recently re-configured our social work teams within children in care services, to provide a Permanence Team led by one of our experienced staff. This is part of our joint work within the East Midlands Regional Adoption Agency (RAA) to drive adoption and, equally importantly, other permanence options for our children. We anticipate that our work with the RAA will further improve practice and permanence performance for our children. We will continue to pro-actively pursue more timely adoption as part of partnership and participation in the RAA, whilst also continuing to find families for harder to place children.
We marked National Adoption Week by celebrating the role that extended family members can play in an adopted child’s life. In Nottingham, our adoption service found homes for 47 children during 2016 but there are many more who are in need of the love and support that a stable and committed family life can provide.
Our outcomes for children are positive in terms of the number of children achieving adoptive homes. For the three years prior we were able to secure permanency through adoption for 153 children, with the majority (59%) of children adopted, falling into one or more of the four hard to place categories.
Being a parent can be tough, but all children deserve a loving forever family - so if you have space in your home, and your heart, for more than one child, it is definitely worth considering adopting a sibling group.
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‘Britain faces a social mobility emergency’
‘Britain faces a social mobility emergency’, these were the words of Justine Greening at the Sutton Trust Social Mobility Summit 2017. Improving social mobility so that all children and young people, irrespective of their background, can achieve their full potential, has been an aim for successive governments, and having a Secretary of State who is placing social mobility at the heart of her agenda is most welcome.
All children and young people should have the opportunity to lead happy and fulfilled lives, no matter where they are born or live, so it cannot be right, and indeed we should be ashamed, that in the UK today, the biggest determinant on what you achieve and how long you live is where you are born. In Closing the Gap? (2017), a report by the Education Policy Institute, it is clear that without a marked improvement in the rate at which gaps are being closed, it would take us until almost 2070 before disadvantaged children did not fall further behind other students during their time in education. Currently, disadvantaged children start school at least 4 months behind and finish secondary about 2 years behind others. That is a staggering outcome.
The moral dilemma and purpose is clear, and if that alone wasn’t enough, the economic one is as stark. If the UK could bring its social mobility rates up to the European average it would be worth an extra £39 billion in GDP.
We are starting to see announcements that will try to address these issues of social mobility. These represent a real chance for the sector to innovate and do some things differently.
Opportunity Areas are now becoming operational. In my own local authority, in North Yorkshire County Council, we have the North Yorkshire Coast Opportunity area. The plan, which is being chaired by Sir Martin Narey, looks fantastic and I have huge hopes and ambitions for the area. However, if it produces some great establishments but doesn’t inspire the community to use them, it will fail. So, a key aspect of its success will be engaging communities. This aspect of social mobility is filling our thoughts currently as we look to become operational.
In addition to this the Secretary of State recently announced a range of new measures to tackle inequality and boost opportunity across the country including a network of English hubs to improve early language and literacy, trialling evidence-based home learning environments and plans to transform alternative provision so that all children and young people who are not in mainstream education have access to good education, to name a few.
And to make the case for improving social mobility even stronger a number of recent reports have also added to the body of research and evidence that already exists. A new report by the Early Intervention Foundation calls for language to be a child wellbeing indicator given its now recognised importance and we need to think harder about this area and about how we address this locally as part of a strategy to close the gap and address social mobility.
Earlier this month ADCS also published a new policy position paper, A country that works for all children’, which describes the growing concern of the increasing numbers of children in poverty, the huge budget gap we have to provide services and the damaging effect this is having on social mobility and calls for urgent action.
This is a truly wicked issue. We need to grab the opportunity this agenda presents and think differently. We all have a clear moral purpose to keep this agenda at the top of all that we do. If, as the Secretary of State suggests, it is an ‘emergency’ then let’s treat it as such and focus urgently and relentlessly on the issue, led by cross government and cross department thinking.
If nothing else, we need to be able to say that we have been ambitious, built on what works, and left a lasting change in the right direction. Our children and young people deserve nothing less.
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A country that works for all children
In my spare time, when I’m not doing the occasional bit of gardening, restoring a semi-derelict cottage or catching up with the latest episode of The Archers, I’m sometimes lucky enough to find a quiet spot to read the news. Over recent months many media reports have highlighted the challenges and ressures facing a growing number of children and their families today.
Most recently I have read reports of how government welfare reforms such as Universal Credit, which brings together a number of benefits into one single payment, are impacting negatively (albeit unintentionally) on some of the most economically fragile households. Some people are having to wait several weeks to receive their benefits which means that many children and families are being left destitute struggling to afford even the basics during this time, causing them unnecessary anxiety and uncertainty. In addition to this we know that four million children in this country are living in relative poverty, of which two thirds are from working households. The Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that this figure will rise to five million over the next few years. These figures are staggering and raise questions for central government, not least why England is the only country in the UK without a child poverty reduction strategy, and how other government reforms are impacting on children and their families. Just last week ADCS published, ‘A country that works for all children’, exploring the impact of different initiatives and policies on children’s lives and outcomes, touching on child poverty, welfare reforms, the impact of austerity across the breadth of children’s services, including schools, and early help.
