At some point over the past 20 months most of us will have attended a virtual event, or 27! The pandemic has impacted everything we do and the National Children and Adult Services Conference 2021 was no exception. The event was held online for the second year running.
While we had hoped we could gather in person in sunny Bournemouth, this year’s conference still offered delegates plenty of opportunities to hear from ministers about the latest government thinking and from experts in the field who delivered important messages in sessions, not least in relation to tackling child and family poverty which is blighting the lives, and futures, of millions of children in this country.
The conference opened on Wednesday with speeches from Cllr James Jamieson, LGA Chairman, Stephen Chandler, ADASS President, and our very own President, Charlotte Ramsden. Charlotte began her speech by recognising the resilience of children and families and acknowledging the immense efforts and hard work of the whole local government family during the pandemic. (As you can imagine this was somewhat of a recurring theme throughout the conference). Charlotte touched on the recent Spending Review, the ongoing SEND and care reviews, on Covid-19 and the stark health, educational, racial and geographical inequalities it has laid bare as well as the Association’s hopes for the forthcoming Education White Paper, expected in spring 2022.
Amanda Pritchard, head of NHS England, joined us immediately after the opening speeches and set out her priorities for the coming year, including making ICSs a success and continued response to the pandemic. That afternoon we were pleased to be joined by Will Quince MP, Minister for Children and Families who thanked delegates for their work to support children and families through the pandemic, the new minister reflected on the national reviews into special educational needs and children’s social care and promised to be a ‘true champion’ for the sector. The full speech is available on the DfE website. Throughout the day there were a number of interesting sessions covering topics from the early years and education recovery to the evolving nature of children’s services leadership.
Children’s related sessions on Thursday focused on supporting children and young people’s emotional wellbeing and mental health and inspection now and in the future. Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, addressed the conference and took questions from the audience. Adult
social care dominated but he faced questions on SEND and children’s mental health. We were also joined by shadow social care and education ministers. The day ended with a virtual ADCS members meeting, thank you to everyone who stayed late and joined us. On Friday, Josh McAlister, Chair of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care updated delegates on the progress of the review so far followed by a wide ranging question and answer session which touched on the impact of poverty on families, relationships, care placements and local contexts. The event closed with a session aimed at all delegates on living with Covid-19, with inputs from the Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, in attendance, along with Jennie Harries, CEX of the UK Health Security Agency and Prof. Kevin Fenton, Office of Health Improvement and Disparities at the Department of Health.
A particular highlight of the conference was the strong inputs from young people and parents in sessions about the early years, mental health, education recovery and the care review across the three days. During the conference ADCS published its recent EHE survey 2021 alongside a press release and a joint policy position paper with AYM and the LGA on youth justice which can be found here. These important pieces of work were picked up in a number of national and trade media outlets including the Guardian, CYP Now, the MJ and School’s Week. A full list of press coverage will feature in the ADCS bulletin.
Nobody can predict the course of the pandemic but we hope to see you all in 2022 in Manchester, the home of ADCS HQ, to share more learning and good practice and, of course, to celebrate the work of the sector.
From, the ADCS staff team.
We hope you enjoyed the conference. Speeches and presentations from the event will be posted onto the conference website and shared via the ADCS bulletin as soon as they become available.
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Valuing and thanking our school governors
I read an Ofsted report in the spring which praised a secondary school for its actions in sending a van to nearby housing estates when school children were at home as a result of Covid. This van was delivering school equipment, including pens and paper, to children who needed it. The school also checked that the children and young people were okay, and that they had internet access. I was impressed by the actions of the school. Other schools across the country would have been doing the same, of course.
I was pleased that the comment had not been amended or removed by the Ofsted moderation process. I commented to Ofsted colleagues and thanked them too, as it is not always the case that this type of comment would be made in reports. When I spoke with the Chair of Governors of the school, she informed me that when the van visited her estate she had personally bought the van driver, and his assistant, fish and chips for their lunch. To the Chair, this was the obvious thing to do.
This led me to ponder whether we value and thank our school governors enough. We have heard a great deal about the commitment shown by headteachers, and rightly so; we know they value the praise and thanks that they receive from the community. Our school governors have also worked throughout the pandemic to support their schools in a way that demonstrates just how committed they are, although they do not seem to have received as much recognition for this.
School governors are so important. They are often connected with the community in a way that senior staff at school are not. The Chair of Governors may be the consistent presence when the senior management at a school change.
The important role of a school governor is explained on the National Governance Association website. I urge you to look at that.
So, I would like to send a personal thank you to all our school governors.
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Levelling up…it’s not just about buildings and transport
Whilst thinking about a theme to focus on for this blog I started to reflect on the changing political and national policy context of the last couple of years. In previous blogs I have written about the importance of the Care Review, the SEND review (still awaited!) and the impact of poverty on the lived experience of our children and families.
All these issues are still at the forefront of our work and the need to address them continues to be critical if we are to improve outcomes for our children and families. In this context I’m interested in what the highest profile national policy direction of ‘levelling up’ means for children and young people. Discussion to date about levelling up is dominated by large capital programmes and transport infrastructure but where is the thinking in terms of the people side of ‘levelling up’?
In the North East submission to the National Care Review one of our big asks was for government to develop an ambitious, cross-departmental strategy to reduce, and then end, child poverty as part of its ‘levelling up’ agenda. We started to explore the concept of ‘social levelling up’ and how that should underpin the national approach. Whilst the physical infrastructure of a place is important and can have a significant influence, it’s essential that equal importance is given to the social infrastructure that shapes the lives of our communities. This is particularly important in regions such as the North East with long standing and endemic levels of poverty that must be addressed if we are to really make a difference.
As the government grapples with the concept of ‘levelling up’ I think there is a real opportunity for us to influence and ensure it doesn’t just become about buildings and transport. The Spending Review started to make some welcome steps in the right direction, however, the lack of a joined up strategy, at a national level for children and young people, was evident in the number of individual programmes for which funding was announced.
As system leaders for our communities, it is incumbent upon us to make the case at a national level and use our collective voice to help shape change. What would a world look like where ‘social levelling up’ was at the heart of national policy? What could that mean for our children and young people?
I’m an optimist and it does feel like the door is open for a much better dialogue locally, regionally, and nationally to resolve some of these long-standing issues. As we head into a challenging winter let’s not forget to focus on the future and hold on to the ambition we have for our children and young people.
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The time for investing in children is now...
It’s Wednesday lunchtime as I sit here and write this blog – it’s not just 58 days until Christmas (don’t!) but also the day the Chancellor unveils his spending plans for the budget, so I’m frequently looking at my phone for live updates and emails for any initial analysis from Derby’s Section 151 Officer.
Let’s face it, we’re all hoping this will be a Spending Review that will major on children, young people and families, and have recovery from the pandemic at the core. This is the ideal opportunity for the government to demonstrate its commitment to children which is surely integral to their ‘levelling up’ agenda. ADCS sent in a robust submission to the Spending Review with a focus on addressing the ongoing and future scarring of children and young people from the pandemic, prevention, care and sufficiency of placements, education and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). All these areas are significant and require investment to help the system deal with current and predicted future demand.
One of the areas we’ve been talking about a lot in ADCS, more locally as a regional group of DCSs, and in Derby, is SEND. We still await the outcome of the SEND review which is now well overdue and, with a new Children’s Minister who has been pretty much silent (at the time of writing this blog) on his portfolio since taking up office, I fear might be kicked even further into the long grass. It’s vitally important that the government conclude and report on the SEND review and give councils long term certainty of funding to meet the current and growing number of children and young people with SEND. We all know that demand for funding via the high needs block is unsustainable and we’re seeing increasingly eye-watering deficits in councils. Reform of the SEND reforms is really the only way we can realistically tackle the year-on-year growth in demand for Education Health and Care Plans (EHCP), alongside government providing realistic capital funding to local authorities so that they can open special schools or invest in more Enhanced Resource Schools in mainstream schools for children with particular needs.
Growing numbers of EHCPs also means there is a significant pressure on home to school transport budgets; ADCS reported that local authorities spend in excess of £1 billion per annum on transporting children to and from school. Whilst councils actively look at commissioning and efficiencies in contracts to reduce costs, this is unsustainable. I was only talking to my lead member for children’s services this week about the home to school transport costs in Derby and that we could be in a situation next year when this becomes equally, if not more, pressured than the costs of placements for children in care.
By the time you read this we will know the detail of the Spending Review and what this means for children, young people and families, and of course the broader landscape for local government as we all develop and consult on our Medium Term Financial Plans. Let’s hope this is a budget that delivers a better deal for children.
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What's it all about
It’s October, so there’s a fair chance if you’re a Director of Children’s Services you’re deep in your local authority’s Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS), poring over your budgets for 22/23 and beyond and wondering – again – how to make efficiencies and achieve the savings necessary for a balanced budget without compromising on the quality of service provision for the children and families in your area. Is this really what it’s all about?
There’s a great antidote to death-by-a-thousand-spreadsheets; spending time with children. Last week I was lucky enough to attend the opening of a community garden at a Nursery School and Family Centre on my patch. It was a great gathering of children, families and the wider community, with some visitors from further afield. The youngest in the crowd were babes in arms and the oldest – I’d guess – certainly in their eighties – a truly intergenerational experience. The weather was dry, though we were buffeted by the wind. Everyone was taking delight in the sights, sounds and smells of the garden and appreciating the value of a natural environment in which children can play, learn, discover, take risks and connect with things as small as ants and as big as the universe!
In front of me, during the speeches, two little girls were making a collection of sycamore ‘helicopters’. They collaborated to spot and gather them, negotiated a fair distribution of the best examples, counted them, sorted them, made them into patterns and tested their flying capabilities, all without adult interference, the very epitome of learning through play. My entry point into children’s services was early years and I was catapulted back to those days of wonder at just how much physical, cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional development children cram into their busy days.
In childhood, if the conditions are right, we build the foundations of happy, healthy, successful adult lives. But childhood isn’t solely about investment in the future, it’s also about joy in the present. It can be easy to lose sight of this as we monitor our budgets and our key performance indicators (KPIs). We focus – rightly – on outcomes, and there’s no question that those future adults are important. Every so often though, we just need to ask ourselves again: what’s it like to be a child or a young person in the here and now?
By the time you read this, we should know what the Spending Review has brought for children’s services, but I’m writing this at the start of the week, when it’s still not clear whether the Chancellor has been listening to calls to direct more funding towards helping families, supporting early years provision, prioritising children’s wellbeing and all the many other elements of a much-needed strategic approach to meeting children and young people’s needs from conception right through to age 25.
What I’m hoping for in the Spending Review is a recognition that children and young people at every age and stage of their lives deserve more and better from government; that families experiencing disadvantage will receive more help to thrive; that communities will be supported to create environments where young people know they are welcome and belong; that there will be tangible compensations for the restrictions and detriments that 18 months of Covid has imposed on children and young people.
Whether my hopes for the Spending Review have been realised or not, come Monday I’ll be making the best of it alongside my colleagues in local authorities across the land. Thinking about outcomes, planning for the future, squeezing the most out of my budgets. To remind me what it’s all about: a sycamore helicopter in my pocket.
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Local, regional, national
I’m going to write this week about the Care Review led by Josh MacAlister. As you’ll know, ADCS have been engaged with the Care Review throughout – via Charlotte, our President, through colleagues’ individual and group submissions and also via a series of meetings that regional leads and committee chairs have had with Josh and the review team. At our last meeting Josh encouraged us to air some thoughts publicly so I am going to look at one of the ‘three dilemmas’ that Josh published recently specifically the dilemma around ‘local, regional or national’ service delivery.
My own view on this (and I stress that this particular blog is a personal view) is shaped by my views and understanding of the development of the welfare state in England and Wales. Recently, I happened to be reading one of Peter Hennessy’s brilliant histories of post war Britain which reminded me that the construction of the ‘personal social services’ was part of the post-war deal between the state and the citizen. Now, whilst many parts of the state have been rolled back, that construct remains in place – the state is there to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. That ‘deal’ is important when we think about the delivery of children’s services.
So, let’s think about what problem we are trying to solve. Is it variability of practice? Variability of funding? Political interference? Lack of political interference? Organisational structure and resilience? Or command and control from Westminster?
Change is something that we should embrace, and we’ve had to do a lot of change management over the last decade. But as a country we’ve got a pretty chequered history at trying organisational models in our public services. The reforms of the Probation Service have bombed because they were structured on a false premise (a static, low risk/high risk model when of course risk is dynamic). I have been around long enough to remember district health authorities, regional health authorities, primary care trusts, CCGs, SHAs, ICSs, ICPs (I’ve probably made a few up but you get my drift) and I’m not sure that it’s made an iota of difference to the running of the NHS apart from causing major distractions that have actually impeded service delivery despite year on year investment. In this context the police model has at least had the benefits of stability (notwithstanding the introduction of PCCs) and increased funding (relative to local government) but inspection outcomes seem to show a similar level of unevenness as other public services.
In children’s services we’ve seen the introduction of academy schools and children’s social care trusts. Stand alone academies haven’t brought significant changes in children’s attainment and progress (I’ll blog about that another time) and indeed have arguably widened the gap between disadvantaged groups and their peers; and whilst children’s trusts have had some success in improving outcomes in the short term (well done Sunderland!), I worry about their sustainability in the medium to long term. Other models of peer to peer support in local government have also been successful (which is why I am also DCS for the Isle of Wight). Regional Adoption Agencies (RAAs) are another interesting development in this range of alternative delivery models, but it feels like very early days for this model to be judged a success.
That said, there may be areas of practice that could be developed in line with our existing regional improvement and innovation alliances. Which brings me back to local government because there is also one obvious issue which underpins the delivery arrangements for children’s social care. Quite simply, local taxpayers contribute the majority of the funding for these services through their council tax (in Hampshire my finance colleagues tell me that 87% of our spend is against local taxation). And we have to acknowledge that some of the alternative delivery models that may be attractive (RAAs, Trusts) are entirely underpinned and funded by local government and, in turn local taxpayers. So, the deal between the state and its communities to protect the most vulnerable is realised through the democratic mandate of local government. I think we mess with that at our peril. What is messing with that deal, is the ever-tightening tourniquet of reducing funding and increasing demand – to paraphrase Josh himself, there is no way through this without spending more money, albeit that must be wisely spent.
More positively though, I’m not sure that any system should reach an ‘end state’, a phrase I keep hearing about our schools system. The notion of an end state implies a central hand determining the structures in each area, but structures drawn up on a bit of paper in Westminster have a way of not working when being implemented in messy reality. I think systems thrive on plurality, dynamism, and mutability – rather than being fixed. Funnily enough, and this is probably the optimist in me speaking, it strikes me that we have quite a lot of the right pieces of the picture already on the table, the trick is going to be in deploying them in the right way, at the right time, for the right purpose.
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‘Deep down, there is much more to it’ Luke aged 13
Earlier this week I attended the official launch of our Family Wellbeing Centres (FWC), otherwise known as Family Hubs. We moved from 17 Children’s Centres to 8 FWCs last December but delayed an in-person launch event until we could invite a number of guests. The event was held at one of the centres on an estate often referenced by Raheem Sterling as being in sight of Wembley Stadium, but in many respects a long distance away. There were inputs from the Lead Member, a parent of children under 5 years old who had benefited from services, a Citizens Advice rep who gave a case study of assisting the parent to address debt and budgeting, before finally hearing from our voluntary sector partner that provides activities and support for vulnerable adolescents. A ribbon representing all 8 FWCs was cut by the mayor to much local cheering.
My previous visit to the centre had been in August when the local scouts were running one of our Holiday Activity and Food Programmes (HAF) with great enthusiasm. Along with all other areas we are currently reviewing the Household Support Fund to provide food vouchers to eligible families for the half-term and Christmas holidays as well as planning the HAF programme for the Christmas and Easter breaks.
The need for such resources was emphasised to me at the FWC when a 16-year-old came into the centre towards the end of the launch event, having been on the adjacent basketball court. Young people now come into the centre when they see there is an event as it is likely there will be left-over food. These young people feel comfortable coming into the centre because, as part of the refurbishments from Children’s Centres to Family Wellbeing Centres, young people aged 11-16 worked with an artist in each of the centres to create a mural. The optimistic message in this FWC on the mural is ‘You are what you make of yourself’ with one young person commenting that “it helps to make people like this estate because it welcomes them in and makes them fit in because it shows that everyone is seen. It makes them think that even while everyone might be different, we’re all the same.”
As Charlotte Ramsden wrote in her blog last week ‘the emergence of Family Hubs which offer support and advice to families with children aged 0-25 at the heart of local communities gives us some insight into how investing in prevention can improve lives and significantly reduce demand for crisis services and intensive intervention in family life’.
For this critical Early Help provision we rely on the Supporting Families grant and the Public Health grant, supplemented with other resources whenever possible such as the Household Support Fund.
The level of need where ‘deep down there is much more to it’ means that confirmation of ongoing funding is key to meeting the increasing needs of children, young people and their families that we are all seeing.
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Let's invest in our children and young people
It’s that time again when we will soon find out what budget challenges we will face going forward and what if any good news may come to enable us to meet the increasing needs of children, young people and their families. Later this month, the Chancellor will present his Autumn Budget setting out government spending for not one but three years. The government has the opportunity to invest, to enable public services to plan and deliver for the coming years, as we continue to focus on recovery from the pandemic.
The impact of the last 18 months and successive lockdowns on society cannot be underestimated. The government has committed to ‘build back better’ but the needs of children and young people must not be overlooked. They have given up so much for the benefit of us all and there is now a risk that missed education, employment and/or training, together with life experiences lost, will negatively affect the life chances of a generation. You are only a child once and every year is a year of major development. Now is surely the time for the government to properly fund the services that support children and young people to prevent a decade of further disadvantage and rising child poverty. Covid has of course exacerbated existing issues, but this only highlights the need for a strong national commitment to allow children to thrive and benefit from a country that works for all children.
ADCS recently submitted a paper to the Spending Review, and within it we noted five key areas for priority investment: addressing the impact of the pandemic; effective support and prevention; special educational needs and disabilities; the best care for those who need it; and education. We have been pressing government for long-term, meaningful investment in these areas long before the pandemic impacted on all of our lives. Why? Because in 2019/20 there were 4.3 million children living in poverty and disadvantaged pupils in England were 18.1 months of learning behind their peers by the time they finished their GCSEs. The additional impact that the pandemic is having on the lives of these children and families is only just emerging, not to mention a cohort of newly vulnerable families that we have not previously worked with. Only by fully investing in the five areas highlighted above can we give these families the support they need and reduce the rising costs of local authority children’s services which continue to spiral out of control.
Before the pandemic, a decade of austerity left local government funding in a parlous state and children’s services teetering on the edge of becoming a ‘blue light’ service. Tough decisions have had to be made about how funding is allocated and often the services most at risk are those addressing the root causes of problems children and their families face before they reach crisis point. This does nothing to reduce future demand, is more expensive in the long term and leads to poorer outcomes. The government must invest in the type of preventative services that reduce demand and improve lives. Schools, early years and further education settings are essential parts of the preventative agenda and during the pandemic demonstrated the potential for future ways of working and the impact we have when working in flexible partnership. Further, the emergence of Family Hubs which offer support and advice to families with children aged 0-25 at the heart of local communities gives us some insight into how investing in prevention can improve lives and significantly reduce demand for crisis services and intensive intervention in family life.
We cannot afford to pass up this opportunity to build on what we have learnt and what we know works. It has been an unprecedented time and one that requires an unprecedented level of investment to address the lasting impact of the pandemic on vulnerable children, young people, their families and carers. They deserve the best!
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A critical word in our services. When designing services, working with families, assessing, planning, doing, reviewing, measuring impact. When we talk to our services and teams. Where’s the evidence of voice? Is it meaningful? Is it tokenistic? Is it representative? How have we acted upon it to make people’s lives better? And how do those we listen to feel about it? Was it worth it? Did it make the difference they were seeking? Did they feel valued and respected?
Understanding and acting upon the lived experiences, views, wishes and feelings of those we work with is fundamental to good practice. We’re in the business of building positive relationships, so listening without prejudice is a pretty important skill to have and encourage in others. Even if what we hear is unpalatable, hard to process, not possible, or contradicts our own values or beliefs. What matters is how we deal with conflicting views, between ‘professionals’, children and their families. What is our bottom line to stop listening and direct unwanted intervention?
So, surely the same applies when we look at the complex challenges facing children’s services right now. When it comes to “solving” the social care crisis (please be a bit more specific when you say social care!), there are plenty of opinions, fixes, viewpoints arriving from a variety of perspectives. No doubt there’ll be vehement disagreement, challenge or counterargument. It’s how we enter the debate that matters, if everyone is to feel their voice will be heard.
Recently, the debate about the children’s care review has really opened up. The publication of “Three Dilemmas” has certainly started a conversation, with some rather bold questions about the future of children’s social care. Representatives from voluntary and private sectors have also entered the debate and suggested a very different vision for the future. Giving differing viewpoints is healthy, it’s what we’d want to see in our conversations with families. But, as with families, if the way we engage ends up stifling or offending then it will restrict the voice of others, and we are going to struggle to deliver sustainable positive change. I’ll be honest, I’m fairly new to leadership at this level and still finding my voice in what sometimes feels like a crowded room. But I owe it to those I serve and lead to enter the review, and other debates, with an open mind and ready to listen.
I was struck by Dez Holmes’ recent blog on the importance of respectful and open debate, and that when you have the opportunity to be “in the tent”, it’s important to recognise and respect that those “outside” feel their voice is not as powerful. From someone well respected across the sector, it was heartening to read, but also so illustrative that valued colleagues feel anxious about how their voice will be heard, or even the response to engaging in the conversation. Recent national debates have ended up being binary: in/out, for/against, open/close. Society is asked to pick a side, but if it’s a bit more complicated than that, I’m not sure neutrality is the answer either.
If the care review is truly a “not to be missed opportunity” to improve the lives of children and families, then we owe it to them to have a voice, and to listen.
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The power of reconnection
This week saw the first gathering in person of ADCS colleagues for 18 months, when we held our Council of Reference meeting in the reassuringly familiar surroundings of the Midland Hotel in Manchester. Our President, Charlotte Ramsden, spoke of the emotions invoked by reconnecting with colleagues and ADCS staff in person again after such a long time, in the very place where we have gathered for our annual conferences for the last 15 years. Many of us have positive memories of inspiring sessions, supportive side conversations and joyful socialising and even, on occasion, dancing in that place. It somehow felt right to be reconnecting in person with each other again there, of all places.
We eagerly exchanged war stories of lockdown hair growth, weight gain or loss, and other more significant changes in our lives since we last were together. We were able to properly say farewell to past presidents Rachel Dickinson, Stuart Gallimore and Jenny Coles in a way we had been unable to during lockdowns. We gleefully raised our hands in person in the same room rather than a little yellow one on screen. There was some dancing. Above all we rejoiced in the powerful feelings of reconnection to our professional and personal networks we have in ADCS. As Joni Mitchell once sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. Despite the connections with each other we have successfully maintained virtually during the last 18 months, nothing compares to being in the same place to have nuanced conversations, get the sense of feeling in a room, read body language, and have a bloody good laugh together.
Most of us are going through some version of this restoration in our own workplaces, as we feel our way to the new hybrid working arrangements many employers are creating. In doing so, we will aim to make opportunities for our teams to interact in person and re-establish some of the social connections that have been lost during lockdown working arrangements, things that are the invisible glue that hold together high performing teams.
My own LA, Kent County Council, like many of yours, has also been focussing on reconnecting children and young people with activities they enjoy and have missed during lockdown. The Kent Reconnect Programme is a community-led programme to get children and young people back to enjoying the activities and opportunities they took part in before covid, and the chance to try new things. It has five domains it aims to reconnect children and young people to; Health and Happiness, Learning Missed, Family, friends and Community, Sport, activities and the outdoors and Economic Wellbeing (do those five sound vaguely familiar to some of you…?).
We launched the programme this summer and it runs until the end of summer 2022. This summer holiday we were able to offer, among other things, all Kent children and young people free bus passes and subsidised family travel, subsidised or free leisure centre passes, 82,000 online catch-up lessons, and access to a wide range of activities and programmes in their communities. The feedback we have had so far from children and their families has been very positive and speak of the restorative power of reconnection both with friends and communities.
It is an opportune time for ADCS to be able to reconnect with each other this week. At our meeting we discussed our position in relation to an entirely new ministerial team at DfE, the first multi- year comprehensive funding review for three years, the renewed focus on the role of local authorities in education, the social care review, the SEND review, and our proposals for a new approach to youth justice. Each of those present threats as well as opportunities. For us to tip the balance in favour of opportunities, we are going to need the bonds that are strengthened by the power of reconnection.
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Never stop caring…
I tend to think of myself as a “glass half full” person (those of you who know me, feel free to disagree), who makes the best of whatever challenges come my way and seeks solutions. As a “twin hatter”, i.e. a director of adults as well as children’s services, I listened to the announcement last week about funding for health and adult social care with a heavy heart. No one disputes that significant extra resources are needed. However, the allocation for adult social care is negligible compared to the scale of need. It is a privilege to have our NHS, and free health care is a precious resource that is too easily taken for granted, but if we don’t balance the funding for acute services with more resource for community care and support, plus health and wellbeing work, we will never make progress to reduce or manage need better, whatever someone’s age.
What are the implications for children? In the preparations for new integrated care system arrangements from April 2022 onwards, the priority given to the health needs of children remains uncertain, at best. There has been publicity recently about the pressures on acute paediatric wards in caring for children who are very mentally unwell, traumatised and distressed, but not mentally ill. They do not meet the threshold for Tier 4 provision, so are staying on these wards as there is nowhere for them to go.
Major investment was promised in the NHS Long Term Plan for mental health support for children. Programmes such as Mentally Health Schools and Mental Health First Aid have offered the green shoots of hope that the importance of community-based support for children and young people has been recognised. The adverse impact of Covid-19, and other pressures, on their mental health have been well publicised and child and adolescent mental health services are currently responding to the higher acuity needs in those who are referred. In the urgency of addressing acute hospital pressures, we need to ensure these community developments continue to be prioritised as part of the solution. We have a role to play in connecting the system and bringing one wrap around support offer to the children and their families in our areas.
In addition, those children in our care with the most acute mental distress are being poorly served by our current placement offers. A shortage of welfare secure placements and a lack of effective care options for our most complex young people is leading to placement breakdowns and use of inherent jurisdiction to establish arrangements that will keep children as safe as possible.
So, what to do? Firstly, we will never stop caring and will work on solutions despite the challenges. The Association will continue to raise the profile and need of children and young people everywhere and press for a national plan for children linked to a clear ambition for their welfare and future, with proper resourcing to meet their needs. Secondly, we will champion the needs of our most vulnerable children as individuals and there are many examples of great work and positive impact that we can learn from. Finally, we need to work with partners to develop creative solutions on a sustainable basis that will offer more of these children a chance to be cared for in a way that meets their needs.
We’re working on it and all help and examples are most welcome!
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A Double Taboo
As I prepared to write this, I reminded myself that today is World Suicide Prevention Day. A day set aside by several groups, including the World Health Organisation, to provide worldwide commitment and action to prevent suicides. Whilst the name suggests prevention, which of course is the ultimate aim, activities that will be taking place today, around the world, are focused upon awareness. As I sit here, a thought resonates; I guess to many it might be shocking that in the twenty-first century, there remains a taboo around suicide and that we actually need to set aside a day, in effort to break this.
I expect everyone reading this blog will have had professional experience of suicide, and a number will have been impacted personally too. Tragically the numbers speak for themselves. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in 2019 nearly 5,700 people in England and Wales took their own life. Since 2018 these numbers have been rising compared with some stability in the preceding decade. Whilst there are as yet no statistics for 2020, it is reasonable to believe that with issues relating to lockdown, potential unemployment, and a disproportionate financial impact on the self-employed that we witnessed last year, at best numbers will have stayed high, at worse they will have got higher.
Of course, the ONS produce statistics, that is what they do, but behind each of those numbers is a person and a family left trying to understand. In our professional worlds these are often children left needing to find an explanation, but all too frequently it can be parents struggling to comprehend why their child has died. More than 200 children and young people take their own lives every year.
So it’s children who are at the root of my message to you today. There is a strong argument to say that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the life chances of the young, and no doubt we will have all been part of making difficult decisions that have affected children over the last year, be that about needing to temporarily close schools or about the frequency and way in which we visit the most vulnerable. In unprecedented times we have had to make unprecedented choices. Whilst there is no room to criticise decisions made in good faith, this year on World Suicide Prevention Day, possibly over any other year, I would suggest that we have a responsibility to consider the mental wellbeing of the young and their experiences of Covid, for if suicide remains a taboo, when a child takes their own life that taboo is double.
As I said at the beginning, today is about awareness and spreading a message. Whilst there is no doubt that we all want to take positive action, in the children’s workforce that is what we do, maybe today is a day just to reflect quietly, catch up with someone who we know might benefit from a chat, or take a few minutes to talk to someone less aware about breaking the taboo of suicide.
As you are all aware, good practice suggests we should always signpost to support whenever we open a discussion about suicide and I would like to highlight that the PHE ‘Help is at hand’ resource has been updated to include information regarding children and young people who have been bereaved (see page 40). The Samaritans helpline can be contacted on 116123.
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Holidays, hope, and happiness
I am just back from a short camping trip in neighbouring Dorset, not quite the same as a holiday abroad this year but we had a close encounter with a Common Buzzard to remember. I have another break to look forward to where I am making my way from Somerset to Liverpool and so will wave as I pass through your counties.
I am sure some of you will have made a trip, or have one planned, to the South-West this year. We have some wonderful beaches and places of interest to visit (I am not on commission.) Collectively, we are a diverse set of councils up and down the country, all with different structures and demands, but one thing is clear: we each have something unique to offer and celebrate. We readily share good practice and provide support to each other; we are not defined by our boundaries in children’s services. The Regional Improvement and Innovation Alliances are an excellent example of collaboration on behalf of children. I recently coordinated the DfE Recovery Fund bid for the South-West. It was a little fraught and stressful at times given the tight timescales and restrictions of the bid, but I was determined that we would maximise the opportunities this could give us in the region. My thanks go out to colleagues who stepped forward, coordinated regional calls, liaised with the DfE policy team, and authored specific elements of the bid. We submitted a comprehensive regional bid a day early (as I had a camping trip to get to), with many good ideas. I wish you all every success with your regional bids as I know that recovery is at the forefront of our minds as we prepare for the return to schools in September.
In my previous blog back in 2020, I reflected about hope in the context of recovery. This year, I have loved watching the summer Olympics and I am enjoying the start of the Premier League - for the athletes it requires a lot of hard work, skill, determination, resilience and hope – like us really! Despite adverse childhood experiences, many top athletes have achieved great success. Novak Djokavic was born in Serbia and grew up through two wars, living amidst fear and violence, with his family struggling to access basic food. Marcus Rashford has openly discussed his childhood experiences of living in poverty and how he was able to use his football skills to change his family’s financial situation and later launch his on-going campaign to end food poverty. In children’s services, we continue to pull together and support each other to create opportunities in difficult circumstances for happy childhoods, unlocking talent – and even growing future Olympians!
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Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall
By the time you read this, summer will be on its way out and we’ll be inexorably heading into autumn - when ‘leaves chase warm buses’ and directors of children’s services chase treasury officials to get government to realise that a new financial settlement for children is required in November’s Spending Review. More of that anon, I am sure.
I hope that your summer was better than mine, what with both my daughters catching Covid and our holiday plans put in to disarray, but c’est la vie…as I didn’t get to say in France. It did mean though, that my youngest was able to pick up her GCSE results in person, along with thousands of other pupils on results day. Those national results showed an increase in attainment based on teacher assessed grades which, rather than celebrating our children’s resilience, hard work and sacrifice during covid; instead led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth about ‘standards’ by commentators in the media, as I sure you will have seen. At the same time, we saw the world’s Olympians pushing themselves to the limits and challenging world records. So, I suppose that if we apply the same analysis toward the Olympians that many media commentators have applied to our school children, we must conclude that the reason Karsten Warholm smashed the Olympic 400m hurdles world record was not because he was better coached, better trained, or fitter than previous runners; no, it must be because the hurdles are now lower, or the race is actually 20 metres shorter these days!
