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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Community spirit

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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Time flies

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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Broken resolutions

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.

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NCAS Conference 2019 roundup

The National Children and Adult Services Conference 2019 opened on Wednesday 20 November in Bournemouth with speeches from ADCS President Rachel Dickinson, ADASS President Julie Ogley and LGA Chairman Councillor James Jamieson.

Rachel’s powerful speech touched on many of the challenges facing children, their families and the services they rely on today, 30 years on from the Children Act 1989. She urged the next government, whoever it might be, to tackle the shameful levels of child poverty in this country. On funding, she highlighted the need for central government to invest sustainably, substantially and bravely in children’s services; we need a long-term funding settlement that transcends parliamentary cycles and general election rhetoric. And we need to move away from the current piecemeal approach to funding, she said. Small, ad hoc, short-term pots of funding from central government in response to single issues does not help all children in all local areas. Rachel then spoke about children’s mental health and wellbeing and the ADCS position paper A health care system that works for all children, published this Thursday. The paper calls for a re-setting of the role of health in relation to children and young people and the services provided to them and a Health & Wellbeing Board approach at a national level, amongst other things. Rachel also shared some findings from the latest elective home education (EHE) survey (also published this week). The survey showed that the number of children who are home educated is continuing to rise as well as the proportion of EHE children known to children’s social care. On support for care leavers, Rachel urged councils who have not already exempted their care leavers from paying council tax until age 25 to give this some thought when setting budgets locally. Other themes in Rachel’s speech included: the need for an inclusive education system and the level of profit being generated by some companies from the care of vulnerable children.

The full transcript of Rachel’s speech can be read here and the link to the press release can be found here.

There were a range of sessions on offer on Wednesday. In the morning, we heard from Caroline Coady from the NCB and Nicky Pace who is the Independent Scrutineer at Hertfordshire’s Safeguarding Children’s Partnership to speak about the new multiagency safeguarding arrangements in local areas. Leading into the afternoon, there was a session on embedding a whole system approach to domestic abuse. We heard a powerful personal account of a family’s experience of violence, fear and confrontation in the home. Delegates were also able to attend an engaging workshop on a staff-led initiative to consider wellbeing in the workplace from Central Bedfordshire Council.

In the afternoon, Steve Crocker and Steph How from Hampshire County Council led a very informative session on their journey to transform children’s social care in Hampshire before delegates chose from the final workshops of the day on improving outcomes for vulnerable children, embedding a whole school academic resilience approach or had the chance to hear from the new regulator Social Work England.

On Thursday, there were more workshops including an engaging session on adopted children’s experience of school and another on the importance of the early years on improving social mobility. Delegates also had the opportunity to discuss the impact of the Troubled Families programme. Later that morning there was a particularly popular sub-plenary session on tackling county lines and serious violent crime with input from ADCS Vice President Jenny Coles and Dez Holmes, Director of Research in Practice.

In the afternoon, Charlotte Ramsden, Chair of the Health, Care & Additional Needs Policy Committee presented on the challenges and opportunities surrounding Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) in a session where we also heard from Tony McArdle, Chair of the SEND Leadership Board and one of the independent advisors to the SEND review. For the final session of the day delegates were involved in an interactive session on re-imagining services in a country that works for all children with input from Vice President Jenny Coles and Matt Dunkley, Chair of the Resources & Sustainability Policy Committee.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Children Act 1989 and the 15th anniversary of the Children Act 2004, ADCS has been publishing the reflections of our past, current and vice presidents on our website. A composite of all 14 reflections was published on the ADCS website which you can find here and the Guardian also published a longer piece on Rachel Dickinson’s reflections during the conference. To read the Guardian article follow the link here.

The final morning of the conference brought more fascinating sessions including a session from Suffolk Council who came to talk about on how they used the power of communities to support care leavers through the use of mentors. Finally, the conference was brought to a close with an important discussion on the role of local government in addressing children and young people’s mental health problems.

There was lots of Twitter activity over the last three days. Search #NCAS19 or @ADCStweets for a summary of events.

Speeches and presentations from the event will be posted onto the conference website and shared via the ADCS bulletin when available. It’s been another enjoyable and eventful conference and we hope to see you all again next year for plenty more interesting discussion and debate in Manchester.

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A day for celebrations

Tomorrow specifically, 16 November, marks the 30th anniversary of the Children Act 1989 receiving Royal Assent. Today specifically, 15 November, is the 15th anniversary of the Children Act 2004 receiving Royal Assent. In the run up to these important milestone dates, I have been enjoying reading the comments from past ADCS Presidents about what those vital pieces of legislation mean to them and for children and families.

From the revolutionary concept in the 1989 Act that children had rights of their own, and that adult responsibility was to protect those rights and children’s welfare, to the holistic view of children’s lives at the heart of the 2004 Act, and the attendant requirement for services to work in partnership to improve children’s outcomes across many different domains, these acts have shaped the principles and guided the practice of everyone working with children ever since.

I was still a student in 1989, and I’m embarrassed to say that I can’t actually remember the Children Act 1989 legislation being passed, even though 30 years later it impacts daily on how I think and what I do. However, I have a vivid recollection of the excitement and positivity generated by the 2004 Act, the powerful statement that Every Child Matters, and the way the five outcomes started to be threaded through the policy and practice development that followed.

Nevertheless, I felt as though there was still something left out of the legislation, though I couldn’t put my finger on it. A few years later after the Department for Children, Schools and Families had reverted to the Department for Education and every document with a rainbow on it was filed away, I stumbled across the answer in a web archive. There was a report on young people’s responses to the ‘Every Child Matters’ five outcomes which showed clearly that – although for the most part they agreed with the outcomes being prioritised – they would have put economic wellbeing much further down the list than the adult consultees had and instead would have significantly emphasised family and friends; staying connected with the people important to them. That is such a significant omission! The ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda went out of its way to make room for children and young people’s voices; promoting consultation, engagement and involvement of children and young people in relation to all developments affecting them. Here was a fine example of government asking young people what was important to them, but their answer didn’t make it into the final framework. Of course economic wellbeing is important, but in human terms what could possibly be more important than the people we love and who we want to love us?

Although that report has now disappeared even deeper into the archives, so I can’t find it to link to here, it remains a powerful influence on me as a Director for Children’s Services, and in two ways in particular:

First, it’s a daily reminder that ‘children’s voices’ deserve more than lip service. If we ask children and young people what matters to them, then we need to be prepared to respond positively to the clear messages we receive back. This does not mean giving children everything they ask for; we know that’s not always possible, or wise. But, in my experience children equivocate far less than adults do and their directness and clarity can help us to define our focus and purpose. In my own authority, Merton, we don’t only consult with children and young people, we directly employ them as advisors, inspectors, commissioners and will soon have a young scrutineer for our safeguarding partnership.

Second, it means really working to protect, sustain and - where necessary - rebuild children’s family, friend and community relationships. I’m still surprised sometimes at how much we’re willing to spend as a sector, both in cash terms and in terms of kindness, creativity and patience, to support a child in ‘stranger care’, sometimes a very long way from home, when we don’t make the same effort or financial commitment to support and encourage birth and extended families to solve their problems.

In Merton’s new Children and Young People’s Plan, we have five outcomes that I’m sure everyone would recognise, and a sixth, which is about children and young people’s connection and belonging. We’re starting to make that priority more explicit in the values that underpin our practice. This will influence many things from how we find ways to meet the needs of children with SEND, to how we work with families whose children are at risk of harm. This, I think, helps to return us to the core principles of the Children Act 1989; children being cared for within their own families wherever possible.

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The power of positive relationships

My blog might read more as a ramble this week for two reasons. Firstly, I’ve spent the last two weeks hard of hearing and croaking as I’ve had a bad cold which has reduced my thinking abilities. Secondly, I’ve moved seamlessly from worries about Brexit (especially following the helpful reminder from the Secretary of State to ensure that our free school meals children don’t go hungry even if the shops run out of food) to focusing on preparations for the upcoming General Election – also aided by a second helpful letter from the Secretary of State reminding us not to spoil children’s December celebrations by taking over their schools as polling stations.

In the middle of this week I had a blast from the past as we welcomed the energetic, thought provoking Lemn Sissay to Weston super Mare. His contribution, alongside that of The Big House Theatre, will stay with us all for a long time. For me there was also a personal resonance as I started my career as a social worker in an authority next door to Wigan and I remember working with a couple of young people who stayed in one of the same places as Lemn for short periods. This led me to begin to think about what has changed and what has stayed the same over the intervening 40 years. The big old institutions run mainly by ex-service personnel are long gone but so too are the small family group homes whose staff often provided stable, warm, nurturing care, enabling siblings to stay together. Now, when we review our children’s care plans, we do it with them, often led by them, rather than as a paper exercise. Our social workers are now able to build relationships with smaller numbers of families rather than the 45 for whom I did my best in the early 1980s. My first application for care orders lasted an hour in a magistrate’s court and I walked out with four care orders on the strength of my evidence and a four-page report – a far cry from the plans and statements that our social workers have to produce.

But what has absolutely stayed the same is the social work mission to focus on improving life for children and families whilst challenging the wider social context. I spent some time with our Frontline workers last week and was blown away by their compassion, their deep reflections and their drive to work with families from a strengths-based approach – they are joining a children and young people’s workforce who share that drive to do the best for children and young people whilst always learning, challenging and celebrating. So, I’ve come full circle because that’s what I saw when I came into the profession and although there have been ups and downs, I believe that the power of positive relationships only increases our collective strength to build a better future.

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"Love our colleges"

When I became Chair of the ADCS Educational Achievement Policy Committee this year, one of the areas I wanted to bring more clearly into focus was further education (FE) and the many common challenges that local authorities and the FE sector face. Although local authorities are not responsible for FE colleges, we are responsible for the outcomes of all children and young people in our area, regardless of which education setting they attend.

Challenges around high needs funding, the impact of exclusions, home education and disadvantage are all common to local authorities and the FE sector. The recent government announcement of £400 million to FE 16-18 funding has been widely welcomed but over the past decade government funding to colleges has been cut by 30%. Despite this, colleges up and down the country continue to support children and young people who present complex needs or who haven’t been able to remain in mainstream education. Indeed, 18% of students in colleges have a learning difficulty and/or a disability and it is absolutely right that these students have access to an education that is flexible to meet their needs. I know many local authorities rely on the inclusive practice that FE colleges in their area provide to support those young people who may be classed as vulnerable.

There is much more to having a good education than just achieving the very best exam results and the positive impact that a balanced curriculum and inclusive culture in our education system can have on entire communities cannot be understated. Unfortunately, a narrowing of the school curriculum in recent years and a focus on pupils achieving the Ebacc has marginalised many learners whose talents do not suit these subjects or the style of learning. Some of these children and young people will have special educational needs or be eligible for free school meals or be children in care or care leavers who need another opportunity to succeed. This is why FE colleges are so important because they are able to offer flexible support and courses that are suitable for all types of learners.

For many young people, college will present a second chance to reengage with education and turn their interests into a career via a vocational route and this must be celebrated. The campaign on Twitter #LoveOurColleges is a good place to start but the government must recognise the vital role that the FE sector plays in supporting these young people and allow colleges to remain inclusive for all learners. The recent announcement that many post-16 courses at level 3 and below will have their funding removed will only serve as an obstacle to this. Our responsibility for supporting all learners does not end when they finish Year 11 and we need a strong FE sector that can keep them in education, training and help them move into employment.

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A chance to celebrate our care leavers

Yesterday marked the beginning of this year’s National Care Leavers Week which is a great opportunity to celebrate our care leavers and their many achievements but also to reflect on the challenges facing many care experienced people and the services they rely on.

Care can and does make a positive difference in the lives of many children and young people who for whatever reason cannot live with their birth families. Research from the universities of Oxford and Bristol tells us that the longer a child is in care the better their educational outcomes at aged 16 and beyond and there are many examples of children who have been in care going on to achieve great things, but still lazy stereotypes about care exist. Children and young people themselves are working hard to challenge this and just a few years ago at the ADCS Annual Conference we heard from some inspiring young people from the City of York’s Children in Care Council. The ‘Aspire to More’ campaign which challenges the stigma surrounding the care system is another great example and we need more projects like these.

As corporate parents we are ambitious about all of the children and young people in our care and this responsibility now rightly extends beyond 18 to the age of 25. Extending the cohort of care leavers who can access support from a PA to 25 is right but government must fully fund local authorities to meet this new duty. In my own local authority in Barnsley, we act as ‘pushy parents’ for children in our care and the test is ‘would this be good enough for my own child’.

Councils are supporting their care leavers in different ways and there are many reasons to celebrate the work that is happening in local areas up and down the country. Just one example is the House Project where young people work on houses which will become theirs to live in for as long as they want. They become part of a community which supports them to develop practical and emotional skills needed to live independently. Some areas have made care experienced young people exempt from council tax and I sincerely hope more will follow suit. Many Councils are increasing the number of apprenticeships to support them into employment.

There have been several national policy changes in recent years to better support care leavers and we are much better corporate parents now than before. The government has just this week announced extra funding to help young people who are care leavers and have reached adulthood through better access to internships and further education and crucially a commitment to bringing a cross-government focus to addressing the key challenges they face. This is a welcome announcement and it’s important that the government recognises the ongoing support needs of those who have been in care after they turn 18.

There is much to celebrate this week, but we should also look at what more we can do to support our care leavers. The government must have children at its centre and focus on how we can support our children to grow up and live happy, successful independent lives. Children in care can go on to achieve anything they desire in life, it’s up to us to help make their dreams a reality.

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The power of the voice

Like in most local authorities, children who are subjects of a child protection plan in Derbyshire are encouraged to attend their child protection conferences and when they can’t there is input on their behalf. However, more recently we have actively sought ways to utilise the power of the child’s voice as a lever for change within the conference itself.

At the final meeting of our Local Safeguarding Children’s Board (LSCB) held on 27 September 2019, we received a report on progress and it contained examples of how one child’s voice had contained such power that it had been the catalyst for their families change journey.

“I am happy when I see my brothers and sisters and like to bake cakes with mummy, I love school. I am sad when mummy and daddy argue, I get scared, I need it to stop.” The mother of this child said that for the first time her daughter’s words hit home and helped her to understand the impact the situation at home was having on her, as a result the family situation has changed and risks have been reduced.

Equally, there were examples of how the child’s voice within the conference had enabled professionals to hear and understand a child’s needs differently. A 14 year old girl at risk of sexual exploitation who was on a Care Order spoke to her conference, her voice influenced how a rehabilitation plan was managed and there were proactive arrangements to ensure that the young person was not overloaded with contacts from numerous professionals and that her points of contact were the professionals whom she identified as being her “team of helpers”. Also, an 11 year old refined her own plan by putting a tick and a heart against the actions, suggested by professionals, that she thought would be helpful for her.

I have reflected on the power of the voice a lot since this meeting and how it is starting to move the child protection conference from a procedural requirement to an active piece of direct work with the child, the family and the professionals engaged with them.