We hear more and more of parents struggling to feed their children, pay their rent and heat their homes, all things many of us take for granted. More families are relying on foodbanks and schools are running breakfast clubs, providing clothes and even sanitary towels to ensure that their pupils don’t go without. At the same time local authorities have had to scale back and, in some cases, close vital early help and preventative services such as children’s centres and youth services due to reducing council budgets and rising demand for our services. Now, when you consider all of these things together, on top of the rise of poor quality, unstable employment options, a stagnating economy and a housing crisis it is clear that this is not a country that is working for all of its children (or their families).
But I don’t want to be all doom and gloom. As Rachel Dickenson, Chair of the ADCS Yorkshire and Humber region and DCS, Barnsley Metropolitan Borough said in her blog a few weeks ago we have seen the strength of our communities in coming together to support vulnerable people in their local area, through supporting local foodbanks, for example, this makes a real difference to the lives of our most vulnerable children and families. We have also seen the strength of local government shine through finding new or different ways of working. And this week the government has announced that people will no longer be charged for using the Universal Credit helpline, this is welcome and will go some way towards helping the most vulnerable in our communities, but fundamental questions around Universal Credit remain. Let’s not forget the tireless, ceaseless work of staff and the impact of carers up and down the country who are making a difference to the lives of many children and young people. Just yesterday I read an article in the Guardian by a care leaver talking about her experiences of the care system and how her foster parents gave her a happy home.
So, as I sit in a quiet corner catching up with the latest news, amidst all of the media reports one thing stands out for me – where parents are struggling to afford their rent or buy food for their family the country is not working for their children. Where foodbanks are running out of food because so many families are at crisis point – this country is not working for those families. Where schools are having to buy clothes and sanitary towels for their pupils – the country is not working for those pupils. Our policy paper, taken together with the LGA’s seven clear priorities for children’s social care, sets out a clear way forward to improve services and improve outcomes for our children and families. Government must heed these messages and the autumn Budget is the perfect opportunity to reaffirm a commitment to improving the lives of children, young people and their families.
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NCASC 2017 Round-up
The National Children and Adult Services Conference 2017 opened on Wednesday 11 October in Bournemouth with speeches from LGA Chairman, Lord Gary Porter, ADCS President, Alison Michalska and ADASS President, Margaret Wilcox.
In her opening address to conference Alison spoke about some of the shared challenges facing children’s and adult services including managing demand, reducing costs and demographic pressures, as well as tackling domestic abuse, county lines, modern slavery and supporting families with no recourse to public funds, to name but few. Alison went on to talk about systems leadership and sector-led improvement in children’s services emphasising how all councils, irrespective of their Ofsted judgement, have something to share and something to learn. She went on to say that some of the most valuable learning comes from those local authorities who have recently improved from ‘inadequate’ to ‘requires improvement’ or ‘good’.
The full transcript of Alison’s opening address is available, here.
That morning the Association also published a new policy position paper, ‘A country that works for all children’. The paper highlights the issues in current public policy, including the impact of austerity and an increasingly fragmented approach to public services, overlaid with rising levels of child poverty that are cumulatively having a negative impact on children and families.Taken together with the Local Government Association’s seven clear priorities for coordinated action on children’s social care , the paper sets out a clear way forward to improve services and outcomes for children, young people and their families and includes a number of priority action areas for government.
Read the Guardian’s coverage of the ADCS policy paper, here.
Alison’s speech on building a country that works for all children from Wednesday afternoon can be found, here.
Conference delegates were kept busy in sessions that ran throughout the morning and into the afternoon and there was an interesting session focussed on early help and prevention where we heard from President Alison Michalska about Nottingham City Council’s local early help offer. Due to popular demand, Education Question Time returned this year with themes including the role of local authorities in school improvement and in facilitating healthy and critical challenge to schools in their local area, the ever-changing schools landscape and the National Funding Formula. Our very own Kathryn Boulton, ADCS Elected Director and Assistant Director in Derbyshire County Council, spoke passionately from the panel about the commitment of local authorities to safeguarding children and young people, irrespective of whether they attend an academy, maintained school or any other type of educational setting.
On Wednesday afternoon we heard from Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers who shared emerging themes from their National Fostering Stocktake. These included issues around delegation, the support available to foster carers, recruitment and what children and young people felt they needed from foster placements. Other sessions focussed on relationships and sex education and improving mental health support for children in our care.