It must also be said that whilst the media focus was on high attainment, we are already seeing worrying evidence of a growing gap, brought about by the impact of Covid, between the most and the least disadvantaged pupils. That gap must be the key focus for educational recovery.
As we head into the autumn, the role of local authorities vis a vis schools is one that is going to be debated again but perhaps in a more rounded and positive way than hitherto. The Covid crisis has brought into sharp relief the critical role that local authorities play in coordinating, supporting, and challenging schools to ensure that all children get the best possible start in life. Following the Secretary of State’s speech regarding the role of multi-academy trusts, that debate feels live again. Myself, Charlotte our President, Gail Tolley the chair of our Educational Achievement Policy Committee, and other colleagues will be ensuring that our voice is heard loud and clear on this issue along with connecting it to the review of SEND, the outcomes of the Holiday Activity and Food Programme, the future of REACT meetings, education recovery and more. Our policy positions on most of these issues were outlined in 2018 in our ‘vision for an inclusive and high performing education system’ and reading that paper now, with the benefit of Covid hindsight, it seems even more perspicacious.
So, there is plenty to do in this area of our work and I for one am glad that it is back on the agenda, and we can show what we, as local leaders, can do in improving the education system and what more we could do with a few more levers and a bit more co-operation. With this, the care review, the spending review and plenty of other things going on, it’s going to be an interesting autumn, or as F Scott Fitzgerald said in the Great Gatsby, ‘Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall’.
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The truth about change
I’ve recently been thinking about what it’s like to be a social worker, or indeed any other profession within the children’s workforce, in the 21st Century. It seems that our workforce, in the modern day, need to be experts on everything.
Some 30 years after I was first a social worker in Walsall, I guess there is a danger that I could fall into that age-old trap and find myself saying “things were different in my day”. The truth is, things were different in my day, but not from some rose-tinted perspective, but from an acceptance that as society adapts to modern innovation, different stresses and whatever this month’s new normal is, so do the situations that workers encounter as they walk through a family’s door, as the recent events in a London Borough sadly showed.
In 1990 we could barely imagine the powers of the internet, and few of us would have ever considered how it might be used to groom children. The fact that so many children would be carrying, in their pocket, a computer with more power than those that got us to the moon, was unthinkable. The concept of exploitation wasn’t in our language and our understanding of the impact of domestic abuse was, at best, limited to the victim and not their child. Yet today, the average worker will deal with these issues on a “normal” working day, not to mention the other 101 things on their to do list.
At times we might be excused for thinking that there are only two truths in local government, the first being that demand will always increase to fill capacity, the second being that the only certainty is uncertainty. This oversimplifies things, a lot, but it is true that we need to constantly review the service we provide to ensure that demand is managed appropriately, and capacity is adequate. It is also true that we are adept at dealing with uncertainty, be that; the unintended and undesirable consequences of a new technological advancement; a novel virus that suddenly becomes a pandemic; or a tragic event that becomes the subject of the next big public enquiry. All of these things, and many more besides, impact our professions - identifying and managing new risks, triggering additional legislation, and developing different ways of working..
Who knows what the Care Review will bring and how our professions will look three decades from now? But the truth is, being a social worker, a teacher, or a youth worker now is different to the way it was in the 90’s. However, in thirty years’ time when that fresh new graduate from the class of 2021 sits in my chair at Walsall, hopefully they too will look back, not through rose tinted glasses, but with the benefit of experience, and reflect upon how the challenge of change makes children’s services the most rewarding workplace in the world!
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Summer 2021: Hotter, Wetter, Stormier - Together
This summer has been momentous, if for no other reason than the publication of the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Thankfully, it comes with some small seeds of hope which could possibly be expressed in one ‘new’ Olympic word; “Together”.
The IPCC’s seismic report comes in the wake of a global pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics, and closer to home, A Level and GCSE results like no other. The report clearly requires our unequivocal acceptance, deep consideration, and urgent action - no action is simply not an option!
The reality is that our world is becoming much hotter, wetter, and stormier. We know that climate change exacerbates inequalities, our challenge is in how we minimise this. How to act and finding the time to do so will be tough; the pressures already upon us will threaten our response. There are other numerous existential challenges we are currently facing - recovery from a global pandemic, drastic public and third sector budget cuts, increasing inequality, and a digital and technological revolution - all of which are driving further societal change. Oh, and that’s not to mention the day job - ensuring children, young people and their families are safe, healthy, and achieving.
Recent consultation with children and young people in my area revealed some stark messages. Amongst heightened fear, anxiety and concern, and increasing mental health issues, they have unequivocally stated (in some cases with some anger) that they want adult leaders to act now; to act decisively, and importantly to appropriately replace the negative “lost generation” rhetoric with realistic optimism. And this was before the IPCC report.
Whilst I recognise that dealing with climate change on the scale, and with the pace required, may be daunting for many leaders (and even now just too distant and just too unreal), my fear is a road to an environmental global disaster for our children that is not paved by climate deniers, but by inappropriate and unfair competition.
Like many of you, I have been enthralled and moved by the Olympics in Tokyo this summer. Together, these young athletes went faster, stronger, and higher (literally in the case of the high jump gold medalists), highlighting the wonders of camaraderie and the shear delights and power of togetherness and diversity.
What I have learned from the world’s fastest, strongest, and fittest athletes this momentous summer was that this biggest of challenges for our children (stemming the tide of the hotter, wetter, stormier weathers) will only be tackled successfully if we are also truly…Together!
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A remarkable response
Although it has already been said many times and in many ways, I feel it is important for me to once again acknowledge the remarkable response that we have witnessed right across the public sector and beyond since last year; a response requiring the system to rise to the challenges presented by the unfamiliar phenomenon of widespread infection and illness that has blighted many of our communities, and the long and enduring lockdowns.
We have all spent nearly 18 months trying to make sense of strange and sometime frightening circumstances and the anxiety that comes from loss. Not only life but also freedom, contact, stability, and security. This has been a once in a lifetime, seismic experience that has brought profound shifts to our patterns of work, school and home-life.
Over the course of the pandemic, we have learned so much about ourselves, each other and what matters, and this has hasn’t stopped with the easing of restrictions; even now, there are new issues, guidance, circumstances to grapple with and overcome. The response since this all began has been more than impressive, it has, and continues to be, ground-breaking.
The speed of multiagency mobilisation, coordination and collaboration, united behind a collective goal, has been truly phenomenal. For years, I, like many others, have been promoting the benefits of integrated leadership that wraps around children and rejects ‘hand-offs’. Indeed, there is firm evidence that when agencies work in isolation of each other they can at times do more harm than good. For me, the benefits of whole system working, united by a common purpose, have been crystallised by our responses to the pandemic. The importance of embracing and nurturing skill mix and working with children, young people and families in a restorative way is well documented. The children’s integration work that has been promoted in many areas, underpinned by a culture of mutual respect and ‘team around’, has been a game changer. Delivery models of ‘team around’ have, in my experience, proved to be strong foundations that underpin and guide our ability to work effectively. Schools, the anchor institutions in communities, have risen to the enormous challenges with much more effectiveness when they have worked in a multi-agency spirit of cooperation and collaboration.
As we continue to readjust to life with few legal restrictions, there is much to reflect upon and analyse in more depth so that we better understand any enduring impact of this pandemic, not only on our children, families, and communities but also on our workforce. This will help to prepare us for what the future may hold.
Financial instability is without doubt causing considerable stress and hardship for many families. The number of children eligible for free school meals, due to reduced household income, has sharply increased and is continuing to rise. I expect this trend to continue as the national furlough scheme is tapered out. The disruption to children and young people’s learning opportunities and educational environment has been significant. The negative impact of the series of lockdowns and the invisible threat to life, on both children and adults’ emotional health and well-being, is yet to be fully understood. The impact of disruptions to dental care, speech and language therapy, physio for example, also needs to be better understood. As we go forward, we must consider how the system, working with families and communities, can mitigate against the inequalities compounded upon by the pandemic.
I look forward to finding time to carefully listen and reflect in a ‘multi-agency cooperative’ on what we have learnt over the past 18 months; any new ways of working that we want to continue to embrace in the future; share ideas and consider strategies for recovery. There have been some very important learning opportunities and messages for us to hear, captured through the voice of parents, carers and children, and indeed some examples of flexibility and adapted service styles that we would want to adopt going forward.
Finally, I believe we have a duty to our children and young people to avoid over-using negative narratives. Of course, honesty and sensitivity about the individual experiences and impact is important, but I feel that a spirit of hope, ambition and optimism should underpin our recovery and renewal dialogue with families in communities.
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What we know...
So, as I move into the last few weeks of being a DCS, my colleagues in the Eastern Region very generously gave me the chance to have a last word! I was going to write about the power of collective leadership and support that we experience through our regional networks (and which has sustained me personally for so long with my fabulous Herts team and ER colleagues!) and I will come to this. However, over the last 2 weeks the children’s services team here in Hertfordshire, alongside inspection colleagues, have been reflecting again on the impact of relationship-based practice, particularly with teenagers and how this then shapes the framework for developing the practice approach. I therefore thought I’d share a few of our thoughts.
I can’t believe it’s over seven years since the ADCS Families, Communities & Young People Policy Committee instigated a conversation on adolescents and risk, and Dez Holmes took this forward with Research in Practice to produce That Difficult Age: Developing a more effective response to risks in adolescence. This paper challenged and encouraged us to focus on what we know rather than continue to be constrained by the systems we have. I do think since then we are, and continue to be, less constrained. Research, evidence-based practice, sharing “what we know”, and listening to young people, have all supported us in this. Developing relationship-based practice has played a key part– we know a positive relationship with a trusted adult is critical to understanding how young people view their lives and then being able to build resilience. It underpins a personalised approach and enables us to work alongside and co-produce rather than direct. To listen to social workers, youth workers, police and health colleagues talk about their relationships with young people and families over the last couple of weeks as we reviewed our practice, and to see how this is really influencing policy and our multiagency approach for broader contextual safeguarding and early work on transitional safeguarding is inspiring! It is very clearly developing and putting in place what we know.
Relationships we know provide the basis for what we do every day as leaders and promote a collective responsibility and leadership. I’ve also done quite a lot of reflecting on this over the last few weeks. Collective and relationship-based leadership from within our senior teams and from our regional networks is what we know makes a very real difference. It promotes trust and openness and enables us to work alongside each other to challenge effectively. This is why sector led improvement is so powerful at demonstrating change. And probably this has never been shown more effectively than over the last 18 months through our collective and relationship-based leadership within ADCS.
This is what we know and we should be confident to say it loudly at every opportunity. I’m not going to write further paragraphs on transference and projection within relationships you will be pleased to know (although I wouldn’t mind!). So, in conclusion for my last very short blog, the final word(s) are of course what we know – it’s Happy Friday and have a good weekend!
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An opportunity to be even more ambitious for children and young...
When I qualified as a social worker in 1995 BSG (Before the Spice Girls) we’d never really heard of agency social workers, yet now taking them on is commonplace for all of us. And don’t get me wrong, there are some cracking agency social workers out there who commit to extended assignments in front line teams, who build relationships with families and share their wisdom with colleagues. But conversely, we also know that quality is variable and costs excessive and rising. It was good to see some reference to the costs of employing agency social workers in the Case for Change and whilst there was some reflection on the reasons moving to an agency is attractive for some, it didn’t offer any solutions to the cost and quality issue we seem to constantly face.
Earlier this month we held a workshop in the East Midlands, virtual of course, which I chaired, where we came together with senior leaders across most ADCS regions, to critically reflect and review the Memoranda of Co-operation (MoC) that most of us seem to use to manage the demand and supply of children’s agency social workers. There was great engagement, energy and ideas from everyone who attended. Our conclusion was that the market (if you can really call it a market since us local authorities are the only customers!) is simply not working for us in neither price nor quality, with plenty of stories shared about how some agencies and candidates try and drive up costs, the challenge of operating MoCs across regional borders, and the lack of any real quality control or accountability from agencies.
Clearly there will always be a need to employ agency social workers, but I believe there is a missed opportunity in the Case for Change to be even more ambitious and pose questions to government about the need to at least consult about regulation in this area. We know the DfE are increasingly concerned about the spiralling costs of agency social workers. At the recent ADCS virtual annual conference, the Children’s Minister said the government wants to drive down costs, although she dodged a question from me on whether the government would seek to cap the costs agencies can charge local authorities for using agency social workers. Surely a Minister’s focus on this, coupled with the Case for Change, provides the best opportunity there’s been to tackle this thorny issue? The Case for Change could be even more ambitious and start to ask some fundamental questions about the role of social work; is it necessary to be a qualified social worker to skilfully carry out all roles and tasks currently assigned to social workers? Given the agency social work challenge described here, and the issues Josh MacAlister describes about the pressures on front line social work, isn’t it time for real change?
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Put your own oxygen mask on first...
For many of us it will have been some time since we heard those words in an airline safety demonstration, but, as we continue to grapple with the pandemic and all it brings, I think it’s a useful phrase to reflect upon. As leaders, in times of crisis we strive to remain calm, collected and in control so we can “hold” our staff and create the conditions for them to safely practice. I think it was a chair of the CBI that talked about having a mask of command on the back of his office door that he put on as his public face. But are there unintended consequences of this approach? Could this be seen as us occupying the space of hero leader and placing more pressure on our staff to also “cope”, especially in a world in which much of our interaction is still virtual? Are we putting undue pressure on ourselves? Do we need to find a balance between making it safe and also showing our own vulnerability and humanity? Maybe the greatest strength of leadership at this time is to be able to say its ok to not be ok and to support others to do the same.
As some of you may know, I have the privilege of being a twin hatter so have had the opportunity to work right across the whole system in recent months. What I see everywhere I turn are amazing, resilient, committed staff who just keep going and doing everything they can to support the most vulnerable in society. But I also see staff that are absolutely knackered and scared of what is still to come. As a leader, the challenge is: do I stick with the mask of command, or do I admit I’m knackered too (and a bit scared)? I’ve made the decision I am going for the latter - there you go I’ve said it – I am knackered – we all are.
By owning this as system leaders, we free up others to say the same and then we can all find collective and new solutions together. In Yorkshire and Humber we have been having these discussions at all levels. We have been working with partners to put in place debrief sessions which support staff to recognise and understand the trauma impact of the pandemic on them – just providing time for groups to come together to share and voice this. We are also having a joint DCS, DASS, and DPH meeting where we are looking at how, as leaders of the system, we can support our workforce to move forward together. But perhaps the best thing we can do as leaders at this time is model behaviour and really look after ourselves, so others get the permission to do the same. Good old Maslow is really helpful here - reflect on the pyramid and honestly answer how many of you are meeting even your basic needs – then make a firm plan that you will do. Book a lunch break and be very visible that you are doing it – go wild swimming, take up yoga. Whatever it is, do it - and tell everyone you are doing it. Give them permission and space to do the same.
Go on – I dare you – put your own oxygen mask on first.
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The Value of Social Work
As a DCS, being a qualified social worker is not part of the essential criteria and I know plenty of brilliant DCS colleagues who have found their role though a different route. However, I am proud of my social work background, am still registered as a social worker and still use the skills I learnt. The recent debates about the role and value of social work have called to my roots and caused me to reflect on my time in front line practice and the essential and hugely valuable work our social workers do every day.
Meeting the needs of children and keeping them safe and nurtured, ideally at home, is at the heart of social work and a burning desire to do this led me into the role. Partnership working is crucial and none of us can do this alone, we are a team and all partners matter! A safeguarding focus on the child kept me calm knocking on the door for many a first visit to a family where concerns had been raised. That first meeting is a step into the unknown. It could lead to relief all round and closure of the concern, or the immediate removal of a child. Finely honed skills to manage and assess the situation are essential. Do we assess too much? Unknown families where concerns are not followed up could lead to harm being missed.
Whether the worker is a family support worker offering early support, or a social worker working with a family where there is a high level of concern, I learnt that assessment is a crucial element to plan and deliver the work needed. A skilled assessment can be a therapeutic process which enables the family to discover more about themselves as an agent for change. No-one, whatever their role, is protected from the responsibility of acting to safeguard a child if circumstances require it, and “professional curiosity” is part of working with children at all levels of need. Safeguarding is, and always will be, everyone’s business. Building meaningful relationships, despite those challenges, is central to Social Work, as it is to all those working with children. For me, any potential divide is a false one and fraught with risk.
My biggest fear was always that a child would come to harm on my watch and we have only to look at the Jenga blocks of our system outlined in the current Case for Change; laws and regulations, court judgements, Ofsted inspections, government reports and the judgements of the press and social media, to realise my fear was well founded. My fear, however, was not how others would judge me but that I would fail a child. To know that a wrong judgement could impact on the safety, or even life of a child, is pressure indeed. Our social workers live with these risks every day. Thank goodness for a clear expectation of the need for supervision, support and partnership working to provide reflection and challenge for the difficult decisions, and we need this for all our workers. We are proud to be one of the safest children’s services in the world, but we don’t get it right all the time.
In this time of review and potential change, there is plenty to reflect on. What is our appetite for shifting the Jenga blocks to live with greater managed risk? Which children would see benefit from this shift and which ones might suffer? How do we apply the wealth of good practice available as widely as possible? Social workers are living in a grey area of conflicting expectations which are managed every day. Despite that, our children matter. There are stories abound of those who work with children going the extra mile because children matter so much, but sadly these are rarely the ones we hear about. Do we love those in our care? When a child in care I loved died of natural causes, my grief was overwhelming. As someone said to me then, “you really identified with her didn’t you”. Wherever the current review takes us, the huge value of social work is clear.
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It's ok to be ok
Whilst I am reluctant to continue to focus on the pandemic, as we progress along the roadmap and are tantalisingly close to the end of national restrictions, I find myself once again reflecting on the impact of the past year or so on our children and young people.
The national focus and media attention has understandably been on how Covid has disrupted the life of every child. I have witnessed first-hand the ups and downs of daily life with my stepchildren - with their interrupted schooling, many days of self-isolation, lack of access to structured activities and reduced contact with family and friends.
I would not seek to deny or minimise the significant challenges that our young people have had to endure and manage over the last 12 months; the increase in the number of children living in poverty is of course testament to this. There are many areas of obvious impacts, to a greater or lesser extent, such as education, bereavement, social interactions, abuse and neglect, all forms of poverty and of course physical and mental wellbeing.
There is no doubt that the huge rise in demand for mental health services, at all levels, is an early indication of one of the potentially long-term impacts. Every day there are stories in the media about children being anxious, stressed and worried which has led to rapid investment in, and development of, well needed support services, although there is still much more to be done before we can meet the needs of all our young people.
Despite the constant deficit headlines about children - their missed education and recovery needs, hampered life chances and lost generation claims - there are still examples of positivity that instil optimism, hope and inspiration and demonstrate the resilience of some of our children and young people. We need to consider why some young people have flourished, despite all of the adversity in their lives, and harness that resilience.
In my discussions with some young people, they have reported to me that they have felt guilty or even worried by the fact they were not experiencing such emotions. As one young primary student recently said to his teacher, ‘Stop asking me about my feelings and give me some hard maths.’
We need to embrace the rhetoric that sometimes it’s ok to be ok.
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A juggling act
In the week that “Freedom Day” was delayed for a month, almost as if it were a DfE policy announcement, I was struck by what we are currently juggling as DCSs and the amazing reach and complexity of our statutory roles. Given I have been doing this since dinosaurs roamed the earth, you might think it would have stopped surprising me by now.
As well as national challenges in common, we all have our unique local issues. As DCS for Kent, I am contractually required to mention our particular challenge with unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) arriving in our county.
Last week I had the very difficult experience of advising our Leader and Lead Member, for the second time in nine months, that I believe it is no longer safe for us to admit newly arrived UASC into our care.
This advice involved a difficult balancing act between one statutory duty under the 1989 Children Act (to care for unaccompanied minors arriving in Kent) and another statutory duty under the same Act (to provide a safe level of care to children we look after). The pace of new arrivals this year, by dinghy at Dover, has been much faster than last year and has simply overwhelmed our capacity. Over the recent bank holiday, for example, we took 50 unaccompanied asylum seeking children and young people into our care and quarantined them. The failure of the voluntary National Transfer Scheme to keep pace with arrivals and ensure the safe and equitable distribution of UASC around the country has left us, once again, without sufficient capacity to offer the standard of care these vulnerable children are entitled to.
We have worked with the Home Office to help them safely place all new arrivals directly from the port of Dover to other LAs for now. It made it easier to give this difficult advice knowing that the young people will be safely cared for in other LAs.
In the past year, locally we have grappled with the emergence of the Kent Variant, the closure of the border with France and 15,000 HGV lorries parked on our motorways. You all have had your own versions of these local challenges, and they certainly add variety to our collective set of national ones.
In addition to all the catch up and recovery challenges, we face a long list of incoming issues. In the next year we have the Care Review and what follows, the SEND Review and the looming precipice of High Needs deficits, further transition to a national funding formula for schools, a push for enforced academisation and another Comprehensive Spending Review, to name but a few. The usual juggling act may involve a few grenades this time.
Finally, I want to pay tribute to three Past Presidents of ADCS who will retire in July. John Coughlan, Jenny Coles and Stuart Gallimore have each made significant contributions to our sector and to ADCS. I will miss them all, expert grenade jugglers and friends that they are. I look forward to hearing from them regularly about the joys of retirement.
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Determining the nature of sound
It’s four weeks since many local authorities were involved in overseeing local elections and, Milton Keynes being a unitary council with ‘no overall control’, we are getting used to the beginning of a new leadership termed as a ‘Progressive Alliance’. We have been focussing on a new council cabinet, new councillors, and new training sessions; particularly to support those exploring new portfolio responsibilities for the first time, and congratulating those new lead members who are finding out about being (corporate) parents for the first time!
Amid local election time, there is often some loud voices proclaiming, ‘what needs to be done’ and ‘how things must change’. At times, these loud voices overpower the real voices we need to listen to. Those families whose resilience evidences that if their circumstances and experiences were to be understood, it would position us well in being on the front foot in our approach to the months ahead, as opposed to reacting to events as they happen.
Over these last four weeks, I have had the opportunity to visit some of our children’s centres and schools in areas that were particularly challenged by Covid-19. My discussions with those new parents whose babies were born during lockdown, and with teachers and students whose schools have continued to offer so much to their communities, challenged me as to the voices we need to hear. We all recognise the power of a story, but these stories are only going to be heard if the people they belong to are listened to. The loud voice of a few can often drown out the experiences of those we work with, so we need to acknowledge this and consciously work to ensure we’re listening to the right narrative. This is perhaps the only way we can build a Tower of Insight over a Tower of Babel!
As we listen and help shape the steps ahead and move towards the contestable ‘end of lockdown’ date of 21 June, our voice as leaders in children’s services needs to give a strong message over some of the noise currently prevalent in our work. Representing those whose choices do not extend to which foreign holiday to take, but to which of their more immediate daily needs are prioritised, is critical if we are going to deliver the right services to the right people in a timely way.
This support should not be understood in using the language of ‘recovery, catch up, or of missed opportunities’, but to acknowledge the strength and resilience of our children, young people, families and communities who have shown immense strength, resolve and resilience throughout these past 15 months, too often unacknowledged. Whether a tension exists between delivering a summer of play and activities to support children’s socialisation, or whether there is an increase in summer schools to deliver formal learning, it is important we don’t just let the loud voices be heard. In the words of Vera Nazarian “don’t let a loud few determine the nature of sound. It makes for poor harmony and diminishes the song”.
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Who loves this child?
This needs to be the starting point of everything we do in children’s services. I don’t want to see love defined, pulled apart or being put in legislation. We instinctively know what love is. Since the Munro report of 2011, we have been revolutionising how we approach working with children and families. I can see the similarity of approaches emerging, they share commonality of ethos and culture - strengths based, with families - not to them, all based in systemic and relational practice. Of course, safeguarding needs to be sharp and focused, but we need to ask questions about how “risk” drives our national system and remember the lessons of Munro, Mason and others about safe certainty/ safe uncertainty.
We need to change the system from always focusing on risk and assessment to one of family seeing, supporting and building, maintaining and repairing relationships. More and more, it feels like we are trying to do this despite the system. A system that obsesses on process and measuring it, rather than anything of importance to children and families - more emphasis on doing things right, rather on doing the right things. For example, the Care Experienced Conference highlights its top three messages as needing more love in the care system, being seen as individuals worthy of respect, and that relationships are critically important. Yet our system of rules and Regulation fails to take account of these. Regulation needs fundamental reform. We need a system, underpinned by real ambition, to provide love, support and relationships for as long as young adults need it. We need to go further and the Care Review may provide this opportunity
We have to understand the whole system at play here and how it cuts across policy and service boundaries. Ofsted, Cafcass, the judiciary, health, schools, police and others - all have an important role to play, they are part of a system that inadvertently drives behaviours that can be counter to what is best for children and families. No one intends it, but unconnected decision making taken outside of the evidence base of long term outcomes (that go far beyond childhood), is driving more and more children into care, and more and more into residential care. We need to face the uncomfortable truths of the real impact if we fail to provide young people with the opportunity for healing through relational networks (as opposed to services) that mature throughout adult life.
Of course, we need to hold a magnifying lens on immediate risk but doing so without the same lens on long term risk (just because we won’t have the same level of responsibility 20 and 30 years on) is not acceptable for any part of the system. A system that doesn’t reflect on the lessons of many serious incidents and early mortality of adults who have experienced care, makes us no less responsible for doing the right things now.
The numbers of children in care continue to rise and these children are predominantly from families in deprived areas. 98% of children in care are there because of their parents’ needs. Are we punishing parents for being poor?
At the same time, the number of children and young people in residential care continues to grow. Let’s be clear. I spent 10 years myself working in residential care. Here in North Yorkshire, we have the most amazing No Wrong Door Hubs and the team’s commitment and ethos is brilliant. But I want them empty and I don’t want children in residential care, the long term outcomes as evidenced support my position. Adults who lived in foster and residential care during childhood had a 40% chance of very poor health 10 years later. This rose to 85% over the following two decades. Those who grew up with a relative saw their chances of reporting very ill health range from 21% to 43% over the same 30 year period.
The independent nature of the ‘care market’ does not care about long term outcomes of children, they are there to make a profit. How can it grasp the ethical importance of nurturing relationships and networks that provide the therapeutic building blocks for adult life? How can it prioritise reunification as a central pillar, when doing so directly challenges the business model it is built on? These are all uncomfortable truths but we must face them. Nationally, I personally don’t believe we have a ‘placement’ crisis, but we do have a family engagement crisis. Metaphorically, it’s like having a crisis at a cliff edge. We seem never to move from a focus on buying more and more ambulances to be stationed at the bottom of the cliff. We need to focus relentlessly on putting a fence up at the top.
It’s time for change. We need to support family and networks, to care for children in well supported and properly funded kinship arrangements when that is appropriate and necessary.
A recent report from the Centre for Social Justice sums up well my thoughts on this subject - “a consistent, trusting, long-term relationship protects a child against even the most adverse of circumstances.”
As a good friend to North Yorkshire, Kevin Campbell from Family Finders often says to me, “safety is only temporary without healing.” We obsess with assessment and risk, but we need to obsess with support to families and networks, relationships, connection and healing.
So, let’s build the network of support children and families deserve. I hope the Care Review is an opportunity to realise that ambition and develop a system that can truly answer for every young person – “who loves this child?”
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Doing the impossible
I want to start this blog with a quote from Francis of Assisi “Start by doing what’s necessary; then what’s possible and suddenly you are doing the impossible” - I think it’s what all of us working in children’s services do.
I used this quote to open our Foster Carers’ conference last week, the first we’ve held virtually. The event was a great success and everyone effortlessly navigated Zoom, however, it was a shame not to have some of the ‘coffee break’ catch-ups with individual foster carers. During the event we reflected on the life of one of our longstanding carers who died of cancer during Covid and the amazing impact he and his wife have had on many children. It had been humbling for me, some months ago, to talk to them both during a lockdown permitted walk and listen to his wife assuring me that she’d be back fostering on her own. At the conference we heard from our Mockingbird hub carers (we’ve launched two of the three during lockdown) who brought to life the many positive experiences of our children during lockdown – nurturing calm and stability that has eased anxieties, deepened relationships and created fun times. One of our kinship carers talked eloquently about how she has used the PACE principles in helping her teenage grandson to deal with bullying at school and I realised she would probably never have done that in a room full of 80 people – the positive use of technology!
I also want to reflect on the long lasting impact of Covid, on top of the challenges that predated Covid. Locally, we’re seeing growing numbers of children and young people who are anxious about their future and afraid to reconnect outside of their homes. Our school colleagues continue to go the extra mile because they don’t want any child to get left behind, and out of the pandemic has come a whole load of creativity with passions reignited – we can’t let this generation down. It’s exciting to talk with colleagues and our Lead Member about the skills agenda, because in our collective role as corporate parents we are using some of the new opportunities to improve the employment and support offer to our care leavers. Although they had a lot of support from staff, some of them really struggled with the isolation of lockdown, so it’s good to hear that they’re now able to talk about their hopes for the future again.
I can’t end this blog without giving a shout out for my DCS colleagues in the South West. They have proved themselves to be a resilient and supportive bunch. So, as we move into the sunshine and welcome those of you who are heading down here for a staycation (most of you?) I’d like to thank them for their camaraderie and mutual support. We traded our annual overnight conference, peer challenge day and regular face to face meetings for a completely virtual world. But do you know what? We‘ve had nearly 100% attendance at most meetings and the peer challenges went ahead with lots of positive feedback. We even had a few evening get togethers and have discovered things about each other that have wowed and amused us!
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Today is World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development; more commonly called Diversity Day. A day enshrined within UN Resolution 57/249 and an opportunity to help communities understand the value of cultural diversity and learn how to live together in harmony.
This past year has really brought to the fore issues around diversity. We witnessed the tragedy and horror of George Floyd’s death and response of the Black Lives Matter movement; the murder of Sarah Everard and the highlighting of injustices faced by women; and, the continued impact of a pandemic where the rich have become richer and the poor poorer and where digital exclusion has been exposed as yet another adversity issue for many families.
In the West Midlands we enjoy a richness to our culture and diversity, from the metropolis of the Birmingham conurbation and all that city living brings; the birthplace of the Bard in Warwickshire; the epicentre of the industrial revolution in Telford; Coventry with a certain lady on a horse; and so much more besides, but with such cultural wealth comes another story.
I am sure that every local authority is rising to the challenges that diversity issues bring, be those in regard to the families that we support, or those that impact our colleagues. Nevertheless, I want to share some of the work that is happening in the West Midlands and with two very different local authorities, one metropolitan borough and the other a rural shire county.
Here in Wolverhampton, where 30% of pupils live in homes where English is not the primary language and a similar number live in low income households, we have produced a short film featuring social workers and other professionals, as well as people with lived experience, all who live and/or work in the city talking about their experiences of equality, diversity and inclusion and what we are doing in the city to address discrimination, prejudice and inequality. Sitting behind the film is a wealth of work that supports both our workforce and our community.
Similarly, in Worcestershire where diversity is hidden behind a set of statistics which are lower than Wolverhampton’s, colleagues are working just as hard to challenge inequality. Their work includes a diversity calendar which helps deliver targeted comms to the workforce and events to celebrate and get behind; and their “First Space” internet resource so all practitioners can access quality information. They too have produced a film in celebration of Steven Lawrence Day and their proud support of the foundation which bears his name.
Whilst we know that these films will not change things, they do serve as a focus, a call to arms and a reminder of what needs to change, why it needs to change and what we can all do to be a part of a much-needed revolution. Can I ask, therefore, on this Diversity Day that you take a moment to reflect? Please watch one of our films, if that will help, but use them, not as a means, but as a means to an end.