Strategically too, we seek to be influenced by the child’s voice although we sometimes need to check and remind ourselves of how we are doing this - at the end of our LSCB meetings our Chair always used to ask us to consider what the Board had done that day to make a difference to the lives of children, my test of self will be asking myself ‘what have I/we done or changed today as a result of a child’s voice’. In this way can it turn from the power of the voice into the voice having power?

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It's all about love

Next week is National Adoption Week and I’ve been reflecting on the important work of finding loving, stable homes for children who cannot live with their birth parents. While adoption can be the right thing for some children it’s not suitable for every child – for some living with a foster family or in residential care might be the right option.

Over the last two years I’ve watched some close friends on their adoption journey and shared in their joy, from the moment they were approved to “Foster to Adopt” to when they were formally matched. Taking that first step to enquire about adoption can feel scary, most children and young people who come into our care do so because they have experienced abuse and neglect and will require support to help them overcome early trauma. While the vast majority of adoptions are successful some can experience challenges which is why supporting our adoptive families well with any issues they may face along the way is really important.

Adoption is changing and understanding what this means for those who want to adopt is crucial if we are to continue to find adoptive parents to love our children. Whether it is the determination to find the right home for a baby, a sibling group, an older child or a child with additional needs, or whether it is addressing the risks of social media or anxieties about available support, the right person or family is there and it is up to us to find them. One of my most memorable social work cases was a foster carer who loved the three siblings with additional needs that she cared for so much that she adopted them all. The development of post adoption support and the Adoption Support Fund has made this possible and will hopefully encourage more people who want to adopt to take that first step and enquire about making the difference for the children who are waiting.

Despite it being National Adoption Week, I also want to pay tribute to all those family and friends who love and care for another group of children in our care through Special Guardianship arrangements. We know that these loving carers also need to be valued and supported and enabled to nurture the children in their care. Having one national leadership board for adoption and special guardianship reflects the recognition of the similarities between the two.

In the last few days, I read the incredibly powerful Care Experienced Conference report. The overwhelming message about the need for love, value and stable relationships for our looked after children and care leavers is just as true for our children who are adopted. The importance of heritage and history and identity is something we want for all children, whether they find it with their birth families, their adoptive families or in our direct care. The strength and wisdom of those experts by experience is invaluable and we need to seek their expertise in the right way to do better in how we love and care for those children and young people in our care now and for the future. For those whose future is adoption, the expertise of care experienced people can surely help us in supporting and developing our future adoptive parents, especially in how to lovingly support a young person to develop their identity encompassing all parts of who they are and where they have come from. It really is all about love.

To all the adopters, foster carers, residential care workers, special guardians and more who love and care for our children – thank you. For those who think adoption may be for them, then this National Adoption Week get in touch with your local authority or a voluntary adoption agency near you.

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Holiday hunger

I wanted to share with you some amazing work that has had a huge impact in Nottingham over the summer months, but I am obviously saddened by the fact that we need to do this at all.

Nottingham has the fourth highest level of Income Deprivation Affecting Children (IDACI, 2015). 38.23% of our children live in poverty and 27.8% of pupils are eligible for Free School Meals.

School holidays are a particular pressure point for some families because of increased costs and reduced incomes. We knew a year ago that without school meals there would be children going hungry during the holidays. Last year we piloted a project in Nottingham for nine days over summer where packed lunches were made available and delivered to children attending community sessions in the city.

Volunteers included school cafeteria staff on vacation, local families, our Lead Member and councillors. Thanks to this success, we repeated the project this year with even more commitment from colleagues, local businesses and organisations. The project was led by four former Nottingham City Council Children’s Managers who are now retired and much of the food was provided by FareShare, supermarkets and donations from the community. A real example of the community coming together to support Nottingham’s children and families. A huge thank you to everyone involved.

Over the summer we made 5042 packed lunches for children received in community organisations and Early Help sessions. 1400 children and young people attended play and youth sessions where they had the chance to get involved in summer activities and also helped prepare and share hot or cold meals. This allowed children to learn and take away kitchen skills as well as food!

Without initiatives like this, given our demographics it is likely that many children would have been hungry each day in our city. I know that in many other places across the country colleagues and friends will have been doing the same for their children locally. A staggering four million children in England live in poverty, soon estimated to be five million. Despite this we are the only country in the UK without a child poverty reduction strategy.

The feedback that we received from children (a couple of which I have detailed below) made it even more worthwhile. My personal favourite is the happy food critic: “…I did not like the food, but that doesn’t change anything so ThAnk You for sumMer” and another one of our children said: ‘Thank you from all my Heart to make our sumur holiday very tastey‘.

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Listen closer

I don’t know about you, but I find that sometimes there’s an alignment between the things I’m thinking about at work and themes that emerge from what you might loosely call ‘cultural activity’. Thinking which was neatly packaged as a work-related issue is illuminated and challenged by hearing a different, often deeply personal perspective from elsewhere. That’s happened to me in the last couple of weeks.

In London we’ve been giving serious thought to the complex issue of promoting greater diversity in the workforce and in particular in positions of leadership. Despite good intentions and years of talking about this issue we still aren’t seeing enough people in leadership positions which reflect the profile of either the communities we serve or our workforce. There is something which is still preventing talented Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) colleagues progressing in representative numbers to senior leadership roles in children’s services and schools. That’s not to say that there aren’t exceptional individuals who have, it’s just that after talking about this issue for at least the past 30 years, they are still the exceptions.

For the sector in general, and for ADCS in particular, this has to be something we understand better and address, not just by thinking about support and opportunities for individuals, but also by challenging the processes and systems we use to develop and recruit people which continue to produce similar outcomes. Programmes like the Staff College BALI (Black & Asian Leadership Initiative) course are making a real contribution but we also need to think more systemically about the invisible and, I am sure, unintentional barriers which are denying opportunities to our colleagues and impacting on the sector accessing new talent. Actively applying unconscious bias training to our recruitment process is a positive start.

At the same time we continue to see, again in spite of years of apparent effort, disproportionate numbers of black children in the criminal justice system, in the care system, in the school exclusion figures, and as victims of violent crime. These are difficult things to talk about and difficult issues to confront. As a result, there is a danger that we avoid the subject and so cease to challenge our thinking and our ways of working or cease to challenge our institutional and cultural approaches which continue to produce the same outcomes. In other words, we accept things as they are rather than having the courage to fundamentally change them.

This brings me to the insights at the beginning of this blog. Like many colleagues, I’ve been reading Lemn Sissey’s memoir, My Name is Why. Although much of the story unfolds in an era well before I started my career, the system feels familiar and is acting in a way which many people working in it seemed to assume it should. However, seeing the impact of that system on Lemn throughout his childhood and adolescence is shocking. It framed a child’s life with a false story, interpreted his responses through the prism of a culture without understanding or compassion, and each decision compounded the injustice of the previous one. This should cause us all to pause and think very carefully about our own era.

My second “moment” occurred when listening to the BBC sounds podcast Have you Heard George’s Podcast? by George the Poet. I recommend the whole series but episode 1 is called Listen Closer. In it, George invites the community to re-write its own narrative, and in doing so he sets out their reality, framed through lived experience, and challenges the lazy stereotypes that so often inform the common story told about black communities. He invites the listener to really hear what’s being said in street culture and start new conversations about people’s real lives.

Hearing human stories and nurturing all aspects of diversity allows us to not only gain fresh insights which can lead to new solutions, but hopefully renew our own commitment to real change. In the busy-ness of our professional lives perhaps we should all listen closer.

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What's in a name?

Language is so important, it affects the way we see people and situations and great examples are seen in the language used in the care system. Children and young people in our care often say they don’t want to be referred to as ‘LAC’ or they want the time they spend with their family to be called ‘family time’ rather than ‘contact’, for example. The impact of language was brought home to me this week in reading the new APPG report No Place at Home which raised some profound and important concerns but also used some sensational language that left me feeling overwhelmed by the challenges. Similarly, the terminology we use to describe where some of our young people live can be unhelpful and misleading. ‘Unregulated settings’ (the topic of a blog by Ofsted’s National Director of Social Care, Yvette Stanley, earlier in the summer) feels particularly helpful here.

People can be unsure of what unregulated provision is, and can sometimes confuse this with ‘unregistered’ provision. As Yvette helpfully pointed out in her blog they are not the same, ‘unregulated provision is allowed in law’ and includes potentially positive placements like supported lodgings. However, unregistered provision where a young person is receiving ‘care’ in a place not registered with Ofsted, is not and is rightly challenged. Both words paint a picture of potential risk and poor care, reinforced by high profile examples of the experiences of some children in those settings but it is vital that we don’t form judgements simply on the basis of language and definitions.

For the purpose of this blog, I’ll be focussing on unregulated settings which are designed to be used for young people who are 16 or over and need some level of support but not full-time care.

Unlike children’s homes, minimum standards for unregulated provision aren’t currently set out in law. However, the term ‘unregulated’ is increasingly being assumed to mean unchecked, unsuitable or unsafe. When placing a child the crucial issue is “suitable”. Not all young people placed in unregulated settings are badly placed and without support. Children in suitable unregulated settings where good wrap around support is part of a highly tailored plan can do very well and this is an important distinction to make. Using this provision as part of a planned process based on the needs and wishes of a young person, is very different to using it in a crisis situation where it may not be suitable but when no other accommodation is available. The challenges we face nationally in providing the range of placement options we need for our children certainly contributes to the use of unsuitable unregulated provision which has rightly become a source of concern.

Recent media coverage of unregulated settings has focussed almost exclusively on young people who have had negative experiences, at times conflating several different issues that aren’t necessarily always related, focusing on unregulated settings linked to young people who are missing or in out of area placements. No one would endorse the practice that has contributed to those stories. We recognise that some people think greater regulation of these settings will keep children and young people safe, but ADCS believes that total regulation of such provision is not the answer. A placement alone will not keep children safe, including from those who seek to exploit them or indeed prevent them from going missing. Protecting young people from harm, particularly young people who are old enough to be out and about on their own, requires the building of healthy trusted relationships, plus a contextual and whole community response to safeguarding in addition to the work of social care, education, the police and others. The flexibility unregulated provision brings is important too, meeting the needs of some young people as part of careful planning and support towards independence. In considering what additional regulation may help, there must be recognition of what the system would look like without local authorities being able to use these settings where there is evidence that they are suitable and a positive thing for young people.

There is some excellent unregulated provision including commissioning of bespoke supported lodgings, where local authorities and providers are successfully supporting young people to develop independence, but we share concerns that not all provision is what we’d want to see. ADCS is absolutely clear, no child or young person should live in unsafe, unsuitable accommodation. Local authorities in supporting their children have a responsibility to make sure unregulated provision used is suitable and should take their own steps to ensure this is the case. Checks include health and safety considerations, auditing staff DBS checks and assessing the suitability of landlords, plus conducting unannounced visits and developing support plans for and with young people. The views of young people as well as a proper assessment of their needs are crucial in identifying unregulated provision that is suitable for them where they can be supported. Local authorities may also choose to work together to hold providers to account and address poor practices by putting in place improvement plans or ceasing to commission services where previously identified actions have not been resolved. Ofsted’s greater focus on unregulated settings in recent years has brought this issue to the fore with more councils than ever reviewing their commissioning and monitoring arrangements in this area of provision. This can only be a positive thing for our young people while consideration is given as to what additional regulations may be needed for the future. We need to share some of the good news stories as Mike Bowden did in his blog in June to remind ourselves that there are success stories out there.

We need to both change the narrative in this space and empower and mobilise our local communities to recognise their role in keeping children and young people safe. This is something politicians, charities, the media and others could work with us on so that we can begin to challenge some of the misconceptions that all unregulated provision is unsuitable but tackle together the use of unsuitable unregulated settings which is leading to the tragedies and damaged lives that are too prevalent. Whatever future decisions are taken about further regulation of provision we want them to be taken on the basis of fully objective evidence, with a collective determination to deliver the best for those vulnerable young people who need our partnership parenting support.

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Working with our elected members

We all care passionately about children’s services. We know the ins and outs, the policy and the legal detail. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that not everyone knows what we know. And if that’s the case for our elected members, who are there to help drive and shape our services, then we’re going wrong somewhere.

That’s why the LGA runs events for elected members who have a role in children’s services. Whether as cabinet members, shadow members, chairs or vice chairs of children’s services or scrutiny committees, members who sit on corporate parenting boards or who have any form of responsibility for or connection to any services which serve young people. It’s our duty to make sure that they all feel informed and able to affect change.

The West Midland’s most recent event on 11 July was attended by 23 members, many of whom were new to their roles and impressively, 12 of the 14 local authorities had members attending.

These events are an opportunity for members to come together to discuss the challenges, opportunities and good practice across the region with the aim of strengthening political leadership and engagement. The aims are to provide a forum for discussion and sharing of issues, to put members in touch with others in the region, to give an opportunity to hear about policy issues and changes at a national level, to find out about the work that the LGA is doing to promote issues for councils with national government and to showcase good practice in the region.

While our formal agenda looked at exploring key policy issues and hot topics from the member perspective, what was of most value from the day was the chance to be open and honest about the real challenges we all face. Drawing up policies and creating flow charts might help us deliver on our strategies, but unless members are engaged, understand the complexities of local authority children’s services and feel able to contribute themselves, we won’t make the progress that our children and young people deserve.

The focus of this event was children’s mental health and emotional well-being, with Abigail Gallop, LGA senior policy adviser sharing news of national policy and how this is being implemented in two local authorities in the region. Solihull, Staffordshire and Stoke shared how they are implementing some of these changes in practice, giving members concrete examples of positive practice that they could take away for their own authorities.

We also looked at the current challenges facing local authorities in the region, the challenges of resources and demand, managing budgets - in particular SEND and high need spend - as well as the increasing numbers of looked after children, the importance of delivering prevention and early help, workforce development and the position of children’s services in relation to the business of Health and Wellbeing Boards.

The members we spoke to said how useful these sessions were, allowing them to come together as equals, honestly and openly discussing the issues and challenges they face on a daily basis and drawing on the experience of other councils and members in dealing with these same issues. Many of the newly elected members found the session particularly useful and several of the members (old and new) have taken the information and practice examples that were presented back to their local authorities for a discussion with their heads of service.

These are incredibly useful sessions, where members can share experiences, ask questions and learn new ways of working which can benefit their own local authority and most importantly the children and young people in their care.

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Listening to our young people

A few weeks ago in Hertfordshire, we were really pleased to be one of the areas visited as part of the LGA/ISOS review of statutory guidance for local authority run youth services. Andy and Peter, who lead on our youth offer through YC Hertfordshire, were keen that we did our best to show the value of youth work services and their impact, as well as what we have managed to “save” after major reductions in funding and yet further “remodelling” of services. We believe that it is also part of our “statutory” duty to highlight how local authorities and the voluntary sector are still trying to deliver their youth offer despite a decade of year on year funding reductions.