On Thursday morning delegates could choose from a variety of sessions on school improvement, creating a resilient children’s service and promoting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing.Shortly after Robert Goodwill, the Minister of State for Children and Families, addressed the conference. In his speech, the Minister acknowledged that the skills and expertise to bring about improvement in children’s services lies in the sector itself and announced an expansion of the Partners in Practice programme, and more information about the what works centre for children’s social care. He expressed his commitment to working together with the sector to build a self-improving system for children’s services and announced £20m in funding to support Regional Improvement Alliances.
Read the ADCS response to this announcement here.
Later that morning we heard from former ADCS President, Andrew Webb, and Anthony Douglas, Chief Executive, Cafcass in an interesting session on the rising number of care applications being made to courts. There was a complex range of factors leading to the rising number of children coming into care including risk aversion, new case law, better reviewing as well as a dramatic rise in emotional harm and many families not getting the support they need at the right time, driven by austerity.
On Thursday afternoon Sally Hodges, ADCS West Midlands Regional Chair, led a session on the region’s approach to managing risk and demand in supporting children and families. Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, talked about the vulnerability and stability indexes her team are developing and alerted the audience to a forthcoming report on the experiences of girls in the justice system. Ofsted led a session on the new inspection of local authority children’s services. In this session Helen Lincoln, DCS Essex County Council, and Anne Stoker, Assistant Director Children’s Social Care, Enfield Council shared their experiences of piloting the new inspection and shared their top tips, slides to follow.
The day ended with a series of evening fringe meetings followed by the much anticipated quiz night hosted by the Guardian (which the ADCS staff team won)!
A variety of sessions ran throughout the Friday morning including Future Multi-Agency Safeguarding Arrangements for Children and Transforming Youth Work. In plenary sessions later that morning we heard from Robbie Kent from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) and Dave Hill, Immediate Past President of ADCS, contributed to a session on children’s social care responses to crisis.
So much happens at conference that it’s impossible to include everything in here, however, there has been lots of Twitter activity over the last three days. Search #NCASC17 or see @ADCStweets for a summary of events.
Speeches and presentations from the event will be posted onto the conference website when available. Here’s to what has been, yet again, another enjoyable conference. We hope to see you all again next year for plenty more interesting discussion and debate in Manchester.
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Highs and Lows
Highs and lows are part of our professional reality and this week has been no exception, with the highs and the lows coming in quick succession and often surrounding the same issue. Take the meeting of the Children, Young People and Families Partnership this week which I have the privilege of chairing. This well established strong partnership meets every two months to deliver our collective vision, determined to deliver better outcomes for children and young people in Barnsley. We know that in order to improve outcomes for every child in the local area, tackling poverty and improving family life has to be a key priority.
So it was a definite low that we were considering an update from the Anti-Poverty Delivery Group on the impact of the roll-out of Universal Credit on families claiming benefits who live in the five towns and 22 villages that combine to form the Metropolitan Borough of Barnsley. The wait for benefits (in many cases exceeding six weeks) means that families are struggling with their most basic needs and that some children are coming to school hungry and with that hunger they are far from ready to learn; a travesty of social justice in 21st century England.
The high however, was the increasing evidence of social agency across the borough with the development of proactive community responses to support those members of the community who need a helping hand. Holiday hunger schemes; the ever-growing network of food banks; community shops; information and advice points; and volunteer mentors are all examples of the community based assets that are now making such a difference to the lives of children and families. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the austerity climate - as the capacity of local government to fund services to support citizens who are struggling reduces, it is critical that the space it occupied is filled by stronger communities that are enabled and empowered to grow their resilience.
So it’s absolutely right that the borough’s work on poverty and early help is strategically driven by the council’s Communities Directorate, engaging a coalition of community leaders; voluntary sector organisations large and small; public sector organisations and local businesses in the local fight against the effects of poverty. It’s what a modern working environment looks like; each component part, in this case each partner, is essential to delivering our priorities and to making the biggest difference that we possibly can.
Our schools, in the knowledge that they are often the first port of call for families in difficulty, are keen to play their part in early help. They already do so much through the work of parent support advisors; breakfast clubs; healthy snacks; adhering to national guidelines on nutritional standards as well as maximizing take up for free schools meals. Through the agency that the Children, Young People and Families Partnership brings, schools were anxious to secure an up to date road map of support within their area of the borough so that they can effectively signpost families who need help.
And here’s another definite high – the Family Information Service. This service plays a crucial role and the importance of its work maintaining accurate information can’t be over-estimated. This comparatively small service is playing an invaluable role in supporting the growth of individual and community resilience by ensuring everyone can access up to date information about local community support online. It’s a contribution that could be overlooked yet for a comparatively small investment it makes a real difference in improving family lives. As it inevitably steps back, it would be perilous for local government to neglect investment in this area.