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You may already be aware that Foster Care Fortnight began this week. This year, the annual campaign to raise the profile of fostering and show how foster care transforms lives is using the hashtag #WhyWeCare. I like the way it’s highlighting foster carers’ reflections about why they have chosen to be caregivers in this way, and at the same time to prompt those of us who aren’t foster carers ourselves, but who truly value those who are, to think about why we care about fostering.
A quick look at the hashtag on social media tells a heart-warming story of individuals and families who have opened their hearts and homes to children at every age and stage of their lives. Some write about what they see as the privilege of looking after children for a short, but difficult, period of instability and insecurity until a permanent home is found for them, others about a stay that was originally planned to be short but became firstly a child’s home for the whole of their childhood, and then a place to regularly return to in adulthood, often with children of their own. Some are what might be considered ‘traditional’ families, expanding their view of themselves to make room for more children, either alongside their own children as they grow up, or when their birth children have ‘left the nest’; others emphasise how fostering is open to families who defy traditional stereotypes and to single people who become a family when they welcome another family’s child into their lives. Some have made important connections with the birth families of children they care for and maintain these connections long after children return home to their parents. Some are fostering new mothers and their babies together.
There’s some important myth-busting in these shared stories: people who foster and work at the same time; people who foster in a rented home; people who foster when English isn’t their first language; people who foster although they don’t drive, or when they have a pre-existing health condition. Of course, some circumstances may mean fostering isn’t possible right now, but very few issues are an automatic bar to fostering, which means that great carers come from really diverse backgrounds and all walks of life. Sometimes it’s what makes a carer different, that makes them so special, and this in turn makes the home they offer somewhere a particular child can feel they really belong.
One of the reasons I care so much about fostering is that children need to belong. Most children and young people, most of the time, need to be cared for in families rather than in institutional settings; that’s usually where they’ll have the greatest sense of belonging. When birth families or wider kinship networks aren’t able to look after a child, family-based foster care provides a home that is safe with an adult or adults that can be trusted.
Why am I, as the Chair of the Workforce Development Police Committee, blogging about the importance of families and family-based care? Because as well as sharing family life with children in care, foster carers are experts, essential members of the support teams around a child. Experienced foster carers may know more about trauma, attachment, child development, life story work, additional needs, and specialist therapies than many recently qualified social workers. So another reason #whywecare about fostering is that it brings these specialist skills and expertise into the lives of children who need families.
This Foster Care Fortnight, I want to say a huge thank you to foster carers, for everything they bring to the care of the children and young people with whom they make their home.
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Getting it right in the early years.
Three weeks ago today, a generation of children who have spent around a third of their lives in the pandemic found out where they will be starting their school journey in the autumn term. For many of them, their levels of school readiness will be significantly different from those children that started school prior to the pandemic.
The impact of the lockdown on our youngest children has been widely reported. Just last month the Education Endowment Foundation published initial findings from a survey of 50,000 pupils that shows an increase in the number of four and five year olds needing help with speech and language.
For some children, their experience over the pandemic has been positive as a result of more time at home with parents/carers and increased play and time outdoors. However, the impact of the pandemic will not be the same for all early years children and will exacerbate and widen the gap already apparent for those children who are more vulnerable or living in poverty.
The pandemic has deprived many of this generation of children of social contact and the experiences that supports the development of vocabulary and social skills. Key skills that enable children to express themselves, interact with others and make themselves understood are ordinarily developed through social interaction with peers and others outside of the home. Many families also missed out on crucial developmental checks that identify early the need for additional support, leading to many more children starting school with unidentified needs.
But we know all of this already, through our services we champion the importance of early education, support the development of good quality provision locally and work with partners to develop support around the first 1001 critical days to enable children to have the best start in life. We also know the long-term impact of not getting it right in the early years.
So, whilst the research is really positive in terms of shining a light on the importance of early education, my concern is that the pandemic has shifted the narrative of the benefits of early education away from the fundamental benefits to the child towards an economic imperative, to support parents and carers to work.
I am sure you will all have seen a similar drop in the numbers of children returning to early years provision following the first lockdown and the impact this is having on providers who have either not re-opened or are in a precarious financial position due to a drop in numbers accessing the provision. What we don’t fully understand yet is the impact this will have on the long term sustainability of provision in our local areas.
For the generation of our youngest children who have experienced the pandemic, my hope is that we can quickly turn our narrative back to the benefits way beyond, and in addition to, supporting access to work. To focus on the importance of play, social interaction, the development of independence, risk taking, speech and language and building on the strengths of families to support children in their early development - championing on behalf of our youngest children and the importance of getting the best start in life.
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There’s a lot going on at the moment, what with our new President, the care review, a focus on unregulated provision, catch up in schools and so on. But for this blog I wanted to think about something that threads through all of these – our use of language to signify what matters.
Firstly, if you managed to catch Charlotte Ramsden’s brilliant Presidential speech last week, you’ll have heard a great example of the use of a clear, well-constructed argument. There were so many nuggets in there but the desire to “shine a light on inequality and do all we can to prevent child poverty becoming an epidemic wrapped up in a pandemic” and the call for “a Long-Term National Plan for Children and Young People. A plan which is ambitious and predicated upon a universal approach to enabling all children to achieve their potential, whilst retaining a focus on the poorest and the most vulnerable” are crystal clear articulations of our priorities in ADCS.
But I was also prompted to think about how we use language by an academic article that dropped into my inbox (thanks Katy and Dez). The article was not about language ostensibly, but about the marginalization of young people, gang affiliation and the fact that young people create gang associations because they don’t seem to ‘matter’ otherwise in their communities. The article is far richer and more complex than I can convey in this blog (please do read it) and it rightly argues for socio -economic changes that foreground the needs of young people. But socio-economic power structures and ‘mattering’ are embedded in our own use of language. To take a simple example, when I look back to how I used to record my interactions with young people as a social worker, I wince at the formal language that we all used to describe what I was observing, language which entrenches power relationships.
Nowadays, I am pleased to say, most of us are embarked upon change programmes that mean our social workers are recording our interactions with families in a much more constructive and nuanced way. They are more aware of power dynamics, highlighting the families’ strengths and using language which helps to both reflect and construct meaningful relationships between professionals and families that shows the child, should they come back to read their records in future years, that they were cared about and yes, that they matter.
That is not the only use of language that we need to think about though. A couple of times recently I’ve had occasion to say to a speaker – ‘what do you mean when you say…?’ and quite often the answer is not something that I had previously inferred. We sometimes try to gloss or hide our true meaning through ambiguity. For example, what do we mean by an ‘independent children’s home’? Independent from what? Or who? And why? Do we really actually mean private and profit making, and if so, why not say so? Or, another example, what does a ‘non-diagnosable mental health condition’ mean? Too often it seems to mean that a child’s distress does not fit into our neat adult categorizations. There are so many ways in which we, as adults, cloud our meanings for any number of reasons but most often to somehow try to make the truth matter less.
And that was the point of Charlotte’s admirably clear speech as well. Poverty matters, inequality matters, troublesome teenagers matter, planning for the future matters, resources matter and most of all children matter.
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The joy of spring
It’s a running joke that the government’s seasons don’t necessarily tally with the standard pattern that we’re all accustomed to. Both civil servants and stakeholders know that when a consultation is due to be published in the spring, this doesn’t necessarily mean the traditional April to June timeframe!
We are keenly awaiting two significant consultations which are due to be published in the spring; the output from the SEND Review, and the Code of Practice for the Liberty Protection Safeguards (LPS). Both will deal with the ways in which we support and protect the rights of children and young people, although not all young people with SEND will come under the remit of LPS, and LPS is about much more than just SEND.
The introduction of LPS for young people aged 16 and 17 is a significant development in children’s services. Currently, we turn to the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court when we believe it is necessary to deprive a child of their liberty. From April 2022, the legal process to deprive a young person aged 16 or 17 of their liberty where they do not have the capacity to consent, will be the same as for adults via the LPS.
I’m acutely aware that adult services are transitioning from the Mental Capacity Act Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS) to a system of LPS, whereas children’s services are very much in a different starting place. LPS and the Mental Capacity Act are generally new concepts for many of us working in children’s services so this needs to be on all our radars. Unlike the DoLS system which can only be used if the person will be deprived of their liberty in a care home or hospital, the new arrangements are not setting specific, therefore irrespective of location - if a 16 or 17 year old is deprived of their liberty and do not have the capacity to consent, a LPS authorisation will be needed. This isn’t just about social workers, we need to work with our young people, parents and carers, SEND teams, providers, schools, and voluntary and community sector partners to make sure they understand the new requirements so no young person is inadvertently and unlawfully deprived of their liberty.
While this has been mainly led by colleagues in adult services, the upcoming publication of the Code of Practice will give us the opportunity to make sure we collectively get this right for young people. The interfaces with the children’s legislative framework, The Children Act 1989 and The Children and Families Act 2014, along with the SEND First Tier Tribunal, are some of the many complex areas that require further clarity – I’m hoping we might get it in the spring!
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Time for reflection
As spring rolls in and the sun shines brightly, lockdown restrictions are beginning to lift and we move nervously into our new normal, I thought it provided an opportunity for reflection.
If, like me, you have juggled home working with periods of home schooling, you will be forever grateful to our schools, their staff and their leaders! I became more certain that social work was the right career for me during days of supporting my boys with their school learning - equivalent fractions nearly did for me, but my son’s Year 9 art project was a pretty impressive joint effort!
Teaching is challenging at the best of times, but the adaptability of the profession to online and face-to-face teaching, alongside the provision of significant pastoral support for vulnerable learners and their families, has been truly incredible.
The strengthened relationships and partnerships we have built across local authorities, schools, and colleges during the pandemic will only benefit children and their families as we collectively support them to navigate the future and make up for the social, emotional and educational gaps now present.
Personally, I have learned to value lots in lockdown, not least the absence of a tortuous daily commute up the M62, but I truly appreciated the skill and expertise shown by all my staff during these testing times. In our recent annual conversation with Ofsted, I shared some of these reflections; it felt important to acknowledge this year has been about so much more than impact, outcomes progress and pace.
These last 12 months have been about commitment, tenacity, adaptability, and delivery in the face of personal challenges for some, and tragedy for others. As members of ADCS we mourned the very tragic loss of our dear friend and inspirational colleague Helen Blackman. Similar in age and outlook, her death shook me profoundly as I know it did others, especially her close colleagues in Nottingham and the East Midlands – she will be missed. Our thoughts are with her family.
I am sure for many of you, the year has also been about excellence, positivity and the amazing ability of our staff and teams across the partnership system to retain hope and compassion in our approach to delivering such a broad range of services to the most vulnerable.
Therefore, it is important to take time to grieve, to remember those we have loved and lost, but also to celebrate our survival and our success, however small. Our individual and collective leadership as an Association has been incredible. It has had a huge impact on our local, regional, and national systems and I think we should take a minute, or 10, to pause and acknowledge the impact that may have had on us, as individuals as well as the people we lead.
It is time to reset, recharge and recover to ensure we can sustain ourselves and adapt to whatever our new operating model will be and support the people and systems we lead to continue to innovate and adapt to the changing environment.
We have all gone above and beyond, finding the extraordinary and exceptional in the everyday – success despite the circumstances, with enthusiasm and hope in uncertain times.
Theodore Roosevelt said “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”.
Colleagues we have done that in spades this year.
So, I invite you to take a breath, be kind to yourself and take that minute (or 10) to say, “Well done, well led, good job!”
Now ...what’s next on your “to do” list…
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Thinking about equity and fairness
I read an interesting and detailed report recently by the Education Policy Institute, along with the Nuffield Foundation, on social mobility and vulnerable learners. In the report there is a reference to the fact that the school a child attends makes more difference to their chances of being identified with special educational needs and disability (SEND) than the characteristics and experiences of the individual child. I found this interesting and obviously has significance for us in our work.
The report also identifies a complex set of risk factors for SEND identification at both individual school and local authority levels. It is well worth a read: Identifying pupils with special educational needs and disabilities - Education Policy Institute
This made me think about the changes that have taken place during my career working in local authorities, and the ability to use and manipulate data. It brought back personal memories of a task in my first job in a local authority which was handling school admission appeals. I had to take a very large map into the admission appeals hearing which had multi-coloured pins identifying each individual secondary school pupil
Choosing a secondary school for your child is one of the most important things that a parent or carer will do for a child and the transition from primary to secondary school is a vital stage in a child’s education. It struck me then, as it still does now, how poignant it was that a family’s hopes and dreams for their child were represented by a yellow, pink or purple map pin signifying the school allocated, and the aspirations of a future path in life that each of those pins represented.
There is a lot of talk right now, as we recover from the pandemic, about levelling up, recovery, building a fairer society and taking all the new and different types of support that we learned to do so well during Covid, into the future. This is central to where my thinking started.
We have very powerful data tools at our disposal in 2021. Using the example of Lancashire County Council, my own local authority, we can look at street and postcode level data showing the offer we give to our families and compare one with another. It is important that we continue to remember that each piece of data is actually an individual child. If it is the case that attendance at a particular school can lead to other follow-on issues, then we need to clearly understand what these issues are, and the reasons behind them. It is only with this knowledge that we will be properly equipped and able to work in partnership with our schools and other public and voluntary sector colleagues to make sure that we understand the reasons for differences, and that these differences are warranted.
I think the current recovery period presents an opportunity to think about equity and fairness in a way that perhaps we have not done so previously.
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Resetting our ambition for children
During this last turbulent year, our commitment to supporting our children has not changed. Their significance to us as families, communities, and as a country is enormous and investing in them and in their lives is both a privilege and a responsibility. They are our present and our future. How then after a year in which children, along with most of us, have suffered disruption, missed opportunities, isolation and loss, do we build recovery?
It is time to reset our ambition for and with our children, to think big and bold and then focus on a clear long-term plan and commitment, with sustainable investment in them and their lives. There is now an opportunity to rethink, to use our learning from the past year to “Build Back Better”.
Our wonderful outgoing ADCS President Jenny Coles who has led us through the ‘Covid year’ without seeing any of us face to face, spoke in her blog last week about shaping new horizons and building a set of ‘national Commitments to Children’. As I pick up the Presidential baton today, to lead and influence that ambition and commitment on behalf of ADCS this year, I am very grateful to her for all she has achieved on behalf of children and on behalf of us all. Together with a great new Vice President in Steve Crocker and the brilliant ADCS team, the work will carry on.
Our ambition is for all children and of course their families. We have long known about the value of local system based early help but we have struggled to sustain it due to shrinking resources and cuts to local authority funding which has been halved since 2010. However, there is much to indicate that this year is one to draw out the evidence of the value of early help and to press for long term sustainable investment. We have recently seen the nationally recognized impact of flexible local leadership and agile support during Covid, the refocused Supporting Families programme, the Best Start in Life vision for the 1001 critical days, and Sir Kevan Collins’ work on Education Recovery which includes not just excellent education, but local wrap around support. Looking forward we will use our local expertise and partnership with early years settings, schools and colleges to support education recovery and the emotional wellbeing and safety of our children. We will shine a light on inequality and the widening gaps exacerbated by Covid but also on the strength and resilience our children and families have shown.
For those children who need support from a social worker or the care of the local authority, a focus on the development of best practice will continue. Vulnerable adolescents are a big priority for us and our expertise in areas such as complex safeguarding, working with gangs, tackling youth violence and supporting young people’s mental health has grown but there is much still to do. We will focus on excellent relationship-based, trauma informed practice and seek ever closer partnership with health colleagues to meet children’s needs better. The Social Care Review is also now in full swing and we will engage fully by sharing evidence and looking at the opportunities ahead. Our voice is one of many and we remain grateful for the expertise of our children in care, our care leavers and the care experienced who have guided our learning in recent years. There is much more to do while holding onto the question posed by the awesome Dave Hill in 2016, “What’s love got to do with it?” We know the answer!
The Association has been able to connect and engage even more this year thanks to virtual working and a passion for meeting children’s needs. ADCS has felt like family as we have collectively mourned the loss of colleagues who were special to us. We welcome our growth and the opportunity to influence for good, regionally, nationally and with specialist expertise, so do get involved where you can, especially in one of our policy committees if you are a member. The establishment of a vision and long-term plan for children, with cross departmental working and resources that demonstrate that commitment should be a central government priority and we will be doing all we can to influence that. I look forward to working with you!
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"There is not just one story"
It doesn’t seem possible that I am writing my last blog as President almost exactly a year since we went into the first “lockdown”. I said in the first (of now many) videos, filmed on my phone, that we are used to dealing with challenges in children’s services – I can’t say, or indeed any of us could have thought it would be such a challenge, go on for so long and with such consequences for family, work and home life.
We know there is growing evidence of the impact of the pandemic on children and young people and their families. From early in the pandemic, we have collectively as ADCS focused on bringing these pressures to the attention of government, nationally, regionally, locally and the wider public through our publications Building a Country that Works for all Children post Covid-19, the EHE analysis, the submission to the spending review and Safeguarding Pressures. We’ve pushed for support for free school meals and highlighted the challenges of poverty, including the significant increase in claims for universal credit and the wider differences felt by children not being able to access remote learning effectively; emotional and mental health challenges; domestic abuse and hidden harm. We know many of these pressures were present before, however the impact of the pandemic has further embedded within our communities the inequalities experienced by children affected by their family’s access to good quality housing, employment, positive health outcomes and differential experience of opportunity depending on their ethnicity or disability.
Yet now there is also the opportunity to recognise there is not just one story that captures the experiences of the past year, but many, and crucially we have the opportunity to create new stories challenging current inequalities and shaping new horizons. What better time than now for a national set of Commitments for Children to show all young people that they matter, they are important and cherished, and that they inspire. Commitments that capture their hopes and aspirations with confirmation that support will be there for all children to have opportunities throughout their childhood for a bright future and to flourish. This need not be the story of a “lost generation” but the story of successfully bringing change - as long as action is taken now. In an animated video, first shown at the 2020 National Children and Adult Services Conference, young people in care from Hertfordshire spoke about the values they feel are important to support young people. They said they wanted us to “show we trust their words”; “feel proud of their progress”; and that “Love is Love and we should be treated equally”. Not a lot to ask to achieve so much.
I know our new President Charlotte Ramsden will absolutely take up this challenge with energy and determination! Her passion for improving children’s outcomes is awesome and she might even get to see a few people in person during her presidency! Steve Crocker, our new Vice President, will bring all his experience to Team ADCS - and what a team it is! ADCS this year has increased in membership and our strong work in the regions has been crucial in providing support to each other during these trying times whilst ensuring the local authority role for children and families has been recognised by government. This fundamental commitment to working together has meant we have deeply felt the loss of colleagues Helen Blackman and Dave Hill who contributed so much to our collective work – you will both be greatly missed but your achievements remain.
And last but certainly not least, Sarah and the ADCS staff team have been fantastic in steering us, and me personally, through by getting our voices for children heard and changing how ADCS operates – who would have thought 12 months ago that we’d run a virtual seminar for over 1,000 people in partnership with the Judiciary and Cafcass!!
What a year, what a privilege it’s been to be President, and what a lot of stories. Thank you!
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Why does social work have the word 'social' in it?
Whether it was because parents are worn out from caring for their children at home 24/7 or because children were desperate to see their friends again face-to-face, or both, we had some of the highest primary school attendance rates in Essex following the return to school on 8 March.
It really made me start to think about how not only our work, but our social lives have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and successive lockdowns.
When I last blogged, I reflected on the paucity of the use of technology in social work and now we are all experts! We work in a creative and adaptable profession so have all got used to online or hybrid meetings very quickly. We developed a collection of open and solution focused questions to help guide conversations positively with children and families. We’ve welcomed parents, consultant paediatricians and GPs to virtual child protection conferences, and children and young people in care have joined their statutory reviews for the first time because it is in a medium they are used to and gives them a degree of separation from what can be a daunting focus on them by adults.
Whilst there is little doubt that we will continue to practise some of our newly developed skills in virtual meetings into the future, I want to reflect on the meaning of social in social work. What does it mean for children and families, and what does it mean for our colleagues?
A few years ago, I attended a lecture in Oxford given by the late and great Olive Stevenson. Slamming a copy of her book on the desk, she exclaimed, “You have to smell neglect!“ (it’s also about observing the love and connection too). I also recalled what Harry Ferguson had to say when he came to Essex a few months ago to talk about ‘mobile social work’ and about the importance of touch.
Social workers need to use all their senses when trying to find out what life is like for a child and video calls/ virtual visits just don’t let you do this to the same extent. When visiting a family home in person, the social worker can see and smell the whole room not just what they are shown. Most importantly, in face-to-face social encounters they can develop the chemistry and the empathy at the heart of relational social work. For me, this is crucial to building an alliance for change – for the child.
So, whilst I’m all for the technology and am becoming more comfortable with it for professional meetings, it alone is a very poor substitute for authentic interactions with children and families – in person.
I am also not entirely convinced about equal access to family justice when a parent, alone at home, phones in to a court hearing, a child protection conference, or a PLO meeting for that matter. Our most disadvantaged families have poor quality Wifi and poor quality kit which is why we do all we can to support them to overcome these disadvantages, and support hybrid approaches in the interim to help families to get their views across.
Following our exodus from the office, some LAs have started to have conversations about further reducing costs by decreasing the size of the ‘office footprint’. Whilst there are benefits in terms of work-life balance by working from home, there are unintended consequences. Even experienced social workers need a safe place to return to after another traumatic encounter with the neglect and abuse of children. It cannot be right to expect student social workers, newly qualified or less experienced social workers, to have conversations about the distressing family circumstances they encounter, in the space that they live. The blurring of work and home in this way is likely to amplify secondary trauma simply because there is no escape – no sanctuary.
Being around colleagues, having face-to-face access to your practice supervisor and being able to share your feelings, is a protective factor for practitioners. Working in teams is what we do. We do it for mutual support and we also do it because it helps us to sound things out with trusted colleagues and develop our practice. We plan our work and think through scenarios with our colleagues, which is even more important with the complexity in casework caused by the pandemic. We don’t lose our train of thought by thinking about dinner or our children’s schoolwork or another online delivery arrival. Those ad hoc conversations with colleagues in the office help us to address nagging doubts and to pause and reflect. Our colleagues help us to process what we have seen and heard, they are there for us and help us with our focus - interaction between people is key.
Whilst we want to retain some of the flexibility that working through virtual interactions brings, I believe we need to retain the team footprint and work in the office. It is part of the fabric that facilitates the unique social work eco system we took for granted before Covid-19, and why in Essex we have had staffing presence in our office spaces throughout this past year.
So, for me, the social in social work is about the inherent nature of human beings as social creatures and it is this humanity that is at the heart of our work with families as well as being there for our colleagues.
If you want to read further, here is some research I have found helpful in thinking it through:
Ferguson, H., 2011. Child Protection Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Goodman, S. & Trowler, I., 2012. Social Work Reclaimed. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Helm, D., 2013. Sense-making in a social work office: an ethnographic study of safeguarding judgements. Child & Family Social Work, 21(1), pp. 26-35.
Jeyasingham, D., 2016. Open spaces, supple bodies? Considering the impact of agile working on Social work office practices. Child & Family Social Work, 21(2), pp. 209-217.
Stanley, N. et al., 2016. Rethinking place and the social work office in the delivery of children’s social work services. Health and Social Care in the Community, 24(1), pp. 86-94
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Choose to challenge
Monday was International Women’s Day. Every year on 8 March, across the globe, the achievements, life journeys, challenges and aspirations of women and girls are recognised and celebrated. The day acts as a prompt for all of us to look at how we can contribute to raising awareness of bias and help forge a gender-equal world and also reflect on women who have made a true difference to our children and young people.
This year, the theme was Choose to Challenge and this can mean different things to different people in different situations – challenging gender stereotypes, challenging gender-based violence and sexual abuse, challenging societal expectations, challenging inequality in the workplace, and challenging ourselves if we find that we’re making judgements based on gender.
As the DCS in Norfolk I have the privilege of leading the council’s work to champion Norfolk’s children and, in my blog to my council colleagues, called out the need to challenge any of the inequalities we see today so that we have a better world now and for this future generation.
My role gives me insight into the issues faced by girls and young women, but it also gives me the opportunity to see how, with the right interventions, we can support them to overcome these, helping to build resilience, self-esteem and self-belief.
Although we can’t be complacent in tackling the root causes of inequality or underplay the lasting impact that experiences can have, we can choose to challenge the idea that that circumstances define women and girls and what they can achieve.
This has been apparent in our work with girls who have come to Norfolk as part of the Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children programme. Many of these young women have experienced extreme hardships and trauma but with appropriate support and care they have been able to regain a sense of autonomy and build more positive futures. Friendships, independent living, study, relationships, motherhood and careers now feature in these girls’ stories. This is credit to the those working across our services and credit to these girls and young women themselves.
We have to be ambitious for all children and young people, for all girls and young women, if we want to create a future where they can thrive and flourish.
International Women’s Day is also an opportunity to reflect and celebrate the lives of women who have made a significant difference to children and young people. Our much loved ADCS colleague and friend Helen Blackman sadly passed away last week, and our thoughts and prayers are with Helen’s family, friends and teams at this very sad time. Helen was a compassionate leader with strong values that shone through everything she did. In her role with ADCS her contribution to key policy areas was diligent and relentless, and putting children and young people at the heart was her drive and motivation, which made her the special person that she was.
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A basket full of hope
Recently, I chaired the North West’s School Improvement Group and also led a series of local engagement events with social workers and managers. Throughout each one, whilst the sun was shining through my window, I could detect a growing sense of optimism in the virtual room as colleagues reflected on the past few months and thought about what lies ahead. It was no surprise to hear about the continuing fatigue and feelings of relentlessness, for them and the families they work with. However, what stood out was the natural shift to positive language, with teams feeling valued, a strong team spirit, with light at the end of tunnel, ready for a new chapter.
Later that evening, I found myself undertaking different extra-curricular activities as I helped my daughter with her schoolwork. Like many others, I’ve witnessed the impact of the pandemic and the uncertainty this has had on young people as they worry about their future. Immersed in the GCSE curriculum, we have covered causes of the Vietnam War, themes in Macbeth and the anthology of poems; alas, linear equations continue to get the better of me. That night, the poem was Living Space by Imtiaz Dharker, and it grabbed my attention. As my daughter talked me through it, I found myself making my own connections, linking it back to the workforce and the families we work with.
The poem describes a badly built building and, although dangerous, someone lives in it and has hung a basket of eggs outside. There is strong symbolism in the eggs - fragile yet full of potential, representing new life, referencing faith and hope for the future; and despite the structural challenges of the building, there is still the possibility of change and improvement. Hanging the eggs outside the building requires bravery and even a leap of faith, something we too require as we respond and re-set our priorities and ambition for all children. As the poet says, “…the whole structure leans dangerously towards the miraculous.”
Our workforce is fragile and so are our families. There is a lot of uncertainty ahead as we manage the impact of the pandemic and predict and plan what is likely to come. We know that every child has been affected; and for some what we don’t yet know is the severity of that harm as it remains hidden. There are concerns we all share about how much the system can absorb as we manage the increase in demand and complexity, care issues, and of course, the ongoing funding gap. It’s tested all of us, yet despite the difficult circumstances I was blown away this week by the courage of the workforce - its optimism and ability to look forward.
In the meantime, I will keep trying to understand linear equations….
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Changing the narrative
Like the Tokyo Olympics, Wimbledon and Glastonbury, the pandemic delayed another major event in our diaries, the publication of the seventh iteration of our Safeguarding Pressures research! Published this week, the final report provides us with a pre-pandemic baseline of safeguarding activity in the year ending 31 March 2020 and, for the first time, draws in some of the regional sector-led improvement data covering the first six months of the pandemic (March – September 2020).
The funding picture is even more challenging this year. Spend on early help services has been impacted the most, with many authorities reporting that Troubled Families funding, which has only been extended till March 2022, is propping up this offer. Nearly half of the 128 LAs responding to the study reported a decrease in funding ranging from 15 – 30%, whilst others reported needing to find further annual budget savings, up to 20% in some cases.
We know renewal and recovery will take some considerable time, however, the anticipated surge of latent need at the front door of children’s social care has yet to materialise or materialise in the way we originally anticipated. Instead, Safeguarding Pressures has identified a new cohort of families presenting with a level of complexity and severity on a scale not previously seen before. This may be due to heightened household tensions caused by close proximity to one another, layered on top of disruption to early help services and lack of other sources of support e.g. grandparents, plus financial and employment worries.
Over the past eleven months, national politicians and commentators have been concerned about hidden harms and disruption to safeguarding efforts. Social workers have continued to keep in contact with children and families, often whilst providing practical support, with home visits conducted virtually or in-person from a safe distance on the doorstep or using PPE. The work of some of our partners, particularly health services, has also changed or been severely disrupted during this period. However, contacts and referrals from the police and the general public have increased, which is positive - it will be interesting to see if this is maintained. Overall, referrals from schools remain down, however, schools did not close their doors to the most vulnerable and key worker pupils. Leaders are now more sighted than ever on what’s happening in their pupils’ homes and responding to this by providing food vouchers and parcels, IT equipment and holiday activities.
Covid-19 has tested our systems and partnerships like never before, but have held up thanks to the astonishing commitment of our staff who have adapted by working in new and different ways to support children and families. This responsiveness was consistently highlighted by many of the senior leaders interviewed for the Safeguarding Pressures research. We rarely hear praise for our child protection and care systems, yet it remains the case that many other countries look to us for inspiration and learning. I was recently reminded of Dave Hill’s efforts to amplify the voices of children and young people in the care system during his presidential year in a bid to ‘change the narrative.’ It was a welcome reminder that for many children and young people, the system does work…they themselves told us so!
Societal inequalities and challenges, such as deprivation, have been amplified during the pandemic, as have the strengths of a whole host of public services, not least the NHS and local government. I hope the independent social care review will fully consider the learning from the Covid-19 experience and embrace those areas of the system that we know work and indeed work well.
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Education governance in a time of pandemic
In ADCS Vice President Charlotte Ramsden’s blog at the beginning of 2021, she wrote about the positive benefits of new beginnings. Here we are in half term, awaiting announcements relating to more new beginnings, possibly from 8 March, for schools and colleges and the governing boards that oversee them.
The academic year 2020-21 has asked leaders in our schools and colleges to constantly adapt to changing requirements and guidance. Governors, in particular, who volunteer to fulfil these roles, have had to show resilience and sound judgement as they make decisions that, more than ever, relate to the health and safety of employees and students. This is whilst they are also coping with pandemic pressures in their own working and personal lives.
The National Governance Association has been part of the DfE Education Stakeholder meetings, along with ADCS, throughout the pandemic, ably representing the views and concerns of governing boards.
An adaption that governing boards have had to make, along with the rest of us, is the move to virtual online meetings. One of the benefits of this, as in other areas, has been increased regular engagement at meetings particularly from some of our governors from communities where cultural, caring, or other commitments have, on occasion, precluded regular attendance at evening meetings held on the school site. Anything that guarantees diversity of board membership has to be a positive benefit!
The most significant, and usually infrequent, decision governing boards have to make is the appointment of a new headteacher or principal. Many will be turning their attention to recruitment during this school term, to replace retiring headteachers for September. To undertake this process during a lockdown period has meant that governing boards have had to be both creative and committed. Often a blended approach has been developed with one day of remote tasks and a second day of on-site in-person interviews, in accordance with the school’s risk assessment and controls to mitigate risk. Committed to ensuring that time was not lost in appointing the very best candidate has meant, in one case, governors interviewing with the windows wide open on the coldest day of the winter! Governors have wanted face-to-face interviews for those able to be in school, with other governors Zooming in, to enable them to evaluate key leadership components of the selection criteria in person.
Recruiting and retaining strong governors will continue to be a priority activity for all types of schools. I was prompted to reflect on recruitment recently when a neighbour, who is chair of governors at a local school, put a note through my door with an application form as they needed to recruit two new governors. They thought I might be suitable.