Probably more than any other part of what is either delivered or commissioned by children services, youth services receive the most positive feedback from young people. To quote a recent local survey, we asked over 400 young people about their experience of using youth work projects and the impact on their lives: 86% said they were emotionally and mentally healthier, 84% said they were more resilient and self-aware and 98% said they had seen some improvement in their lives. I have no doubt that what young people have said in Hertfordshire would apply across the rest of the country. Local politicians also know, both from their residents and their own direct involvement, the huge importance of local services for young people and the value they give to communities in promoting a range of positive activities and preventing anti-social behaviour.

Youth work can make a huge contribution to preventing the very real challenges that children and young people currently face, whether they be in mental health and wellbeing, the rising number of school exclusions, the pressures of social media or criminal exploitation and knife crime. In an interview with ADCS President Rachel Dickinson in Children & Young People Now Magazine, she highlighted the importance of a public health approach to exploitation and how working with young people at a universal as well as targeted level is the way forward. This was also addressed in ADCS’s recently published discussion paper on serious youth violence and knife crime which I encourage you to read.

Yet despite this, youth services have borne the brunt of some of the worst funding cuts. Even though some services may not be termed as “statutory”, those young people who come from the most disadvantaged areas or have special needs end up losing the services they rely on. Time limited, one off funding streams for a range of specified projects from separate government departments will not address the growing challenges - it only helps those young people who are labelled with a certain “criteria” and does not address the root causes of the difficulties they may be experiencing.

This is not just about the money - I hesitate to say this at such a crucial time for taking every opportunity to highlight the funding and demand pressures facing local authority children’s services, schools and the voluntary sector - it’s also essentially about respecting what young people say they want and need. They don’t have a political voice and are not able to vote so we, as leaders in services for children and young people, are in a unique, and I would say privileged position, to listen, to respect their views and then speak out.

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A spending round that works for all children

Next week, the Chancellor, Sajid Javid, will announce spending plans for public services for the next 12-months. There has been much speculation about what his priorities might be and which areas will receive good news. The Prime Minister has made a series of funding pledges to address some of the huge pressures faced by the NHS, schools and the police and as I understand it adult social care is also high on the priority list. This is good news for these services, investment in these areas will of course help children and the communities they live in, but I have not yet heard any good news for children’s services, despite the reams of evidence highlighting that there is not enough funding in the system to meet the rising level and complexity of need in our communities.

It’s hard to think of a single part of the public sector that isn’t under pressure and we are all working hard to make the case for much needed investment in our respective sectors, but does the fact that children’s services haven’t, at the time of writing, been mentioned mean that it is not a priority? I sincerely hope not. I cannot help but feel children’s services are being held to a much harder evidential test than any other part of the public sector as we put our case to the Treasury for an increased financial settlement.

Of the many rumours making their way across the media recently, the one that particularly caught my eye was the planned proposals for education as reported in the Guardian. On first reading, the injection of funding for school budgets and children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is encouraging and it is right that the Treasury recognises the funding deficits in these areas. However, the suggestion that headteachers should be encouraged to use exclusion to deal with pupils presenting difficulties is deeply worrying. Only recently the long-awaited Timpson Review on exclusions highlighted the disproportionate number of pupils being excluded who receive SEN support, free school meals or are from ethnic minority backgrounds. Many of us hoped the Review marked a move towards a more inclusive education system that supports all pupils, particularly the most vulnerable, and does not just focus on academic results but many of the proposals outlined in Guardian’s report do not make me feel confident that we are moving in the right direction. Evidence tells us what improves behaviour in our schools; things like understanding pupils’ behaviour and building trusting, meaningful relationships over using ‘reasonable force’. Schools are a vital part of the local early help offer, they help us identify children at risk and work with them before problems escalate. If vulnerable children are not in school, we lose this vital opportunity.

It makes moral, and financial, sense to support children and families as and when their needs arise but we cannot do this if we are forced to spend what little resource we have on acute interventions when a child is presenting the greatest level of need. Currently, local authorities are having to make the kind of difficult decisions that are not in the best long-term interests of children and families and the human, and financial cost, of this is huge.

Next week, the Chancellor has an opportunity to invest in children and the vital services they rely on. The pressures faced by children’s social care and right across children’s services are very real and only increasing. The government must acknowledge this and provide us with the means to give all children and families the support that so many desperately need.

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Putting the ‘corporate’ into corporate parenting

We all know how important it is to be a good corporate parent and in Derby, probably like in every upper tier local authority, we’ve been working across the council to challenge, help and support our corporate chums to promote and deliver high aspiration and secure the best outcomes possible for our children in care and care leavers. One of the ways we’ve done this is by the council taking a corporate approach to the recruitment and retention of foster carers and through establishing a Corporate Board with ownership from the Lead Member and Chief Executive, we have galvanised energy, capacity and crucially some new ideas around the perennial challenge of foster care sufficiency. It’s relatively early days but we’re already making an impact and currently have more people being assessed than were approved in the last two years.

The national challenge around the recruitment of enough foster carers in the right places is well rehearsed and this was recognised in the National Fostering Stocktake last year. One of our biggest challenges in Derby is that we don’t have enough of our own fostering households which means we are placing too many children with independent fostering agencies. As you can imagine this is having a real impact on the children’s services budget and not in a good way! Clearly ADCS is concerned about the significant profits made by some organisations from fostering and the Association has called on the government to revisit the ability of organisations to profit in this area.

One of the great things about establishing a Corporate Board is that it has connected me to the great work our foster carers do and hearing their stories has been inspirational. This work has particular resonance for me since I was in foster care until I was 10 years old. I was one of the lucky kids in care back in the 1970s since I was placed with my foster carers at 6 weeks old and they adopted me when I was 10, so I benefited from the things we know are important to children in care today - a stable placement with carers who support and advocate for them and always have children’s best interests at heart - and it’s probably worth noting that from the age of about 7 I had the same social worker until I was adopted and benefited from that consistent relationship and certainly both my mum and dad and social worker influenced my career path!

So while we live in hope that looking at the profit margins of some independent fostering agencies is on the list of ‘things to do’ for Kemi Badenoch MP, the new Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families, we soldier on in Derby trying to increase the numbers of fostering households, never forgetting the invaluable role our foster carers play in the lives of our children in care.

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Working together to prevent suicide

I recently chaired a workshop on suicide prevention at the ADCS annual conference. This focus was a little unusual for us but it was specifically requested by members of the ADCS Families, Communities & Young People Policy Committee, who had flagged the growing numbers of children and young people taking their own lives, many of whom were not known to children’s services. Overall, suicide rates have begun to fall in recent years but for under 20s it is sadly rising, as is self-harm which we know is a strong risk factor in suicide attempts.

In my preparations for this workshop I did some homework and discovered hard and fast figures for under 18s are difficult to come by, but Papyrus, a charity set up by a group of bereaved parents to prevent youth suicide, estimates that 200 school aged children take their own lives each year. It is likely this is an underestimate as English figures are based on the findings of coroner’s inquests, which do not always return definitive verdicts. We heard how, in Greater Manchester, an agreement has been reached with a number of coroners to share real time information about suspected suicides with local public health teams which allows for the mobilisation of a community response plan.

Sarah from Papyrus shared an overview of their national campaigns, including #spotthesigns and #savetheclass. They have some excellent resources on their website, including short videos, which could be used as part of training packages in our local areas.

We also heard from Adele from the Greater Manchester Suicide Prevention Programme about the #shiningalightonsuicide campaign and her work with local universities to launch a dedicated centre to support HE students with their mental health needs from September onwards. The findings from this pilot will be one to watch, particularly in university towns and cities with large student populations such as my own, Nottingham.

Dr Krissie then talked us through the total transformation of Greater Manchester’s crisis care pathway for children and young people in extreme distress following a wholesale review which identified geographical and age barriers along with a mismatch between available services and actual needs. All too often children and young people were being told they’re too ill to access some provision and not ill enough to access others, which was adding more pressure on stretched A&E departments and greater distress for children and young people. Sadly, this was a familiar story for many of the workshop attendees. The new pathway takes a ‘no wrong door’ approach and the rapid response team deployed within two hours to support a young person in crisis for up to 72 hours is particularly impressive as is the commitment to treat young people in the community.

The discussion that followed was rich and wide ranging, touching on our understanding of, and responses to, self-harm amongst young men who are in distress and are regularly hurting themselves via risk taking or reckless behaviours, the power of online influencers in sparking potentially lifesaving conversations and the barriers to provision of, and access to, help and support services in highly rural areas.

We know that for every suicide that occurs there are numerous other failed attempts. Similarly, when a child or young person does succeed in taking their own life, the ripples of this act can reach far beyond their immediate family and friendship groups. Going forward, the imminent changes to Child Death Overview Panel arrangements and to serious case reviews, particularly the introduction of thematic national learning reviews, should hopefully help us learn and develop our responses.

This loss of life to suicide is entirely preventable. There is a universality to this issue, I’d wager all of us have been touched by it at some point, perhaps in our own families, workplace, amongst our children’s friendship groups or in the local community. The take away messages of that session for me were: notice the small things, be brave and ask the question directly, you might just save a life.

And for those of you who have time for a little extra reading

Adele flagged a free online training resource from NHS Merseycare which takes around 20 minutes to complete, see here. It aims to help us all to talk more openly about suicide, please feel free to pass this link on within your respective local authorities. In completing this training I discovered taxi drivers might come across someone in extreme distress, so please pass this on to your licensing teams too.

In my research I came across the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health based at the University of Manchester. The Inquiry has amassed over 20 years of data and regularly produces briefings and reports, they’ve recently done one of children and young people which you can, see here.

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562 years to close the gap…

As chair of the ADCS Educational Achievement Committee I was asked last week to sign off our press statement on the recently published Education Policy Institute / Fair Education Alliance Annual Report on Education in England. The reference to the forecast number of 562 years from 2019 of when the GCSE disadvantage gap in English and maths might close certainly caught my attention.

This comparatively short report covering all English local authorities is a salutary read for someone such as myself. The reason I became a director of children’s services (DCS) is rooted in addressing educational disadvantage. With grandparents in the mining communities of South Wales, parents who were not educated beyond the ages of 15 and who left the valleys as adults for the West Riding of Yorkshire for employment reasons, it was the high quality education I received at primary school (now in Calderdale) and secondary school (Kirklees) that gave me the opportunities to close the historic familial gap and then to start a teaching career in London which has led to my 10 years to date as a DCS.

The report does show that some progress has been made in narrowing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers in primary school, however the gap has widened in secondary school. There are also well documented disparities in attainment between pupils from certain ethnic backgrounds with the gap between pupils of Black Caribbean heritage and their White British peers widening since 2011. These findings are clearly at odds with the government’s efforts to improve social mobility and create an inclusive education system.

On 22 August we will all be reviewing the provisional GCSE results for young people in our area. The new government has indicated that alongside the NHS, schools will be prioritised for funding. As DCS’ we know that many of the disadvantaged and vulnerable adolescents aged 16-19 in our area are more likely to progress into further education (FE) colleges this September so we must also support the lobby for funding for colleges which play a key role in improving these young people’s life chances. Our responsibility for ensuring the local education system works for all young people in our local areas means that removing barriers to learning and wider opportunities extends from early years, through to schools and FE and up to age 25 for young people with special educational needs and disabilities and care leavers.

In my role as lead DCS in London for education and schools, I have recently been appointed as one of the Mayor of London’s nominees to the board of the Museum of London. Two of the museum’s strategic objectives for 2018-2023 are the need to ‘reach more people’ and ‘engage every schoolchild’. At a recent reception to launch a new exhibition to which the ‘great and the good’ of London were invited, I took as my guests four of our care leavers in order to model implementation of the objectives as well as widen their horizons.

Returning to West Yorkshire, as I often do and always after the ADCS Annual Conference in Manchester, I know that my horizons were widened through what we would now recognise as mentoring by a deputy headteacher at my secondary school. Growing up, my holidays were either with family in South Wales, were on the East Yorkshire coast or on school trips that were within Yorkshire, as overseas visits were unaffordable, yet he advocated for my applying to the University of London, Kings College, a life and career determining opportunity.

As DCS’ we are the advocates for enhancing the life chances of all of the children and young people in our areas. We know that properly funded, high quality educational settings that develop the whole child, with leaders who set a vision and climate in which staff deliver the best outcomes and all young people have access to information about the opportunities available to them after leaving school can make a huge difference in closing the gap.

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Measuring our success

As I write this, the political merry go round is in full swing and the former Children’s Minister, Nadhim Zahawhi, has taken up a new role as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to be replaced by Kemi Bedenoch. On behalf of ADCS I would like to wish them both good luck in their respective new roles. When he was Children’s Minister, Nadhim Zahawhi was particularly interested in performance and quality measures – as befits the co-founder of the research firm YouGov. However, and as I’m sure the minister found, issues of performance and quality management in children’s services are notoriously slippery and difficult to define.

I was reminded of this the other week when I was asked, on behalf of ADCS, to write a forward and to say a few words at the launch of the Rees Centre’s research into the development of a children’s social care outcomes framework.

This research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, explores the various components that might constitute a more rounded outcomes framework for children’s social care. It’s certainly worth a read even if, like me, you don’t necessarily agree with all of the conclusions. What’s more important though, is that the report stimulates the debate and makes us reflect on how we measure the success of what we do – and I believe that yes, we are successful much of the time and yes, we do need to show this to justify the levels of expenditure that we need to protect vulnerable children and families, especially in these financially constrained times.

Many of you will remember the different attempts to performance manage the safeguarding system over the years. The Quality Protects programme measured local authorities through ‘blobs’ as I recall. We then had a Department for Education led performance framework that included ‘stretch targets’ via Local Area Agreements. This was a good example of how performance indicators can distort behaviour – for example, a number of local authorities sought a stretch target on the timeliness of initial assessments. All very well but what about the quality of those assessments?

Whilst much of the paraphernalia of performance management was swept away at the beginning of the decade, our new sector-led Regional Improvement and Innovation Alliances have been working on developing an agreed set of indicators. Meanwhile, Ofsted now asks us just three questions for our annual self assessments; what is the quality of social work practice? How do you know this? And what are you going to do about it? None of those questions can be answered by performance data alone, emphasising the importance of qualitative evidence as well as, what Professor Eileen Munro described, “the intelligent use and analysis of data”.

The Rees Centre report goes even further and suggests the use of direct feedback from staff and service users as part of the framework – is that right or would it give us a distorted view?

Personally, I am cautious about the over-reliance of experiential information, but my views are a bit irrelevant. I think what is important is that we bring this debate to the fore and the work of the Rees Centre makes a valuable contribution to this.

The cliché of ‘what’s measured is important’ may ring true for some, but if we can’t measure our success in the sector then how important will we be to a government with so many other priorities?

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The knock on the door no parent wants

In East Sussex, this year’s Young People’s Big Vote placed ‘a fear of knife crime’ as their number one concern. Despite the thankfully low incident rate in the county, in many ways it is hardly surprising given the regularity with which it appears on the front page of the newspapers or headlines the news on TV. Sadly, time and again both the victim and the perpetrator are young people and increasingly we hear more people saying that they feel the need to carry a knife for their own protection; something that never ends well.