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Just a thought…
With the summer holidays fast becoming a distant memory I guess like everyone else we are all well and truly in the budget setting season. It should come as no surprise that every year it gets harder as we look for savings on top of those that have gone before. At the same time, we see an increase on those demand led budgets increasing at a time when expectations continue to rise, be they from those we work with, politicians or the general public. Whilst it is refreshing to have a Secretary of State who seems to have a real passion and interest in ‘place’ in general and children in need, in particular, I am left wondering where we will find the money to enhance any service offer in that direction.
The current projection from the LGA of a £2bn shortfall in children’s services by 2020 is a truly scary prospect as we see, on a daily basis, the needs of those children and families who rely on the services we provide becoming more complex. I doubt I am alone in looking at making further reductions in the very areas we know make a difference and reduce future demand to ensure a degree of protection for our so-called ‘statutory services.’ Authorities up and down the land have found themselves having to cut back on early help services, children’s centres and youth provision often in the face of strong local opposition and at a time when families are on the receiving end of a range of benefit changes and wider service reductions.
Listening to Alison Garnham from the Child Poverty Action Group at the ADCS annual conference in July was a sobering experience and I would recommend the presentation to you which is available on our website. It all contributes to the Association’s broader call for ‘a country that works for all children’ that Alison our President has so brilliantly led. The danger is, however, that just like Oliver Twist, we are seen as constantly wanting more without identifying where else it might come from in a tight fiscal climate and this is where my thought, although not original to me, and my ask to government comes in. If for the sake of argument, we accept the £2bn deficit by 2020 it is interesting to consider that in 2015/16 local authorities spent nearly £1bn transporting children to and from educational settings. Surely this is an area ripe for review when we consider all that has changed since the legislation was passed in 1944, placing a responsibility on local authorities to get children to school. In my own authority, the budget for this service is approaching £12m, we provide virtually no discretionary travel and this amount can be compared with the £14m savings target we have been working towards over the last three years. I know one of my neighbours spends more on home to school transport then he does on social workers. Clearly, there will always be children with additional needs where this transport is vital but in the current economic climate, this cannot be a level of universal expenditure that can be justified. Other than ensuring we are providing it as efficiently as possible, it is an area of saving that is not open to me. In this age of austerity is it right that we take no account of household income or in some instances pay parents to take their own children to school because it is cheaper than sending a taxi to meet a duty that has been unchanged for over 70 years? A further reduction of early help services or a national review of home to school transport policy – I know which I would prefer, just a thought…
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All the noise is coming from the shallow end…
For the umpteenth time in the last few months I have read articles by commentators on the future of children’s services that I would describe as coming from the ‘shallow end’. Swimming for leisure formed a significant part of my childhood experience and queuing for the Bovril machine afterwards, only half dried and freezing cold, having failed to heed my mum’s warnings about ‘catching your death of cold’, was considered a treat.
The thing about the kids who were in the shallow end was they were barely able to do the ‘doggy paddle’ and too afraid to wander into the depths of the mid pool, let alone the 15 foot deep end or the high diving boards beyond – they were also very noisy!
So where are the serious swimmers hanging out? Where is the ‘deep end’ debate about children’s services vision, direction and policy? Well for starters in ADCS!
ADCS through our national policy committees and regional networks brings together the knowledge, expertise and local experiences of colleagues across the country and offers practical and professional advice to ministers and policy makers to secure better outcomes for children, young people and families. We also produce many key policy papers and this year’s theme ‘a country that works for all children’ sets out a compelling vision from which will flow many policy discussions and debates, but how do we broaden, deepen and lead the debates that are key, with those working within children’s services as well as broader policy makers? To have credibility this must include front-line managers and practitioners.
In my mind there are a suite of key issues that warrant significant debate at all levels:
- How do we take seriously the business of family support and resilience and what implications that has for safeguarding services and services for children in care and children in need?
- What does that mean for our important dialogue with government about resources in children’s services?
- How do schools and other education services sit at the heart of prevention and safeguarding practice?
- How do the current reforms in the health service assist rather than detract from good policy and best practice?
- SEND services are not where they need to be, how can we establish a national agenda for excellence that will stick?
- How can we massively improve the experience for all children and young people in care (yes, with LOVE included as part of the deal)?
- How can we establish a comprehensive sector-led children’s services improvement regime, that compliments the Ofsted inspection process?
- How can we put children, young people and families at the centre of all we do?
- How do we train, support and maintain a workforce of consistently high calibre?
We are at a critical moment in terms of the future direction for children’s services, it is incumbent upon directors of children’ services to lead and shape the debate, we are the serious players – well into the ‘deep end’ of the realities of planning, policy and delivery. We must get onto the front foot, be deeply thoughtful, reflective, inclusive and influential in our approach.