We do need to ensure that we consider governance fatigue as we move into the full opening of schools, especially where the burden of support to staff and headteachers has had to be taken on by a smaller number of governors than in more usual times. In a recent webinar with chairs of governors, the message ’ Keep going, Chairs!’ came up on the screen. On behalf of all Directors of Children’s Services, I would like to record sincere thanks to all those volunteers who have been providing exceptional education governance during this pandemic.
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The lost boys and girls – the Covid teens
I don’t think we have ever worked in a time where uncertainty and volatility have been such features of both our personal and professional lives. One good example of this is my worry for my daughter during Covid. She is a pretty average 17 year-old currently studying (or not) for her A-levels at sixth form college. She is the year group whose GCSEs were cancelled and who were told, at first, that their mocks would be used as final grades (but mum no-one really studies for their mocks!!). I have watched as her confidence and motivation is zapped as she is forced at stay at home, with no-one for company other than a pair of middle-aged glued-to-computer users and YouTube for company. She hangs about the house, a listless figure. My worries for her have really caused me to reflect on the wider impacts for all young people aged 14-19 facing the unique challenges of cancelled exams, home learning and no social interaction with their mates.
This group of children will have had two years of cancelled and disrupted education, qualifications, and tests. Those studying practical courses (art, textiles, engineering, construction etc) where you have to physically be in the school or college environment to do the work are particularly impacted. Of course they have been dangled with the hope of summer school to compensate…seriously? Does the government not know that they need to be on holiday or at festivals…oh sorry these are cancelled. I wonder what missing two years of exams will do to this group of children. On the one hand that’s how we have been measuring children for years, on the other hand exams can add huge pressure on children and their mental health. Is it time for a rethink on the exam situation? I am reminded of a recent conversation with a headteacher who said children will be able to catch up and recover from the past year as long as we do it at the child’s pace, and schools and colleges aren’t faced with unrealistic expectations and pressure from the DfE.
The transition between childhood and adulthood is an important developmental marker in our lives, enabling young people to try out different possibilities before making decisions. Whilst it is not always easy to see how getting drunk, dancing on the table at the local pub and exploring relationships leads to sensible transition to adulthood, but for many this is seen as both a rite of passage and FUN! It’s a time when our young adults should be learning new social skills and deepening relationships, something which is hard to do virtually.
The social isolation we are all experiencing will be especially damaging to those young people leading traumatic lives with no escape valve; we need to keep this in mind as we turn our attention to post Covid. We are in danger of seeing a tidal wave of mental health issues in this cohort of children. Loneliness, lack of routine, increasing poverty levels, and living with parents struggling with their own mental health issues are causing difficulties for young people now and are likely to cause further problems in the aftermath of the pandemic. In a meeting over the summer, my mental health colleagues reported an expected 18-month lag of these issues fully surfacing.
The next few months will be critical in terms of renewal and recovery for these young people. I am heartened that Sir Kevan Collins’ focus will be wider than education to encompass children’s ‘broader needs’. We need a special focus of renewal…for my daughter and all our children as we edge out of these unprecedented times.
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The future is unwritten
I am an optimist. I’ve also got a strong tendency to look forward and not back. Both tendencies have been challenged over the last year as we deal with the consequence of a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 of our loved ones and wreaked devastation to the social, emotional, and educational lives of our children and young people - an impact that has been felt unevenly, and most evidently, amongst the poorest and those with the least cultural capital to draw upon to get them through the crisis.
The toll of deaths through Covid now outstrips the number of civilian deaths during World War 2 (that figure was nearly 70,000). The war created the pressure for social change which led to the Beveridge report and the creation of the Welfare State as we know it. Which brings me back to my desire to look ahead. Whilst I really don’t have any expectations of a new Beveridge (I’m not that much of an optimist…), we do have some vehicles for change on the starter’s blocks. As we all know, the government’s review of children’s social care was launched recently under the leadership of Josh MacAlister and an early request to the Competitions and Markets Authority to review the private children’s homes ‘market’ was a sure-footed start alongside the early call for advice – no doubt more will be said and much more water will flow under this particular bridge in due course. Similarly, the long awaited SEND review will be published at some point in the near future, hopefully before we are all bankrupt. I wonder too, if it would be too much to hope that the role of local authorities in ensuring that vulnerable children have continued to attend school in good numbers during the pandemic, might also lead to a recognition of our valuable role as a support, challenge, and improvement agency for schools?
So, change is in the air, but I also wanted to think a bit about the changes that Covid has wrought at a more micro level. In particular, the way in which we now work with each other and the children and families that rely on us; and the value that we now place upon the things that we perhaps previously thought of as ephemeral to our work. Remote and online working has been an interesting experiment that this pandemic has forced upon us. A year ago, very few of us had the capability or inclination to work all day via our screens. Now we are all experts at Teams, Zoom etc and are getting used to different ways of balancing our work commitments whilst working from home (and trying not to make it ‘living at work’).
The same applies on our front lines. We have discovered new ways to keep in touch with children and families and new ways to help them learn. Neither are fully satisfactory – we know that. Any social worker will know that we use all of our senses in an assessment to get the full picture of what is going on within a family. Similarly, online teaching cannot replicate the classroom experience. But we have to think about what it is that is missing and what it is that we have gained and wish to keep. When we surveyed our staff in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, the vast majority told us that they valued the flexibility of working from home and that it gave them a better work/life balance, making them more effective at their jobs. Equally, when we talked to children, many of them (especially the older teenagers) valued regular on-screen catch ups more than when they actually meet in person with a professional. ‘This’, they tell us, ‘is how we live our lives – you should adapt to that’; and maybe four on-screen catch ups in a month might be better than a single, one hour in-person meeting with a child in care in a steady placement. But I would be the first to say that it wouldn’t be right or safe to do this in all circumstances. Equally, when we look in a little more depth at what our staff tell us, it is more nuanced. In particular, they miss working alongside colleagues, bouncing ideas off each other, talking through cases and issues in an informal way, they miss the camaraderie and communication that people working together in a team generates. So, like many of you, I am currently wrestling with what the future looks like; how often should people be together in a team – all the time? Once a day? Once a week? Where? What does the working environment look like (not serried rows of desks with fixed computers that is for certain)? Also, how do we apply these approaches to our work with children and young people? How do we decide whether to take approach x or approach y for each individual – or are regulatory inflexibilities going to force us back into a box that might not be fit for purpose for the future?
There is much to play for. The critics of the Beveridge report accused it of trying to build a ‘New Jerusalem’. We’re a million miles from that, but maybe, just maybe, there is just the glimmer of an outline of something different, something better. I told you I was an optimist.
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The biggest crisis in our lifetimes
We are talking about little else at the moment, but I am not talking about Covid-19 here and how we keep the most vulnerable in our society healthy and the NHS functioning. I am talking about the crisis our children and families are facing amidst a third lockdown. Once again, and this time with much less of the optimism of lockdowns 1 and 2, they are trapped in their homes exacerbating new worries about unemployment and poverty, home education and sufficiency of digital equipment, and of course the health pandemic. Adults, children and young people are suffering from the lack of social contact, education, stimulation, and dialogue with anyone other than their fellow trapped.
We know that we have one of the best child protection systems in the world and a robust infrastructure of spotting and responding to abuse and understanding children’s needs. But whilst there are many pressures to scale back, not even ‘business as usual’ is enough any longer, as exceptional circumstances require exceptional responses. We have to be more proactive than ever; to persuade and chivvy along our staff, partners, school colleagues to constantly go the extra mile, and encourage those struggling to get in touch and ask for support, and somehow to spot those who are not in a position to do so. At the same time, we worry about our staff and partners and the impact the crisis is having on them. Has everyone had a check in? Have we spent enough time to help new team members settle in? Are we sure our students are learning and our ASYEs supported to become the amazing professionals they have the potential to be? And are each and every one of our leaders allowed some time out too – including ourselves?
We have responded quickly as system leaders, both retaining what we do and building on it. We have set up helplines for parents who need support, issued daily parenting tips, and initiated social media campaigns to promote active play. Our staff have been out there continuing to visit and be visible, our partners have found new ways of keeping in touch with families and our teachers have undertaken doorstep visits. Our schools are constantly adapting to the changing asks of them – juggling face to face teaching, home learning, emotional support and implementing testing regimes. Our partnerships with community organisations are ensuring that volunteers can be ‘eyes and ears’ and easily report any worries or additional support needs for families. Our youth workers are out there trying to spot and support young people whilst at the same time reaching out through virtual groups and conversations. We initiate campaigns to increase digital access to education and we still challenge each other to do better and learn from each other through our regional arrangements.
And yet, we know it’s not enough. The Children’s Commissioner report this week is again highlighting the devastating effect of lockdown on our children’s and young people’s mental health. We are all only too aware of the lifelong impact the disrupted education of our students will have, widening the disadvantage gap we have been working so hard to start closing. It’s a pretty hard job at the moment, but our leadership and its tangible impact has never been more depended upon.
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“Once in a generation opportunity”–let’s make sure it is!
It’s been three years since I wrote my first blog for ADCS, based on Wonder Woman, and whilst I still firmly believe that superheroes exist, my experience from the last three years has taught me that the true heroes are often much closer than you think! Notwithstanding the true heroes are our children; I will continue my endeavour for magical powers and fabulous outfits, however, I think the woman herself sums it up perfectly: “if it means interfering in an outdated system, to help just one child…..I’m willing to accept the consequences”.
At the end of last week, the government launched the long-anticipated independent review of the children’s social care system. The DfE has said the review will be a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform systems and services”, tackling “major challenges including the sharp increase in recent years in the number of looked after children, inconsistencies in practice and outcomes, and the failure of the system to provide sufficient stable homes for children.”
I very much welcome this review and I know ADCS is looking forward to wide engagement to ensure that our systems leadership experience and expertise informs the thinking. Whilst I agree with the statement that there are challenges in the system that impact greatly on the quality of outcomes for our children, my focus, as I know it will be for many of you, will be to engage constructively but strongly to ensure that the scope doesn’t just focus on presenting challenges, discussing the problems and how hard it is – that’s the easy bit! As a sector, with our children and young people, we must help ensure that the wider societal determinants and true causes behind these challenges are heard and understood, not just the presenting issues. Without turning our attention to the drivers within the system, we will never achieve meaningful reform which has the needs of children and family front and centre. We need to inform the final recommendations and work together to make sure that they are then reflected in future comprehensive spending reviews.
I am also pleased that the intention is for the review to be multi-agency as we know that it is not just local authority social care that has a responsibility and role in safeguarding. Lockdown has shone a light on this more than ever. I hope the commitment from across departments nationally continues, but let us ensure, together, that any changes are not just playing at the edges structurally. It’s vital that the review is purposeful, resulting in better outcomes for children in and on the edges of care, greater collective accountability, investment, children’s voices being heard, and better join up in terms of policy and action.
Finally, and most importantly, I am encouraged that our true superheroes will be part of an ‘experts through experience’ group informing the review. ‘Once in a generation opportunity’ is the catchphrase – let’s make sure the current generation that have the lived experiences are able to have the strongest voice to help shape the right support for the next generation.
It’s hard to believe I haven’t seen so many of you in person for such a long time. I really hope you are all well. ADCS has done a fantastic job in keeping us all in touch with each other virtually, but I for one hope that I will see some of you soon; I’m really missing the human and personal element of connecting with each other. Thanks so much to those of you who have supported me, I very much look forward to another term as an elected director.
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Hopes for the future
Starting the new year, I’m sure we are all glad to see the back of 2020 but know that 2021 will continue to be a real challenge. I last wrote the ADCS blog in January 2020 and was looking forward to what the next decade may bring us. I finished that blog with “Hopefully it will be a less turbulent decade…..” so perhaps I should have learnt to steer well clear of looking to the future. However, many of the challenges for Children’s Services pre-Covid 19 still hold true and the risks in the system have escalated as a result of the pandemic.
The first area I want to highlight is support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). This time last year, we knew that the system was at breaking point, if not beyond, and a national review had started which we hoped would address some of the key challenges. I have a real concern that through the pandemic there has not been the right level of visibility or national priority placed on support for children with SEND. I worry that some of our most vulnerable children, and the hugely stretched family networks that support them, continue to be isolated from services. It is essential that the national SEND Review addresses the endemic problems in the system, created unintentionally by the 2014 Children and Families Act, and we start to reverse the steady move away from inclusion that I have seen over many years.
Another major national priority must be the long-awaited Care Review with the current system supporting our children in care also at breaking point. The Care Review, if done well, gives a once in a generation opportunity to reset and build a system for the future, building on children’s experience and learning from those who are experts by experience. An independent, transparent process is essential and there is much to learn from Scotland’s review.
The review needs to tackle the immediate issues that mean some children are not cared for in an environment that we would want for them, or that they deserve. Talk of a ‘market’ in placements for children in care is inaccurate and as the only ‘buyer’ of placements, the state should have more direct control over provision, with tax-payers expenditure funding quality care and not profits. The current mixed model that has become so dependent on private providers has failed and needs urgent reform.
Alongside that, the regulatory framework should be reviewed. From my perspective, I would like to see regulation focused on children’s outcomes and be about care providers rather than buildings and compliance. A lot has changed since the last major refresh of regulations and they have perhaps not evolved in the same way that the ILACS framework and its predecessors have done. We need to be more flexible in how we provide individualised care for those young people who require high levels of support and have a regulatory framework that enables us to do so, whilst ensuring clear accountability.
Whilst the SEND review and the Care Review are national priorities, the North East as a region has particular challenges in both areas. We have strong regional networks and I know colleagues from around the region are keen to shape the future.
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I confess that I love new beginnings - a new day, week, term or of course new year! They are sources of hope, a chance to start afresh, renew good intentions and be purposeful. New year, after the indulgence of the holiday season, is a time for resolutions, plans, and good organisation of life and work with a real sense of energy and anticipation; that is, at least, after the shock of getting up in the dark again!
Somehow this new year didn’t turn out quite as intended and I for one am still reeling from the deluge of changes to plans that have been the daily headlines of the last few weeks. The plans we rushed to amend over last weekend and implemented on Monday, were swept away by Tuesday and the frenzy of lockdown preparation took over, fortunately with the benefit of having done it before. Thank goodness for the learning of the last nine months which has meant we have risk assessment processes, PPE systems, virtual services and partnerships that have strengthened during 2020 and will see us through. My plans this week to have reflective discussions with my key staff about the coming year, and even our Ofsted Annual Conversation, gave way to the urgency to prepare for lockdown, behind which the fear and anxiety people were feeling was tangible. Strong leaders listen, plan, and organise their way through difficult times, however, doing that when the rules and plans change every day is challenging to say the least.
So, how do we find hope and a sense of purpose for this new year with Covid continuing to rampage through our lives? Firstly, we should remind ourselves of the amazing achievements of last year which have given us such a strong platform from which to build services for the future. Secondly, a continued development of our partnership working, locally and nationally, taking advantage of virtual meetings to connect more regularly to influence the things that matter most. Thirdly, pressing pause long enough to be clear about our core priorities for the year ahead which are accentuated by our experience of Covid. ADCS President Jenny Coles highlighted some of these in her end of year blog and the increase in inequalities, racism, and poverty are priority threads we have to tackle within all our work on early help systems, education for all, safeguarding children effectively, nurturing our children in care, the care review, the SEND review…the list goes on.
The role of ADCS continues to be crucial in influencing change for the good of children, young people and their families and the increased involvement, wisdom and skill of our members last year has provided us with even greater opportunities for the year ahead. We will continue to learn from each other, promote the voice and needs of the children and young people of this country, and further develop our links with experts by experience, multi-agency partners, and government departments to make this a country that works for all children, despite Covid. I for one will be taking the opportunity of lockdown this weekend to sit down with a drink (non-alcoholic as it is dry January), press pause and list my thoughts on the three areas above. If anyone joins me and wants to share their thoughts, then you know where I am! Here’s to a hope filled and purposeful year!
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What a year!
It’s traditional that the President writes the last ADCS blog of the year. This year has of course not been what we were anticipating, predicting or indeed ‘traditional’ and certainly not what Rachel would have been thinking about when she wrote her blog this time last year.
For most of us, experiencing a pandemic and a disease that has endangered life and livelihoods, was something that was read about or happening far away. Even back in January and February, we could not have imagined that we would have ‘lived’ in this way for the last 10 months; will do so for a significant part of next year; that there will be a new ‘normal’ (or will anything be normal again?); and that we would have the language of Covid with children as young as two and three knowing what social distancing means, and track and trace a part of everyday life, not just something from crime novels.
We are reflecting on the things we’ve learnt during the pandemic, the new and developing ways of working, closer community activity, and a greater appreciation of public services and public service. However, I want to begin by recognising something the last few months have also shone a spotlight on, what has been evident and embedded in our society for a very long time and brought into sharp relief again by the tragic death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement and the racism which is holding progress and equality back at an individual, organisation, and societal level. Inequalities are rife within our country. The focus and energy, locally and nationally, is an essential part of moving forward next year and ADCS has a significant role to play in this for children’s services through our policy priorities, our engagement with government, and our membership.
We have seen a humanitarian crisis with the number of asylum seekers making the dangerous journey across the channel in rubber dinghies. We have provided homes for young people across the country, but the current approach is unsustainable. National and local government have to make a national transfer scheme work on a regional basis, which keeps the care and outcomes for young people at the centre of the decisions we make.
Working in partnership is what we do in children’s services, however, I think we can safely say this has been on another level since March. The range of activity to promote safeguarding and support the most vulnerable will give opportunities for developing a revitalised relationship with our communities and partners, both within and beyond the sector. We only need to look to our colleagues in Liverpool who are planning to recognise the support of the military in the roll out of mass testing by awarding troops the Freedom of the City. The reaffirmation and strengthening of the local authority partnership with schools and regional schools commissioners to achieve the return to school, promote learning, and manage a process when children have to be sent home – indeed just to get to the end of term is an immense achievement.
The increased partnership and support between ADCS members is also clearly evident. Sharing practice, challenges, and experiences that have been different across the regions confirms the value of the Association and I’d say sets us on a path for even greater involvement of the broader membership next year. Sarah and the fantastic ADCS staff team, yet again have our admiration and enormous thanks, ensuring we have the latest information in an ever-changing landscape and getting the voice of children and their experiences heard through the Association’s four major publications and numerous media articles since April.
The end of year blog cannot come to a close without remembering our dear friend and colleague Dave Hill – such an advocate for children and our profession. “All you need is Love” said Dave – what more can you say and here’s to 2021!
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The value of growth mindset and cognitive diversity
Like many of you, I was fortunate to join some of the sessions at the online National Children and Adult Services conference last month. I thought the conference was brilliant, especially given it was delivered virtually. For me there was something quite personal about it – it felt like the speakers were presenting directly to me through my laptop, all in the comfort of my own space! Obviously, I missed the getting together with others, but what a great alternative under the circumstances.
As ever, it was a precious opportunity to pause for a moment and take some space to reflect and challenge my thinking. One session that really impacted with me – in addition to Jenny’s Presidential address and DCS colleagues’ inputs of course – was Matthew Syed’s session on ‘Creating a high-performance culture through growth mindset and cognitive diversity’. I am sure many of you have heard of him or heard him speak previously, even if you didn’t manage to join his session at the conference. I have seen him present before and years ago I even bought his book ’Bounce’. I’ve also drawn on Dr Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindsets that Matthew referred to, although this has mostly been in relation to school leadership.
As a relatively new DCS, what Matthew said resonated with me differently this time. I have been giving a lot of thought and consideration to the culture within our organisation and the dynamic process of systematic continuous improvement, particularly against the backdrop of living through, and responding to, a pandemic.
We know that culture starts with leadership, and as leaders one of our key roles is to develop a culture where best practice can flourish. And when I say leaders, I mean distributed leadership, as everyone is a leader in their own right. I was interested in the notion that to focus on and value talent is not enough in itself to improve outcomes for children, it’s more about what we do with the talent and how this is nurtured within an organisation.
Matthew Syed talked about the curse of expertise - where ego, elitism, and the drive to be better than others rather than a better version than before, can work against growth and development. In contrast, a growth mindset believes in human development, coupled with potential and constant learning, where mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities. The research has shown that this way of approaching the world better enables innovation, collaboration, and commitment.
He also talked about organisational value being built on collective intelligence rather than the intellectual brilliance of individuals. This is crucial at a time when our issues are too complex for individual practitioners or organisations to solve on their own. The importance of embracing diverse perspectives is key to developing collective intelligence. It’s tempting to surround ourselves with those that think the same as us, as this can provide validation. However, if we want to push the boundaries with creative solutions to complex problems, we need people who offer different perspectives, from different frames of reference.
As is often said, we are living through unparalleled times. This year has presented challenges for every one of us, at every level. For me, now more than ever, it has been important to foster an environment where there is an openness, honesty, and willingness to learn and collaborate with compassion. The temptation is to close down. But we don’t. Because we are driven to make a positive difference and improve the lived experience and life chances of children and families. So, thank you to Matthew and the conference experience for helping with my thinking and providing a much needed boost of energy and inspiration!
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It may be Black Friday…but roll on the Happy Mondays!
Today is Black Friday! It may feel as though it is so called because “it follows Black Thursday, or it’s at the end of a very bad year”, but the day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday, is the busiest shopping day of the year. However, after the year we’ve all had, it does seem particularly aptly named for 2020.
ADCS has 130 associates, most were previously substantive DCSs, ADs, or senior leaders within local authorities. In the main, they now work across many LAs rather than just one and, as such, they are reporting similar pressures repeatedly shouldered by children’s services senior leadership teams and their staff. These challenges are tackled with dedication, hard work, creativity, integrity, resilience, and bravery. And, at the risk of stating the obvious, these common challenges are the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on disadvantaged children and young people, compounded by crippling levels of budget savings, layered on top of years of austerity, increased awareness of diversity issues, the cataclysm of global warming, and a physically and emotionally exhausted workforce…hey! It’s Black Friday!
Our associates also recognise with much empathy, the ways in which our leaders are holding our communities together by impressively mitigating the effects of exhaustion and pessimism. It is a privilege to be an associate, but also humbling because one wonders how one would have coped in such extreme circumstances. Therefore, mindful not to lecture, here are some observations from our network. Just as we ask, what is it like to be a child living in their family, associates often ask, what is it like to work in that local authority? For associates, the defining difference of what looks like a good local authority isn’t about structures and systems, but cultures.
Generous partnership: “how can we help?” This is the default phrase heard from leaders that seem to thrive best. In offering support, they also welcome and receive support from others. They work with partners, personally and organisationally. In short, they are open to both giving and receiving.
Optimism: it is a delight to work with some local authorities, some children’s services energise all those they touch, and are great places to work. The difference is optimism! People seem to cope with dysfunctional IT, unclear communications, or role confusion, but not with pessimism.
Restorative practice: finally, a clear balance of both challenge and support. Local authorities where restorative practices are part of the culture, rather than just policy or procedure, really do seem to cope the best.
So, belying both my age and many years spent in wonderful Salford, forget Black Friday…and in the words of Shaun Ryder, “don’t stamp out your fire…change your desire”…roll on Happy Mondays!
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21st Century adoption
This week, I had the pleasure of delivering the keynote address at the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies (CVAA) annual conference. The theme of the event was 21st century adoption. It was a great opportunity to have a dialogue with our voluntary sector partners about the collective vision for adoption and how we can best meet the needs of children and young people going forward.
In recent years, the number of children who leave care via adoption has fallen. By far, the majority of children who leave care return home and we have seen a rise in other permanence options, particularly special guardianship orders. While adoption will always be the right permanence option for some children, this is now set in a much broader context of what permanence means to children, families and professionals and ADCS will always advocate for the right home, for the right child, at the right time, with the right support.
Much has changed in the adoption landscape since the concept of Regional Adoption Agencies (RAA) was first mooted in 2015. Now, nearly every LA in England is either part of an RAA or in the process of firming up their regional arrangements. Voluntary Adoption Agencies (VAA) continue to do great work but there is little benefit of all adoption agencies focusing on the same pool of potential adopters. I see the VAA sector playing a significant role in helping us to identify, recruit, and train families who are willing to adopt children who may have been waiting for too long to be placed.
Adoption remains as just one aspect of the wider children’s services system and can’t be viewed in isolation, just as any intervention or care episode needs to be seen as part of a child’s journey. ADCS is keenly awaiting the commencement of the government’s care review, as I think everyone in the sector is! My hope is that the review will bring an opportunity for us to collectively think differently, not only about adoption but also about the purpose of care in the 21st century.
The care system is binary, and we live in a world where things aren’t necessarily clear cut. The review offers the opportunity to think creatively about using care in a flexible way, that supports both birth families and carers, essentially a shared care model.
We also need to consider contested adoption, contact, and the importance of self-identity. In this digital age where the internet and social media are part of everyday life, is the concept of closed adoption really viable and is it the best option for children? Everything we know about a child’s best interests tells us that self-identity is key; children want to know where they have come from. If we are to move away from closed adoption and embrace a system that allows birth families to play a continuing role in their child’s life, we must also consider the needs of birth families and the resources required to support them to successfully engage. This is missing at present.
So, as we look to the future, I look forward to more conversations with partners about the added value needed from all parts of the system and how, collectively, we can support our partners to diversify and invest skills to build on their offer, using principles of early intervention and prevention and taking a whole family approach.
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First principles of hope and enjoyment
Welcome to my first ADCS blog since taking up my role as Chair of the South West Sector Led Improvement Group. The events of this year have come to affect us all in many ways, especially as we have just entered #Lockdown2, and so I have chosen to focus on resilience.
There are many famous quotes in respect of resilience including one I contemplated using from Nelson Mandela following the recent celebrations of Black History Month and another by John F Kennedy given the American election we have all endured over the last few days. However, I settled on one more seasonal and took my inspiration from the carved Halloween pumpkins in the garden that can be seen from my home office window. It seemed most appropriate during these uncertain times:
“It is really wonderful how much resilience there is in human nature. Let any obstructing cause, no matter what, be removed in any way, even by death, and we fly back to first principles of hope and enjoyment.” ― Bram Stoker, Dracula
Our staff have shown a considerable amount of resilience and we must focus on supporting them to retain it, enabling us and them to get through the pandemic and recovery. Resilience is often assumed to be innate or even learned; what I know is that it is most certainly not a badge of honour and it is ok to show vulnerability. Psychologists, Pooley and Cohen (2010) helpfully describe it as “the potential to exhibit resourcefulness by using available internal and external resource in response to different contextual and developmental challenges.” Thanks to Dez Holmes’ two minute podcast on the subject which you can listen to here. At the best of times we need a resilient workforce and if this can be achieved, they will make it through the most challenging times. I was fortunate enough to participate in the research to develop the Social Work Organisational Resilience Diagnostic (SWORD). If you haven’t seen this already, I urge you to take a look, as it is an extremely useful resource.
The phrase that stands out for me in Stoker’s quote is “we fly back to principles of hope and enjoyment.” Work doesn’t always feel like enjoyment and last week it was lovely to hear a work colleague remark “I am quite enjoying this”. As leaders we need to role model enjoyment and hope with our workforce, whilst recognising it is difficult at times; this needs to be done sensitively especially where loss and trauma are also present.
Finally, I turn to children. It is great that they are back at school and it has been wonderful to see the positive activities and work undertaken within schools providing both children and teaching staff moments of joy. The return to structured learning also gives them, and us, hope for their future. There remains much uncertainty surrounding the summer exams, the length of the pandemic and when the next sleepover with friends can take place. However, children are incredibly resilient and we should look to them to remind us how we too can be the same. Let us ensure we are not afraid to speak out when we are stressed, recognise when our staff are struggling and ensure resources are available to keep their resilience topped up. The resources must be made available now, whether in the form of employee well-being schemes, trauma-informed practice or moments of fun and enjoyment at the virtual staff quiz (always fun to beat the Chief Executive!)
Let us hold onto hope and relish every enjoyable moment.
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A conference like no other
The pandemic continues to alter many aspects of our home and working lives. As if to further underline this point, the spiritual home of the National Children and Adult Services Conference (NCASC) in the north, Manchester Central, recently reopened as the region’s Nightingale Hospital and the country re-entered lockdown in the middle of the event. So, this week one of the biggest events in the local government calendar was held wholly online for the first time ever.
As usual, this year’s event opened on Wednesday with speeches from ADASS President James Bullion, our very own Jenny Coles, and LGA Chairman Councillor James Jamieson. Jenny’s abridged speech touched on the pandemic and the stark inequalities it has laid bare, on the urgent need to act on child poverty and re-stated the case for renewed investment in children’s services and indeed in children’s futures.
As in previous years there were ministerial speeches and the usual mix of topical, cross-cutting plenary sessions on equalities and diversity, on mental health and on the role of local government in responding to the pandemic, plus a series of policy workshops. Covid-19 was, of course, a running theme across the three days. For the delegates from children’s services, the focus was on safeguarding, all important funding, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, education, inspection and the much-anticipated care review. Hertfordshire’s children in care council made a short video which was shown in the care review session. In it they shared their priorities for leaders, including honesty, kindness, fairness and love and asked social workers to be proud about their work. Yusuf Paul McCormack, a care experienced person and a member of Our Care, Our Say, provided delegates with real food for thought in his input about the role of ‘big people’ in the lives of children in care.
So, although there was no Guardian charity quiz (the team from LB Havering retain the title for another year!), no exhibition and no chance meetings between old friends and colleagues in the queue for lunch, there were still plenty of opportunities to share and learn and so much to be proud of. NACSC offered many of the presenters, including ministers, the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families and HM Chief Inspector, the opportunity to pay tribute to the tremendous efforts and work of our frontline staff in supporting children, families and communities through the pandemic.
Let’s hope we can all be together again in 2021 in Bournemouth, until then, stay safe out there.
From, the ADCS staff team.
Speeches and presentations from the event will be posted onto the conference website and shared via the ADCS bulletin when available. The full transcript of Jenny’s speech is on the ADCS website alongside the press release.
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Diversity still matters
This is the final ADCS blog-spot in October, when we celebrate Black History Month, so I’d like to return to the subject of racial and ethnic diversity, which I last blogged about back in September 2018. In that piece, I reflected on the low number of black and other minority colleagues in the most senior positions in children’s services, and noted that as a group of leaders we are far less diverse than the communities we serve. Regrettably, this remains true two years on. However, action on this issue continues, and is accelerating.
Back in October of 2018 The Staff College (the public sector leadership organisation for children’s services) held an alumni event for graduates of the five cohorts of its Black and Asian Leadership Initiative (BALI) programme. This sowed the seeds of a bigger idea, which has come to fruition this autumn with the launch on 14 October 2020 of a permanent BALI Network. This network brings together people who have completed the BALI programme to share their experiences and support each other and also invites allies to join, help, advocate and support the cause.
Meanwhile, in March 2019, as one of the recommendations in its policy paper “A workforce that works for all Children” ADCS made an explicit call for a focus on and investment in training BAME leaders for the future. The Staff College has gone on since then to secure the funding to run two BALI cohorts a year, and in November of this year, the BALI programme’s ninth cohort will participate in a two day virtual ‘residential’, structured around the different stages of a career from middle to senior leadership, and with a focus on the added value that Black / Asian leadership can bring.
Alongside this work at a national level, regions are taking action too. In London, within the workforce work-stream of the London Innovation and Improvement Alliance (LIIA), there is a commitment to establish a kind of ‘pre-BALI’ programme for London’s aspiring BAME leaders. A steering group is now actively engaged in the design of this programme, which we hope to be able to launch early next year. In response to feedback from BALI alumni, who continue to experience barriers to progression in the organisations that employ them, this programme will not only provide a development opportunity for BAME colleagues, but – crucially – will contain an element of anti-racist challenge to the organisations they work for. What are the behaviours and biases in our organisations that stand in the way of BAME advancement?
Individual local authorities can also make change happen. Our colleagues in ADASS are taking forward a pilot to implement the NHS’s Workforce Race Equality Standards (WRES) in the adult social care workforce, and local authority children’s services are encouraged to participate too by adopting/adapting the nine NHS indicators for local authorities, which can be found on p.73 of the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard report. In Merton, we’re not confining this work to the ‘people’ services, but applying these adapted measures across the whole council.