Serious youth violence and knife crime is not a new phenomenon nor is it common. Young people and moral panics stem back to the mods and rockers of the 60s and the ‘seaside bank holiday battles’. Whilst it is the case that the vast majority of children and young people are not engaged in serious violence or knife crime, there has been a recent increase in proven possession offences and a worrying rise in young people treated for assault with a knife or fatally stabbed on our streets. It’s been welcome to see the increased political and press attention on County Lines and knife crime in particular, but this has resulted in a somewhat piecemeal approach being adopted by government. Hardly surprising given the difficulty a whole raft of national issues are having in getting time and space in Parliament when set against the Brexit agenda. That said, we now have a new Prime Minister and a very new looking Cabinet. Even with a new Secretary of State for Education and Home Secretary, the issues that need resolving won’t change and knife crime will be one of them.

It was for that reason and in an attempt to shape and steer the debate, ADCS recently published a discussion paper on this issue which if you haven’t, I would commend you to read. The paper calls for a holistic and integrated approach to tackling serious youth violence which brings the whole children’s system together behind a common narrative that expresses our shared ambitions for children and young people. It’s an approach that puts the strengths of families and their communities at the centre. This would need to go hand in hand with a national commitment to, and investment in, providing help and support at the earliest possible opportunity, meaning high quality youth services and facilities in local communities to reach young people where they live. It is why we believe a ‘public health’ approach, whilst not a quick win or a miracle cure, is the best way forward. As well as focussing on prevention it also encompasses the role that universal, targeted and specialist interventions have to play. It’s an approach that draws in learning from the joined up multi-agency, multi-disciplinary approach which is working locally to prevent and disrupt child exploitation.

More recently, there has been some positive work in trying to tackle radicalisation and extremism and the Troubled Families Programme has demonstrated the value of early help. The lessons learnt from these all point to the importance of an assets-based approach. The challenge is one of system leadership which has sat at the heart of the statutory role of the director for children’s services for the last 15 years. It is our job to champion and advocate for all children and in that guise we would invite key representatives from all relevant government departments, public agencies and the voluntary sector to sit down with us and progress this issue. It deserves all of our collective efforts if we are to prevent another parent receiving the knock on the door to say their child won’t be returning home.

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Making our voices heard

The North East is a unique and wonderful place to live and work with so many positives ranging from the fantastic environment to the cost of living. As a region we have been thinking hard about what makes us different and how that should shape the way in which we work with children, young people and their families. The strengths of community, identity, creativity and passion cannot be underestimated and should shape our aspirations and ambitions for the future.

I have to confess at this stage I have only lived in the region for the last three years, so I’m technically still an outsider, but it certainly doesn’t feel like that in my adopted home. I have been really struck by the natural resources that are evident in the region and also how little I understood it before I moved here. I think that lack of awareness, particularly from policy makers is something that has created a frustration for the region. To rectify this, we have started to make a conscious effort to have our voice heard and champion the region nationally as far as possible. We are geographically a long way from London but that can’t be a barrier to being heard (and some of us are quite loud!).

A really tangible strand of this work has been to start developing a ‘regional narrative’ to help us articulate better our priorities and importantly the context in which they are framed. We are challenged on a regular basis in relation to high and increasing levels of children in care, poor educational outcomes in the secondary sector, and poor health outcomes, along with other measures on which we are considered outliers.

Clearly these are all things we must focus on improving but that cannot be achieved without understanding context. As ADCS President, Rachel Dickinson, so clearly articulated in her excellent speech to the ADCS Annual Conference two weeks ago, the impact of poverty on the lives of our families is fundamental to increasing levels of need. Decisions made in Whitehall on welfare and education as well as a decade of austerity have had a hugely disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable children and families. We work hard to achieve the best for our children and families but a series of conflicting national policy initiatives have increasingly affected our ability to provide the very services they rely on and regions such as the North East have been hit hardest. As we move into even more uncertain times all the evidence suggests this will continue to be the case, so therefore we need different responses from government.

We must have system wide approaches to tackling the underlying causes that drive the inequalities we see on a day to day basis. The North East currently has the lowest economic growth of any region in England, lowest gross weekly earnings and the highest percentage of children living in low income families, all while funding for local authorities has fallen by 49.1% in real terms since 2010 (NAO, 2018). These are not excuses but are simply the realities of our context and unless these issues are tackled our services will only ever be mitigating the impact of national policy.

That is why it is essential we have a loud regional voice and help national government better target the resources that are still in the system. Let’s focus on long term sustainable change rather than quick fixes funded by one off pots of money. Let’s look at education through the lens of the issues that prevent children engaging with the curriculum and not solely focus on improving teaching and learning. Let’s build a system that works with families in a strengths-based way and is flexible enough to respond to the inevitable bumps in the road, rather than fitting families into what works for our organisations.

There is huge potential in the North East and it is essential we work together regionally and nationally to realise that potential so our children and young people get the opportunities and future they deserve.

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Grow your own

As I sit down to write this blog the ADCS Annual Conference 2019 has just finished. If you didn’t get a chance to catch Rachel Dickinson’s amazing speech or attend all of the conference sessions you can catch up on them, here. There were so many interesting ideas and experiences shared, and it was a great chance to network with colleagues from across the country to discuss the issues we are all grappling with. Given the inspirational work happening across the sector, I almost hesitate to say that what we are doing in Nottingham deserves any special attention but…here goes…we have a really great ‘grow our own’ (GOO) social worker initiative.

Those of you who know me will know that I am that person who says, “my dinner’s great, would you like a taste”, and you hesitate, in case I ask for a bit of yours. Well – this is a gift, no exchange required!

Nottingham’s GOO programme is our own design; built on a leap of faith and our fantastic partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). It aims to encourage new social workers to work for our local authority. I really believe that GOO offers many answers to our workforce challenges in social care. If you value life-experienced, emotionally intelligent, hard-working and committed folk, who would not be able to afford to pursue their dream career without a little help - then GOO could be part of your solution to the challenges of recruiting the next generation of social workers too.

Over six years ago we ended our in-house social work sponsored training scheme. Our unions, councillors and colleagues wanted options to replace it as did I. The task I set colleagues was to develop a service specification, based on the premise that we could support a range of our staff who want to qualify as social workers. We needed a locally delivered course that:

a. was part time (max three days a month directly taught)

b. could take account of prior experiential learning to reduce the overall length of study

c. was affordable as applicants would need to self-fund

d. could be cost neutral to the council, as we did not plan to backfill posts whilst staff were on placement.

Clearly, this was a lot to ask…but there are choices to be made and you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs. During 2016, my hard-working, dedicated team not only took the ingredients and made dinner; they delivered a Michelin starred banquet.

As a result, we now have a locally delivered social work degree based on an average two days direct teaching a month (with some days delivered in blocks of study where immersion is needed). A staggered placement window helps us manage without backfill in the main. A career loan helps our staff pay for their studies, repaid in the long term.

It was still a leap of faith for all concerned - MMU, for our services who were releasing colleagues with no back-fill (including Family Support, Play & Youth, Youth Justice, Business Support and Children’s Residential) and for the colleagues signing up for the programme.

For our first cohort starting in April 2017, Derbyshire joined us taking up four places and Nottingham City filled 18 children’s and four adults places. Our students graduated this summer, achieving solid degrees and a number of First Class degrees (one colleague even achieved the Highest Academic Achievement Award for MMU). We have 18 new children’s social workers who believe in themselves and in Nottingham City Council. With great local managers, an innovative partnership with MMU, the support of councillors and tremendous effort from our students, we have proven that our collective leap of faith was worth it.

Celebrating their success with our Leader, Councillor David Mellen, one of our graduates told me; “this was hard work but it’s changed my life. I could never have afforded to do this without Nottingham City’s help and I can now help change other people’s lives”.

Our graduates are local, from diverse backgrounds and are committed to making a difference to the lives of people living in Nottingham. Cohort Two has started (they graduate in 2020) and Cohort Three has been commissioned, with others in our region joining us again. I can’t recommend GOO enough!

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Our plea to the next Prime Minister

At the end of July, we will know who the next Prime Minister is, and we should have a good idea about what some of their priorities will be for this country. The main focus of the recent debates between the candidates has understandably been on Brexit, this issue has dominated the time and attention of ministers for over three years. Brexit is important, but I’ve been particularly interested in hearing about the other policy areas the candidates will focus on too.

Going forward, there is a real opportunity to put children at the heart of all policy and spending decisions and to give our vital public services the investment and support they sorely need. For children’s services there is plenty on our wish list, but I would urge the next Prime Minister (whoever that may be) to give particular attention to these pressing issues:

Child poverty is rising. Currently, four million children live in poverty, two thirds of whom are from working households and it is estimated that this will soon rise to five million. Recently, Professor Philip Alston’s damning report on poverty in Britain brought the bleak reality for many children and families to the fore. Behind each of the statistics are children and families going hungry, having to rely on foodbanks for their next meal and making tough decisions between keeping warm or paying the bills. This is not acceptable, nor is it inevitable. A national focus on tackling both the symptoms and root causes of poverty is long overdue, and the new Prime Minister must take the opportunity to lead this endeavour from the front as a matter of urgency.

Increased political and press attention on serious youth violence and knife crime in our communities has resulted in extra funding, campaigns being rolled out and programmes developed to help tackle this issue. This is welcome and I am pleased that the current Prime Minister has acknowledged we cannot “arrest” our way out of the problem, but there is a need to go further than the actions already being taken if we are to keep our children and young people safe on our streets. Treating serious youth violence as a public health issue is a must. We need to put our efforts into tackling the causes, not just the symptoms of violence through multi-agency working and learning lessons from each other about what has worked well in other areas but also what hasn’t.

We know that prevention is better than cure and investing in early help and preventative services is the most effective way to stop the problems children and families’ face from reaching crisis point. 30 years ago, The Children Act 1989 received Royal Assent and this important piece of legislation included within it preventative duties for local authorities which have never been sufficiently funded. Local authorities must fund statutory child protection services where need exists, even if there is no room in the budget to do so. As a result we are increasingly having to divert funding away from non-statutory parts of the system such as children’s centres and youth services that support children and families earlier. The Troubled Families Programme has shown us the rewards early help can bring and recent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that children’s centres improve health outcomes for children and consequently relieve pressure on the NHS. However, the government’s current approach to funding local authorities doesn’t support the sort of investment we would like to see in early help and prevention. If we are truly ambitious about children and families then we will do everything we can to support them at the earliest possible opportunity, as and when needs arise.

I suppose the common thread running through this blog is the issue of funding, or lack of it. Since 2010, local authority budgets have been cut in half but the level and complexity of need in our community has not. Pressures on the SEND system and an increasing number of duties for us in relation to children, which are not always fully funded only exacerbates the pressures we face. Without a sustainable and long-term funding settlement for children and their families we cannot make the sort of difference we want to in their lives.

So, my plea to the next Prime Minister is – please invest in our children and their families and the full range of services they rely on. Not only is this the right thing to do but it makes absolute sense for the future of our country.

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Local authority children’s services does something good for...

Local authority children’s services does something good for local family… Seems like an unlikely news story doesn’t it?

It’s hard to think of a job more important than child protection. While most children, young people and families thrive, for some a little extra support is vital. To protect the privacy of those we work with, thousands of good news stories go unheard but each and every day, hard-working dedicated professionals in children’s services and beyond are making a huge difference in the lives of children and families - working with them to protect them from harm and supporting them to overcome the challenges they face.

Imagine a news story focussing on the young people being supported in flexible and innovative ways that are tailored to meet their needs and fit their preferences, with a wrap-around care package, sometimes in settings that don’t fit Ofsted criteria for registration, but which are nevertheless the most appropriate match for that individual - rather than a sensational headline about children ‘abandoned’ in unregistered accommodation?

Or one which celebrates the social worker who has been part of a duty team for seven years and helped literally hundreds of families to achieve positive outcomes supporting them to keep their children safe and to stay with the family?

Perhaps a case study of the parents who were offered intensive support after their first child entered the care system, to ensure they were in a much better place to parent their second child and to establish the loving family they longed to be - and are now a real success story?

Or celebrating the work of foster parents, by telling the story of a child in care in their own words: “When I first heard I was going to join the family I thought ‘Oh no, an old married couple who watch Bake Off!’ But when I met them they were nicer and younger than I imagined. I now feel part of the family, and when I didn’t have any brothers or sisters before, I now have more than enough!!”

Or the inspirational young lady who was not only nominated for a local ‘Young Stars’ award for her exceptional work in ensuring the voices of her fellow children in care were heard loud and clear, but ended up on stage with the Leader of the Council announcing and presenting the awards to other young people?

Or one about the Ofsted report recognising that the majority of children and families have a positive experience and that the strong multi-agency partnership working has really paid off!

The idea of good news stories dominating the headlines might be somewhat fanciful, but the stories here are all real and are precisely what helps me keep a perspective on the days when the meetings feel interminable, the media appetite for horror stories seems insatiable and there is someone else baying for my blood. There may be days when it feels like a thankless task, but a DCS has to be resilient to brush off the trolls and hold on to those good news stories when the opportunity arises, in order to maintain their passion and commitment for making a difference for children, young people and families. Because they’re worth it!

Now I’m sure that could make a catchy sound bite for something…

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Far less than they deserve

On 22 May I joined many other people in watching a Panorama programme exposing the cruel and callous treatment of staff towards people with learning disabilities and autism in their care at the now infamous Whorlton Hall. This programme came after an eight year period of reform in this area, including the Transforming Care Programme, following a similar Panorama programme that exposed shocking abuse at Winterbourne View. It seems that some of the issues endemic in the sector remain the same despite almost herculean efforts to tackle them.

May also saw the publication of the Children’s Commissioner’s report Far less than they deserve. The report focuses on the experiences of children and young people with learning disabilities and autism receiving treatment in mental health hospitals and found that at the time of the research there were 250 children receiving hospital care. Whilst the report did find evidence of good practice, many of the children and young people spoke of “traumatic” experiences during their care as well as high levels of restraint. Many were placed a long distance away from their families, and some described experiences of seclusion in dark, bare rooms.

I started my career in the heyday of ‘community care’. This was a period of high optimism and aspirations for people with learning disabilities, autism and mental health needs. Money was invested in communities and long stay institutions were dismantled. Government initiatives focused on the person-centred needs of people and their families and it was a time which included big programmes of reform such as Valuing People, People First and Self-Directed Support. It felt at this point that the world would be recast and that people with learning disabilities would be given the life chances and respect that they deserve.

In the South East we have conducted work across all 19 local authorities looking at the needs of our most complex and vulnerable children. We analysed how those needs are met and looked at the children’s outcomes, and what has become crystal clear is that we do not have sufficient community and specialist residential support available. Our plan now is to work collaboratively across the region and with provider partners to co-produce solutions for the specific gaps we have outlined.