We must not let the voices from the shallow end dominate.
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The power of relationships
How often do we hear ‘it’s all about relationships’? Whether it’s to do with leadership, organisational change or working directly with individuals or teams.
There is so much theory about the role that relationships play in bringing about positive change either individual personal change or organisational change – but nothing is more powerful than when you see or experience the real impact that an effective, empowering relationship can have first-hand.
I had this privilege recently in my own local authority, in Derbyshire, when a young care leaver came to talk to our Virtual School Governance Board about their experience and personal journey with their creative mentor. (For the purposes of this blog I’ll call the young person Leigh.)
What was particularly impactful was that 18 months previously I had had a conversation with Leigh about joining the Governance Board as a young persons’ representative. Initially Leigh seemed keen to do this, however, when it came to the first meeting apologies were given, as even with support, Leigh had felt unable to attend and participate.
Therefore, within 18 months, to be faced with an articulate and hugely more confident young person describing to a large group of adults (in an intimidating boardroom) the work that they had been doing with their creative mentor and the impact that this had had on their confidence and skills was amazing! Both on a human level and also as evidence of impact (I’m always looking for evidence of impact).
So what was it about Leigh’s relationship with the creative mentor that had made such a difference and had clearly been so transformative?
Leigh described the mentor as being there for them (in a way no-one else had ever been) and finding things that they were interested in and then developing that interest together. Listening, understanding – even gently challenging them but always believing in them, (as I would describe it, being non-judgmental). Leigh also said that through doing all the creative activities they had learnt more about themselves and developed more confidence.
It reminded me of a light bulb moment I had in my early days of teaching when I properly understood (following some counselling skills training), that to be effective in my relationships with children and young people (and adults) I needed to consistently demonstrate unconditional positive regard for individuals and empathy and needed to be authentic. I fast learnt that children could very quickly tell if you didn’t have time for them or weren’t being genuine in your responses.
The innovative Creative Mentoring programme that our Virtual School has developed is designed for young people in care that are struggling to engage in education, or who are at risk of exclusion or disaffection. It emphasises skills such as empathy, leadership, teamwork, problem-solving, determination, calmness, respect – which are all included in PISA’s creative and collaborative problem solving and global competency measure and aimed at preparing young people to re-engage in learning and work readiness.
It was great to have this programme recognised as good practice when it was named a runner up at the Pupil Premium Awards 2017 - so all credit to the team.
Reflecting on the transformative qualities of the relationship between Leigh and the mentor is a reminder of the importance of personal and professional integrity within the practice of leadership – as what is leadership if it’s not about relationships. So it’s no surprise that where we see partnership working and services delivering the most impact it’s where relationships are built on trust and authenticity.
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Keep calm: there’s more to life than exam grades
My thoughts went out to all the students who picked up their exam results last month. For some young people results day will provide a happy end to months of hard work, but others won’t have received the grades they had hoped for.
I strongly believe that we risk losing our sense of perspective on exam results; magnifying their importance out of all proportion. We must keep our perspective in balance and remember that there’s more to life than exam grades.
In my opinion, exams are simply one stepping stone on our children’s pathway to adult independence. There are other experiences, skills and qualities which are equally important to help our children and young people reach their future potential.
The importance placed on exam results can make school, particularly during key stages 4 and 5, a stressful time for young people. The pressure to achieve high grades can make some young people seriously unwell. Many students who did not get the results they wanted will absorb this as affirmation that they aren’t good enough. They will lose self-belief, assume they’re unable to achieve and adopt a self-limiting fixed mindset towards their own abilities.
With over half of mental health problems starting by the age of 14, we have got to recognise the damaging effect exam pressure can have on young people’s lives.
Poor mental health can have a devastating impact on the lives of children and their families. So, I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement last month that more than 100,000 teenagers a year will be given mental health training via the National Citizen Service. The training is aimed at helping young people cope with the pressure of exams, raising awareness about mental health amongst young people and ensuring that they know how and where to access support if needed.
I’m sure this mental health support will be strongly taken up by young people; probably those who have positive relationships with their parents, carers and teachers who are capable of spotting the early signs and symptoms of mental health problems.
However, this level of parental support and guidance to access mental health services is not always available for those children who are most vulnerable. So, the young people most in need of mental health support can be the least likely to access it.
To address this dilemma we need good, properly funded and accessible mental health services, but we also need to keep exam results in perspective. We need to ensure young people and their future employers recognise and value the whole range of experiences, skills and abilities which unleash the potential of our young people.
As I highlighted in my ADCS Presidential speech, education needs to be more inclusive. We need to look at our education offer to our most vulnerable pupils. How might we and Ofsted require schools, all schools to be inclusive, inclusive of children with learning difficulties, special educational needs and disabilities and inclusive of those children who for a variety of reasons may not be the highest academic achievers?