In response to the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities, and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter following the killing of George Floyd, our local, regional and national actions to tackle racism and discrimination are under the spotlight as never before. This scrutiny can only be a good thing. On Wednesday 4 November, straight after the official opening of this year’s NCAS Conference, the plenary is: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion – Inclusive Leadership in Social Care. This session will challenge delegates to consider how they exercise inclusive leadership. I urge you to attend.
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Learning from schools
As someone whose career anchor is teaching, with eight years as a secondary headteacher, one of the joys of the DCS role for me is visiting schools. Across the almost 12 years that I have been a DCS in two LAs, I have started every Friday during term time with two school visits. These visits ended with lockdown in March and will not recommence with such regularity for some time.
Following the wider opening of schools from 1st June, I offered to visit any school within their Covid-19 visitor protocols and have done the same this term. These visits (nine so far) have been invaluable in understanding the experience of children, school staff, governors, and parents. In July, a visit to a primary school in the area with the highest Covid-19 death rate in Brent (and therefore in the UK) made a great impact on me when I went out to do end of day gate duty with the headteacher and saw the visceral fear in the parents in the street waiting to collect their children.
My most recent visit this term was also to a primary school. This school is four form entry with 98.5% of pupils from Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic backgrounds, with 83% of pupils who have English as an additional language (45 home languages) and high levels of disadvantage and additional need. Under the leadership of a relatively new team the school had made an impressive full return. Attendance was 96% with all children, supported by parents, very keen to return to the full school experience. The planned recovery curriculum had been set aside, to be drawn upon when needed, with the new curriculum being delivered in appropriately risk assessed arrangements. The school also volunteered to pilot the Ofsted assurance visits.
One statistic from this visit does now stand out. This half term, only one family had opted for elective home education (EHE). Similarly only one family from the school in July has moved to EHE. Whilst across Brent we did not see the level of EHE requests in the early weeks of September that other LAs experienced, we are now seeing an exponential increase as London has moved from tier one COVID alert level to tier two with media coverage of a likely move to tier three.
As chair of the ADCS Educational Achievement Committee, I have been pressing for the publication of the government’s response to the consultation on EHE and next week, I will be signing off the ADCS submission to the Education Select Committee inquiry into EHE. The evidence from our ADCS survey on EHE is going to be a key resource for ADCS representatives in upcoming meetings with DfE ministers and officials so I urge all local authorities to complete it – the deadline is 2 November.
The link between EHE and safeguarding is well known, with the National Child Safeguarding Panel also scoping a review. In educational achievement terms, the recent gains made in narrowing the gap – in Brent for boys of Black Caribbean heritage – will be undermined by any loss of learning in the home environment. We need to work collectively to challenge this.
A clear benefit of school visits is the direct feedback. The classes in my most recent visit had clearly been briefed about the ‘important visitor’. When I visited a class to congratulate them on their 100% attendance, a voice from the back commented ‘she does not look that strict.’ Not feedback I have ever previously received!
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Give a little bit of yourself
In common with many other directors of children’s services (DCSs), I do a monthly blog as part of a newsletter that goes out to all children’s services employees in my local authority. Whilst these have been really welcomed some of the feedback from staff was that they would like to get to know more about their colleagues and the Senior Management Team as people through the newsletter.
With this in mind we have started giving staff the opportunity to share their ‘Lockdown Stories’ and in June I decided to share mine. I debated long and hard about how much within that story I would share, I wondered about the impact on professional credibility should I outline some of the reality of life as a DCS, parent, partner and pet owner.
In the end I decided I would just go for it. I will not recount the full tale here, but it included a very important meeting on ‘Teams’, the commencement of window cleaning, my dog turning rabid guard dog and the intrusion of a teenager sharing his shopping list. I wrote about the chaos, the stress and the need to find humour. I also told of how those on the other end of the meeting were totally oblivious to this due to my effective and timely use of camera/mute buttons when I checked with them after the meeting. I reflected that even those who appear to be coping well are having to adapt and that staff who are finding working from home stressful or challenging are not on their own.
I can honestly say that in my four years as DCS in Derbyshire I have never had such an overwhelmingly positive reaction to anything I have said or written before. I was inundated with messages from staff not only within children’s services but from those who had received the article from their colleagues. Our communications team even asked my permission to run it in the corporate newsletter. Staff passed on to me their own experiences and stories, some of which were heart breaking and others which were hilarious, and whilst this created an issue for my mailbox and in responding to them it was worth every minute.
What I learned more than anything is that staff want to see that we are human, that we have real lives and that we don’t always find things easy. In our quest to look professional we can dehumanise ourselves and create a disconnect from those who we most need to engage with us. We can also undermine the confidence of that very workforce through illusionary perfection. It often feels like we give everything to the job but I will also now give more of myself – as imperfect as that may be.
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Additions to our toolkit
I am sure we all agree that we are currently living in unprecedented times, impacting on our vulnerable families, children, and young people possibly more than any other group of people. I am so proud of the way our social workers, and all of our children’s services workforce, have risen to the challenge of supporting our vulnerable families during this unusual time.
With the restrictions placed up us, we have been able to learn valuable information, for example many staff have enjoyed the opportunity to work remotely. Colleagues have commented that greater flexibility, balance in their lives, less travel, and the trust and positive support received from managers has been greatly appreciated.
Some staff have taken the opportunity to access more training opportunities, now available virtually, which often fit their lives in a more flexible way. Colleagues have also reported health benefits and greater productivity. However, we remain mindful that this is not the case for everyone, and have made sure that wellbeing, and emotional wellbeing in particular, is always on the agenda.
Working from home can be isolating. It has been more stressful for some dealing with situations in different ways. People who have had to balance childcare and work, experienced IT issues, or those who live alone, have particularly found the new ways of working difficult.
Our local government staff have felt the challenges just like everyone else, but they have mainly remained motivated and positive, however hard this has been. From virtual brew breaks, to quizzes and newsletters, they have been aware of their colleague’s ups and downs and have really looked out for each other. Sometimes just picking up the phone instead of sending an email can really help.
We have seen the impact of less face-to-face contact with our children, young people, and their families. Children’s social workers and others who support families across all the regions are working creatively within the current restrictions to find new ways of keeping in touch. Physically distanced meetings in parks and gardens have worked really well and have often been a necessary link for some struggling families and young people. The virtual experience of meetings, visits, direct work and supervision has been positive and provided efficiencies, more focused work, improved engagement from partner agencies, and increased our contact with some families.
Family support workers have been keeping in touch, visiting in person (as much as they safely can) and virtually, to maintain contact and provide support to the families that have clearly needed it. It has been lovely to see staff develop their confidence and skills, embracing new ways of engaging children and young people and learning what works for different groups. For example, sometimes older young people may not have credit on their phones, but if they can get a WiFi connection (and they often can!) they can receive calls and messages through WhatsApp, with many preferring this increased virtual engagement. Some of the younger children struggle to engage with video calls, so practitioners have grown their ‘toolkit’ of questions and games to keep them engaged and develop these relationships.
There is no doubt that Covid-19 has had an impact on us all. It has allowed a degree of connection to our common humanity which has helped in our interactions. Even the most challenging of families can appreciate the efforts and work our staff have been making to maintain a relationship, keep in touch and provide support. These new and innovative ways to connect are welcome additions to our toolkit.
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Together in the same (virtual) space
Many of you, like me, will have had several key dates fixed in the diary well before lockdown or home working became the new normal. Budget planning meetings, annual appraisals or dentist appointments quickly fill our time, and although we are probably quite glad to see some of the more mundane commitments postponed or cancelled, there are some weeks of the year we genuinely look forward to!
On November 4th this year’s National Children and Adult Service Conference will begin, albeit virtually, and I for one am delighted to see it is still going ahead. Whilst we may not be congregating in Manchester, we will be embracing our new way of working with the opportunity to engage in a series of online webinars held over the three days of conference. There will be a mix of plenary and sub-plenary sessions where we will hear from prominent figures in the children, adult and education sectors, but this year we can enjoy these from the comfort of our desk – wherever that is currently situated!
Opportunities to share learning from one another are always greatly received, but this year it feels especially important. The conference provides the opportunity to hear from Ministers and collectively push our asks of government. As a sector we have shown amazing strength over the past six months to keep the show on the road and ensure that children and young people are kept safe. It therefore feels only right that we come together in the same (virtual) space to acknowledge what we have achieved and to discuss what we will need in the future. Covid-19 has highlighted and exposed many of the problems we have been working against, such as child poverty, domestic abuse or mental ill-health, and as a sector, we must keep highlighting these problems and inequalities, and urge government to take meaningful long-term action.
Like many of you, I was hugely impressed with the ADCS annual conference in July which also took place virtually, and although it was disappointing not to have that chance to catch up with friends and colleagues face to face, the passion we all share for the work we do shone through in the presentations and discussion afterwards. A lot has happened since July and the forthcoming NCAS conference offers the perfect opportunity to share ideas and learn from others, except this year we won’t have to make that mad dash from one session to another!
So I urge you all book your place and take a seat in the best seat in the house to enjoy this year’s conference. You won’t be disappointed!
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What a difference a year makes
It’s exactly a year since I last wrote a blog for ADCS and my what a year it has been! Who could have foreseen the change the pandemic has wrought, in our working lives and at home and how the relationship between the two has been altered so much? Yet the challenges I wrote about a year ago; racial disparities in outcomes for children and families, the limits on the opportunities for our Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic colleagues, and the need to listen to and be inspired by the people with whom we work, are writ larger now than ever.
In London we have been working hard to learn from the experiences of the last six months of working through Covid, to make sure we shape new ways of working that do not allow us to slip back unthinkingly to our previous state. Directors of children’s services have met for ‘recovery workshops’ to reflect on our shared experiences of leading through the emergency. We have recognised that in our work together through the Covid period we have strengthened our relationships at a regional and sub-regional level and are better for it. Our networks for practice leaders in social care, youth justice, schools and SEND have all met to learn and plan for recovery together.
The centrepiece of our recovery curriculum, however, has been the work undertaken with Research in Practice to bring together practitioners, managers, principal social workers, workforce and quality leads to reflect on their work throughout the Covid period. The result is the report Learning from Lockdown, the headlines from which can be read here. What is clear from what colleagues across London have told us is that they are proud of how their services responded through the crisis. They have adapted to ensure the most vulnerable were protected and they learned new ways of supporting children and families that they do not want to now give up. The next stage of our work with Research in Practice will be to build upon what has worked for colleagues and for children and families and to recognise aspects of our emergency responses which need to be rolled back. This will see us develop our digital practice framework to support decision-making about how, where and when practice could and should be digital, when it needs to be face-to-face, and how a blend of approaches can best be used.
Two other messages stand out from our action learning sessions with Research in Practice. The first is just how the pandemic has laid bare the social inequalities that are so inherent in our society. Digital poverty and a lack of access to the means to communicate and to learn have been at the forefront of children’s services and the challenges schools face throughout the pandemic. The way our poorest communities and most vulnerable citizens have been disproportionately impacted by the virus has further underlined our social divide and this has been most acutely felt by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities.
The second message from our staff is that now, as a result of the Covid experience and the Black Lives Matter movement, is the time to challenge these inequalities, particularly racial disparities, both as played out in the workplace and in wider society. It is clear that our staff are looking closely at our response to this challenge. As our Learning from Lockdown report states:
The commitment of senior leadership in responding actively has been strongly noticed and valued. Conversely, where this was felt to be absent this was keenly felt by staff. We heard very positive stories of young, black members of staff ‘walking taller’ in the wake of the whole organisation Zoom meetings that acknowledged structural racism directly.”
Across London we are working in our individual authorities and collectively through our Regional Improvement and Innovation Alliance to grasp the nettle of racial disparities, promote anti-racist practice and forge a new relationship with the people who use our services.
A year ago I wrote that “too often we accept things as they are rather than having the courage to fundamentally change them”. Having experienced a year like no other, now is surely the time to lean on each other and face the challenges of racism and inequality head on with our colleagues and our communities.
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What do we mean by recovery?
As a professional community we have been regularly sharing our experiences of making difficult decisions in extraordinary times. The pandemic has necessitated a rapid adaptation of the way we provide services to support vulnerable children and families which I believe we did successfully and thoughtfully. My reflection is that leadership throughout this period has not just been about crisis management, it has been about building and valuing relationships to effect change, drawing on our emotional intelligence, and holding and containing anxiety while finding solutions together. Locally we have experienced compassion, shared endeavour, deeper partnerships and openness across our systems. We have used our collective resources more effectively, freed up some of the bureaucracy that slows us down, shared information and data, and communicated. Never before has communication been more crucial.
Daily I have been inspired by the ingenuity, dedication and child centredness of my staff and those we work with who want to share their stories to support, acknowledge and challenge each other. This is now woven into every working week, sometimes every working day depending on how we are feeling!
My sense though, however difficult it has been so far, is that it won’t be nearly as challenging as when we start recovering. This period will be hugely challenging for many families, and we suspect there will be many more who have not previously been identified as vulnerable and have therefore not accessed support during this time, either because they haven’t tried to, or because they thought the support was not available. Even despite the innovative processes to mitigate risks and provide safety nets, there will inevitably be hidden harm as well as some children and families who were previously vulnerable but became more vulnerable during the lockdown period.
So, like everyone else we have been planning for a significant spike in early help and social care referrals since children returned to schools in September. What is clear from our internal budget conversations, where we are being asked to make savings, is that we will all need greater financial investment. This does not mean pots of money to bid for but, with the long term in mind, ringfenced funding to achieve sustained changes, so we can be resourced at a sufficient level to fulfil our child protection duties and manage demand for children’s social care. Also, and very importantly, additional funding needs to allow for meaningful investment in the kind of high-quality early help that is vital in getting families back onto their feet and preventing problems from getting worse.
So, what do we mean by recovery? Earlier this summer, ADCS published a discussion paper Building a country that works for all children post Covid-19 which set out what is needed to restore and reset the services that children and families rely on and I encourage you to read it if you have not already. In Norfolk we have started asking ourselves what a trauma-informed, resilience orientated ‘recovery’ might look like? Building on our current work of creating a trauma informed workforce internally and externally, we are kicking this off in partnership with Research in Practice (RiP) at one of our Leadership Exchange & Learning events. In preparation for schools fully reopening we have also started developing a trauma informed school system, and for those of you who are members of RiP, Dez Holmes is hosting a leader’s forum on 3 November on this topic.
This feels like an important moment in time to reflect more deeply on what ‘recovery’ might mean, truly take in the learning of the past six months and, in the face of this adversity, capitalise on the enthusiasm to use resources to adapt and transform with both head and heart as a system.
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An opportunity for improvement
Crisis is an opportunity riding on a dangerous wind – Chinese Proverb
The past few months have been an incredible test of our resilience, energy, ability to adapt, problem-solving and innovation. You might think these words too positive or optimistic, but, for me, they describe the best aspects of our leadership. We have had to respond, in double-quick time, to the needs of children, young people and families, to our staff, to our partners, and to the myriad government departments and quangos that have wanted daily engagement, data, feedback, and time – and none of that includes the urgent daily business that we have continued to deliver in each of our local authorities. If I were the type of person that saluted, I would salute you all; instead I simply ask a question: how can we harness our experience to help our improvement journey?
Let’s start with our staff – our greatest asset. It’s only natural that they will have felt anxious about how to continue to do their jobs well, have possibly felt isolated when working from home, may have been distracted by the needs of others they care for and care about. All of this can take its toll on productivity – but I think we have all found that (bizarrely) our staff have worked brilliantly during this period. So, what is it that’s enabled this result, and how can we continue to harness it? Keeping in regular contact with staff so that they know they are valued, that we will all get through this strange time, together, has been an important leadership task. The use of technology to get everyone in the ‘room’ together has worked wonders – we need to keep doing that. We had over 1000 people in a conference one day; it sounds horrendous, but it was great, and the feedback was amazing – we are going to keep doing that. Talking about how we are feeling and making sure that the psychological safety of staff is paramount is now something that all organisations seem to be more aware of – so we are definitely going to keep doing that!
And what about our children and young people. I’m not sure what’s happening elsewhere, but again, technology has been so helpful. Children are really happy to engage virtually (personally I don’t think it should or could ever replace real life engagement, but it has its place), and so have families. Our schools have been magnificent in creating all sorts of interesting and engaging learning platforms to keep in contact with children. It’s certainly felt tough, but it’s also very exciting – so long as we harness what we have learned and build on it.
Continuous improvement and open innovation go hand in hand. While innovation welcomes new ideas from unlikely sources, continuous improvement ensures that these new ideas are continually discussed, analysed, and evaluated. In the West Midlands, we have used the past six months to re-evaluate our RIIA programme. We had already been thinking about how we get better at sharing what we do well across our services; there’s some very good practice across the region but we spend more time talking about our challenges and what isn’t working well, than we do about the things that are working well. Edward de Bono says: “we may have a perfectly adequate way of doing something, but that does not mean there cannot be a better way. So, we set out to find an alternative way. This is the basis of any improvement that is not fault correction or problem solving.”
This is not to forsake or dismiss the important conversations about ongoing improvement. In the West Midlands, we continue to ask three key questions in our RIIA work:
- What do we know about the quality and impact of services?
- How do we know it and where is the evidence?
- What are the plans for the next 12 months to maintain or improve practice?
We’ve seen that a number of the areas consistently identified for improvement continue to include the foundations of effective, outcome focused practice and have a positive impact upon the rest of the child’s journey across the children’s services system. It is therefore arguable that if these areas could be improved, the benefits to the rest of the system would be considerable.
How we have handled the crisis has been a defining moment for us all and a crucial part of that has been sharing our solutions to problems that have arisen every day, in changing conditions. Our West Midlands WhatsApp group has never been so busy! But improvement and innovation go hand in hand and learning from each other about the innovative solutions we’ve put in place over the past six months (albeit forced upon us) will be an important part of the future RIIA conversation.
Have no fear of perfection; you’ll never reach it – Marie Curie
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Sharing the child's journey
The child’s journey must be at the heart of our system. As system leaders in children’s services, we know that co-producing, building and delivering a system that enables that journey to be the best possible is core to our purpose, whatever the experiences and needs of those children and their families. With time out on holiday recently I reflected a lot on the child’s journey through Covid-19 and the vast array of experiences that will impact on their future. The last six months have been challenging for us all and understanding the journey our children have experienced is essential if we are going to enable recovery, “build back better” and keep them central in future planning.
For most children their life journey is punctuated by key events in the calendar and the beginning of the education year is one of the most significant. Transition to new nurseries, schools and colleges or a return to a new school year is a time of excitement mixed with expectation and nerves, plus for some, mixed with anger and dread.
The start of this education year, however, is like no other. Education leaders and staff, together with all of us, and of course parents and children themselves, have taken a firm grip on their nerves to begin the new normal. Buildings and timetables have been redesigned, bubbles organised, multiple guidance documents digested and public health advice given. Staff are prepared and support has been designed to reach out to children whatever their experiences and needs, to enable their disrupted learning to resume. For some, there will be significant needs to address and the social and emotional impact of Covid for many has been more damaging than the impact on their physical health.
How will we make this a success? ADCS President Jenny Coles wrote in her recent blog about the positives that have come from Covid giving us a “renewed common purpose” together with increased partnerships, reduced bureaucracy and rapid and flexible responses during the crisis. We are working to mainstream these positives but the challenge is obvious. Anxiety about the unknown plus the inevitable risk of further Covid surges brings an understandable desire for assurance and management and with that comes bureaucracy, including requirements for data and evidence which take time to collect. We are breaking new ground and differing views can be divisive as can changes to regulatory arrangements linked to Covid concerns, however necessary those are.
The best journey for our children depends on maintaining our common purpose in rocky seas and our common purpose right now is to support them to begin the education year well, return to school and engage in the opportunities for learning, friendships, support and where necessary recovery. Locally and nationally their needs must be prioritised. Whatever this Autumn throws at us we owe it to our children to make things work for them and we will remain stronger together!
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Anyone fancy burnt oven chips?
If this pandemic has done one thing, it has allowed us the opportunity to reflect and examine our relationships, collaborations and partnerships in both our personal and professional lives. The question is, have we seized the moment, or have we simply been driven by the next data request, survey or research, grateful to come out of ‘lockdown’ unscathed or with limited damage?
Out of necessity, having spent three weeks on my own for the first time in 17 years and with a talent for being able to burn oven chips, I have been reacquainted with my culinary skills and learned there are five essential ingredients to a healthy relationship both in my personal and professional life:
• A regard for our own wellbeing and happiness
The whole sector, including schools and children’s services, has had to adapt and respond to the spread of the coronavirus in a way that leadership gurus Heifetz and Linsky would be proud of. There has been a great deal of learning, as reflected in the staff college’s covid-19-learning and predictions series, and opportunities to re-evaluate what is important. Who would have thought that four months ago a HMI would be ‘trusted’ to work as part of a local authority frontline team, chairing a child’s review/conference or assisting in the planning/mapping of schools and early years settings recovery - but they have and their contribution has been valued and appreciated.
Weekly local REACT meetings with Ofsted Regional Directors, Regional School Commissioners and Department for Education officials have been a new challenge. Thankfully, we have been ably supported by trusted colleagues and have been able to successfully implement Bruce Tuckman’s team development model: ‘form, storm, norm and have the opportunity to perform’ in a way not previously envisaged; collaborating sub-regionally in respect of school attendance and inclusion.
Within the context of our Regional Improvement and Innovation Alliance (RIIA) priorities, we have taken the opportunity for greater and more ingenuitive means of collaboration on areas we are passionate about such as children’s learning, safety and welfare; it seems we just needed the presenting conditions and ‘permission’ to do so. Turning to the national context it seems that since the Social Policy Association published its 2018 article on the impact of austerity on children, the financial situation has not improved. Arguably it has worsened, with local authorities reporting significant financial deficits as we head into Brexit and a Comprehensive Spending Review that will need to respond to the ‘cost of Covid’. The prospect of more councils making s114 declarations is increasingly inevitable and therefore innovation and initiative led funding in themselves will not provide the required solution. There needs to be a structural financial solution for schools and children’s services, one that recognises and addresses disadvantage and inequality.
If we are truly passionate about the future of our children and young people, then we have an opportunity to build on our collective learning and develop a partnership between government departments, national bodies and local authorities to collaborate on a policy framework that brings with it the structural resources, vision and ambition. One that builds a safe, healthy, happy and successful future for all our children; underpinned by a healthy relationship. Or, we can simply conclude Bruce Tuckman’s cycle; mourn and have burnt oven chips!
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Take a deep breath
So, writing this in the middle of August makes me think that in many ways this is the moment for taking a deep gulp of fresh air so that we can be prepared for whatever might happen next…
There are a few reasons for doing this, firstly because during August, the pace has slowed with more people away so there is a small opportunity to take that deep breath. Secondly, many of us are fortunate enough to be taking some form of a short break during the summer period - if you haven’t been nagged to do so already, then please do, it is really important! And thirdly, it is more crucial than ever to try to switch off (both mentally and electronically) and re-charge the batteries after the prolonged period of managing all of the consequences (so far) of Covid. And…breathe.
And of course, who knows what is coming next? The full return of schools; the challenges of travel to school; the much-anticipated rise in demand for supporting children and adults in our communities; the potential longer-term impacts of job losses and ‘austerity’; ongoing local outbreaks or a ‘second wave’ of Covid; and for many authorities a bleak financial outlook to add to the challenges of supporting recovery and renewal in their local areas. And once we sort out all of that, let’s not forget that ‘business as usual’ had its own challenges to start with!
But directors of children’s services (DCS) and their teams do not step into these roles looking for an easy life or being easily daunted by the odd boulder strewn in their path! The contextual challenges only reinforce the importance of the role of the DCS in our society. Who else is able to take a system wide view of outcomes for children; to make those links about vulnerable children who might be worse off if they don’t have school as a protective factor in their lives; to understand that there are some children who (surprise, surprise) might struggle because they don’t have parents with the capacity or aptitude for providing schooling at home; that there are organisations which in the midst of reactive responses to Covid, might need challenging to remember the impact of their actions on children and young people, or to include children and young people in their plans for recovery and renewal; that black children’s lives matter and there is still so much to do to address the ingrained bias that impacts on their lives and futures?
These are amongst the countless opportunities (not boulders!) to make a positive difference in children’s lives and to ensure that post-Covid Britain is a country that works for all children. Take a deep breath and you can blow those boulders away!
And finally… on a personal note, I am also taking a deep breath and stepping away from being a DCS. Thank you to so many brilliant colleagues in ADCS nationally and regionally as well as in my home patch who have been there to advise, coach and support me in my personal journey as and when needed. I intend to continue contributing to the sector by offering the same for others where I can.
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Partnership: a renewed common purpose!
ADCS recently published a discussion paper Building a country that works for all children post Covid-19 which highlights both the challenges and opportunities the pandemic has created for children, families and the services they rely on. The paper draws on the experiences of senior leaders in children’s services from across the country, and it was clear that there were a number of positives emerging from lockdown that should be retained as we move forward. Enhanced and more productive partnership working was often fed back as one of the positives by ADCS members and this is what I shall be focusing my blog on.
As the discussion paper articulates; “a renewed common purpose has galvanized partnership working in many areas, even within LAs working relationships have been strengthened, particularly with public health colleagues”. Partnerships are fundamental to our approach, our work and the environment we seek to build, and we know it improves outcomes for children and families. This has been at the core of our activity for years, forever even! Most of us would say that we had a good basis or model of practice to build on when Covid-19 impacted on all of us, so what has been different since March? In times of crisis and such extraordinary challenges, increased commitment to partnership, a better understanding of each other and what working together achieves and is achieving can never have been so important. So, here are some reflections on what’s moved on in a few months which may have taken a lot longer previously:
Bureaucracy has been streamlined or bypassed! Managers as part of Safeguarding Partnerships have met regularly, shared intelligence and information, used social media and formed relationships with local businesses, supermarkets etc. to publicise messages about protecting children, domestic abuse and where to seek help. They have also been able to redirect activities of their workforce in a short space of time to cover gaps and ensure that vital services continue.
Partnerships with schools and education settings, whatever their governance, have improved and I’ll say it again, has confirmed that LAs are the leaders of place in education. Added to this, there has been a much greater appreciation of our role from national government, not just in education but in our local communities as well (I could write a whole other blog on this topic, but maybe another time!)
Sharing of information. For some, this emergency has given them permission to share more easily and, given we are going to be living in a situation where sharing information at a person, local and national level will be so important for some considerable time, this should be the justification to break down the information sharing barriers we’ve struggled with for so many years.
But there are also some challenges. Although we have seen firsthand the positive impact of partnership working at a family and child level, or the benefits of technology on virtual working and contact, evidence of their effectiveness will only emerge over the coming months. Successful partnerships require building trust and understanding and, as we have seen for some communities, the last few months have shown yet again the importance of positive action rather than relying on promises to achieve lasting change.
Finally, and on a more personal note, the partnerships we have developed through ADCS and our regional networks have been part of all our coping mechanisms. The support and advice I have received from colleagues has been invaluable and I hope others have benefited as much as I have - thank you!
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Waving not drowning
Blackburn with Darwen (BwD) has found itself in the media spotlight recently. The high rates of transmission of the virus in the borough have challenged us all to implement further actions to reverse this trend so that we don’t face another lockdown. As the rate of infection has risen and our access to the data has become more useful, we have been able to see that the virus, at this moment in time, is having a bigger impact on our Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities. Our Director of Public Health (DPH), Professor Dominic Harrison, has been clear throughout the pandemic that existing health inequalities, poorer quality housing and lower pay are all contributory factors that make children, young people and families more vulnerable to the virus. These inequalities have only been amplified for children and young people during the lockdown.
Having experienced the gradual relaxation of the restrictions that we have been living with I want to stress the importance of an effective outbreak management action plan that puts children and young people at the centre. Like our DPH, I also want to stress the importance of not blaming anyone for a global pandemic, including children and young people!
This includes the children and young people who in June and July have started to return to school, play or socialise. We are all concerned about the impact of the virus but I have found myself challenging critical comments about children who have been observed on the streets playing together and young people being seen to be meeting up with each other without the necessary social distancing. The impact of the virus on children and young people seems particularly severe.
High quality early years provision, school, play and friendship are as important for children as having an effective health service and functioning economy for us all. In the pace and complexity of responding to a local outbreak, it isn’t enough to remind colleagues and partners about the needs of children and young people.
My reflection on the role that I should play in my Local Authority Local Outbreak Management Board is to represent the children and young people of the borough. I have done this by working with and enhancing our existing partnership structures. Our termly School Improvement Board which co-ordinates school improvement activity through system leadership was “stepped up” to meet every week from 22 April. This has allowed us to engage our schools in planning for the lifting of lockdown and the reopening of schools from September. I have also asked our Children’s Partnership Board and Corporate Parenting Board to focus on how we mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on all of our children and young people.
Earlier this year, a third sector consortium was successful in securing a Department for Education funded holiday hunger scheme which went live in the borough on 3 August. I understand parental anxiety and the restrictions that containment brings but we can’t have children being confined to their homes when, if properly risk assessed and with the right protocols in place, they could be taking part in positive activities. In addition to this, the summer scheme provides a lunch which is important for the 60% of children in BwD who are now living in poverty.
As we implement plans for recovery and for the management of local outbreaks, key to this balancing act is to work closely together with children, young people and parents/carers in tackling this international pandemic at a very local level, and taking time wherever possible to do with and not to.
We have also had to go back and prioritise our service for those children and families who we have risk assessed as needing face to face contact. This includes all initial assessments, Section 47s and statutory visits across the service for children and families where we have the highest level of concern. Added to this, we have maintained our summer delivery scheme, albeit restricted and risk assessed to ensure that we are Covid secure. The staff and our colleagues in schools and education settings have been amazing in developing, implementing and then reviewing these risk assessments all in an effort to keep children and young people at the heart of our service.
As a Director of Children’s Services, I have worked very closely with our DPH and their team, as well as benefitting from the hard work and support of colleagues from across the Council and the wider community. Our next steps involve building a resource that can support the borough to manage the impact of the virus through our local Outbreak Management Board and our responsibilities for test, trace and isolate. As Professor Dominic Harrison, BwD’s DPH, informed us by referencing Sheriff Body from the film JAWS: when the Sheriff saw the shark up close for the first time, he said “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” If we are to avoid a long running sequel then the need for adequate resources to tackle this menace effectively at a local level is a necessity.
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A digital bonanza?
I would like to begin this blog by paying tribute to Dave Hill who was my predecessor as Director of Children’s Services in Essex, and a tough act to follow! Last week I attended his funeral and was reminded how Dave was a larger than life character who made an impact on everyone he met.
In these Covid times, his funeral, by contrast to his personality, was a small affair; but it was also very intimate and led me to focus on his achievements as a friend and a colleague. His enthusiasm for our profession made him a great President of ADCS, an advocate and a leader.
He will be greatly missed by us all.
Working with families to effect change in Covid-19: a digital bonanza?
The recent change to guidance for shielded workers, allowing them to return to work in ‘Covid-secure businesses’ from 1st August, made me start to reflect on how we have tried to effect change in families during the pandemic.
My first reflection was that there has been a digital bonanza!
Whether you used MS Teams, Zoom, WhatsApp or any other digital platform, so much work has been done remotely since lockdown began. Sometimes this had real benefits, for example, some children in care, who had never attended their review meeting, did and told us they preferred it; and we all know how infrequently consultant paediatricians attend child protection conferences, but they have via Teams. So, distance is important, distance that the remote review creates has encouraged participation. Even the lack distance that professionals have needed to travel for an online meeting has had a similar outcome. Indeed, those who were shielded or self-isolating, but remained physically well, continued to work entirely from home.
So, some of these changes can easily be offered as alternative routes to participation in a post-Covid world.
My second reflection was how important face-to-face visits are to social work practice
Initially, we visited only those children at the highest risk of harm, or whose placements were about to break down. As time went on, the risk of not seeing other children became greater, and while video conferencing mitigates that risk, it does not do so half as well as being physically present.