Given these challenges, I would endorse the findings outlined by the Children’s Commissioner in her report, particularly where she calls for cross-government plan to provide community support for children. She rightly points out that Transforming Care has not focussed on the needs of children and young people and that this must change. However, she also points out that, crucially, we need more funding and focus in this area if we are to see real change.

I think we need to urgently create a coalition which will bring together the NHS, local authorities, providers and children, young people and their families to work out what is best to support those children and adults who need our support the most. I believe passionately that as a society we can do better, but I also believe that there is a way forward. All local authorities are ambitious about making sure children and families have the best possible outcomes in life, so come on, let’s give them a future that they truly deserve.

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From and to our friends in the North

It is nearly a year since I started in Blackburn with Darwen as the Director of Children’s Services and Education. I had the opportunity of taking over the role from a highly regarded predecessor, working for a council that had just achieved the accolade of being awarded Council of the Year. Although I have worked in senior leadership roles before, the responsibility of this role and its stretch across the Borough that I serve, has at times been overwhelming, humbling and always a privilege. As an individual I thrive on new challenges and have had the opportunity of working within a broader Corporate Team who are both dynamic and experienced which is just as well really!

All local authorities are facing their own challenges, particularly in relation to managing reducing budgets and increasing need for services. Our council has faced a 68% reduction in its budget over the last 10 years but has managed to continue to put the needs of children and young people at the top of our agenda due to the skill, hard work and commitment of our staff, elected members and partners. 

As a social worker I have a strong inclination to assess and analyse everybody and anything, perhaps reflecting for far too long on what to do next. Given the burning platform of rising demand for children’s statutory services and significant budget pressures in our council and region it is clear to me that we have to work with our partners and in our communities to ensure that we are making best use of our shared resources.  I have found the recommendations in the Children’s Commissioners Report “Growing Up North” particularly powerful and can only stress the positive impact that our children, young people and families would experience if the government would “provide additional investment in the most disadvantaged areas to support local councils and partners to improve children’s outcomes and life chances – this should start in the North.” 

Alongside our increasingly strong partnerships in Blackburn with Darwen, I would like to see a much stronger partnership with central government in tackling child poverty, complex safeguarding, with purposeful action taken to address the emotional health and wellbeing of our children and young people. 

I have had the opportunity to listen to our bright, brilliant and at times angry young people at our Take Over Challenge Day at the end of last year. As they were setting out their priorities for the coming year they discussed some of the pressing issues in their area such as the reliance on food banks for many children and their families, dealing with period poverty and limited access to early support for their emotional health and wellbeing. Listening and acting on what was at the top of their list ensures that these priorities are at the top of mine.

Professor Donald Forrester in a recent paper summed up the responsibility that comes with being a social worker and public servant when he wrote, “an act of kindness or the ability to empathise is important not merely because it may influence “outcomes”, but because in such acts of human respect and care we embody the just, humane and caring society we seek to create.”

After twelve months in this role that’s what keeps us all rising to the challenges we each face every day and if the Minister and Secretary of State for Education would like a trip up North to find out more about our challenges and our solutions then I am sure that we could make it a grand day out.

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The precarious state of local government funding

The precarious state of local government funding continues to capture the attention of the media and just this week I’ve read several articles on this topic.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ (IFS) recent analysis of local government funding highlighted the extent of government cuts to date. It found that on average local government spending on local services had fallen by 21% since 2009/10 and that the poorest parts of the country had faced the deepest cuts. The report also highlighted significant variation at a service level with local authorities prioritising spending on children’s and adult’s social care and spending less on other services that our communities rely on such as parks, transport and leisure services. These decisions are not taken lightly but are necessary in order to manage reducing budgets and rising need. It therefore doesn’t come as a surprise that the IFS has warned that funding for councils will soon become ‘increasingly inadequate’. Indeed, in recent months a growing number of local authorities have suggested that they may only be able to provide core services in the future.

It’s estimated we will soon be facing a £3 billion funding gap in children’s services just to stand still and separate analysis by the BBC found that several councils will have exhausted their reserves in the next few years, provided nothing changes. Although the level of reserves held by a council can be seen as a sign of financial security it’s important to recognise there are good reasons for holding them. Reserves are necessary to cover any unexpected expenditure and to fund our response to emergencies, such as floods and terrorist attacks. However, in order to meet growing demand for children’s services, we are increasingly having to use this money and divert funding away from other services our communities rely on, such as children’s centres, youth services and libraries. Moreover, we have a long, and growing, list of statutory duties in relation to children, young people and families, few of which are fully funded which only exacerbates the pressures we face. Put simply, there is not enough money in the system to meet the level and complexity of need in our communities.

Local authorities are ‘place shapers’ meaning we want to create great places where people want to live, work, do business and visit. We are ambitious for our communities and want to ensure that the ingredients which enable local people and the local place to thrive are there. Key to this is securing a sustainable financial future for us.

In the forthcoming Spending Review, the Treasury faces some stark choices about the sort of country we will be going forward. We cannot continue as we are, and we can’t afford to lose sight of what’s really at stake here – our local communities and our children’s futures.

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Is this what an inclusive society looks like?

Earlier this month Edward Timpson’s long awaited review of school exclusions was published and it certainly made for an interesting read. The report highlighted the increasing rate of fixed term and permanent exclusions with this cohort disproportionately made up of vulnerable children and young people such as those with special educational needs or Children in Need. These are often the very learners who could benefit the most from a supportive and stable learning environment. Although Timpson’s review recognised that most schools work hard to be inclusive, it doesn’t paint a picture of an inclusive education system that meets the needs of all pupils. We must support and encourage schools to give all pupils every chance to succeed in life but, in order to do this, central government must create an education system that doesn’t discriminate. This is a central component of a successful social mobility agenda.

Increasing child poverty is one of the biggest problems facing this country right now - an issue which has been considered in several reports in recent weeks and months. Despite the raft of evidence that shows the causes of poverty and its harmful impact on children in terms of their health, educational outcomes and their future life chances, it still continues to grow. Only this week, Professor Philip Alston’s report on UK poverty found that there is “exacerbating inequality and poverty” in this country despite it being the world’s fifth largest economy. There is much that the government can and should do to lift children out of poverty and close the inequality gap, and there is an important role for education here that needs to be recognised. Education can empower children to break through societal barriers and set the foundation for a better adult life, but they must have the support from a stable school environment in the first place.

I’m proud of the heroic work that teachers up and down the land are doing every single day with dwindling resources to support their pupils. That said, our education system still lags behind in that not all of our learners, including the most vulnerable, are having their needs met. The fact that children on free school meals are over four times more likely to be excluded than their peers is not the sign of a meritocracy, nor does it fit with government’s rhetoric of improving social mobility for all. Being out of mainstream education for any period of time is rarely in a child’s best interest but for our most vulnerable pupils it is likely to further entrench inequalities and disadvantage. An estimated 4 million children in this country currently live in poverty, two thirds from working families - soon this will increase to 5 million. I am left wondering what our ambitions for children who live in poverty are given the government’s response to this issue. Vital early help services are severely lacking investment and schools are having to pick up the pieces while simultaneously lacking the incentives and resources to help those pupils who need it the most.

Schools are rewarded for academic outcomes above all else which means that the stakes for headteachers who want to be inclusive are high. That is why we need a culture change right across the system from Whitehall to classrooms up and down the country. The new Ofsted Education Inspection Framework’s focus on the whole educational experience at school is a positive start but it’s also up to the government to back this up with the extra funding needed and to re-consider taking forward some of the recommendations in the Timpson review that were not addressed in its official response.

Schools do much more than simply prepare children for academic achievement and every day really does matter. They provide children with a safe environment to go to each day, help them build resilience and prepare them for independence and adulthood. We need to do everything we can before taking that away from them.

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Prevention is better than cure

I’ve been spending quite a lot of time on trains travelling to meetings and speaking at conferences on behalf of ADCS recently. This has given me some valuable time to do some reading (as well as the obligatory emails!), but it also leaves time for reflection.

During the Northampton to Taunton leg of my journey I read some highlights from the debate on serious violence in the House of Commons earlier this week. The discussion was rich and wide ranging. Cuts to policing in both monetary and workforce terms featured regularly but so too did the impact of youth services being scaled right back; school exclusions; the closure of children’s centres; the use of unsustainable grant funding to tackle complex issues; the loss of family support services and disinvestment in youth offending teams. As a director of children’s services and a local systems leader, these matters are never far from my mind but they don’t often seem to feature on Westminster’s agenda despite the Home Secretary describing the levels of violence on our streets as “a national emergency.”

The government’s plan to place a new duty on organisations, including local authorities, schools and the police, to work together to protect children, young people (and adults) from serious violence was frequently raised in the debate. Thankfully the proposed duty is not aimed at individual social workers, teachers, nurses and police officers, who are already working hard every day in increasingly difficult circumstances. Instead, it has been pitched as a public health approach but it is difficult to see what impact this will have. We all already have “due regard” to children and young people’s safety and wellbeing, this collective endeavour sits at the heart of our safeguarding system.

The only way to make headway with the complex and interrelated issues of knife crime, trafficking, modern slavery and criminal and sexual exploitation is for all parts of the public sector, including government, to genuinely work together in a coordinated way with voluntary and community groups under the auspices of a holistic public health strategy. A huge amount of activity has been initiated in response to increased political and media focus on serious violence with national summits being held, research commissioned, new units and programmes developed, campaigns rolled out and different pots of funding launched by the myriad government departments who lead on different aspects of adolescent policy. However, it’s not easy to see how all of these things fit together and what the goal is that we’re all working towards.

As a system, we need to focus relentlessly on vulnerability, be able to identify vulnerable children early and respond effectively, however, this relies on there being enough funding to resource it. We know there are various risk factors that can increase the likelihood of children and young people being drawn into criminality or exploited including being out of school, poor employment opportunities, a lack of positive activities in the local area as well as inequality, deprivation, trauma and poor mental health. Research shows there is a link between higher levels of inequality and higher levels of violence. Yes, we need to understand and address individual risk factors but without turning our attention to the societal determinants, such as rising levels of child poverty, it’s unlikely that meaningful progress will be made.

We need to stop reacting to violence in our communities and focus on preventing it. There are no quick fixes but if we all work together, united behind a shared goal, pooling our collective resources and experiences, I believe we can make a difference to communities and to children’s lives.

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A little kindness goes a long way

Last week I attended the Greater Manchester Contextual Safeguarding Conference and was privileged to hear Dez Holmes from Research in Practice speak. Dez always provides me with a golden nugget or two to reflect on.

As the new Director of People at Bolton Council, I was motivated by her challenge to the senior leaders in the sector to think outside of our service boxes and remove the rather notional line that separates a vulnerable child from a vulnerable adult across our partnerships.

To be truly impactful as directors of children’s services I think it is time to rethink the system – to focus on people, their strengths and their flaws and rebuild community resilience. To do this we need to reclaim our authority as statutory leaders and provide the safe space needed for innovation, for relationship building and for compassion.

Some of you may well think you have this nailed down and if so, well done – it’s not easy to achieve and even harder to sustain! I know I am still on a journey and to inform my thinking I started reading Kindness in Leadership, edited by Gay Haskins et al. If you haven’t read the book, I can recommend it. The book outlines several ingredients for kindness such as compassion, authenticity, humility and humour, and discusses the costs of being a kind leader. Let’s be clear, being kind is not a soft option. It requires us to value people for who they are in their own right and it requires challenging, engaged and empowering leadership.

Of particular interest to me was a section in the book that asks what could prevent us from being kind. Consistently individuals listed workload, stress and budgets. This shouldn’t surprise us and partly explains why ‘kind leadership’ can be exhausting because it requires regular attention as well as being open to listening and leading with compassion.

It is my opinion that before we start rebuilding the communities we serve, we have a duty to ensure our approach to leadership creates an environment for our staff (our best resource) to thrive. This requires us to be consistently and deliberately kind… really, stick with me!

Our workforce faces unprecedented challenges, with growing caseloads and greater scrutiny. Unless you have a spare £5 million or so to recruit a lot more staff you need to create a system that allows them to thrive despite the challenges. And one that makes them want to stay in your local authority. We therefore need to push on with increasing flexibility in working hours, become more open to people friendly services that take into account any caring responsibilities and appreciate that there is a limit to what individuals can do, whatever the make up of their personal lives. This is key to preventing ‘burnout’. Fundamentally, if we fail to look after our staff and build relationships with them we shouldn’t be surprised if they are unable to create the necessary lasting and meaningful relationships with vulnerable children and families.

We know poor parenting can result in poor outcomes and as ‘parents’ of some very large families we need to rise to the challenge. No amount of culture change will work unless it is in the hearts as well as the heads of strategic leaders and no amount of strategic planning will replace the need for a professional love of our staff, our vulnerable children and adults, and ourselves. The system is creaking, kindness is critical and being curious and open minded will teach us more about the people who work for us and in turn, allow them to support the families they work with. The challenge for us as leaders is to first be good role models, encouraging, cheerleading from the side-lines and celebrating the baby steps that collectively lead to better outcomes for our children and families.

In the words of Dr. Seuss: “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”

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Continuing the leadership theme

Earlier this week I attended a development day on Ethical Leadership in Public Services, run by The Staff College. There were very good inputs from all three speakers - Kathryn Perera (NHS Horizons), Sherry Malik (NSPCC) and Martin Kalungu-Banda – I was left thinking about Martin’s emphasis on what he sees as the three most critical challenges of our time (clip starts at 8:00) - the ecological divide, the social divide and the spiritual divide.

Whilst each are important in their own right, the one that we DCSs probably pay most direct attention to is the ‘spiritual divide’ (mental ill-health), both the perennial problem of securing sufficient CAMHS provision for our most vulnerable children and young people, and our request to colleagues in adult mental health services to ‘Think Family’ when it comes to their practice and to ‘see the child’ whenever they are working to support an adult with mental health issues who is a parent too. The impacts of poverty and inequality (the social divide) are well-evidenced in research and felt throughout our work as well. And even though we may usually leave worries about climate change (the ecological divide) to other council departments, if we act on Martin’s exhortation to “listen to those not yet born”, it follows that as children’s outcomes matter to us, then our children’s children’s outcomes should matter too, and so on. If this is the context, what kind of leaders do we need? Leaders who can prioritise how many fingers we need in each of the many pies – and how deeply we need to poke at them!

This week ADCS published its latest DCS data; covering turnover, use of interims, longevity in post, twin hat arrangements and diversity, to name a few. I am pleased to see there has been a drop in turnover compared with last year’s volatility, but it’s still the case that the average length of time a ‘permanent’ DCS is in post is 37 months. Given what we know about how long it takes to really embed sustainable change, this is still much more churn than we would like to see.