As we know, not all children are academically gifted, but academia and grades are not everything! Employers equally value communication skills, grit and determination, resourcefulness, initiative, problem solving and team spirit.
Together we need to ensure that every child is offered an education that allows them to realise and build on all their strengths – not just their ability to pass exams.
For this reason I welcome HMCI Amanda Spielman’s announcement of an investigation into the curriculum. We’ve had years of continuous change to the structure of our schools and the qualifications for which our young people study. It’s time we reviewed whether the curriculum is fit for purpose, whether it’s going to equip our children and young people to thrive, not just survive, in the 21st century.
Here in Nottingham we will continue to work with schools and academies across the city to help them improve, and further support the Education Improvement Board with its 10-year plan for Nottingham. I’m proud that this year we have had a 3.2% increase in the number of our children in care achieving 5 A*-C grades in their GCSEs (or should I be saying 4+ now?). In my view this is real progress for our children and a step closer to an education system that is focused on inclusivity.
If you work with young people who have succeeded this summer, then I offer my heartfelt congratulations and I wish them every success with their next steps. But if you’re working with young people who have not done as well as they had hoped and are at risk of becoming disaffected, then tell them: “exam results are not the only measure of success”.
It is important to stay focused, school and exams are important, but not at the cost of your mental health. Keep them in perspective.
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What do we mean by ‘vulnerability’?
In July the Children’s Commissioner launched a report about vulnerable children as part of her role to champion and speak for children in England.
The overall aim of this aspect of her work is to change the narrative about vulnerability and to guide a focus on the needs of groups of children which are not fully recognised.
The term ‘vulnerable’ is bandied about freely and used to refer to everything from a child who might be in poor material circumstances to those who are in clear danger of abuse or exploitation. So it will be helpful to stimulate a deeper debate about vulnerability to generate a more granular description of what is meant when people use the term.
But this is a big challenge. Getting the numbers straight is difficult for a start. The report itself recognises this. Information may be estimated (as in young carers) based on proxy assumption (living with parents receiving treatment for alcohol abuse) or simply not reliably gathered (children receiving home education). The initial trawl of the information which is available, led by Leon Feinstein, helps to make visible what is and is not known and will stimulate further work across the sector to build a better picture of how many children there might be concerns about.
But taking this information and knowing what to do about it is the real challenge. Improving understanding and raising the level of debate is one thing – what then happens as a result is another!
And are assumptions about what creates vulnerability understood? When I was a child, coming from a so called ‘broken home’ was expected to cause problems - certainly not an assumption these days. And of course, new vulnerabilities are constantly becoming better understood, for example in relation to child sexual exploitation and the mental health needs of unaccompanied asylum seeking children due to trauma.
Also, to bring about change do you focus on the many or the few? Some of the numbers are huge – over 2 million children are living in relative poverty. Whilst we know that a greater proportion of children who suffer abuse are from poor backgrounds, no one would suggest that being poor alone causes children to be abused. Whereas we do know that the risk of abuse is greatly magnified for children exposed to a combination of domestic violence and parental mental health and alcohol abuse issues. Phase 5 of the Association’s Safeguarding Pressures research finds that the effects of the ‘toxic trio’ (domestic abuse, poor parental mental health and alcohol abuse) continues to be a growing reason for the involvement of children’s social care. So we need a sense of scale as well as a narrative which is sophisticated, well informed and well explained to help to focus attention on the needs of particular groups of children.
As you would expect, I am most concerned to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable children are highlighted. So, for example, building upon the initial information which exposes our patchy knowledge about children who are missing from education, there are further questions which it is important to pursue. What is happening for children who have dropped out of view of the system? What risks might they be exposed to? We know that this has been a feature of several serious case reviews which describe graphically the potential impact of agencies losing contact with these children. So, this is just one example about how helpful it is to begin to put information about vulnerability in the public eye and trigger thoughtful attention to the issues raised.
It’s a brave move – everyone will have an opinion! The sheer scale of the debate could be daunting. But if, as is the ambition, this leads to better informed focus on what we mean, and more importantly what ‘being vulnerable’ means for children, that can only be a good thing. There is a real opportunity for the sector as a whole to ensure that this debate is, over time, not only better informed, but makes a difference to policies which can improve the lives of children.
Alison O’Sullivan is an Associate Member and former President of ADCS; retired Director for children’s, adults and social services; member of the Children’s Commissioner Advisory Board and passionate about mental health, children in care and care leavers.
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A Turning Point for Youth Justice?
Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, recently presented a shocking assessment of the youth justice system in the inspectorate’s annual report.