Observation skills are key to good social work, and that means the use of all of our senses. You can get a young person to give you a tour of the home using WhatsApp, but you cannot always see who is behind the camera, coaching the response. How can you tell if they are living in hygienic conditions without using the sense of smell?
So, the technology has been helpful, but cannot replace good old-fashioned home visiting.
My third reflection was about the time it is taking to get work done: is there really a digital bonanza?
Quite early on, I was hearing that child protection conferences, held online, were taking twice as long as they usually do. We all know how tiring video conferences are now, but there is something peculiar about an online meeting that just isn’t as efficient (even if it comes to the same conclusion). Yet more concerning is the fact that progress in case work is slower: cases are open for longer, and, at least in Essex, we have had fewer exits from care during this period. While Covid has added a layer of complexity with the emergence of issues such as the impact of lockdown on domestic violence, adolescent and parental mental health, there is also something about how we have approached working with and managing risk.
I have always been an outspoken and passionate advocate of relationship-based practice, so when in all other respects a conversation with children or their parents is the same, what is it about the video conference that makes us less brave about stepping down or closing cases?
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Leadership in troubled times
One of the lasting impressions left by my leadership development training with the Staff College was the idea of “Leadership in Troubled Times – from the swamp to the high ground”. This seems even more relevant now in the most volatile and uncertain of times and I encourage you all to watch the video link above.
Our world right now certainly seems “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous”. Covid has placed unforeseen demands in front of us and added greater complexity to issues such as hidden harm, criminal exploitation and domestic abuse. That is all before we really understand what is coming in terms of the economy, unemployment and the associated financial stress in family life.
More children are entering care year-on-year and placements can be far from home, scarce and unable to meet the child’s needs. A care review hasn’t yet started but it feels like a once in a generation opportunity to resolve, with our partners, some of the complex challenges in the system. It needs to be radical and bold and not just about increasing the number of placements. For many, care is a protective factor but being in care should not be seen as an end goal in itself.
There are no magic solutions, our best response will continue to be what we have always done, creating the best conditions for fantastic social work. Now is the time to remind ourselves of the values that create the best outcomes, and ensure our services are about quality and practice rather than performance and process. Remember, culture eats strategy for breakfast.
As Danielle Turney said in her book Relationship Based Social Work: getting to the heart of practice:
“Despite everything that happens around it, social work will always begin and end with a human encounter between two or more people and this encounter, or relationship as it develops, is the medium through which the social work task is carried out.”
We might have different models of how we get there and describe it in different ways but the best social work I have seen has this large and centre. We have to work with families amidst crisis and uncertainty, tolerate that uncertainty and seize the energy as a powerful force for change, working with families and their wider networks to do so. We need to build a model of social work practice that celebrates the power of relational work and keeping children rooted with families, placing more value on connecting and repairing relationships.
As Bruce D Perry said:
“The more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely they will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”
Thinking about therapeutic repair requires a fundamental mind shift from episodic social interventions, which only consider immediate or short-term risk management, to a position of thinking about the child’s life course. How do we ensure we work with families to build children into resilient adults so that they have the tools to deal with life events long after we take away the temporary scaffolding of services? In the past we have seen time and again that once the scaffolding has been removed (such as care) we had simply forgot to install the right foundation. We should use the privileged opportunity we have to build solid and bespoke foundations with a common and simple ingredient; trusted local relationships that have been firmly built to last for ever.
Let’s make our social work about repair as much as it is about safety. Let’s create as much love and as many relationships as we can for the children and families we work with and create a system that values those outcomes.
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Should working from home be the "new normal"?
During last week’s 2020 ADCS annual conference, colleagues discussed options about how the children’s workforce could return to the office environment which gave much to think about. Whether we adopt a “blended” or “hybrid” approach was just two ideas floated at the conference. Our ambition is to shape and influence “A country that works for all children” where individual workers manage highly complex situations and decision making, where we work to help children, young people and families, reduce inequalities and where the vital support our workforce provides is highly valued.
Throughout “lockdown” we have seen the innovation, resilience and strength and flexibility of the workforce, embracing digital technology whilst still remaining active in the community to support children and families, always following national guidance as we go. However, many are keen to recapture working together in a way that supports personal connectivity.
During these strange times, we’ve all had to make the most of digital technology to communicate, hold meetings, keep in touch, and to engage in a way that most children, young people and their families have welcomed, while acknowledging that face to face interaction is important. We’ve also heard that social workers have had varied experiences and taken to home working differently. The challenge does not appear to be about whether we return to the office environment in a way that existed pre-Covid-19, more so about how we should use our workspaces in the future.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a disruptor to normal life, impacting all of us right across the sector and this will continue. We therefore need to build organisational resilience for a 21st Century workforce. The opportunity is there for us to build an organisation on the strengths and assets that our workforce has demonstrated, one that withstands, recovers and sustains us into the future with health protection firmly in mind.
It is widely acknowledged that physical space is a strong and powerful determiner of organisational culture and behaviours. We know “place” has a strong psychological impact upon people, so we must strike the right balance between face to face work, use of digital technology and private work. We must work together in different ways to reconnect, undertake collaborative work and to embrace and enjoy social interaction. This is not to say that we should forget the advantages presented by working remotely during lockdown, but instead embrace what we have learned that works well and incorporate it into future working practices. There is an opportunity to reconstruct how work is done with a focus upon redesign, to have more collaborative and less private space, all while ensuring that staff are safe and well.
The nature of how and when we do this is down to individual local authorities who have a role to ensure we are compliant with national guidance and future plans set within the context of preventing outbreaks.
The increased profile of social workers and key workers over the past few months has been very encouraging, but there is an opportunity to re-think how (and where) we work in a way that is flexible enough to meet everyone’s needs. Working from home can be a fundamental part of this and one that can have wider benefits in terms of home and work-life balance if we embrace a new normal, a newly designed working space and routine.
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The power of the ADCS family
We all work through building relationships and deliver services that support children and families. Some of us do this in a more formal way, utilising restorative and relational based techniques that drive our practice, but ultimately without building those relationships with children, their parents and families, it becomes far more challenging to do our work successfully. Developing and maintaining relationships helps with our resilience, whether that be in our privileged position of working in this fantastic sector, or personally outside of our work.
The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown has meant there has never been a more important time to draw on those relationships, to be self-resilient, and to have a resilient workforce. Actual human contact has been replaced by virtual contact and, for now at least, the vast array of video meetings has become the new norm, something we probably couldn’t have contemplated before March - thankfully it is in the main serving us well. It allows us to go about our business and maintain those vital connections more easily than traditional faceless telephone calls do. Our jobs are based on building trust and mutual respect, and today’s technology means that we and our staff can continue to do so.
With that in mind, and as a people person, when asked to write this week’s ADCS blog, I reflected on what must be one of the most challenging jobs at this time, and pondered on my resilience, what has had a positive impact on it, and that of my staff over the past few months. Some of the ‘constants’ in my reflections were relationships, and the sector itself, and how through ADCS a collective disparate family is brought together in normal times, and the power that this has then created at the most difficult of times in many of our careers.
So, I ask myself, what makes ADCS so important? Being a relatively new member to ADCS (I have been a member since late 2015, much less time than many of my esteemed colleagues), I realised it provides a wraparound warmth of a family in normal times, let alone during uncertainty and need, to a role that can feel a very lonely place. Regionally as well, there are huge advantages. North East ADCS is a strong network, bonded together by our relationships, understanding of local nuance, and the desire to bring about long term sustainable change to improve the outcomes for those we serve. Our Sector Led Improvement framework and associated sub-groups has a set of well-developed priorities that has shown real resilience. It has given us a readymade infrastructure for driving forward change and solutions with clear responsibilities and accountabilities that we share and own.
With yesterday’s ADCS virtual Annual Conference, it was really encouraging to note a number of people ‘attending’ their first conference. As a “newer kid on the block” I can vouch for the value of becoming an active member of the ADCS community. The collective band of brothers and sisters is so powerful in providing an individual and collective ‘prop’, probably like no other that I have felt, and we should recognise and celebrate that at any time, but especially during this pandemic. There are many things that other sectors could learn.
What makes our sector different to any other is the strength of our ADCS community and our innate understanding of the need for these trusted supportive relationships, without which our jobs may well have felt and even been impossible over the past few months. Our own professional and personal resilience is an easy one for us to side step in this rapidly unfolding world of change, yet speaking for myself, my wellbeing remains intact (if not a few pounds heavier), and that is largely due to my ADCS family that keeps me grounded and mentally strong. As a sector leader, this means that I can do the same for my staff, and ultimately for those we serve to support.
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On love, and love after lockdown
The devastating loss of our friend, colleague and ADCS Past President Dave Hill had a huge impact on our sector last week, and on the many of us who knew, loved and admired him. Dave always was a hard act to follow - whether you spoke after him in a meeting, followed him into a job or exchanged anecdotes and gossip with him in the bar at the ADCS Annual Conference - he was brilliant at all of it. The moving tribute of publishing Dave’s 2016 blog What’s love got to do with it? last week was another example. The vague collection of dull thoughts that were bouncing around in my head to share with you this week were immediately rendered irrelevant and insignificant. How do you follow that blog?
The only answer was to go with Dave’s flow and to look forward – as he always did. There is a member of my household (nameless to spare her embarrassment) who is addicted to an American reality series called “Love After Lock Up”. Residing in the outer tundra of satellite channels, it follows the fate of relationships forged by correspondence with prisoners, on their release. Frankly, it’s unlikely to be troubling the BAFTA judges, but its premise is interesting to consider in the context of Dave’s treatise on love and our current situation. To paraphrase, what happens to “Love After Lockdown”?
Dave reminded us of what does (and doesn’t) matter in this world and this job, where we live with a combination of privilege and challenge, joy and pain. Many of us have experienced the “I don’t know how you do your job!” dinner party conversation, based on the negative press our jobs attract. But what we know, and they don’t, is the unique pleasure of seeing children thrive and succeed in our care, overcoming the odds and their trauma to flourish. As Dave said, we deal in the currency of unconditional love – children’s need for it, and our need to ensure they receive it and are protected by it. Last week I received a beautiful letter from a UASC care leaver who had just achieved top honours in a degree in architecture, now going on to do his Masters. He came into our care as a frightened, deeply traumatised child with no English and significant mental health issues. He described the care, support and, yes, love he had received from social workers, Personal Advisors and carers in Kent that nurtured him to where is now. What a privilege to receive.
One aspect of the universality of the current crisis is that it has acted like a chef’s “reduction”- everything feels more concentrated, more intense, more impactful. This is particularly true for children and their experiences, positive and negative, of lockdown. Children have already sacrificed months of their learning for the health and wellbeing of us all and ADCS President Jenny Coles has spoken eloquently of the need to ensure they are not the long-term victims of Covid-19 as they were of austerity. As we approach the next stage, it will once more fall to us to make the case for children, and for childhood, in the public realm. This will be a fight for resources, but also for public opinion. The public has shown extraordinary love for the NHS, and we need to galvanise national sentiment to show similar love and commitment for our children, to prevent a generation being hugely damaged. In the words of Dave Hill, “We need to start talking about love. The children we care for deserve nothing less”.
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What’s LOVE got to do with it? - Dave Hill
Former ADCS President, Dave Hill CBE, died suddenly this week. He was a kind and compassionate man with a big heart who made a huge difference to so many lives. Dave’s presidential year was unique and will always be remembered for its focus on ‘love’, based on the simple premise that all children deserve to be and to feel loved by those who care for and work with them.
Dave wrote this blog when he became President in April 2016…
“I was, have been and am – loved. I am as sure as I can be that my parents loved me unconditionally and I not only love my wife and children, but a range of others too. It is a really deep, heart wrenching kind of love. It can be joyous and sometimes even gut wrenchingly upsetting, but it is very real. And I don’t think I’m confusing this emotion with deep caring or concern, although love can involve those things too.
I am also a sucker for the film Love Actually all of those British luvvies falling in (and out of) love. My personal favourite scene is when Jamie (played by Colin Firth) proposes to Aurelia in broken and comical Portuguese. I am sure for those of you who like me have a soft spot for the film will remember it well. But the use of the word love is ubiquitous and its meaning undermined by abuse, misuse and overuse.
So why blog about love? As Directors of Children’s Services my colleagues and I know only too well how important positive and meaningful relationships are to children, particularly children and young people in care. It is these relationships that children tell us they value most and can help them overcome challenges in life. These children deserve more than simply just our care, concern and attention, they also deserve our love. So deep acceptance, caring and concern, all attributes of love, are qualities that we should value in our carers, social workers, teachers and other professionals who work with children. We should also acknowledge that unconditional love is a key part of child development.
We value adoption as a means to a loving family and look for these traits in our adopters, but love is also present in foster placements and yes in residential care too. But as professionals we value ‘boundaries’ and ‘professionalism’ and can find the ‘L’ word difficult and awkward to discuss. Loving relationships are driven more by the heart than they are by the head – this is not territory we are comfortable in. Yet if we ask children looked after what they want and need they are more forthcoming, they want love, many are happy to say so. In my experience they want love that is unconditional, but a love not in competition with their families, love that doesn’t seek to replace, but enhance. The fact is that if you give love, you are likely to receive love back in return, it can and does affect your judgement. When you receive love as a child it encourages, motivates and supports you to go on and achieve the best in life. So we need to start talking about love, the children we care for deserve nothing less.
“The greatest gift you can give to others is the gift of unconditional love and acceptance” – Brian Tracy.”
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An opportunity for meaningful change
All schools and colleges across the country are now allowed to open more widely to children if they feel able to as lockdown measures are being slowly eased. Throughout lockdown many schools have remained open for vulnerable children and children of key workers, a significant achievement for schools and not always given the national recognition they deserve. Local authorities, schools and teaching staff have worked incredibly hard to risk assess and put measures in place so that more children can have the opportunity for face to face learning and interaction before the end of term.
For most children though, they have had to adapt to the home learning environment, and their experiences of this will be different because each will have unique circumstances. To supplement learning at home, schools have swiftly embraced new ways of teaching by delivering lessons online for example, and countless learning resources have been made available by a range of organisations, yet legitimate fears remain about the widening attainment gap. Recent research has shown pupil engagement in schools is lower in areas of higher deprivation as children without access to IT equipment, sufficient internet access or a quiet space to study at home are impacted the worst. It is clear that the current crisis is exacerbating the challenges that many children and families faced long-before the pandemic began.
As we approach the end of this academic year and head into the summer holidays, the debate around free school meals has highlighted stark inequalities in our society. No child should be going hungry and we know the school holidays are a particular pressure point for many families so it is even more imperative that we do all we can to support them. The government has made the right decision to provide food vouchers for those children eligible over the summer period, but this is not job done. Clearly the government needs to act quickly to implement a clear child poverty reduction strategy, recognising the lived experience of children and that once and for all addresses the root causes of poverty.
There are clear links between poverty, disadvantage and children’s educational attainment. Research tells us that some pupils, such as those receiving support from social care, eligible for free school meals or from certain ethnic backgrounds are more likely to be excluded than their peers. This cannot be right, particularly when considering being out of school places children and young people at greater risk of exploitation and being unemployed in later life. School is a safety net for many pupils and the government has rightly been concerned about the impact of children missing school over the past few months, but what of the rising number of vulnerable children who receive permanent or fixed-term exclusions each year? If the government is serious about its ‘levelling up’ agenda then it needs to progress the asks of the Timpson review because creating an inclusive school system is the perfect place to start.
Anti-racist demonstrators over the past couple of weeks have further highlighted inequalities that exist in our society, and I encourage you to read last week’s ADCS blog on the subject by Mac Heath, Director of Children’s Services in Milton Keynes. As leaders of children’s services, we have a responsibility to recognise and shine a light on social injustices and the barriers faced by children, including particular challenges facing children and young people from black and minority ethnic groups. In addition to being overrepresented in school exclusion statistics BAME children and young people are overrepresented in the youth justice system too – this is and has been unacceptable for far too long. Only by addressing the underlying reasons for these disparities can we challenge systemic inequalities.
The pandemic has highlighted many of the challenges children and families already face and this moment represents an opportunity for meaningful and lasting change, to be ambitious and take action on child poverty, inequality and the structural barriers children and families face, particularly those from the most deprived areas and from black and ethnic minority groups – lives and indeed life chances quite literally depend on it.
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Many colours of the rainbow
As a student social worker, I came to understand that anti-discriminatory practice was the cornerstone of my social work training that needed to underpin all I did, professionally and personally. We would all be expected to reflect on the approaches taken in working with a family in trying to promote change, and in undertaking any intervention consider how we were perceived by those families with whom we worked. Gaining insight into the barriers our children and families face, particularly in our BME communities, surely must continue to strengthen our commitment to build services that reflect the communities we serve and deliver support that gives improved access of opportunity.
As we contrast the challenges of social distancing with the protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, we continue to see the evidence all around us, in both the USA and UK, of unfairness and inequality. The disproportionate number of deaths from Covid-19, the impact of poverty and the under representation in positions of leadership of black and minority ethnic (BME) communities can only but give challenge as to the limit of the success in us achieving a fairer society that brings equality of opportunity.
Over the last few months, rainbows have been put up in the windows of houses and offices as a symbol of thanks to the NHS and key workers. Previously we saw the rainbow as a symbol to reflect the diverse nature of our communities, particularly in LGBT+ gatherings, and as a sign of hope and a promise of things to come. Martin Luther King Jr. championed a dream where people of all races blend together in peace and harmony like the colours resplendent in a rainbow, and Jesse Jackson echoed: ‘our flag is red, white and blue, but our nation is a rainbow.’
The events of the past two weeks cannot be attributed to a single moment but upon the endemic and entrenched presence of racism and prejudice still evident in our communities and across our society. The duty to challenge unfairness and inequality is on us all but the responsibility must weigh particularly heavy on those of us in a position to influence and evoke change. However the rainbow symbol is positioned, and surely we must see it as a sign of hope, we need to be intentional and committed to addressing the injustice of opportunity that we and our services see every day.
This year is the 60th Anniversary of the time when six-year-old Ruby Bridges was escorted by four armed federal marshals as she became the first student to integrate William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans. Her actions inspired Norman Rockwell’s painting The Problem We All Live With (1964). As we start to consider now the re-introduction of many of our children back into schools in the UK and the many difficulties they may face after months outside of our school settings, racism surely shouldn’t be one of the challenges that we continue to see at the level we do. We know many of those children and families who have suffered most during lockdown are those who haven’t been given same level of accessibility to opportunity that we would all want to consider is a right.
Even if we acknowledge the rainbow as a symbol of hope we often know that we are continuing to make decisions in a world where it is unclear as to what the true costs of the recent challenges have brought. However, we do know that as leaders of children’s services there is a responsibility on us, more than ever, to promote the voice of the oppressed and elevate opportunities for those who face the biggest hurdles by challenging injustice and prejudice across our areas of influence.
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Walk a mile in my shoes...
I am a bit of a closet Elvis fan and the lockdown has led me to explore the backwaters of my record collection which, in turn, led me to the king’s song ‘Walk A Mile in My Shoes’ (Live in Las Vegas 1970 if you’re interested - and I know you are). Which got me thinking…
This lockdown and the responses that we are having to make requires quite a lot of walking in other people’s shoes. Firstly, let’s spare a thought for ADCS President Jenny Coles, Vice President Charlotte Ramsden and the ADCS team whose leadership and support has been stupendous throughout. As Chair of the Standards, Performance and Inspection (SPI) Policy Committee I get drawn into some of the meetings with national bodies but Jenny, Charlotte and the other policy committee Chairs are having to shoulder the majority of the burden, ensuring that we are getting our views across and that we are making a difference time and time again. During that time we have had no less than 185 pieces of guidance (at the time of writing) relating to our role as a Director of Children’s Services (DCS). I am struggling to think of who has benefited from those 185 pieces of guidance, but it’s not me.
The SPI committee has been wrestling with two particular issues over the last couple of months; the data requirements being asked of local authority children’s services by the Department for Education (DfE), and the thorny issue of what local authority and education inspection might look like in the medium term as we move out of lockdown and into some form of ‘recovery’. Firstly, it is worth reiterating that neither of these things are ultimately our decision, but for both issues, the committee’s role has been to try to help the DfE and Ofsted ‘walk a mile in our shoes’.
With regards to the data return it was really helpful to get a wide cross section of views from directors of children’s services (DCS). That helped us to engage with the DfE constructively and to help construct a data set that was significantly different from the first draft. I’m very aware that there was little enthusiasm for a data return given the current pressures on DCSs and our services. That said, it’s worth reflecting also the importance of having ministers and senior officials who take a keen interest in the children’s social care sector, so when those people show that keen interest and want to know how the system is working in a time of crisis, it is to our benefit to find sensible ways to demonstrate this (we’ve got to walk a mile in their… ok you get the picture). I’ve no doubt that as time goes on, we are going to have to find more sophisticated ways to express to government the complexity, challenges and on occasions the tragic circumstances, that have been exacerbated by lockdown. We’re going to need to be able to highlight the increasing volume and costs of the work that we are now beginning to see come through the system.
Moving on to inspection. The committee has engaged with Ofsted and we have been pleased that a pragmatic approach has been taken to suspending current inspections in schools and local authorities (although some inspection remains in regulated services, and of youth offending teams via HMIP). Given that inspection it seems, like death and taxes, will always be with us (whether it should be or not is another debate of course …), the challenge now will be about the recommencement of inspection activity in due course; when, how and what it will look like are part of the discussion that ADCS will be having with Ofsted at today’s SPI committee meeting.
As ever, we’ll be trying to help Ofsted ‘walk a mile in our shoes’ in order to try to influence and shape the future.
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The Meaning of Tests
On Thursday we were advised that the five tests had been met and that the phased wider opening of schools could commence from 1st June. Detailed risk assessments are being finalised, with headteachers and Governing Boards in all schools being put to the test in making significant local decisions. Where local authorities and schools feel unable to meet the government’s ambition for an extended reopening these difficult decisions are being made in the best interests of children and the staff who work with them.
ADCS is an organisation with regional structures, reflecting both shared approaches as well as difference. As Chair of the Educational Achievement Committee, I have been alongside Edwina Grant, Chair of the Health, Care and Additional Needs Committee in multiple meetings with DfE officials, unions and on occasion ministers over recent weeks discussing guidance to early years settings and schools, representing our regional variations as well as common issues.
As we all know, the coronavirus pandemic began around London and spread across the country, the R rate is currently lower in London than in other regions. Under these circumstances it is understood that there will be regional differences in the planning for the wider opening of schools over the next few weeks from 1st June. There are however also significant similarities.
Firstly, I would like to thank the education leads in each local authority (sometimes called Directors or Assistant Directors) who with significantly reduced teams and services are working collaboratively across regions and with schools and unions in individual local authorities to provide system leadership. They are advising and supporting school leaders and even in some instances loading PPE into school minibuses! I was privileged to hear from the regional representatives in our Educational Achievement Committee meeting earlier today about the pragmatic but principled approaches being taken to enable the progressive wider opening of schools across the next few weeks.
Secondly, I would like to acknowledge the key role of our colleague Directors of Public Health where their advice on testing capacity and ‘track and trace’ systems in local areas has been influential.
Thirdly, there is unwavering focus on the learning needs of all of our children and young people whose educational experience, including of tests and examinations, has been disrupted in both obvious and as yet unseen ways.
The Educational Achievement Committee is currently meeting on a monthly basis. In July we will be covering the impact of Covid-19 on early years settings, and also our links with FE colleges. This year’s Y11 students, particularly those more vulnerable to being NEET, have missed daily contact and support for their applications to colleges and apprenticeships. Another DCS commented to me earlier this week that these students lost their education over the past 10 weeks to protect us more than them, so we have an enhanced moral as well as educational imperative to provide them with a coherent offer in the Autumn giving them renewed purpose and wellbeing – their life chances quite literally depend on it.
The meaning of tests has been expanded over recent weeks. Educations leaders are rising to these new challenges and collectively passing them.
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The end of the beginning
I feel we are at the end of the beginning, rather than the beginning of the end. The tragedy of the pandemic continues - lives lost, so many affected, and through it all the humbling experience of individuals carrying out their work, volunteering and supporting people in ways that weren’t even imagined several months ago. In the West Midlands region there has been constant and welcome informal support taking place with all directors of children’s services (DCS), sharing ideas and ways of working, all of which has been invaluable. It has been really empowering to see local decision making and delivery act quickly, responsibly and effectively and I am proud to be able to play my part alongside fantastic colleagues in Herefordshire.
The current maelstrom of national and local activity in preparing for schools and settings to open to more pupils is one of many examples where listening, understanding, and sharing information improves confidence and allows for greater collective action. There’s a lot more road to travel before the beginning of June 2020 and yet it is only days away. The amount of thought and planning that must be put in by head teachers, principals, school and council staff is constant and considerable; as is the interaction with civil servants and health specialists. There is no easy answer because children and young people, parents and carers all have a variety of views and a lot of work is still to be done to ease their worries.
We have all adjusted to virtual ways of working and it’s been interesting to see some multi-national companies’ announcements on home working, including Twitter, setting working from home as a default position. Like other local authorities, Herefordshire is reflecting on the experiences of children and families, schools, and our own staff. Many have been inhabiting a virtual world for some years now but the past few weeks have been hugely different. It continues to be a steep learning curve for all involved but I know there will be a lot of good lessons that we can take forward.
Looking at the positives, operating during a pandemic has led to a lot of innovation, adjusting and putting into practice ways of interacting with children and young people at great speed, all for their benefit. We have seen great examples of children becoming far more engaged, speaking up for the first time and self-motivated to take part in learning in a different way. At the same time, it can be harder to reflect, to hear others or to engage across a group. All of this is predicated on conditions for learning - the right kit, (a mobile phone is not a laptop or tablet), the right speed of access (broadband and Wi-Fi), a workspace, and the time and space to take part.
For many families, these things depend on what they can afford or how much time parents and carers have to engage with their children. Teaching is a skill and an art and there is a reason it is a qualified vocation. A number of studies and think pieces have been emerging on the potential effects of online teaching, both on those who have limited or no access to IT equipment and those who have been able to engage fully.
It is to the government’s credit that they have committed to provide some of this equipment to those families that need it. All of us need to be thinking about the detrimental effects of lockdown on children and young people, the challenges they face now and how it will affect their lives in years to come.
I can’t help but wonder what opportunities will be seized at a national and local level to address the needs, desires and aspirations of our children and young people. It is for us to play our part, to shape, influence, champion and deliver.
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Covid-19 has understandably consumed nearly all of our attention over the past couple of months. The pandemic is affecting each and every one of us in a range of ways; missing loved ones who we can’t see in person, struggling with the loss of routine or feeling concerned about our own health or the health of others, and of course working in this strange new world. Now we have moved to the first phase of relaxing lockdown we are grappling with building the green shoots for “recovery” and “living with Covid”.
In these emotional roller coaster times there is a lot to make sense of but it is crucial that we build on the strengths that have come from working differently. One of those strengths is the impact of communities rising to the challenge. We have seen amazing examples of communities coming together to support those who are most in need with acts of kindness and generosity, as people adapt to life in the midst of a pandemic.
Up and down the country, local systems have been put in place to make sure that children, young people and families are protected and vital services can continue, but crucially our communities and neighbours are looking out for each other wherever they can and a strong sense of community spirit has given hope to many. The effects of lockdown or self-isolation can exacerbate existing anxieties and worries and be particularly difficult for the most vulnerable, so it has been heartening to hear so many stories of communities coming together in a short space of time, collecting shopping for their neighbours, making a phone call to check in with someone living on their own, or volunteering with one of the many organised systems of support. Rainbows and messages of thanks and hope radiate from windows and our weekly clap for our wonderful key workers brings neighbours together around a shared purpose. Even the smallest acts of kindness, like asking someone how they are, can have a significantly positive impact on those who may be struggling.
I may be a little biased, but examples of amazing work our young people have been doing to support those in need right across the country have proliferated. There are stories of young people who have been volunteering to support local foodbanks, using social media to reach out to those struggling with lockdown and many putting their creative skills to great use to raise money for charities or create online messages of support and advice. Real inter-generational activity is taking place, supported by a range of digital platforms.
Partnership working with volunteers and communities has been vital in shaping our local responses and we need to build on this partnership as we work on recovery and a new normal. We need to recognise the strengths of our communities and enable them to continue to grow. With many neighbours and concerned individuals looking out for one another and new relationships being developed, a greater awareness that wellbeing and safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility is evident in the responses we have seen.
Local authorities act as leaders of place and in our leadership roles within children’s services we aim to support our services and our schools to be at the heart of communities and to be flexible according to their varied needs. This crisis has shown in abundance the strengths of those communities, so in building a new normal we need to value them and enable those local strengths to grow. The first test will be in these next few weeks as we support our schools to reopen to a wider range of children; this will take time and ADCS continues to make the point that five or six weeks’ notice is ideally needed to allow us to prepare effectively.
In times of crisis comes opportunity and this pandemic will be no different. There will undoubtedly be a lot we can learn from how we have dealt with the challenges presented by Covid-19, but it’s important to recognise the inspirational stories of how local communities have also risen to the challenge.
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On the road to recovery with local government at the helm
I don’t think that a day has gone by over the last seven weeks when I haven’t said to someone that we are living in extraordinary and unprecedented times, a sentiment I’m sure we’ve all felt.
Moving forward, leaving the adrenaline fuelled earlier weeks of the coronavirus crisis behind us, where weekends merged into the working week, towards a steadier phase, inevitably our thoughts and planning turn to recovery. We know through that knot in our stomachs that services for children, particularly those of us in children’s social care, will start to see an increase in referrals when schools start to re-open fully and colleagues in our universal services begin to return to some semblance of normality and see more children again. ADCS has been heavily involved in discussions with the Department for Education (DfE) about recovery and certainly in the East Midlands region we are using our twice weekly virtual DCS meetings and weekly REACT calls to begin discussing the likely scenarios ahead of us.
Since the start of the lockdown I’ve found it inspiring how children’s services, schools and wider local government services have stepped up to the plate and worked in truly innovative ways to ensure that we are meeting the needs of our vulnerable children, families and adults. We’ve achieved things, such as delivering the government’s shield and protect programme, within days of its announcement - pre-COVID-19, that would have taken even the most efficient local authority at least four months of task and finish groups, plus many Cabinet papers to deliver! I really hope that central government won’t forget just how much local government has done during the pandemic, particularly when it comes to the DfE talking to the Chancellor ahead of the next Spending Review!
I think we are increasingly realising that there are still so many unknowns at this stage when it comes to recovery, with little clear evidence of how the experiences of other countries could help inform national or local decision making; for example, understanding the future constraints of social distancing in delivering necessary face to face intervention in community or school settings. There are also wider issues to think about, including the impact of children and young people being out of school for so long, not just academically, but also on their mental health and their emotional and behavioural development.
All of that said there’s so much we’ve done, which we can’t afford to lose as we go forward with recovery. The positivity of rapid decision making, coupled with the ability and ingenuity of our frontline teams to deliver change and adapt quickly has been truly inspiring. We’ve worked with our colleagues across many services to make sure we can meet the needs of all of our children, for example, delivering children’s social work within a Covid-19 context, particularly in how we understand children’s experiences. Now don’t get me wrong, I know we are rightly worried about the children we are not seeing, and that a virtual home visit is not the same as a social worker sitting in the same room as a family and picking up on all the things that are not said and wider environmental factors, but social work in a virtual context is new to our profession and we’ve all stepped up.
The Prime Minister will soon be announcing what’s in store for the next phase of lockdown and the government will hopefully be publishing its ‘comprehensive plan’. Whatever that looks like, ADCS is clear that recovery conversations must be multi-agency involving police, health, schools, DfE and other relevant services, building on all the great things we have achieved so far by working together.
I’m proud to work for local government and confident that we will be able to take the positives from this crisis and integrate this into our recovery planning; simply returning to the status quo would be a missed opportunity for us all.
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A balance of risk versus benefit
“Stay at Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.” It couldn’t be simpler, could it? Although the guidance on social distancing concerns everyone in the UK, there seems to be a growing concern among politicians and in the media about the many ‘vulnerable’ children we are told are not in school. Who are these children? And why should they be in school when everyone else has been told to stay home?