This begs the question of what can we, and central government, do to create an environment which encourages people with the ambition and capability to become leaders to take on the role, and to support DCSs to stay? In the ADCS position paper “Building a Workforce that Works for all Children” we pressed home the point that in a context where senior leaders must find solutions to complex problems with diminishing resources, it is vital that [we] have the tools and support to meet these demands. This requires investment in systems leadership programmes for aspiring and existing DCSs. To their credit, the DfE is listening. They are currently in discussion with DCSs and others about what a programme for aspiring DCSs should cover seeking input across four main areas. Here are my preliminary thoughts:

Skills and capacities

DCSs are system leaders and champions for children. We can’t acquire every skill that’s deployed across the children’s workforce, nor can we know everything there is to know about such a wide remit. So, capacities are more immediately important than skills; capacity to learn from those around us in complementary roles, capacity to search a range of sources, judge their utility and assimilate detail quickly; capacity to recognise quality in outputs we may never have had a direct hand in producing ourselves. For everything else, there’s a masterclass. (Or there should be!)

Support and networks

Other DCSs are the primary source of help and support for new DCSs, DCSs taking on a new local authority or facing a challenging situation. We’re lucky to be able to scramble about on the shoulders of giants. I benefitted from an experienced mentor when I first became a director, as I know many of my colleagues will have, and many do today through the ADCS DCS Mentoring Scheme. Peers from my aspirant DCS programme were learning and growing alongside me when I was new in role and as an established DCS I have still needed the wisdom and collective resilience of the regional and wider networks I’ve been part of. DCS development needs to combine cohort building for solidarity with mixing /integrating networks so that new connections are made.

Motivations, talent attraction and diversity

Some DCSs come decades-steeped in children’s services, often via teaching or social work, others are more recent arrivals in the sector, but regardless of background, all of the memorably good DCSs I have met have been fiercely committed to making things better for children across all domains of their lives. The very best centre that work in family and community. What encouraged me to be a DCS was seeing other DCSs in action, thinking ‘that’s what I’d like to do’ and also ‘that’s how I want to do it!’ We mustn’t shrink the role to encourage others to step up, but rather promote the joy of a job with such breadth and the scope to impact positively on so many lives.

Working in partnership

In local government, multi-agency teams bring the best of social work, education, policing, health and other disciplines together. Safeguarding boards and partnerships promote multi-disciplinary training locally. I’ve delivered DCS input into training at the College of Policing, and heard from voluntary sector and health leaders in training for aspiring and current DCSs. Central government could take lessons in collaboration from us. In particular, DCSs would like to see the impact of DfE in child and family centred action from the MoJ, Home Office or DWP – then we’ll know we have something to learn from central government on this issue.

Whether you share my views or disagree, if you would like to input to the DfE’s design of leadership programmes for aspiring DCSs but can’t make it to the workshops they have established for this consultation, Louisa Ellisdon at DfE is happy to take input by e-mail. You can contact her on:

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Leadership and a duty of optimism...

“Every day the opportunity for leadership stands before you” - Heifetz & Linsky

“Many people over-estimate their leadership skills and under-estimate the importance of practice” - Keith Grint

I found both of the above quotes in the beautifully bound purple and white folder from my National College DCS Leadership Programme in 2009. It is the 10th anniversary of that programme this year, and I was prompted to dig out my folder after spending a day a few weeks ago with ADCS Council of Reference colleagues in the morning, and honoured guests at Rachel Dickinson’s Presidential Reception in the afternoon.

Rachel gave an excellent and impassioned speech setting out the Association’s priorities for the year, as well as reflecting on the strong leadership shown by her immediate predecessor, Stuart Gallimore. Both Stuart and Rachel were part of Cohort 5 of the DCS Leadership Programme and for many directors of children’s services of that era, their cohort became peer friends and colleagues for life.

I first became a DCS in 2005, which equates to the Paleolithic Age in DCS terms, and was in Cohort 1 of the Leadership Programme – very much the Vintage Claret to the Beaujolais Nouveau of Cohort 5. Of the 26 members in my cohort, only three remain as serving DCSs today, emphasising the churn in senior roles within our sector as confirmed by last year’s data on DCS turnover. Next week ADCS will be publishing the DCS data for 2018/19, watch this space.

The amount spent by government in 2009 on our development programmes dwarfs anything they have spent on it before or since. The Department for Education is currently procuring a new leadership programme for aspirant and serving DCSs and it will be interesting to compare it to the National College model of 10 years ago.

Back in 2009, we were each invited to identify the “wicked issue” challenging our leadership. Mine was “the scale of the financial challenge…decision making about which services are de-commissioned in order to avoid unmanageable pressure on demand-led services, particularly child protection and children in care”. Plus ça Change!

Seeing that 10 years later our biggest challenges remain the same could induce pessimism, yet I found reasons for optimism which I will return to later.

The inauguration of a new ADCS President is always a time for optimism and reflection, looking forward as well as looking back. Rachel, Stuart and our new Vice President Jenny Coles will be an excellent leadership team for the Association, continuing its forward momentum supported of course by our members. As our 14th President, Rachel set out an ambitious and aspirational agenda to “reclaim” some of the territory created for DCSs in the Children Act 2004. As Rachel pointed out, it is 15 years since the Children Act 2004, and 30 years since the 1989 Act, received Royal Assent. We could do worse than celebrate that by reminding ourselves, and government, of what those Acts say we can and should do for all children.

Which brings me to optimism. I believe as leaders we have a duty to both project optimism and be optimistic. How could we not, given the privilege we have of working with and for children and young people every day? It is easy to be pessimistic in a time of political and economic uncertainty. As Chair of the ADCS Resources & Sustainability Policy Committee, it is practically my duty to be pessimistic about money, and lord knows, there is enough reason to be. And yet ... I find it cheering that in the 10 years of austerity since identifying my wicked issue, we have professionally managed an increase in demand for children’s social care caused by cuts to preventative services, while maintaining or improving quality overall. All this despite a 50% real-terms cut to local authority budgets, since 2010.

The issue of spending effectively on prevention remains central 10 years later, but as an Association we have now assembled compelling evidence to put to the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) and the Treasury of the extra investment needed. With potentially as much as £18bn new money at play in the next CSR period for public spending, and with our sector leadership, we should be both determined and optimistic we will get a fair share for children this time.

And don’t say “I’ll have a pint of whatever he’s drinking…”

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Continuing the legacy of a country that works for all children

Last week I had the great privilege of delivering my inaugural speech as ADCS President to a room packed full of colleagues, peers and many others working in the sector. It was a chance to look ahead to the next 12 months and affirm the Association’s policy priorities, but also to reflect on some of the outstanding achievements of ADCS past presidents. During the speech, I promised to continue the strong legacy set by Alison and Stuart to make this a country that works for all children and this made me reflect on where we are two years on since that excellent paper was first published in October 2017. Although a lot has changed since then, many of the same challenges remain. The paper notes the country’s lack of focus on children as the nation’s attention turned to the economy, growing pressures in the NHS as well as Brexit (sound familiar?). These certainly are ‘wicked issues’ but as we address them nationally we must not lose sight of children and young people. Despite the current uncertainty, their needs can’t be simply put to one side.

In our policy paper, we called for the government to invest in children and young people to put them at the heart of all government policy so that the impact of new reforms on their lives is clearly understood. I think that we, and many others in the sector, have done a great job of highlighting real-terms cuts to budgets in children’s services and finally putting this issue on the same footing as the financial pressures in adult social care. As Stuart Gallimore noted in his most recent blog,while there is more to do, over the past year there has been some recognition of these pressures with some extra funding for children’s social care featuring in the Chancellor’s last Autumn Statement for the first time in a long time, but it wasn’t enough. We need a sustainable long-term funding settlement for the totality of children’s services. Take the rising costs associated with the 2014 SEND reforms, which were rightly ambitious, but over the past four years we have moved from a position of a net surplus in the system to a deficit. Although last year’s announcement of £250 million additional funding over two years to provide specialist support was some recognition of the level of demand we face in this area, the scale of the challenge is far greater. A recent report from ISOS found that local authorities will have a collective deficit in their SEND budgets of £1.2 billion - £1.6 billion by 2021. This doesn’t sound like a country that works for all children to me.

The reality is that children are often impacted the most when things go wrong and we continue to see this with almost a decade of austerity. The effects of poverty on children and families are wide ranging and go beyond not having any pocket money. Many children are living in cramped, unhealthy conditions with, at best, a poor diet and we know that benefit changes, poor housing and the prevalence of unstable employment have an impact on children’s life chances. Sadly, this does not grab the headlines and I fear that we are becoming immune to it as the sight of collection points for food banks in supermarkets is all too common. It is a national disgrace that we now have period poverty boxes in our schools, but a welcome step that the DfE has recently pledged to provide, and fully fund, free sanitary products to girls in all secondary schools and colleges across England, and has extended this to all primary schools too.

Tackling this inequality should be our biggest priority which is why I want to see a more robust response from the government - it is within their power to do something about it, starting with the development of a child poverty reduction strategy for England. We are the only country in the UK not to have one. If we transferred some of the time and energy that is being put into Brexit to solving this problem, just imagine what could be achieved.

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Setting our priorities for the year ahead

Yesterday, I was extremely proud to deliver my inaugural speech as ADCS President 2019/20 at an event in London. It was an excellent day and great to see so many colleagues and past presidents who have helped make ADCS what it is today. I must also give special thanks to my colleagues in Barnsley who have been fantastically supportive; allowing me the opportunity to take on this national role and for being there yesterday to cheer me on. The past year as Vice President has flown by and I can’t wait to get stuck in, continuing to strive to make this A country that works for all children, supported by the new Vice President, Jenny Coles, and building on the excellent legacy of Stuart Gallimore and Alison Michalska, who led the call for a country that works for all children.

Looking forward to the year ahead, 2019 seems to be a year of anniversaries, not least for being 30 years since The Children Act 1989 and 15 years since The Children Act 2004 were both given Royal Assent. We need to celebrate what has been achieved over the last three decades, but also not lose sight of the challenges ahead. Much has changed since 1989; children and families face new and often more complex challenges, such as contextual safeguarding, but the core principles of the Act remain the same.

During my speech, I set out the Association’s priorities for the coming year, you won’t be surprised to hear that continuing to press the government for a sustainable and long-term funding settlement for children’s services is high on my ’to-do’ list. A core principle of The Children Act 1989 is prevention and the provision of early help, yet delivering this kind of support is becoming increasingly difficult. We simply do not have enough money to do this well.

Other priorities include a re-assertion of the systems leadership role of the DCS as a champion for children, particularly in relation to their education. A decade of education reforms have left us with one of the most autonomous school systems in the world but this has resulted in fragmentation of oversight and responsibility. I also will not shirk from re-voicing the language of closing the gap in children’s outcomes. I feel passionately that the best way to do this is to incentivise inclusivity in mainstream schools.

Another priority of mine will be continuing to shout about the disgraceful level of child poverty in this country which is continuing to rise – government figures released last week showed that 4.1 million children were living in poverty in the UK. The Institute of Fiscal Studies predicts that this number will pass five million by 2020, many of whom live in working households. I am in no doubt that the impact of austerity has been felt hardest by the most vulnerable people in society and this is another painful reminder of the extent of the challenge. The government says that it is committed to tackling child poverty but I’d like to see parliament commit as much time and energy to addressing this crisis as it has to Brexit. I will use my year as ADCS President to hold it to account and advocate for those vulnerable children and families who are suffering the impact of a decade of cuts to services and significant reductions in resources.

Closer to home, it’s also 50 years since Barry Hines published his classic novel ‘A kestrel for a knave,’ which was set in Barnsley. The pages crackle with local colour and choice northern language but the protagonist, young Billy Caspar, is a working class boy living in poverty. His home has no carpets or heating, he is disengaged from learning and suffers abuse at the hands of his brother, Jud. I recently reread this book and I found myself wondering how different life is for children and families living in poverty where tough decisions have to be taken every day between eating or keeping warm and how this impacts on children’s lives and outcomes.

It’s going to be a challenging year but it’s a challenge that I can’t wait to get started on. With the support of the excellent ADCS policy committees and the commitment of our members across the regions, I feel very confident for the year ahead. I look forward to working with all of you over the next 12 months and championing the rights and needs of all children.

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Good things come to an end, so even better things can begin

Completing this blog has been one of my final acts as President before handing over the reins to Rachel Dickinson, Barnsley’s DCS and our President for 2019/20, who I know will be brilliant. I’m not sure how the year has gone by so quickly, must be an age thing, but it has prompted a period of reflection on what we have achieved as an Association. As we know, presidents come and go and get to do the spotlight bit by speaking at the ADCS annual conference or attending meetings with ministers and such like, but the continuity and real work is done by our Council of Reference, regional groups and policy committees, brilliantly supported by our staff team in Manchester, who hold it all together and make the magic happen.

Due to this collective effort we have achieved much to be proud of, we have delivered two policy papers, A vision for an inclusive and high performing education system which we launched at conference last year and our workforce paper published last month, which called on government to focus and, crucially, invest in the wider children’s workforce. Both papers make an important contribution in their respective area and speak with confidence about the art of the possible whilst not shying away from asking the difficult questions as well as providing solutions. We have seen our media profile increase with our latest Safeguarding Pressures report taking centre stage on BBC News at 6 and being strongly covered in the broadsheets.

Speaking about the resources needed to make this ‘a country that works for all children’, has been a theme of my presidential year and at times I have felt like a stuck record. It will be a baton that Rachel will pick up as we look to this year’s Spending Review and even though I have not been as successful as I would have liked, the needs of children, and the funding needed to meet these needs, are being talked about for the first time and have been elevated onto the same list of concerns as adult social care. Whilst the money announced by the Chancellor back in November was nowhere near enough, it was at least a recognition of the difficulties we face and something to build on. We have also completed the pilot year of Regional Improvement Alliances where every region works with partners to own and craft their improvement journey. This has been a remarkable achievement for the sector wrestling back the agenda into the hands of those who have their feet firmly in the arena rather than spectating from the sides (at considerable cost…) Clearly there is still a way to go but on my regional visits I have been struck by how this has energised regions and provided renewed confidence where it was needed.

While those are the headlines, we have been involved in so much more through our engagement with government, Ofsted and the LGA, to name just a few, but where we really come into our own are the hundreds of unseen acts where a DCS picks up the phone, texts or has a beer with a colleague who is struggling to provide much needed support. It can be a lonely job but it’s also the best job in local government and folk only get to enjoy that opportunity when we keep an eye out for each other, give a word of encouragement, a courageous conversation, or a helping hand. Let us never lose that generosity of spirit as an Association, it’s something that we can all play a part in.

Well I think that’s enough from me, being the President has been a real privilege but I can’t finish without thanking my team in East Sussex (who I know are concerned that I will be returning to get under their feet), the ADCS team, you are stars who have consistently made me look better than I am, our former Immediate Past President, Alison Michalska and former Vice President, Rachel Dickinson. Thanks for the wise counsel, friendship and fun, and all ADCS members for their encouragement, support and supreme tolerance over the past year.