The 2016/17 report, which came out last month, draws on the findings of regulatory visits to young offenders’ institutions (YOIs) and secure training centres (STCs) across the country. HMCI concluded there was not a single establishment in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people. He described the speed of decline as “staggering” and went on to warn that the current state of youth custody is so dangerous that tragedy is “inevitable.”
Inspectors found that violence and intimidation is a constant feature of life in YOIs and in STCs, which typically house younger and more vulnerable children, the picture is no different. Here inspectors found poor behaviour management, understaffing and an overuse of force in response to such behaviours. We also know from recent Youth Justice Board statistics that incidents of self-harm and assault rates have doubled since 2011 despite a significant drop in the overall numbers of children in custody over the last few years.
When reading this report, I found myself imagining if a school, children’s home or even a hospital was being described by the relevant sector regulator as a dangerous and unsafe environment and it is simply unthinkable. Yet we know that children and young people in conflict with the law are often very vulnerable and have complex needs including learning difficulties, behavioural disorders and poor mental and physical health overlaid with traumas such as early experiences of neglect or bereavement, for example.
To effectively change offending behaviours, the focus of custodial sentences must move away from punishment towards rehabilitation and prevention of further offending. Charlie Taylor’s review of the youth justice system rightly highlighted the importance of education and the valuable opportunity a custodial sentence can present in terms of meaningful engagement in education and skill acquisition, possibly for the first time. However, persistently low expectations, staffing shortages and related concerns about safety are impacting on the delivery of the education entitlement in STCs and YOIs and consequently on
the outcomes ultimately achieved. In fact, HMIP inspectors found attendance at education was as low as 66% in some YOIs.
The proposed secure schools model, which the government has accepted, seems to offer a sensible way forward although funding will surely be an issue here. We know work has begun on scoping out the first two secure schools but it is important that steps are taken now to safeguard children and young people’s health, safety and wellbeing whilst in the care of the state. I know ADCS members are keen to work proactively with central government departments and the YJB to address the welfare concerns raised in HMCI’s report and on the longer term reform plans. We have recently written to ministers in the Departments for Education and Justice as well as senior leaders in the YJB to this end. This report must be a turning point and serve to raise the profile and importance of the most vulnerable young people who come into contact with the criminal justice system.
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Our services are built on extraordinary people
Like most directors of children’s services I think I am pretty good at keeping a variety of plates spinning but as I was reminded when I was out with our Fostering Team a few weeks ago I am a real amateur in comparison to them.
My morning started with attending the weekly Child Awaiting Placement meeting where I heard about the lengths the team were going to in trying to deliver the best possible placements for some children and young people in really tricky situations. I guess like all authorities it is increasingly challenging to generate sufficient placements to ensure the ideal match. There seems to be an increasing number of children whose needs make carers think twice about whether they can meet their needs. On a subsequent visit I listened to a Fosters Carer’s concerns about her ability to keep a young person safe and the impact this was having on another young person in the same placement. A situation which required the wisdom of Solomon in knowing how best to respond.
None of this is new and the Operations Manager and I reflected on our years in practice but it was a timely reminder if one was needed about how amazing our staff and foster carers are. The humour and passion was evident, as was the amazing carrot cake, but so was a concern that we were letting children down. In fact nothing could be further from the truth and we talked about three cases that I had been involved with recently that required the most imaginative of solutions which in one case put us at odds with the regulator. Whilst it is true we might not always come up with the perfect solution, we seem to have mislaid our magic wand, it doesn’t mean we don’t try. Our imperfect solutions have a habit of working and in the vast majority of cases lead to good and in some cases great outcomes for children and young people. For all the compromises, frustrations and tears our services up and down the land are built on extraordinary people invariably doing 10 extraordinary things at once.
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Youth services: our last line of defence
It’s International Youth Day this Saturday (12th August), a day dedicated to celebrating our young people, their achievements and contribution to society. This has got me thinking about young people and the services available to them. The summer is a particularly busy time as we face a huge demand for free and cheap activities for young people.
Youth services have a vital role in our communities. The early intervention and prevention work that we undertake with our young people plays an invaluable role in their lives. These services help young people build trusting relationships, experience positive activities to boost their confidence, improve their resilience, and can also help them with their education and to develop skills for the future.
Local authorities across the country are working hard to protect preventative and universal youth services from cuts because removing these vital services will just create issues further down the line. Yet despite the positive outcomes, and the popular demand for constructive activities, youth services in the UK have been subject to deep financial cuts as a result of ongoing austerity policies. In 2010/11 local government spending on youth services in England was £1.2bn, by 2013/14 it had fallen to £712m (a 40% drop).
Such short sighted cuts are having an impact – both social and economic. Last year a UNISON survey of youth workers across the UK identified that 83% of respondents believed the cuts to youth services had led to increased local crime and anti-social behaviour.