The government says that ‘vulnerable children’ are those with a social worker, those with an education health and care plan (EHCP) or children assessed as otherwise vulnerable by educational providers or local authorities. The growing concern appears to be because - as at 17 April – only an estimated 5% were reported to be in school. Children can be vulnerable for many different reasons with many different consequences and their vulnerability fluctuates according to their own circumstances and the context around them. Indeed, there are families, never previously considered ‘vulnerable’, where both parents have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic; who knows what pressures this will place upon their family and how this will impact on children? This nuance is currently missing from the national debate, which concerns me.
Children with a social worker include children who have a child in need plan, a child protection plan or who are a looked-after child. Looked after children are in our care because they were unable to live at home safely with their birth families. Now their homes, whether in foster care or residential care, should always be a place of safety. For a small proportion of these children, where placement disruption is a risk unless child and carer have some time away from each other, for example, school may be the welcome break that everyone needs.
A ‘child in need’ is unlikely to achieve a reasonable standard of health and development without the provision of additional services. This is not at all the same as saying this is a child who is unsafe to be at home, but again the option of attending school can offer much needed space. Government guidance gives us scope to find the right balance so that the children who need to be in school can be and those who are better off at home can remain there safely. In every case it’s a complex calculation of risk versus benefit, and ultimately a decision that parents have to take for their own child.
Consider children with an EHCP. These are children with a special educational need. For a minority of children with an EHCP, their care needs are so complex and demanding that their parents cannot safely provide the round-the-clock care required, so attendance at school helps to counterbalance the demands of caring and some of these families will definitely want their children to be in school at this time. For lots of other children with an EHCP, home is where their parents want them to be, particularly if they have complex medical conditions that make them clinically vulnerable to the virus.
After the Easter break, the latest attendance data from 24 April, showed the estimated attendance of vulnerable children had risen to 10% of the estimated number of those labelled vulnerable. Some data shows that in many local areas, the number is much higher; in some places up to 27% of vulnerable children are attending school. So why are politicians and pundits so concerned?
I’ll admit that some DCSs, including me, may have brought this problem on ourselves. As the number of people infected with coronavirus started to rise, and as school closures seemed more and more likely, we voiced concerns about children who may be at risk of harm and who - if a ‘lockdown’ were to be implemented - were likely to become invisible to the school staff who would otherwise refer them for support.
However, schools’ important safeguarding role doesn’t arise because children are seen, it arises because children and school staff build relationships, over time and may recognise the subtle differences that indicate something is wrong at home, and sometimes - when trusting relationships are strong enough - children may directly disclose abuse or neglect. But schools are now closed to the majority of pupils and school staff are working largely from home to deliver education remotely. This is especially true where schools are organised as hubs and the whole environment is now unfamiliar to the child. It means that the strange new arrangements may inhibit the confidence-sharing enjoyed in more familiar times.
Worrying about unverified school attendance figures is starting from the wrong end of the problem, they tell us nothing at all about what schools are doing, and most schools are doing plenty. They are educating children (including vulnerable children) at home, they are caring for children (including vulnerable children) on school sites and they are maintaining contact with their absent pupils, especially vulnerable children, in countless ways. Social workers know which of the children they work with should be in school; parents know which of their children with an EHCP they need additional support to care for; and schools know which other children they are worried about. All are taking action to determine what is best for these children in these unique circumstances. Sometimes that’s staying at home and sometimes that’s attending school. Let’s focus our attention and effort on those children we agree should be in school, but aren’t.
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A virtual inauguration
In normal times, yesterday would have been the day of my Presidential Reception, taking place in the impressive surroundings of the Museum of London. It’s a real shame that the current circumstances meant I wasn’t able to deliver my inaugural speech in person and to see and speak to family, friends and colleagues from across the sector including of course the friendly faces of ADCS past presidents. That said, I felt it important to share with you all the speech I would have made which outlines the Association’s priorities for the year ahead.
I’m sure by now many of you will have watched the short video of me sending a message to you all in lieu of being physically with you. We have to find other ways to connect in extraordinary times! To reiterate my message; ADCS has, at its core, a country that works for, and includes, all children. This is not just an ambition, but a fundamental right of all children in this country and the role of children’s services has probably never been more important than it is now. This brings me to our policy priorities for the coming year which include:
• Maintaining visibility on the need to level up society to make it more inclusive, so that children and young people, particularly the most vulnerable feel a greater sense of belonging
• Maintaining visibility on child poverty and the need to tackle it to ensure children and families receive the right help at the right time
• Working with government and our partners to achieve a national sufficiency strategy for placements for children in care, care leavers and children in need of specialist help and support
• Influencing the scope of and input into the Care Review, when it launches, so that it has a sharply focused and clear aim of improving outcomes for children in care and care leavers.
In my speech, I also spoke about how local authorities and partners will be grappling with many issues as we continue our work around recovery. Issues such as months of lost socialisation and learning due to school closures, a spike in demand for children’s social care, a backlog of new care applications and a rise in the number of children needing to come into care will impact heavily on our children and young people.
The announcement of additional government funding to meet the new challenges we face is welcome but it’s likely more will be needed. And I want to be clear that it is not yet job done for children’s services. Before the pandemic, children’s services were woefully under-funded and stretched to the limit; the current crisis has significantly exacerbated this issue highlighting the need for a sustainable long-term funding settlement. Going forward, ADCS will continue pushing for a three-year sustainable funding settlement for children’s services - I want to see unprecedented levels of investment in our children’s futures, please.
Before I sign off I would also like to say thank you to both Vicky Ford, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families, and Jonathan Slater, Permanent Secretary for the Department for Education, for their kind words. I look forward to working with them both over the coming year.
Although we are in unprecedented and hugely challenging times, I am really looking forward to leading the Association for the year ahead and keeping a relentless focus on children and young people. The combined efforts of local authorities, schools and all public services have never been more important.
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A message of thanks
When I agreed to write a blog for ADCS last year, no one told me that my slot would fall right in the middle of a global pandemic where home-working has become the norm and conference calls the default for us all.
What has struck me in the midst of this crisis is the strength of our sector. Suddenly, directors of children’s services and our colleague in adult services are the ‘go to’ people for system leadership and direction. So, my message is to celebrate our resilience and say a huge thank you to everyone who is continuing to provide effective leadership during our collective endeavour to protect the most vulnerable and support our staff during the most challenging of times.
Colleagues, we are remarkable and we lead remarkable people. Never has our ability to stand together as a sector been more powerful and compelling to those in power. During these unprecedented times, our understanding of risk management and major incident coordination has been invaluable as we seamlessly shift into arms length coordination, communicating with partners and children and families about what we are doing and how services will adapt to ensure ongoing delivery and support to the most vulnerable. We bring a wealth of knowledge and experience, so it has been encouraging to see ADCS engage with government to push the needs of vulnerable children and families high up its agenda.
I have been humbled by the response of my own staff in Bolton, a number choosing to return to work early from maternity leave to support colleagues and many in the care sector moving away from families, or in one case a manager sending her daughter to live with her dad so she could deliver frontline care and leadership where it was needed most.
You will all have your own stories of inspirational people doing vital work and as we go forward it is important we remember these individuals who have shown their incredible worth so that we can continue to provide our support to those who rely on it most. Social work and social care is a profession to be proud of (it has ever been thus) and like nursing it should not require a global pandemic for these staff and services to be celebrated. This is also true of youth services, early years, and all of our incredible support services - local authority and children’s services staff are incredible, fact!
The pandemic is highlighting many of the issues that we have been shouting about for a long time: recruiting and retaining enough social workers, a shortage of placement options for children in our care, the challenges faced by early years settings and rising child poverty. When all of our focus turns to recovery planning, I only hope that it comes with the appropriate resourcing and an acceptance that leadership sits with local authority leaders and statutory officers who will ensure that we all come out the other side, stronger, wiser and more resilient and effective than ever.
Colleagues stay safe and stay well. Be kind to yourselves as well as your teams!
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New ways of leading
As I prepared myself mentally for taking on the role of ADCS Vice President, I had no idea even four weeks ago that I would be doing it in a world of virtual reality, online meetings and the knowledge that even a food shop or a daily walk needs to be carefully planned. The sense of disorientation has required some adjustment to find ways to both live and lead in a meaningful way. Technology has never been my strong point but thanks to the skills and patience of others I can now navigate Microsoft Teams with at least enough competence to function!
If I have felt that way, as I know many colleagues have, then I can only begin to imagine how the current turbulence is impacting on the children, young people and families that we serve, particularly the most vulnerable. The schools and education settings that provide learning and support are shut to all but a few, our early help services, youth work, and community support are scaled back to mostly on-line offers and we are working innovatively to ensure children remain safe with a cocktail of face to face and virtual social work visits plus multi-agency working arrangements that would have been incomprehensible a month ago. We are all asking ourselves, how are our children and how are we focusing our individual and collective efforts to support them and keep them well and safe during this unprecedented time?
The passion, determination and innovation of our services and our partner organisations in the face of Covid-19 has been amazing and we have achieved the kind of change in three weeks that would otherwise have taken years, truly making the best use of our burning platform. The collective wisdom and skill of ADCS both regionally and nationally is giving us the opportunity to influence and advise government during this crisis.
Jenny Coles as our fantastic new President has articulated the Association’s priorities for the year ahead in last week’s blog and they are so relevant to the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. How do we tackle poverty that has been further escalated through job loss and economic uncertainty? How do we minimise domestic abuse when the risk is increased by families confined to their homes? How do we promote inclusion and belonging when many of those we want to include are particularly vulnerable right now? Although we have been in emergency planning mode we are already starting to talk about recovery and preparations for the future. Our understanding of loss and trauma informed working will be vital to help co-produce recovery plans when the time is right.
This pandemic with local, national and international challenge is a crisis like no other, when we have even greater opportunity to show leadership and influence for the good of those we serve. We are using our learning about the importance of relationship-based practice to build relationships differently and are developing responses to the things that matter the most that will give us a platform to influence national decisions around support for children, young people and families for the future. We are celebrating the value and commitment of our staff who are continuing to deliver essential front line services and deal with the challenges of using PPE, with risk assessments based not just on safeguarding but on infection. It is heartening to see that the value of our social workers, our education and early years staff, plus other key children’s services workers who are being increasingly recognised in public statements and in the incredibly moving weekly clap for NHS and key workers.
Despite the turbulence of this time, with our collective skill, leadership and passion, the voice and value of our children and their families will be heard and we will emerge with increased strength and ability to influence for good. ADCS has never been so essential and I look forward to supporting Jenny this year as she leads us forward to make progress on the things that matter the most.
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Setting our priorities for the year ahead
This week marks my first as ADCS President. It promises to be an interesting and eventful year, more eventful than I realised it would be when I decided to stand for the role at the end of 2018! Things feel uncertain at the moment and in between responding to Covid-19, I look forward to progressing the strong legacy set by Alison Michalska, Stuart Gallimore and Rachel Dickinson in making this A country that works for all children, supported by new Vice President Charlotte Ramsden. I am also very fortunate to be supported by the brilliant ADCS team and in Hertfordshire whose efforts have allowed me the opportunity to carry the torch!
Over the last couple of weeks we have all been sharing our plans, ideas and concerns around responding to this extraordinary situation. It really has shown what ADCS stands for: having children, young people and families at the heart of what we do AND that we are a community of expertise and support for each other. This has enabled ADCS to influence the Department for Education’s and government’s thinking and response because they know that ADCS’s input comes directly from the people who are implementing the practice, from keeping schools open to putting in place a range of safeguarding actions.
However, I do think it’s important to lay out our ADCS priorities for the coming year as they are equally relevant with the current challenges to make sure the voices of vulnerable children and families are heard.
It seems like only yesterday that Rachel Dickinson was delivering her inaugural speech at the ADCS Presidential Reception last year, setting out her priorities for the Association. So much has happened over the past few weeks never mind the past year. Rachel has been excellent in pushing our asks of government and shining a light on the big issues that impact children’s and family’s lives. Many of these, such as tackling child poverty or the need for a long-term national funding settlement for children’s services, will remain at the fore, but there are also other pressing issues that we will give a national voice to as an Association.
Although there will no doubt be some delay, one of the key priorities for ADCS will be to help shape the Care Review for England. Scotland recently published its own care review which proposed a wide range of measures and reforms, from tackling child poverty and inequality to prioritising early help over support at the point of crisis; issues that resonate across the whole of the UK. We must be ambitious about what can be achieved and involve children and young people wherever possible.
A key area that has come forward strongly after talking with regional groups is inclusion and belonging for young people in education and in their communities. Given that so many young people may not be able to be part of their school community for a number of months this will take on even greater importance given the protective factor schools provide.
Another of my priority areas is to highlight and tackle the prevalence of domestic abuse in our society; something that is particularly important over the coming month given the pressures that restrictions can put on relationships and when victims may not feel able to ask for help. It was positive to see that the Domestic Abuse Bill has been re-introduced to Parliament. Although the ongoing focus and debate about this pervasive issue is welcome, it remains the case that millions of lives are blighted by domestic abuse every year. Often described as a silent epidemic, the scale and reach of coercive and violent behaviours is difficult to get to grips with but we do know that this is the largest single factor in the referrals we receive to children’s social care teams across the country. The new Bill contains a range of measures, these include a new court order, a new duty on local authorities to provide accommodation to victims and their children and the recruitment of a new Domestic Abuse Commissioner.
Nicole Jacobs was appointed as the designate Domestic Abuse Commissioner late last year and we were pleased to welcome her to Hertfordshire recently. The Domestic Abuse commissioner will be an important link for ADCS in pushing for further enhancements to the Bill enhancing the focus on prevention and the needs of children and young people which deserve much greater focus and attention. Working with the government and others to this end this will be a personal priority of mine during my presidential year, the £10 million announced in the most recent budget to try new ways of working is nowhere near enough.
It’s going to be a somewhat different year starting as a ‘Virtual President’, however the honour and privilege is just the same! With the support of the excellent ADCS policy committees and the commitment of our members across the regions, we can face any challenge together and support our communities to thrive. I look forward to working with all of you over the next 12 months and championing the rights and needs of all children and young people.
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As I sit down to write my last blog as ADCS President we are in a state of national emergency and the challenge of Covid-19 is absorbing all our time. As we respond to the emergency and the associated national guidance, we have fundamentally changed the way we are working and living. The crisis has created even greater imperatives to work together at local, regional and national levels, and to keep the interests of children centre stage. So, whilst we are all getting used to a new and temporary normal, I’m going to take a short ‘breather’ and avoid the obvious topic of Covid-19 for my last blog. I’m choosing instead to provide a bit of respite for those of you who may need it by reflecting on the last 12 months of my presidency before I hand over the reins to the marvellous Jenny Coles, DCS in Hertfordshire, and our President for 2020/21.
I have really enjoyed the past 12 months with all its highs and even with its lows. I have to say too that despite all the warnings I received from past presidents, it has gone by much faster than I expected! The past month has been especially difficult for all of us and I, like everyone else, am incredibly humbled by the commitment of the children’s workforce; the courageous social workers, teachers, NHS staff and all other key workers who have been working tirelessly to respond to the crisis. All of us in local government have been working around the clock to carry on supporting those who rely on our services. Alongside all this local resilience activity ADCS has been in regular contact with DfE, DHSC, Ofsted and others to feed in our collective concerns and help find sensible practicable solutions to the challenges we face. Now more than ever, it’s essential that ADCS continues to provide a voice for all children and for children’s services and I know that Jenny will do a brilliant job in leading the Association over the coming weeks and months.
As an Association, we should be very proud of what we do and the positive impact we have on the lives of children and families up and down the country. The ADCS policy committees, Council of Reference and the regional groups all keep the work of the Association going but we couldn’t do this without the expertise and generosity of all our members which we are hugely grateful for. We are as strong as the engagement of our membership facilitated by the work of a brilliant team under the leadership of Sarah Caton. I’m proud of the fact that the impact of ADCS is strengthening year on year.
When I delivered my inaugural speech in April last year, I said that it was a year of interesting anniversaries – 2019 marked 30 years since the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Children Act 1989, as well as 15 years since the Children Act 2004, receiving royal assent. These documents put children’s wishes and feelings central to decisions made about their lives and it is important to celebrate their successes. It is also a great opportunity to reflect on the intervening 30 years and challenges children and young people now face which is why we invited all ADCS past presidents, along with myself and Jenny Coles, to write a short reflection on the Acts’ successes and what has changed since they became law.
2019 also marked 50 years since Barry Hines’ novel A kestrel for a knave which tells the story of Billy Casper, a young lad from Barnsley who lived in poverty, despite living in a working household. The parallels with Billy’s experiences and those of the many children growing up in poverty today should concern us all. Fuelled by my outrage at this uncomfortable truth, I have made it my business as President this past year to use the lived experience of children to highlight to government the shameful levels of child poverty in this country, and the devastating impact it has on children’s lives now and their futures. This is a baton that Jenny will pick up when we look to this year’s Spending Review when it eventually re-starts. The current situation with people stockpiling whilst food banks face both shortages and security risks serves to highlights the challenges facing families living on low incomes and in poverty even more and the desperate need for a child poverty reduction strategy.
Since my inaugural speech in April, the Association delivered two policy papers. The first was a discussion paper on serious youth violence and knife crime, published during ADCS Annual Conference in July last year. The paper highlights the need for a clear and compassionate strategy focused on prevention and backed by a long-term funding strategy. I am delighted that ADCS will now be directly engaged with the Cabinet Office on the work that is so urgently needed. In November, we published our health paper A healthcare system that works for all children. The paper calls for a re-setting of health in relation to children and young people so that children’s health and wellbeing services are given parity with those of older people. This paper provides a strong platform to support our work with the DfE and across government to secure a shared vision and strategy for children.
These important papers would not have been possible without the work and support of the ADCS policy committees who have continued to push the work of the Association. The six national policy committees cover all aspects of children’s services between them and over the past year were joined by various guests from the DfE, MHGLC, NHS England, PHE, DHSC, the NAO, Social Work England, the EIF, the Youth Custody Service and Ofsted as well as academics. We’re always grateful for new members on the committees which really do give a great opportunity to contribute to important national issues and influence children’s policy and if you aren’t already part of one I encourage you to join.
It would be an understatement to say that the past 12 months have been eventful. Brexit endlessly dominated the headlines before the announcement of a general election in December. I was very disappointed to see so little focus on children and young people in the run-up to the election. This makes it even the more important that we continue to speak out loudly and clearly about what matters the most; children. We must continue to work towards making this a country that works for all children and shine as bright a light as possible on the growing number of children who rely on our support, presenting ever more complex needs, and the perilous state of local government funding. Various reports have confirmed our deep concerns as an Association, possibly the most troubling of which was Sir Michael Marmot’s review ‘10 Years On’ which gave a stark judgement on the widening social and economic inequalities in our society. The impact of a decade of austerity on children is clear for all to see; if austerity truly is going to end, let it end for children first. The work of the Association is never more needed than it is now.
Finally, being the President for 2019/20 has been a great privilege, and I must thank Barnsley Council and my team who have been tremendous this year, they have filled the space I have left behind whilst on ‘ADCS duty’ with grace and competence. Thank you to the incredible ADCS team who have been unfailing in their support and prevented me from falling on my face (as we say up north!); our current immediate Past President Stuart Gallimore and Vice President Jenny Coles; ADCS Board and Council. Thank you all for your generosity, encouragement, advice and support.
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World Social Work Day
In the midst of what has been a very difficult few weeks, Covid-19 promises to impact us all both in our daily working lives and personally over the coming months. I want to wish you all the very best in the work you are doing to continue supporting the most vulnerable children in our communities, and our education system being at the heart of keeping the country running. It’s encouraging to see so many people keen to share ideas and best practice and I would encourage all of you to keep an eye on the ADCS website that is hosting a range of useful resources.
Here in Essex, we enjoyed World Social Work Day, on 17 March, celebrating with a day of team activities embracing the theme of the importance of human relationships! The ‘Hundred Acts of Random Kindness’ posters sent to each team were well received. Indeed, in just one afternoon, last week, one team raised £220 for the Chelmsford foodbank!
Social Workers do vital work to support our children and families through building strong and positive relationships, but they rely on good IT systems to back-up and report the outcomes of this work. So, for the past few years we have been advocating for government to take a fresh look at the system and recording standards for social workers, and now with so much remote working being required, IT will have grabbed everyone’s attention.
Recording, in some shape or form, is necessary in most professions, but in social work it’s essential to keep children safe and help them understand their history. That said, if social workers are spending too much of their time on recording it reduces the amount of time they can spend working directly with children and families, so the quality of any case management system, and its implementation, can have a significant impact on the quality of social work.
Even before Eileen Munro’s review of child protection in 2011, the difficulties and limitations of the Integrated Children’s System requirements were well known, and it was no surprise that we, like BASW, have found that more social work time is spent servicing that information monster than is spent on direct work with children and their families.
Despite the impact of austerity, which has halved our budgets since 2010 while at the same time the level of need in our communities has risen significantly, I know that many local authorities are doing a range of things to better support social workers and to make sure they aren’t overly burdened with administration, including investing in their IT systems and in dedicated administrative support teams. So, it was good to find that when Vicky Ford, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families, visited Essex recently, that she shares a keen interest in technology.
In my last ADCS blog, I wrote about how the latest developments in technology might have an impact on social work and in November last year, along with a handful of other local authorities, we were contacted regarding helping DfE Digital get involved - the pace of progress has been staggering. This work sits alongside other cross-government projects and now that we have the directive for staff to work from home if they can, we should see a new levelling of platforms focused on the needs of our users.
Finally, please continue to follow the government guidance available and keep well.
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Let's invest in children
I think we would all agree that it’s been a particularly challenging start to 2020. Emergency services and public servants up and down the country have been working tirelessly to support local communities deal with the devastating effects of recent flooding and now the outbreak of Covid-19, which has just been classified as a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation. Amongst all of this, the new government delivered its first budget, which set out its spending priorities. There were some positive announcements for local businesses and about infrastructure. Unfortunately, the needs of children still do not seem to have the same profile as railways and roads.
Understandably, much of the budget announcement concentrated on Covid-19 and we are all concerned about the weeks and months ahead. Every council in the land will be implementing contingencies and emergency planning. In children’s services we have many complex duties and responsibilities enshrined in law, statutory guidance, regulation and non-stat guidance. It is important to remind ourselves that it is possible to depart from statutory guidance with good cause and reason – and Covid-19 is a clear case in point. Of course, one wonders what the regulator might make of such departures but all my experience as a Director for Children’s Services tells me that regular open communication with Ofsted is rarely, if ever a bad idea. It feels as though we’re entering unchartered waters so it’s essential that we keep a conversation going.
Looking at the rest of the budget, I can’t help but feel the government has missed a great opportunity to set the tone for the next five years by addressing the significant gap in children’s services funding. We’ve recently heard much talk of ‘austerity coming to an end’ but this is certainly not the case for children and families. Last year the government boosted school and FE funding as well as providing some extra money to support children and young people with SEND which, although well short of what we need, signalled that the government at least acknowledged the growing pressures on the high needs block. The short-term respite offered by these measures has not yet been followed-up with the equitable, multi-year funding settlement that we sorely need.
This week’s budget did include some announcements for children as the Chancellor promised extra funding for teaching art in secondary schools, several new maths schools as well as £1.5 billion capital investment in FE colleges and sixth forms. I absolutely welcome attempts to broaden the curriculum, but there are surely more pressing issues facing children, young people and families that require new focus and funding, such as the truly shameful fact that one in three children are living in poverty. We face a funding gap in children’s services of £3 billion by 2025 and nearly every council in the country is routinely spending more than they receive from central government just to keep children safe and to fulfil our legal duties. While the government has announced some additional funding for social care, we are yet to see the kind of commitment to long-term spending and early help that children and families desperately need. It seems to me that vulnerable children are not on the government’s agenda, nor is it concerned about the widening attainment gap between the most disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers.
The Chancellor also pledged £2.5 million towards research for developing best practice around the integration of services for families. As an Association, we have long called for the government to properly invest in supporting children and families at the earliest possible opportunity. It’s high time that the Treasury started to listen, for the sake of our children, their present and our future.
To quote the Chancellor, let’s give children ‘security today but also a plan for prosperity tomorrow’.
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10 years on...
Every child deserves a happy, safe childhood and has a right to the best possible health and wellbeing. The fact that a child’s life chances continue to be determined from birth, even in this day and age, is not something we should easily accept. Last week, the Institute of Health Equity published a report 10 years on from Sir Michael Marmot’s landmark 2010 review into health inequalities in England. This latest report found that the health of the population has largely deteriorated over the past decade and that there is still a postcode lottery in terms of life expectancy. In fact, the report notes that this trend is usually only evident following a “catastrophic” shock, such as the breakup of the Soviet Union – alarm bells should surely be ringing around Westminster!
The report’s findings make for difficult reading, but it reinforces a lot of worrying trends we have been raising as an Association in recent years. We live in one of the largest economies in the world, but social inequality remains the biggest barrier to achieving improved health for children who have felt the brunt of the government’s programme of austerity. Marmot’s 10 years on review is stark in its criticism of government policies, arguing that they have contributed to the rise in child poverty, rising school exclusions and the widening attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged children and young people.
In many ways these findings do not come as a surprise to anyone working in local government. Since 2010 our funding has been halved but need has not, and the review shows that the most deprived areas have been hardest hit by austerity. It is clear that cuts really do have consequences. The review recommends investment in preventative services, especially the early years workforce, putting equity at the heart of national funding decisions via the prioritisation of the most vulnerable, valuing inclusion and I absolutely welcome these findings, ADCS has made similar points in recent years via many of our policy position papers.
Similarly, a range of other reports are highlighting these same issues, from the Social Mobility Commission’s state of the nation report in April 2019, which showed social mobility remains stagnant, to the Education Policy Institute’s annual education report which warned us that it will take in excess of 500 years to close the GCSE attainment gap in English and maths between disadvantaged pupils and their peers! And if this isn’t enough, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s latest state of child health in the UK came out this week, highlighting an alarming increase in infant mortality in England and growing numbers of adolescents being injured by violence. You could be mistaken for thinking this is Victorian England, not 21st century Britain.
There are many things we should celebrate in what we do; the UK is one of the safest places in the world for children to grow up and we are now far better at recognising vulnerability of children and young people who are being exploited. Legions of dedicated public sector workers are working with communities up and down the country to support children and families during challenging times. As Sir Michael notes, all of the issues in the report are unnecessary and could be reversed if only national politicians put children and families at the heart of their decisions. This is something ADCS has called for in the policy paper A country that works for all children.
The government must act now, starting with the upcoming Budget, by addressing the significant gaps in children’s services and local authority funding. It is clear the health, safety and wellbeing of children, young people and families cannot wait any longer.
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An essential date for your diary
It may not feel like it now, particularly after recent storms Ciara and Dennis, but Spring will be with us soon and with that comes news of this year’s ADCS Annual Conference taking place from Wednesday 8th – Friday 10th July, in Manchester.
It’s the only conference that’s just for ADCS members so as soon as the dates are published, I block out the space in my diary. This isn’t always easy I know, and sometimes Ofsted can come along last minute and change our plans completely! However, I would say don’t let this get in the way of you planning ahead. Conference gives us the opportunity as a sector to come together to debate the pressing issues of the day, share ideas and develop our thinking and practice. Those days out of the office provide precious time to network with colleagues and participate in what is always an engaging programme.
Although details of the programme won’t be announced till later in the Spring, that won’t stop me booking my place. The conference is always filled with interesting keynote speakers and interactive workshops, allowing time to grapple with the challenges we all face and giving us plenty of ideas to take back to the ranch. Last year’s conference focused on a range of key issues including youth justice, SEND and transitional safeguarding, with both the Children’s Minister and Ofsted on the platform. And I’m sure you’ll remember Andi Brierley from Leeds City Council’s Youth Offending Team who shared his moving story and experiences of the care and youth justice systems.
There are always many conference highlights but for me two stand out in particular. The first is the president’s speech which never fails to set a positive tone for conference. This year, Jenny Coles will take to the stage and address many of the issues we are all facing. Some of you may remember Jenny, as Vice President, wasn’t able to attend last year’s conference, and instead shared her message of support via a pre-recorded video on the big screen. So, I’m really looking forward to hearing from her in person, as she delivers her own presidential address!
The second highlight that you won’t want to miss is led by children and young people themselves on the Friday. Now I know by Friday lots of us want to catch an earlier train, possibly popping back to the office before settling into the weekend. However, I really do urge you to stay on for this session and to catch a later train as I’m sure you won’t be disappointed. How can we fail to be inspired by young people themselves! I think we’ve had some really thought-provoking inputs from young people in recent years, sharing with us their messages about what a country that works for all children should look like and their views on the care system. Hearing the voices of children and young people helps strengthen and influence the work we all do, and giving them the ‘last word’ at conference allows us time to sit back, listen and reflect, with their powerful messages still buzzing in our heads as we travel home. At the end of the day - they are the reason why we do the jobs we do.
And if you’re planning on coming for the first time this year, rest assured you will receive the warmest of welcomes (including a handwritten card from our ADCS President!). With everyone under one roof, conference provides a wealth of informal support readily available from colleagues, both regionally and cross-regionally. That time and space to have those face-to-face conversations cannot be underestimated and it’s something I really value and have definitely benefitted from.
So, I know that after spending a few days away from my desk, immersing myself in a programme of high-quality inputs and catching up with colleagues, I will certainly have something enriching to take away…and not just my lunch on the Friday!
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What is education for?
Schools play a vital role in their local areas by widening opportunities for children and families, providing a pathway out of poverty, engaging with children’s services and early help, and serving their local communities. These may all be hallmarks of a successful school, but it also makes me reflect on what education is for.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, (UNCRC) article 29 is clear on this point and explains that education must encourage a child’s respect for human rights, as well as respect for their parents, their own and other cultures, and help them be the best they can. The UK signed up to the convention thirty years ago (1990) so its principles should drive much of what we do. Put simply, if schools are to be successful they must develop all children to reach their potential and, as an integral part of children’s development, schools must grow their respect for the rights and cultures of all.
And who is education for? The UNCRC helps here too; article 28 is specific about the right to education, crucially, for every child, no matter who they are. Inclusion is central to this as children must have access to both technical, vocational and academic subjects at secondary school; school discipline must respect children’s human dignity; and schools must encourage regular attendance.
As a director of children’s services (DCS) I have a statutory responsibility to support the drive for high standards for all children and young people and ‘pay particular attention’ to the most disadvantaged groups. Well believe you me, I along with my DCS colleagues am paying ‘particular attention’, and in doing so I have due regard to the UNCRC, also required by statutory guidance. Yet from speaking to colleagues across the country, it’s clear that it’s become increasingly challenging to secure access for all children in education and increasingly difficult to engage all schools in driving improvement in this space.
Last year’s review of school exclusions found that while most schools work hard to be inclusive, there is too much variation in the system in how exclusions are used with some schools excluding or ‘off rolling’ learners, despite this not being in their best interest. The review also identified some pupils, including those receiving support from social care, eligible for free school meals or from certain ethnic backgrounds are more likely to be excluded than their peers, as are children with special educational needs. Helpfully, the review made a number of recommendations, such as making schools accountable for the educational outcomes of pupils they exclude. I feel it would be a huge missed opportunity for this government not to pursue these recommendations and to drive a much greater culture of inclusion across all schools.
It is important to be balanced here. Many schools do really well, they actively engage in local education partnerships and co-operate with Children and Young People’s Trusts, Safeguarding Children Partnerships, Community Safety Partnerships, and Health and Well-being Boards. Sounds complex, and it is. The best school partnerships secure full engagement in fair access systems, monitor and challenge attendance, exclusions, managed moves, reduced timetables and elective home education rates. They do this as an integral part of orchestrating a sector-led approach to raising the quality of teaching and learning and ultimately with the goal of delivering suitable education to all children.