I will close with the words of another former President, Theodore Roosevelt, they sit on the side of my fridge and were given to me by a friend when I started as President. Those of you who were at conference will have heard them before so forgive me for repeating them but I think they capture what we do and why we do it brilliantly and I am sure he wouldn’t mind me updating this for a different time…

“It is not the critic who counts; not the person who points out how the strong one stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends themselves in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if they fail, at least fails while daring greatly, so that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

- Theodore Roosevelt

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Celebrating social work

Last week it was World Social Work Day and I was privileged to open an event celebrating the day with 100 of Walsall’s social workers from across adult and children’s services. When preparing for it I found a copy of the picture that I used for my ID pass when I first qualified in the same local authority too many years ago to mention. It set me off thinking about the differences between the profession then and now. Caseload sizes continue to increase and present new and complex challenges but for me it was about how old I was – the staff member who said I looked about 10 years old shall remain nameless as will those that laughed at my “bubble” perm – and looking forward to being a real social worker and no longer a student. At the time, I was what you would call a generic worker, working across both children and adult services, with a workload ranging from vulnerable older people and those with mental health issues to children in care.

During the conference, I found myself trying to describe this to an audience of people most of whom had qualified post the separation of adult and children’s services and, as a consequence, rarely even meet with each other let alone share work. Despite this, what became apparent during the day was that there remain many shared values including a focus on human relationships and making a real difference in the lives of others that underpins social work practice as it did all those years ago – the only difference is the perm has gone!

In reality, children’s social workers will come into contact with both children and adults on a regular basis so it’s essential that their needs are viewed in the round. For example, domestic abuse, poor parental mental health and substance misuse are becoming more common among the families we work with and we know that when adult need is left unmet, due to the lack of support services available to them, it is difficult for us to make a sustained difference in the lives of children. World Social Work Day was a great opportunity to reflect on the cross-over between adult and children services but also to think about how we can improve ways of working together. Supporting both children and adults requires specific knowledge and understanding of needs but their overlap is unavoidable, and we must not lose sight of this. The relationships we form with children and young people are incredibly important but making sure that they are sustained into adulthood is equally crucial.

I am told that bubble perms are back in fashion although I have no intention of going back there and I certainly think it’s unlikely we will go back to the days of generic social work. However, the focus on relationships for World Social Work Day this year has focussed all our thinking on the connections that still exist despite some of the artificial divide in our ways of working. After all, each day, up and down the country, both children’s and adult social workers are working tirelessly to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in society and that’s certainly something we can all get behind.

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Being ‘ACE’ aware – a helpful or harmful approach?

I am passionate – as I know many people are – about relationship-based approaches to supporting and empowering children and young people. I’d heard of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) but hadn’t explored it in detail. So, last year when our head of early years excitedly and enthusiastically reported back from a conference she’d attended, I was really interested in what she had to say and how it might inform our work in Derbyshire.

I was therefore very happy to accept an invitation to attend an event about the work of the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative. The event focussed on how Blackpool, as a Better Start area, is working closely with them, making use of brain science to transform their approach to early years and reframe early child development.

My guess is that many of you reading this will also have heard of ACEs and some will know a lot about it. The rapidly increasing interest in the approach – if it is an approach – is being described by some as a ‘movement’ or ‘campaign’. Scotland is even working on becoming the first ‘ACE aware nation’.

My initial response was one of real enthusiasm and a sense that much of what I’d previously understood about the impact of childhood trauma was brought together in a straightforward framework. In Derbyshire, our Future in Mind plan includes a programme of ACE awareness and we have a number of conferences planned. The consideration is whether there is scope for the development of an informed county wide approach across all partners. I’m aware some areas have already developed such an approach.

However, the more I have looked into the subject and read about it the more I realise that it’s not quite as straightforward as I thought. As with most evidence-based approaches there can be very differing views!

So what are ACEs?

ACEs are specified traumatic events that children can be exposed to during childhood. The original ACEs study (Felliti, V. J et al,1998) identified ten kinds of adverse experiences; five that involved direct harm to a child (physical, sexual and emotional abuse; physical and emotional neglect) and five that affect the environment in which they grow up (domestic violence; substance misuse; parental separation; mental illness; incarceration of a family member). The question here would be, what about other adverse experiences such as loss and bereavement? And what about resilience – what makes one child more resilient to the impact of these experiences than others? My thinking is that there is nothing to say that adversity can’t be viewed more widely than the original study, which I know others are doing.

The research concludes that the more ACEs a person experiences the higher the risk of poor outcomes in later life. The evidence shows that being exposed to ACEs in childhood can change the way the brain develops which can impact on a child’s ability to navigate everyday demands and can increase the risk of developing health harming behaviours.

I don’t suppose it’s anything we didn’t already know – that traumatic experiences occurring early in a child’s life can have a lasting impact, but what I have found interesting and useful is the effect that toxic stress has on brain development. It’s also fascinating to see the brain science and hope behind efforts to improve the impact of this stress.

Scoring – additional trauma?

What seems, however, to be a source of concern is the ACEs ‘scoring’ tool which is a checklist of the experiences named above that produces an ACE score of 1-10. The research has shown that if a person has a score of four or more ACEs they will have a life expectancy of 20 years less than those with no ACEs. The notion of working through a clinical checklist of ACEs with a person, I agree would be a concern and could potentially add to a child’s trauma. Any mechanistic way of trying to categorise human responses to events will have opponents and used badly could be destructive. Surely it’s about appropriately skilled practitioners not reducing a child’s lived experience to an ACE score, but instead using this awareness to reference the adversity in a constructive, person centred way in order to support positive change and build resilience?

So, I can’t see the harm in understanding and talking more about the impact of adversity and the science of the brain. Neither can I see an issue with how this awareness can be used to inform practice and interventions that take into account the complexity of childhood trauma and toxic stress and support the development of resilience. If it leads to greater awareness among a wide range of multi-agency professionals, engenders increased compassion and care and opens up possibilities such as responses to behaviours that are often found to be a challenge, then surely this is a good thing?

There are many questions and this blog only lightly touches on the subject. However, for me, as with any model or approach, it’s about ensuring that the intent and the application of it supports positive change and improved outcomes which is our ongoing strategic challenge.

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What’s the purpose of auditing casework?

What’s the purpose of auditing casework? I have been pondering this for a while. It has a genuine purpose, done well it tells managers about the quality of practice in the system and if thresholds around risk feel right or not. Done poorly, it tells us nothing and, at its worst, fools us into thinking practice is better than it is.

What audit doesn’t particularly do well though, is improve the quality of practice. I tend to find that workers see it as something that is done to them, leaves them a list of corrective actions and tends to say, “you aren’t doing well enough”.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes there is a need to audit to understand the state of practice or themes and elements, but let’s be clear, that is what it is doing and nothing more.

Here in North Yorkshire, we had a good look around the sector for what others were doing in this space and found some great practice and ideas – sector led improvement at its best – which led us to developing a new model for the local authority and we introduced this new approach over a year ago. We refer to it as “a learning space” and its predominant aim is to improve practice.

The monthly learning space takes place as a reflective conversation between the allocated worker, their line manager (the reviewer), and a peer manager (the moderator). The reviewer is asked to review a case within their own team alongside moderator who is from a different team. The purpose of an independent moderator is to achieve consistency across all teams over a period of time, to enable learning to be shared more widely and provide an important element of challenge to the conversation. This process seeks evidence of strong practice including capturing the voice of the child and family to further enhance our understanding - receiving direct feedback from children and families, and partner agencies is critical to the learning. A monthly report is presented to the Children & Families Practice Improvement Forum and monthly business meetings where progress against recommendations are tracked. A quarterly report is produced for myself and the senior team which collates all of the Quality of Practice activity and creates a learning feedback loop for the service as well as further fostering a culture of continual improvement.

I think it’s a win win. At the heart of our practice model is doing things with children and families, not to them and it’s only right that we also model this behaviour with each other. This is a strengths based collaborative learning space, done with the worker and manager, not to them. They explore practice and improvement, I get a report telling us about the state of the quality of practice around the local authority, what’s working well and what we jointly need to improve.

Staff feedback has been positive, although it remains a challenge in making sure people fit them in, but this has improved over the year as people see greater value in them. We gathered feedback after 12 months and used staff suggestions to further develop the approach, co-creating the process and the tools as we refine and evolve.

It must be noted that this sits as one part of a wider framework that mixes data, quality and user feedback. We call this our Quality and Learning Framework and is based on the very good practice guide developed by Research in Practice.

I am not suggesting this is the only answer, my thanks goes to colleagues for sharing their ideas, but I am confident that this is leading to learning and improvement through audit in a way that the system we had before didn’t achieve. It’s worth pondering!

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How and when should we use technology in social work?

Everyone who knows me or has heard me speak knows how passionate I am about targeted prevention, using the option of care wisely and sparingly, and holding risk in the community with children and young people’s families. So, it might surprise you that in this blog I am going to write about the much less sexy topic of record keeping. This requires urgent attention, for three simple reasons:

  1. social workers spend so much time recording
  2. many IT systems do not easily support social work practice; and app development has been piecemeal
  3. the pace of technological development means that there is an urgent need to consider the ethics of artificial intelligence and machine learning

Many of you will be aware of BASW’s 80/20 campaign, to increase the time social workers are able to spend in direct work with children and their families. Although it was a self-selecting survey of social workers, it found that social workers spend only 20% of their time working face-to-face. In Essex, we found that our staff spend 40% of their time in direct work. Good, you might think; but social workers also spent an average 15.7 hours per week on laptops recording their work. So, if we want social workers to spend more time using their skills to work with families to improve outcomes for children, it is probably time to revisit recording practice. After all, it is now 16 years since Walker, Shemmings and Cleaver produced Write Enough: Effective Recording in Children’s Services.

Like other authorities, we’ve put a lot of energy into working with our software suppliers to improve the look and feel of our recording systems, and I am sure we have all had some success in making them more user-friendly. However, these systems are, for the most part, based on the old Integrated Children’s System (ICS) standards. Long before Eileen Munro delivered her final report into child protection in 2011, the inadequacies of the ICS systems were well documented. Although the ‘workflows’ built into these systems were switched off, there has been no significant change to their design.

I think there are several practical difficulties:

  • The use of voice or handwriting recognition software to record is not widespread. Yet for most social workers, how much easier would it be to record their work while they are on the move? Harry Ferguson’s notion of mobile social work reminds us of the importance of time spent in the car, talking and reflecting on our work. Yet, even if this were slick, what type of recording does it lead to?
  • Records can often only be searched by record type: ‘visit’, ‘telephone call’, and so on, and then, we often have to open each record in turn to find the one we want. Imagine how much more powerful the record could be, if social workers could search for ‘drugs’, ‘domestic abuse’, ‘mental health’ etc.
  • Furthermore, relationship-based practice is free-flowing. It requires a narrative record. For those of us who were social workers before digital case recording, we can remember the feel of the record, see the story it told, and judge complexity, almost by the weight of the file! Digital records are very limited in this regard.

Of course, we have to acknowledge the benefits of technology too. To give just one example, I don’t have to travel from Chelmsford to Harlow to read a case file for my monthly contribution to our case file audit process.

Yet there is something more pressing: the technological advance in predictive analytics.

Writing in The Guardian, Richard Godwin reported how babies’ data is recorded, by socks (yes socks!), amongst other things:

‘We can create information about how a baby’s doing in the home and then use that data to run machine-learning and build artificial intelligence. We’re starting to develop algorithms that can tell you the best time to put the baby down for a nap.’

So, it seems parental judgement could now be replaced by a reliance on the accuracy of an algorithm.

And social work is not immune: algorithms have been used in the United States to replace decision-making at point of contact. This raises many questions, including:

  • do we record the right data;
  • who owns the data and what consent is required;
  • can/should it be used by third parties;
  • how is it applied – to make the decision, or as a tool to reach a decision;
  • is its design transparent;
  • does it reinforce stereotypes of marginalised and vulnerable groups?

It is now time for the profession to take a very careful look at the application of technology to predict abuse. Indeed, just last month the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care sought partners to apply machine learning to social work records and proposed a debate on the ethics of it.

Personally, I do not think we want to replace social work judgement, any more than parental judgement, with a reliance on the (in-)accuracy of an algorithm.

But should we be alive to how technology can help create the time, space and even environment where that judgement can impact most effectively? Absolutely.

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Essential dates for the diary

I can’t be the only person walking around with a smile on my face, enjoying the longer days, seeing daffodils appear and generally enjoying the warmer weather.

The year is moving forward at a pace and today I had reason to look forward in my diary to make sure Our Big Day, Rochdale’s celebration event for our children in care, on 6 July was booked in. It’s that day of the year that makes my heart sing. I’m afraid it reduces me to a snivelling heap every year, relying on my Chief Executive’s tissue supply, who then snatches them back for his own use.

What caught my eye was that Our Big Day is preceded by the ADCS Annual Conference, another essential diary event, which takes place on 3 – 5 July. Truly a week to look forward to! Conference is something I prioritise every year since I first had the opportunity to attend back in 2007 and I always look forward to it, knowing the benefits I get from taking part. It makes me stop spinning plates for three days and gives me time to think and reflect on the challenges we face alongside others in a similar position - those who understand what my job feels like because they feel it too. It’s also a chance to learn from some amazing contributions that I wouldn’t otherwise come across (or have time to read about after a long day /cabinet /budget council meeting).

You may have heard local authority colleagues talking about the importance of sector-led improvement, working regionally, and cross regionally, to share learning and best practice so that our services are the very best they can be for children and families. Conference is an ideal time for this and creates opportunities to work with other people who I respect or those I have never previously met but am glad I did. It even provides time to talk with colleagues from other local authorities who we always mean to have that conversation with, but somehow never get around to.

Conference is open to all ADCS members but I know that some colleagues may choose not to attend and that’s a decision I respect. I recall during 2010/11 a number of colleagues felt that financial pressures meant that attendance was a thing of the past, something I considered myself at the time and reached the conclusion that it was something I couldn’t afford not to do, because the huge benefits from attending were not worth missing out on. It also caused me to ask a question about whether we know our worth? Don’t we advise others to prioritise their well-being and professional learning? Sadly, we don’t always apply the same for ourselves.

Those of us in senior leadership roles can be a commodity that struggles to last for any length of time. It occurs to me that if we want to be the best we can be in our respective roles, develop strong teams around us, get better at succession planning, understand what sits behind some of the issues and pressures we manage every day and help to deliver the best for our children and young people, we probably need to take time out occasionally. We need to reflect, to use the research that we advise our staff to use, to get a better understanding of what evidence tells us and to understand that in these challenging roles we are not in it on our own.

I recently had an interesting conversation with colleagues at an ADCS event about what we gained from attending conference. The striking point was that the colleagues I was talking to were from other parts of the country and people I would never have met, let alone worked with, had it not been for the fact that we met at conference. Those meet-ups created chances for us to build effective relationships, share ideas, offer peer review support, contribute and gain from policy opportunities, developing skills that helped us make career decisions. Importantly there is even the chance to spend time over a glass of red, putting the world to right, with some lovely people.

If you haven’t previously given conference a try, I can thoroughly recommend it. If you do come along, approach a complete stranger and have a chat. You never know where it could lead.