In Nottingham, we have a manifesto commitment to ensure that ‘there is a range of positive activities for children and young people to enjoy in every part of the city’. Our challenge is to continue to deliver this manifesto commitment even though our resources are shrinking. We’re doing this by smarter working; becoming increasingly outcomes focused and resourceful with our assets such as community venues. Here’s how we’re doing it:
- Our play and youth service is integrated within our Early Help offer and we make use of a variety of citywide settings to deliver activities which can reach and support children and young people
- At weekly sessions, young people engage in positive social, creative and physical activities whilst learning something new through a themed project or AQA accreditation. Accredited learning celebrates achievements, develops positive aspirations and gives young people experience of success whilst they learn. Young people’s learning is measured through self-scaling at the start and end of the project and last year 67% reported being more confident in their understanding of the topic. The AQA accreditation will provide a more objective measure of outcomes
- We have a seven day a week offer for young people at our city centre MyPlace provision ‘NGY’. During the daytime, the venue focuses on targeted provision and in the evening has open access provision with facilities including a dance studio, music studio, a gym, counselling and health services and a dedicated provision for LGBT young people
- We also deliver training across our workforce including training to raise awareness and knowledge of self-harm and early intervention strategies, mental health first aid training to increase our workforce capacity to intervene early to build young people’s resilience and substance misuse training to help colleagues be aware of emerging risks and provide direct support to young people
- We have also introduced a Young People’s Panel chaired by our Early Help Team to help us identify young people at risk of becoming involved in anti-social behaviour and create plans to support them to engage in positive and diversionary activities.
- For families who are thought to be at imminent risk of breakdown, where children face being taken into care, our Edge of Care hub coordinates planning and access to a range of evidence based interventions such as Multi Systemic Therapy
- We work closely with the NSPCC’s Protect and Respect Service that supports young people who have experienced, or are at risk of, sexual exploitation. As a direct consequence of feedback from young people, who use that service, we now encourage young people and their families to attend strategy meetings, where the risks of sexual exploitation are discussed to aid their understanding and ability to manage the risk. I strongly believe that young people should be involved in the decisions that affect their services
- Our Youth Offending Team run knife crime awareness sessions in schools and recently local police officers have said that these sessions have been responsible for a reduction in knife crime.
I am a strong believer in the great work of our youth services and the real and long lasting impact these services have on young people. It is vital that we champion and invest in the work of our youth service to protect it from the harshest cuts but it is a real challenge to continue the provision when budgets are being cut. In the battle to promote early intervention, youth services are our last line of defence to prevent greater social and economic problems. Our response should be to slash these services but to ensure every penny is being used to reach and engage the children with the interventions at the time in their young lives.
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A good time to take stock
Now that Parliament has risen and we are in the depths of the summer recess, perhaps it’s a good time to take stock.
The most obvious thing is that we now have a minority government - the Ministers are mostly the same, as are the policies. However, I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that the loss of Edward Timpson as the Children’s Minister is a loss for the sector - he was a values-driven Minister who really cared about his portfolio.
It is unlikely that we will see any major legislation on education or children’s services in the near future because government and parliament will be fully engaged on EU issues – which look more and more challenging by the day.
And austerity is still here…
Schools will always be at the front-line of public spending because they are an expensive universal public service – around £90 billion. Teachers, like other public servants, have been capped at 1% pay rises or less (with inflation and a reduction in real-terms income of perhaps 15%, according to the NUT) and this will continue. In terms of school budgets, this will help, of course, but it’s hardly a recipe for high morale at a time of massive change and great uncertainty.
Perhaps as a result of the widespread public concerns over school funding during the election campaign, Justine Greening has done her best to find some cash for schools by scraping not just the bottom of the barrel but the outside of the barrel too!
Whilst an additional £1.3 billion for schools is welcome, this money is being redirected from existing budgets – which will therefore be cut. £280 million will come from the free schools budget. £420 million will come from the capital programme aimed at ‘healthy pupils’ – mostly long-awaited and much needed sports facilities. This is at odds with the government’s childhood obesity strategy. And the remaining £600 million will come from unidentified ‘savings and efficiencies’. The truth, of course, is that important budgets will be cut and children and schools will lose out. Local authorities need more information to better understand the implications for our schools and wider services.
The IFS was predicting that real-terms school budgets would fall by 7% between 2016 and 2021. My estimate is that the £1.3 billion, even if it had all been new money, would reduce the cut to between 4% and 5% - and since it’s not new money, the reduction will be even less.
Add to this the redistributive effect of the National Funding Formula; and as I’ve said before, any redistribution, however well-intentioned and however fair, leads to winners and losers. So, if the average real-terms cut is 5% some schools will be even worse off.