Never has this been needed more as we work to combat the lasting effects of poverty, the challenges of exploitation and risks associated with children missing education. Fundamentally, this requires a commitment to ‘place’, to local partnerships and governance – particularly from multi-academy trusts where they are located far away from the communities served by their schools.
These concerns remain as pertinent now as they did two years ago when ADCS published A vision for an inclusive and high performing education system which I encourage you to read if haven’t already. As the paper explains, there is a real uncertainty over local arrangements with parents and carers often looking to the local authority to address concerns about their child’s education, yet we cannot legally intervene in an academy school when concerns arise. This, coupled with an accountability system that prioritises academic attainment, means that some learners can be squeezed out of mainstream education, or fall out of sight all together. This is very worrying and is why education is best delivered in a local area through genuine partnership, with all players working together so that all children and young people receive a good education, are safe and that they, and their families, are treated fairly.
The education system has undergone significant change over the past decade, but the fundamentals of what and who education is for have not changed. Schools remain at the heart of our communities and all children have a right to a full education that meets their individual needs. It may be 30 years since we signed up to it, but the UNRC remains as relevant in my mind as it ever has done.
The human cost of us losing sight of this are huge.
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Being a 'pushy parent'
As I’m sure many of you will have noticed, the highly anticipated Scottish care review was finally published last week. The review looked at all aspects of care in Scotland and was guided by the experiences of people who had either experienced care or were members of the care workforce. The review found a system that is fractured, bureaucratic and unfeeling for far too many children and families and doesn’t adequately value the voices and experiences of those within it.
The review made over 80 recommendations for change with the aim of shifting the focus of the care system from protecting against harm to creating an environment where every child has the chance to experience safe, loving and respectful relationships. While the context in England is quite different, there are many things we can learn from the Scottish review, particularly from its engagement with care experienced people and professionals.
The Scottish review proposed a wide range of measures and reforms, from tackling poverty and inequality (which we know affects children and families across the UK) to prioritising early help over support at the point of crisis. ADCS has long called on government to implement a national child poverty reduction strategy (England is the only country in the UK without one) and to fund local authorities properly to enable a preventative approach to working with children, young people and their families; it’s a smart economic policy as well as the right thing to do.
Unsurprisingly, this got me reflecting on what the care review should look like for England. Whilst we know very little about it, the indications are it will be independently led and look widely across children’s social care with the aim of better supporting, protecting and improving the outcomes of vulnerable children and young people. This feels like a once in a generation opportunity, so we must be ambitious about what can be achieved. The scope must be wide ranging, addressing issues from placement sufficiency to investment in the wider children’s workforce, and much more.
In my own local authority, in Barnsley, we have high aspirations for our children in care and care leavers who tell us that being in care can and does make a positive difference to their lives. We try hard to be ‘pushy parents’ and our brilliant Children in Care Council (quite rightly) keep us on track to deliver on our pledge to them. We know if we are going to get it right we must hear and act on children and young people’s voices and we must involve them in decisions made about their lives so that we put in place the right kind of support.
There are currently 75,000 children in care across England and this number is expected to grow. These children and young people deserve our care and support and I am very aware of the challenges and unfair stigmas that many of them or care leavers face. One of the recommendations in the Scottish care review is for care experienced children to not be excluded from school or have their timetable reduced to such an extent that they are denied their rights to education. This is certainly an area I hope our government focuses on because in a context of reduced funding and an accountability system that prioritises academic attainment, the stakes are high for school leaders who wish to adopt inclusive approaches.
Care experienced children and young people face many challenges and working with them can be demanding but also very rewarding. We need to give all members of the workforce the training and development they require. We currently face a shortage of foster carers and Ofsted’s latest annual report raised concerns about staff qualifications and training in the children’s home sector. The best examples of care create a stable and loving environment for children to thrive and to develop strong relationships with those who care for or support them - a move to improve the status of the children’s home sector and everyone working in this field is long overdue.
I’m sure we would all agree that children’s best interests must be the focus of any review, not just in the care sector but across all areas of government and society with inclusivity at its heart. How else will we achieve a country that works for all children?
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Moving forward together
Last week, Parents Against Child Exploitation (PACE) published a piece of research on the experiences of 31 parents and carers whose children have been sexually abused and exploited outside of the home and their experience of the services they came into contact with. The report describes how parents felt unsupported or even blamed and that the help they did receive did not show the required understanding of the exploitation that their child became trapped in.
We now know far more about child sexual exploitation (CSE) and we are dealing with risk that could not have been imagined even a few years go - checks on progress like PACE’s research show just how crucial it is to have young people, parents and carers being a driving force in this development.
Our understanding of CSE continues to evolve in areas such as online exploitation or appreciating a young person’s ‘digital world’. We are now extending our contextual safeguarding practice models to better support and protect adolescents and promote safeguarding outside of the family home; work that has been supported by Research in Practice. However, going back to the importance of acting on the experiences of parents, carers and young people and putting this at the centre of developing and leading responses, “co-production” in this area is not making the effective progress it should. It is essential that safeguarding is informed by what families say work, but it is one of the most complex and difficult areas to achieve this. It’s complex because we must listen to and involve the family but also extend this further to the neighbourhood and local community. It is also up to us to remain at the forefront of the national debate and challenge the cultural, moral and social issues that are at the heart of abuse and exploitation, including the role of social media in normalising these behaviours. A public awareness campaign promoted with the same intensity and urgency as campaigns against racism and homophobia is urgently needed.
Young people, parents and carers must be able to rely on early responses that build resilience across the services they come into contact with. There is plenty of positive work happening to tackle CSE in areas up and down the country where local authorities, schools, health services and the police are working together to disrupt and prevent abuse. Some areas have put in place training for taxi drivers, bus drivers and hotel staff to recognise and report concerns, or deployed youth workers in known hotspot neighbourhoods. In Greater Manchester, Rochdale and Wigan have co-designed with young people a project to find alternatives to secure accommodation for victims of CSE using a strengths and relationships-based model where a worker takes the time to build a meaningful and trusting relationship with the young person, providing them with the intensive early support they need.
It goes without saying that these early and preventative responses need to be protected and properly funded - not through short-term project-based funding. Unfortunately, central government funding has not kept pace with the changing and at times highly complex needs of young people, in fact local government funding has decreased by 50% in real terms over the last 10 years.
So, the research by PACE may make uncomfortable reading, and we may hope that surely we’ve come farther than this, but it’s essential for us to move forward together with parents, carers and young people as part of a family focused and co-produced approach. As ADCS President Rachel Dickinson said in her Channel 4 News interview last week, “This is an uncomfortable truth that we have to address together.”
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Strengths based leadership
I am writing this blog having recently taken up the role of Chair of the ADCS Yorkshire and Humber region.
My appointment prompted me to reflect upon the role of the Association, that of a Director of Children’s Services (DCS) and the wider environment in which we all operate.
In January I opened the eighth Yorkshire and Humber sector-led challenge event. It was clear that new and aspiring leaders were bringing fresh thinking perfectly blended with a wealth of experience gained within the context of the current landscape.
The event demonstrated a level playing field where experience, knowledge and skills from all the local authorities contributed to a collaborative approach to improvement. Still, colleagues can find themselves at the wrong end of an Ofsted judgement and having to embark on an intervention and improvement journey.
To interpret from Tom Rath’s Strengthsfinder, as strategic leaders we must ‘muse the complexity and define simplicity to achieve our goals’.
Many colleagues have astutely articulated an ambition to reimagine the future, recognising that as systems leaders we must work tirelessly if we are to reach those aims articulated in 2017 of developing A country that works for all children.
We face many challenges in the sector and we are rightly held to account. Listening to the BBC Radio 4’s “Cradle to Care” it made me reflect on how we must find the right balance to enable children to stay with their families, their schools and their communities by making investments in the things which work from a perspective of prevention. Unfortunately, a decade of funding cuts means that this is not always possible, however, we must build resilience within children, families, communities and the whole children’s workforce. Relevant partners must come to the fore in a whole system approach too.
To do this we must reduce anxiety and uncertainty within the system in the widest terms, building confidence while continually challenging ourselves against the principles we operate within – the Children Act 1989 and beyond - where the lived experience of the child is what matters.
The Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) last year published a briefing Leadership in Strengths-based Social Care. Whilst it has an adult social care focus, the key messages apply to children’s social care also. It states that “leadership should encourage a positive attitude to risk and empower the workforce to take control and ownership over the provision of social care support in order to facilitate innovation and creativity”, in stating this the report brings us back to developing a no-blame culture.
From what I have seen through my experiences as a DCS, a member of ADCS, of having spent my career in the sector and now as a regional Chair, a strengths based approach to leadership reaps huge benefits and can be achieved with an environment of “high challenge - high support”.
We don’t often get to choose what we do in a heavily regulated environment, but we do get a choice about how we lead at every level and across the whole sector.
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A new year, a new beginning with some clarity politically. This is my first blog since becoming ADCS Honorary Secretary and there were a number of contenders for what to write about: increasing numbers of children in care, child sexual exploitation, criminal exploitation or the impact on staff of the regulatory world that we work in. I have chosen to look back at the ADCS Position Paper A Vision for an Inclusive and High Performing Education System from 2018 and our approach to that paper in Telford, set out in our Belonging Strategy.
The paper asserts that “local authorities have a legal responsibility to champion the needs of the most vulnerable children and young people to promote educational excellence and ensure fair access to school places for all learners.” It goes on to conclude that too many learners are not having access to the quality of education to which they are entitled. Pressures of greater competition and diversity in admissions as well as a high stakes inspection regime further increases the risk of some vulnerable children and young people being squeezed out of the mainstream system. “We know that the social and financial costs of allowing children to get to the point of exclusion are huge; for many this is the first step on a journey that ultimately ends with social exclusion in adulthood too.”
In Telford we have seen increases in fixed term exclusions, children educated at home and children entering care since 2016. This has been accompanied by an increase in demand for support for children with mental health problems – an issue that was also highlighted by Ofsted in their 2018 Annual Report. Our approach has been to develop, in partnership with our schools, a Belonging Strategy.
The idea stems from work that Professor Kathryn Riley, from the UCL Institute of Education, has undertaken in understanding the challenges children may face in fitting into their school environment. Children at various times in their lives have to make sense of life changing events and frequently arrive at school unhappy, disengaged and displaying challenging behaviour. School can be a safe place to talk, to be listened to and to receive understanding and reassurance.
In Telford, we hold the ambition that every child will have a sense of belonging in their school or education setting and that the right support and social environment is in place at the right time to enable them to succeed. Self-evaluation and action planning to close gaps in provision and provide appropriate staff development are key to achieving this.
‘Belonging’ is that sense of being somewhere where you can be confident that you fit in and feel safe in your identity. It is vital that our schools become places of welcome and belonging. To quote Kathryn Riley “How leaders think, decide, act and reflect, and draw on their knowledge to create a roadmap of possibilities is critical to the well-being of children and adults.”
The purpose of developing this strategy is to promote a move away from traditional behaviour management approaches. Away from an emphasis on reward and sanctions linked to behaviour to a more humanist, relational and universal approach, which is inclusive to all.
Our approach aims to develop a sense of belonging, to support the wellbeing and mental health needs of all young people, to work with partners to develop a systemic approach to working with families of our most vulnerable learners, to ensure that all young people are ready for the next phase of their lives and to ensure support is available where there is a breakdown.
We measure our success in a number of ways such as looking at a reduction in exclusions, in-year transfers, use of modified timetables, referrals to higher level services, increased mental health and emotional resilience, successful transitions to secondary school, reduced drop-out rates at Year 12 and reduced numbers of young people requiring the support of statutory safeguarding services.
Our schools have embraced this approach. One example is the work of Krissi Carter, Principal at Burton Borough School, who has introduced a range of initiatives for both pupils and staff in her school which promote that sense of ‘belonging.’ A TEDx Norwich presentation ‘Badly Behaved or Emotionally Strained’ shows the remarkable results that have already been achieved.
So, what do we want - a system that excludes and isolates young people leading to youth offending and ultimately prison, or a system that uses empathy, support and ultimately leads to success? If we keep doing the same thing, then surely we should expect the same outcome.
If a child does not belong in school where do they belong?
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10 year challenge
At the start of the new decade there is always a lot of reflection on what’s gone before as well as looking to the future. This is particularly relevant given the uncertain times we are living through which I doubt anyone could have foreseen at the beginning of 2010. So, what does the 10 year challenge look like for children’s services? The excellent series of reflections by ADCS past presidents on the 1989 and 2004 Children Acts give a real insight into the changing landscape of children’s services and are really thought provoking.
Reflections on the last decade are bound to highlight frustrations at the unfolding consequences of austerity which have not come as a surprise to anyone in the sector. However, there has also been much to celebrate as we continue to come up with creative solutions to some of the unnecessary challenges put in our way by unhelpful national policy and under resourcing. At a local level we operate as system leaders but nationally the parts of the system we are asked to lead have become fragmented by design. This must change.
There is so much excellence within the sector across all regions and all types of local authorities and often the biggest frustration is we could do so much more if only our hands weren’t tied behind our backs. We know what ‘outstanding’ looks like and how it can be achieved but a lack of resources and in a context of conflicting national policy positions restricts the impact we are able to have.
So, to the future. In recent blogs there has been talk of Christmas presents, wise women and new year’s resolutions. From my perspective I would like the 2020s to be a decade where we embrace the opportunities presented by the power of relationships, strengths-based working and collaboration, all underpinned by proper investment. How our services relate to, and work with, children, young people and their families must continue to evolve. I am also a believer in the importance of partnership working and would like to revisit some of the place-based integration work that has been side-lined in many areas over the past decade.
There is a challenge for us all as the new government takes shape to make the case for the prioritisation of children’s services both in terms of resourcing and new policy direction. Can the silos that exist in Whitehall be broken down with ministers focusing on evidence rather than ideology? How do we shape and influence policy development and decision making so it moves out of a ‘Westminster bubble’ to tackle the real challenges we face? The North East is a long way from Westminster and our context is very different.
There is also an opportunity for us to innovate and share best practice in a structured way building on the establishment of Regional Improvement and Innovation Alliances. In the North East we have made great progress in this area and are starting to see some of the benefits. As a sector we are at our strongest when we work together.
So, what will the 10 year challenge look like in 2030? Hopefully it will be a less turbulent decade and we can reflect on progress towards a fairer and better society.
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I hope you’ve all had a decent Christmas and New Year break. If you are an avid reader of these blogs (and who isn’t?) you’ll have read about Matt Dunkley’s version of a Christmas Carol, Rachel Dickinson’s Christmas wish list and Stuart Gallimore’s reflections on the gifts of Christmas. So, I suppose it should fall to me to talk about new year’s resolutions.
I’m afraid Veganuary doesn’t really appeal to me (too fond of the dairy products in cakes and pastries, as anyone that knows me will attest), and similarly dry January doesn’t really cut it (too fond of… no, never mind). So, turning to my professional life, what I’d really like to resolve to do is never to use another unregistered or unregulated placement for a child in care. But like most of our new year’s resolutions, I am worried that this one is not going to be sustainable.
We’ve heard a lot recently about such placements, the risks, the costs, the lack of regulatory oversight. Until very recently we hadn’t heard an awful lot from outside of the directors of children’s services (DCS) community about what we could do about it and who might help. Framing the issue, as I have heard, as being about ‘poor local authority commissioning’ or heartless children’s services sending children away from their areas to quickly solve a problem doesn’t bear any resemblance to the reality that DCSs have to deal with on a daily basis. In Hampshire we have a placement commissioning team who work tirelessly to find placements for children with complex and challenging needs. Like most DCSs, I dread that Friday feeling when our placements manager approaches me with the news that we have tried 150 placements, our own foster care service and residential homes are full and none of the placements in the independent sector are willing to take our young person precisely because of their complex and challenging needs.
The government, in its manifesto, has promised a review of the care system and through the ADCS Standards, Performance and Inspection (SPI) Policy Committee we have been thinking about this for some time. The factors leading to the growth in unregistered and unregulated placements have been evident for a long while and are in some respects uncomfortable for policy makers. For example, 10 years ago on any given day there were up to 3,000 children in youth custody but now, due to positive changes in policy and practice in youth justice, there are around 800. But those other 2,200 children, many with challenging behaviour and complex needs, haven’t gone away. Similarly, health colleagues are doing their best to minimise the use of tier 4 health accommodation, leading to more and more children with ‘borderline’ serious mental health issues in our care. Further, we are (rightly) accommodating several thousand unaccompanied minors who are seeking refuge. The consequence of all of this is to create further pressures on that part of the sector that is dealing with the troubled and troublesome adolescent cohort at a time when we have the least financial resource to address the issues locally.
So, what to do? Well certainly, any solution is going to need to look at how the care of these children is regulated and inspected. We are beginning to see some innovative ideas being put forward by some local authorities around using their own accommodation differently. For my own part I think that we might need to move away from a regulatory regime that focuses on bricks and mortar (children’s homes) towards a system that regulates organisations and providers, enabling them to provide flexible solutions for crisis placements without fear of their grading being threatened. The approach to regulation and inspection also needs to look at the role of fostering and more fluid routes through fostering and residential care and back again - our children don’t fit well into regulatory boxes. Through the SPI committee we’ll be working with Ofsted on this regulatory issue.
As ADCS members who attended the 2019 NCAS Conference will know, the Association also agreed a range of other asks of government with regards to this issue:
• Introducing legislation where only voluntary, not for profit organisations can operate in Independent Fostering Agencies and Independent Children’s Homes, similar to the approach taken in Scotland
• A unified placement and commissioning system for the welfare secure estate, the children’s mental health secure system and the youth justice system
• Urgent pace alongside investment and block commissioning of more secure welfare placements
• A national campaign to help local authorities recruit many more foster carers
• A renewed focus on training and quality of staff in residential settings.
It’s tempting to write more on each of these asks but there is no space now. As we go into 2020 it’s worth us remembering that we need the engagement of the whole sector – policy makers, regulators and other key players to create a care system that will be fit for the 21st Century.
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Let's choose hope and kindness
I have been a Social worker for 35 years and it is in our nature to be optimistic, although we sometimes do a good job of hiding it. The start of the New Year is often a time of reflection and renewal and I am sure many of us, particularly those with young children, will have seen a portrayal of the nativity story with the archetypal homeless family relying on the kindness of strangers, living in temporary accommodation, before fleeing for their lives as refugees (does any of that sound familiar?) but it was the arrival of the three wise men and their gifts that struck me and left me wondering what gifts we as an Association would want to bring at the start of a New Year.
If we are to embrace hope rather than hopelessness, the first gift needs to be simply each other. Let’s extend the gift of generosity and kindness, whether it’s the phone call to someone who is struggling, or a sector led offer to a neighbour, never forgetting that our friends tell it how it is rather then how we might want it to be. If we don’t look after ourselves and each other we are not in a position to help those in need. It would also be great to see that kindness extended to inform both central and local government policy decisions as well as the delivery of the services we are responsible for.
The second gift is that of our voice, whether that is speaking up for children in our local area or through the work of the Association in speaking truth to the powerful (and boy have we had a President in our Rachel who has done just that!) It’s essential that we highlight inequalities in our communities but at the same time partnering with others inside and outside government to come up with solutions. The biblical story might have three wise men but we have our very own three wise women in ADCS President Rachel Dickinson, Vice President Jenny Coles and new Vice President elect Charlotte Ramsden. Along with the ADCS Council of Reference and the six Policy Committees they will have a key role in working with the new government over the next five years to make sure our voice is heard for all children and families.
Finally, we need our chest of gold. A fair funding settlement for children is long overdue if we are to see the disadvantage gap reduced and removed. Much needed stability returned to families in all its forms, secure tenancies and an end to food poverty would be a good place to start. But why not go further and provide much needed support to the communities that families live in, rebuild our early help offer and address issues of youth violence and contextual safeguarding? There is so much to do but it is a privilege to be a director of children’s services and have a role that means we can make a real contribution in championing hope and kindness at the start of a New Year.
Unfortunately, stories of children and families struggling with poverty over the festive period have become all too common. As some of you know, I live in a fairly affluent south coast cathedral town, yet our local food bank has seen a 33% increase in requests for help over the last six months and on the night of the rough sleeper census 31 people were recorded as homeless. This is a relatively small number compared to many other places, but you then scale this up nationally based on Shelter’s recent research and 135,000 children will have been homeless or living in temporary accommodation on Christmas day, a 12-year high. When presented with these figures it is easy to be overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness that we will never achieve A country that works for all children, however, we will all know of individual stories of children and families that swim against the tide because of the services we provide as well as the tireless work of community groups, faith groups and concerned individuals.
Am I optimistic or pessimistic of progress? The answer is optimistic of course, I’m a Liverpool fan and this is our year…
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All I want for Christmas is...
As Christmas approaches, I have been reflecting on the year that was 2019 and thinking about the challenges 2020 will hold. It’s been yet another busy year for the Association as we continued to press the government to both recognise and act on the pressures children’s services face. In the spring we published a paper on the wider children’s workforce, in the summer a discussion paper on serious youth violence and most recently a paper on how the health care system works for children, or not.
These things will all roll forward and ADCS will continue to take every opportunity to raise these issues, and others, with the new government. My biggest concern remains the lack of coherent focus on children and families. I don’t think I’m the only one who was disappointed to see children’s services getting very little attention during the recent general election campaign. I sincerely hope that this is not a sign of things to come because the priorities that have shaped my presidency remain unchanged: over a third of children in this country are living in poverty, the majority of whom live in working households; more children and families than ever before need our help; and support and funding for vital public services continues to fall in real terms, at least in local government. The NHS, police and schools have all secured new funding pledges this year and, while we welcome this, we still await a sustainable funding settlement for local government. Delivering improvements in children’s outcomes in these circumstances is, to say the least, very challenging, but we try; 2019 was also the year we formally launched our Regional Improvement and Innovation Alliances.
Looking forward, one of my asks of the new government is to create a national vision for children that spans all departments underpinned by a long-term funding settlement so that we can deliver the kind of early help that prevents children and families from reaching crisis point and improves their lives. We are not, nor should we be, a blue light service. I’d also reiterate the urgent need for a child poverty reduction strategy to address the shameful levels of poverty experienced by children and families in this country. England still remains the only country without one and I for one can’t decide whether I’m heartened or heartbroken by the multiple features I’ve read in the newspapers or seen on the TV this week about schools opening up over the Christmas break to feed pupils and their families, of teachers buying children presents and of foodbanks being overwhelmed with donations from the public. This should not be 21st century Britain.
The systems leadership role of the Director of Children’s Services (DCS) has never been more important to connect different agendas so that children receive the right support at the right time. In recent years this has become increasingly challenging, especially with the increasingly fragmented school and ever more complex health systems. Even more concerning is the lack of join-up nationally where responsibility for issues and services for children spans across several government departments. This seems wholly inefficient, so why not have a single ‘Department for Children’ that drives forward our vision, seeks policy coordination and marshals resources, much like DCSs do up and down the country? Put simply, I believe this approach will help us get more bang for our buck!
In a career that spans four decades I have never seen levels of family distress greater than they are now and I am acutely aware that early childhood experiences shape the people we become in later life. We want all children to grow up in a safe family environment but growing up in a household experiencing material hardship brings increased exposure to risk factors. Frontline workers see the consequences of this every day and do a remarkable job to work with compassion and dedication to get it right for children in increasingly difficult circumstances.
As the Christmas break approaches, I want to say thank you to the thousands of dedicated children’s home staff, foster carers, social workers, doctors, nurses, police officers and others who will be working tirelessly over Christmas and New Year providing vital love, help and support for children and communities. To everyone else I wish you a peaceful break that brings plenty of rest and recharge for the year ahead. I’m certainly looking forward to it, I hope you are too.
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A Christmas Carol
As I write this blog, we are in the final days of the various general election campaigns. By the time you read this, you will know the result. Predicting the future is always a fool’s game but thinking about the future of children’s services before knowing government policy for the next five years seems particularly foolish… although that’s never stopped me before!
As we approach Christmas, it is also tempting to look at this issue through the lens of that great Kent resident, Charles Dickens, and think about the ghosts of children’s services past, present and future. Thinking of the characters in A Christmas Carol, we might want to consider the right early help offer for the Cratchit family and whether they have recourse to public funds, and particularly how best to meet Tiny Tim’s needs. We might also wonder which Chancellor is the best fit for Scrooge, and which Secretary of State or ADCS Past President most resembles Jacob Marley and Fezziwig.
That’s the thing about general elections – they are often a time for looking to the past and the future, reflecting on values, aspirations, belief and trust. One frustrating aspect of this election (although you are spoilt for choice on that one) is that services for children have not been given nearly enough prominence, priority or airtime by any of the parties during this campaign. They all have policies and points of difference, but very little time or political capital has been expended talking about them.
As a sector we have been consciously looking back, as well as into the future in the last few months. Rachel Dickinson’s ADCS presidency has coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Children Act 1989 and the 15th anniversary of the Children Act 2004. Along with other past presidents, I have contributed to the debate about those two ghosts of children’s services past and their significance today. Tempting though it is to dwell on things that were better in the past, such as funding levels, it is also instructive to acknowledge the things we have improved, for example corporate parenting, both with and without sufficient resources.
When it comes to Christmas present and Christmas future, it is hard to see beyond an adequate funding settlement at the top of the Christmas list for the incoming Government. However, as leaders we need to look beyond that. I have been fortunate to be involved with the Staff College on their Project 2035 which is a creative exploration of the world our children could inhabit in 2035, and what children’s services across the country could look like by envisaging four different scenarios. I invite you to explore their antecedents, implications and challenges for children’s services leaders and it will be interesting to examine each of them in the light of the election result.
Part of the luxury that some of the scenarios afford us is the chance to speculate on what you would do if your resource prayers were answered. What would you do to reshape your services if an incoming government suddenly comes up with an extra £3bn per year for children’s services?
My current favourites include reducing caseloads to an average of 5, to allow for intensive, long-term, preventative direct work with families, and transforming our care offer to allow teenagers to move in and out of very high-quality care settings and supported living at home, as their need arises – similar to a model I have seen in Finland. We could create a state care offer with the very best of everything, a comprehensive offer for SEN close to where children live - I could go on, but what would yours be?
On that happy thought… Merry Christmas, one and ALL!
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Reflecting on youth justice
Earlier this week I spoke at the Youth Justice Convention 2019 in Birmingham. I really wanted to use this opportunity to recognise the progress we have collectively made in diverting children and young people away from the criminal justice system over the last decade. Focusing on those on the cusp of offending has been central to these frankly astonishing achievements. For me this success illustrates what can be achieved when central government departments work together, and crucially, work alongside local government, the police, magistrates and others.
So, in many ways the youth justice system is a success story and there is much that the adult system could learn from us, but not everything is going in the right direction. Too many young people go on to reoffend upon release from custody and knife and offensive weapon offences resulting in a caution or conviction have been consistently rising since 2014. Two years on from the Lammy review, disproportionality continues to be a concern as does the number of care experienced children and young people in contact with the system.
In my conference speech I reiterated the Association’s belief that children and young people who are in conflict with the law should be treated as children first and foremost and that the youth justice system should be more closely aligned to existing infrastructure and accepted practices in children’s services. I feel assured that this is the direction of travel with the national reforms, but the pace of change is concerning. It’s now three years since the Taylor Review came out and I’m not sure we can confidently say that the lived experiences of children and young people in custody have been significantly transformed; assaults, levels of self-harm and use of restraint continue to rise. Indeed, I was shocked to read in HMCI Prison’s most recent annual report that the levels of violence in STCs remains the highest per head of all types of establishment the regulator oversees.
This week I also chaired a stakeholder meeting in London, which brought together ADCS representatives with others from youth work, youth offending teams, adult social care and children’s charities (amongst others), to consider our current and future responses to serious youth violence and knife crime. Whilst we all recognised the pressure ministers, and the police, are under to act, we were clear that tougher laws and longer sentences cannot address the reasons why individuals and indeed whole communities are more vulnerable to risk and harm.
We’ve come so far in our understanding of the role of abuse, exploitation and coercion but I don’t believe we’ve collectively got the right responses to criminal exploitation and county lines activities in place yet. Youth offending teams work with young people as ‘offenders’ yet an unknown number are also victims of criminal exploitation, which requires a different approach if they are to be effectively safeguarded. The absence of a holistic, cross-departmental strategy to address these issues, one which articulates shared aims and objectives, is keenly felt as is the lack of an equitable and sustainable funding settlement.
We need to work intensively with children and young people already affected by serious violence, often linked to wider, organised criminality, as well seeking to persuade others not to tread this path at all. We also need to tackle the root causes of harm as well as the societal conditions that allow abuse and exploitation to flourish.
I will certainly be raising these issues in my discussions with the fresh crop of ministers appointed after next week’s general election. Children’s lives depend on us working together and getting this right.
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The Children Acts; tour de force not tour de France!
I was inspired by the powerful insights provided by ADCS President Rachel Dickinson, ADCS past presidents and Vice President Jenny Coles as they looked back at the Children Acts 1989 and 2004. However, their insights also highlight concerns that there is an increasingly large number of disadvantaged children in our country whose rights, which are set out in those acts, are ignored on a daily basis.
One sector in particular appears, in some cases, to be travelling in the opposite direction and working counter to the principals of the Children Acts 1989 and 2004. The sector I am speaking about is schools and more specifically a minority, but a growing number of, academy schools. These act outside of “ethical considerations” (as one academy recently described its own discussions) and describe disadvantaged children as “anchor students.”
You will recognise these schools and no doubt you will be able to name some. Typically, they appear to be highly successful, popular with the Department for Education and some parents (but by no means all), have high progress and attainment measures and are likely to be rated as ‘Outstanding’. However, some of these schools ignore or actively shun the needs of the most vulnerable or disadvantaged children in their communities by using a range of strategies. Many claim to be system leaders but act in ways that are almost entirely competitive and other schools are greatly frustrated by them. They cite ethics as their driver, utilising phrases such as “pupils first”. This is clever, but it implies that only ‘our’ children, the ones that learn here, matter.
In order to succeed, some of these schools feel the necessity (as one academy wrote) “to come at the problem, with no preconceived ideas of ethical considerations” in order to test what would work best for their academy school. In the worst cases they implement coercive, controlling and demeaning behaviour regimes. Many of these schools have extremely high levels of fixed-term exclusions and engage in gaming their intake by techniques which include a range of morally unacceptable practices which would be difficult to prove to legal standards.
You can probably name such schools. You may well have battle scars from attempting to tackle these issues. Fair access panels and local inclusion partnerships are struggling, Pupil Referral Units and Alternative Provisions are filling up, elective home education is now more common and exclusions are rising. Yet across the country, national agencies (with the exception of the Children’s Commissioner) are not acting against these behaviours. As a result, these schools are emboldened. It’s as though this minority of academy schools and their leaders’ vanities come first, not the children (who they are mandated to serve by both; the Academies Act 2010 and their funding agreements).
As we know, the first function listed in the Director for Children’s Services (DCS) job description in the Children Act 2004 (S18 2a) is for our education duties, the second (2b) our social services functions. Yet many DCSs are being left unsupported by some of the key national agencies when attempting to undertake the first function of their statutory duty in this regard.
What’s more, it’s pernicious that good and honourable school leaders feel forced to consider worrying policies. I can’t help but draw comparisons with cycling when the sport was embroiled in cheating. At one time in professional cycling, many felt it wasn’t possible to be a credible competitor in the peloton without cheating, because they felt everyone else was doing it. Young cyclists started clean and idealistic, soon to be ruined. Increasingly, I can see a similar worrying trend in our school system in 2019. New idealistic leaders feel forced to work contrary to the rights of our most vulnerable children. Too many believe that it just isn’t now possible for schools to be credible in terms of progress and attainment unless they engage in discriminatory, coercive and exclusionary activity.
The truth is that there are other ways. Promoting holistic and restorative practices effectively in schools is hard to achieve but it is possible, it is being done by many brilliant schools and school leaders across the country and it is the right thing to do.
We are required by these powerful statutes to ensure that every child matters, whatever type of school they attend. Our national agencies should now do the same.