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12 Years with ADCS

This is my last blog as a member of the ADCS Council of Reference, as I’m standing down as Chair of the ADCS Associates Network at the end of March. I’m retiring from even part-time work and a couple of other appointments, including being the Chair of NCER. (“Finally!”, I hear some colleagues say, and “about time too!”) I’m retiring in large part for family reasons (three sons in Australia… don’t ask …) but more importantly I have come to the view that I’m increasingly grumpy and a ghost at the feast, too frequently tempted to say “We tried that in 200X and it didn’t work then, and it wont work now”, or sometimes, “Been there, done that, got the tee-shirt’. And of course, I haven’t been a serving director of children’s services (DCS) since 2009 – a long time ago!

The reality, of course, is that there are now very few people around who have shared the ADCS journey from that first cohort of DCSs back in 2005/6/7 when appointments were a matter of local chance – whether it was an ‘education’ person or a ‘social care’ person. Certainly, there is no-one now serving on the ADCS Council of Reference who was there in the very early days of the Association. So, I’m indulging myself with some reflections on the path that leads up to 2019, with Stuart Gallimore soon to hand over the Presidency to Rachel Dickinson.

Back in 2005, following the passage of the Children Act 2004 and the introduction of the requirement for local authorities to appoint a DCS, there was a flurry of local authority restructuring and associated appointments – I was appointed in July 2005, having been Director for Education and Lifelong Learning. It was obvious to us all that we needed to reconfigure the national associations, Confed, SCEO and ADSS, but it was by no means obvious how that should be achieved. Confed and ADSS were markedly different organisations, with different histories, structures and ways of working, and we spent several months discussing the problems without coming close to a consensus way forward. (Does that remind you of anything?) During the summer of 2006 progress was made, though, when both ‘sides’ appointed a small group of colleagues to reach an agreement on behalf of their parent organisations. I was part of that group as Confed Vice President and then, for a matter of a couple of months, President.

In the midst of everyone’s wildly different points of view, it struck me forcibly that what was needed was someone nerdy to draft a constitution and to mould it into a shape that was acceptable round the table. I volunteered to have a go, and while I was the author of the first constitution, I was very much the ‘hand that held the pen’, working to find acceptable compromises.

The whole thing crystallised in the late summer of 2006 at a summit meeting at the Hinckley Services on the M69, leading to the now-all-but-forgotten ‘Hinckley Accord’ that opened the way to the new organisations, ADCS and ADASS. The final piece of the jigsaw was that John Coughlan and I, who both might have been President of the new ADCS, decided that the common good dictated that we should together become Joint Presidents for the first year (actually, 15 months from 1 January 2007), with elections for single Presidents from year two. Looking back, I remain genuinely proud to have been part of the process that led to that first Constitution, which has proved robust and resilient, so that almost all the features we introduced then remain in place in 2019.

Having launched the new ADCS in January 2007, we were all then able to go back to the day job of improving outcomes for children, both in our local authorities and nationally. Looking back, again, there were many issues on which we debated long and hard with Department for Children, Schools and Families (now DfE) officials and Ed Balls, but on the whole it was a time of real dynamism and optimism, and of shared purpose. While much has changed, and structural tensions abound, alongside austerity across the public sector, ‘Every Child Matters’ and the notion of joined-up services still have enormous resonance. ADCS as an organisation, and ADCS members individually, have held the faith and provided outstanding professional leadership and advocacy for children, and, notwithstanding the huge financial pressures, local authorities have been well-led in making some of the most difficult policy and practice decisions there could be.

Over the years, I have been repeatedly struck by the changes in the detail of the debates within ADCS while the fundamentals have remained unchanged – “How do we do the best for our children?”.

I’m proud to have been part of ADCS from the very start, and offer my thanks to all past and present members, office holders, and staff who have made ADCS what it is. Thanks to you all, and best wishes for the future, especially to Rachel Dickinson!

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The importance of celebrating diversity

My name can be a bit of a give-away, and if your assumption was that I have a non-UK heritage you would be correct – but I do consider myself to be British, although not just British. Thankfully, I’m now rarely asked to provide my ‘Christian’ name and people generally no longer ask me where I come from either. But as a child and younger adult, questions and assumptions such as these had the consequence of making me feel somehow ‘other’ from the mainstream of society. As a child, I often didn’t feel like I really belonged and there were not many role models I could look up to who had a similar background to me – especially given that I am of dual heritage. When you don’t see your identity out there, and people casually assume that you’re not one of them, you start to seek identity elsewhere. For some that can lead to negative or destructive identities and this is something that concerns me as increasingly xenophobia appears to be more prevalent in popular media.

The racism that I experienced when I was younger – the National Front, the language of ‘half-caste’, golliwogs and ‘Mind your Language’ might have changed, but unfortunately bias and racism still exists and the experience of some of our citizens does worry me. Young Muslims for example, who can be made to feel as not legitimately British, may come to self-identify themselves as such. This cannot be right. Eighteen months ago in Brighton & Hove we published a Serious Case Review following the deaths of two young brothers and their friend in Syria. Amongst other things this identified historic racism that together with the trauma of long-term domestic abuse contributed to the boys feeling unconnected with their local community. This review was a warning to the city, but cases like this must serve as a wider warning to our country as a whole that we need to celebrate diversity, be more inclusive of difference and more aware of the trauma that some of our young people might have experienced. We also need to be better at reaching out.

As a director of children’s services I don’t have the power to change society but I do have the advantage of being able to address some of the symptoms. I’m pleased that in Brighton & Hove we still have an ethnic minority achievement service that is bought back by most of our schools and is able to provide both initial support to children and families and on-going advice and support to schools. This team is particularly helpful in supporting some of our refugee families.

Local authorities are working hard to recruit a workforce that reflects the communities they serve, however, our social workers are mainly White British, yet they are increasingly working with more minority ethnic children, young people and families. The risk of unconscious bias increases and so, in Brighton and Hove, we are about to carry out a thematic audit to ensure that, if this does happen, such cases are appropriately managed.

I’m really pleased with the growing diversity of the city, but I recognise that our staff do not yet fully reflect this. We are therefore trying to be creative in how we can both attract a more diverse workforce and also support minority ethic staff to reach more senior positions. Unfortunately, at a senior level in the Council we don’t have enough minority ethnic managers and leaders, or enough minority ethnic directors of children’s services across the country. We need to take collective responsibility to address this, because it is the right thing to do, to avoid losing talent and to ensure that children today who might consider themselves ‘other’ can find the role models they need to help them to find their place in our society.

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And the answer is?!

Since my last blog, the National Audit Office (NAO) published its report Pressures on Children’s Social Care. It’s yet another report that illustrates what we already know with regards to the increasing pressures facing children and families and children’s services across the country.

Crucially, the report found no correlation between local authority spend and a positive Ofsted judgement which implies that the DfE’s policy making is not underpinned by evidence. We absolutely need more funding so that all children and families are given the help and support that they need but with local authority budgets cut in half we are continuously being pushed to make savings, yet many of the factors fuelling the need for our help are outside of our control. The NAO’s analysis suggests that local authority characteristics may account for 44% of the variation between different local authorities over time in how we respond to demand. Different levels of deprivation could explain 15% of the variation and 10% may be accounted for by changes which affect all local authorities equally, such as legislative changes. The report also points out that the relevant characteristics of local authorities and their areas account for the greatest cause in variation. These characteristics include custom and practice in children’s social care, local market conditions and historical patterns of demand. Taken together, the breadth of variation reduces significantly. When I look at the succession of reports on my desk all pointing to the chronic under-funding of children’s services, despite the valiant efforts of local politicians to protect them, you begin to wonder whether the need for more resources isn’t just an inconvenient truth at a time of significant economic uncertainty. I certainly hope this is the case otherwise the only alternative is wilful blindness.

The NAO recommends that the DfE promptly improves its understanding of children’s social care and builds on their research to help explain demand and local variations. Clearly, as an Association, we will provide whatever assistance we can but I do wonder how often we need to identify the impacts of austerity, rising child poverty, deprivation and the increasing prevalence of domestic abuse, substance misuse, poor parental mental health as well as the growth and complexity of contextual safeguarding. Added to this is the growth in demand for services to support children with special educational needs and disabilities. Whilst the one off sums of money for social care were welcome in the budget announcement last autumn (for my own authority it has meant we can delay cuts to early help and safeguarding services for 12 months!) these one off sums and time limited funding pots are not a solution to the crisis we face. Only through changes to national policy, so that children and families are prioritised, will we begin to see a reverse in the trend of rising demand for children’s services. In England, we’re the only country in the UK without a national child poverty reduction strategy yet this would be an ideal starting point. Until central government faces up to the need for action, outcomes for children and families will get worse, not better, and that cannot be right.

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Reflections on a year in intervention

To all those colleagues who have worked or are currently working in authorities judged Inadequate by Ofsted, I salute you! It’s a tough place to be, requiring bags of resilience and a steady nerve under relentless scrutiny. All Directors of Children’s Services (DCSs), irrespective of their Ofsted judgement, are wholly committed to improving the lives of all the children and families that they are responsible for and we know how demanding a job this can be. Having recently completed my first interim role and my first time working in intervention, I experienced both the challenges and rewards that this can bring.

One of the first questions I was keen to find an answer to was whether things were as bad as Ofsted had judged them – and my experience was to find that the answer was both yes and no.

Yes, in that although I thought I knew what I was getting into, I was still pretty shocked at the extent to which poor standards had become entrenched, so that in some ways there was almost an acceptance of this and an attitude of “what can you do?” When I asked a very experienced DCS to come and spend a day observing and talking to staff to get another view, I asked him at the end of the day what had bothered him the most. He thought long and hard before giving the answer that it was the strong sense of learned helplessness that he encountered.

No, in that there had always been areas of service that had remained effective and well-functioning and there had always been some outstanding practice and practitioners, though that can all get forgotten. And no, in that the fundamental problems did not lie with the quality of frontline staff, it was just that they had not had the experience of a culture that was focused upon practice and getting the basics right, nor of an environment which enabled them to practice effectively. A sustained period of austerity and a 50% reduction in LA budgets only exacerbates these problems and impacts the staff directly. The large majority of staff that were there when things hit rock bottom will be the same staff who return things to an effective service and beyond. Not just my lesson, but one shared by others who have been on this journey, not least in Rotherham and Doncaster. These are skilful and committed staff, and boy do we need that commitment as we set about re-building. The challenge was to ensure we were all focused on doing the right things for children and families, and to ensure that we had the right people to be able to deliver this.

Probably the most immediate leadership that I brought to bear was in re-setting the priorities in a completely re-written improvement plan. This involved an intense rapid process of consultation with staff and then setting the focus on practice, on supervision and on caseloads.

Retaining and recruiting the right people proved to be the biggest challenge and one of the common handicaps that a poor Ofsted judgement delivers. Whilst the overall staff group was reasonably stable, this was not true of our frontline child protection teams where social work turnover was very high, and the same was true for leadership and management roles. That meant two rounds of senior recruitment, for a new interim team to accelerate the pace of improvement, and then a permanent leadership team to provide continuity and take on the next chapter of improvement.

The watchers sure take up a huge amount of time! And that’s a DCS’s job to deal with so that the service has the space to get on with the important stuff. Improvement Board, DfE, DfE Intervention Advisor, Ofsted, improvement partners – all on top of the heightened scrutiny of progress from Leader, Lead Member, Cabinet, all members, Chief Executive, corporate colleagues, and senior partners. Restoring the confidence of all these stakeholders, that we knew what we were doing, was a key task but inevitably takes you away as DCS from the actual doing of improvement. This can all feel pretty imbalanced though, and I do think that one flaw of the crude headline judgements applied by Ofsted is this overload, and that so much of that changes on the magical day when the world jumps from Inadequate to Requires Improvement (or even Good…).

Ah yes, Ofsted… Whilst my experience of our working relationships with the Ofsted team was positive, I do think that their approach to intervention is problematic in a couple of respects. The first is that every quarterly monitoring visit is experienced as a mini-inspection and so the demands of this can feel relentless and not always helpful; and the second is that there is a mis-match between the wider world’s interpretation of the outcome of each visit as a key measure of overall progress, and Ofsted’s insistence that the visit is only giving a comment on the narrow area of service it is looking at.

Personally, I found the year hugely rewarding, for all the challenges, and a chance to make a real difference. Upon reflection perhaps the most important thing that we were working to develop was the culture. To move away from an exclusive focus on process and KPIs to concentrating upon relationship-based practice and quality; to move away from a punitive and directive approach to poor practice and improvement, to an approach characterised by motivation, encouragement and learning; to move away from a risk averse and decision averse approach to one of confidence in managing risk and taking responsibility. And always, always to celebrate success, achievement and commitment.

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We must not lose sight of children

This week the government published its Domestic Abuse Bill and a suite of related documents. The Bill has been described as a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to tackle the devastating and lifelong impact that domestic abuse can have on victims and their children. I absolutely welcome the government’s focus on this area, however, there needs to be much greater attention on preventing abuse from happening in the first place given its huge human, and financial, costs. Recent research from the Home Office estimates that domestic abuse cost the nation at least £66 billion in the year ending 31 March 2017, of which £47 billion related to the physical and emotional harms incurred by victims. This is likely to be an underestimate.

Domestic abuse can happen to anyone, anywhere. Both men and women can be victims or perpetrators and it can be fatal. It’s also the most common factor in situations where children are at serious risk of harm today. It’s estimated that upward of two million people, aged between 16–59, were victims of domestic abuse last year in England and Wales and around three or four million children and young people have been exposed to at least some form of domestic abuse in their lives. I repeat, three or four million children and young people. We should not accept this reality for any child or young person yet all too often we see domestic abuse cited as a primary reason for referrals to children’s social care.

So, what more can we as a nation do to support children and young people who are victims of domestic abuse and prevent it from happening in the first place? Seeing the issue through the eyes of children and young people is crucial and making sure they can easily access emotional, psychological or practical support when and where they need it is important. But we cannot overlook the impact of nine years of austerity on the work that councils and their partners do to keep children safe from harm. The recent joint targeted area inspections on children living with domestic abuse found much good work is being done by local authorities and their partners across the country to protect children and victims, but the huge scale of the issue means that we have no choice but to focus our limited resources on those who are at immediate risk of harm, at which point the damage has often already been done.

The Domestic Abuse Bill is a welcome start but we need more action and, crucially, investment to enable local authorities and their partners to effectively prevent this abuse from occurring and to repair the damage that it does. I worry that the government still doesn’t appreciate the importance of early help services in preventing domestic abuse from affecting millions of victims each year. The introduction of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner is an encouraging start, but can one person really have enough influence over the many government departments involved in responding to this issue?

Domestic abuse is a crime that has more repeat victims than any other and preventing this cycle is key. Resources must be put into identifying and working with children and families at risk at the earliest possible opportunity if we are to truly tackle this crime and we must not lose sight of children.

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Other people’s children

It looks like it’s going to be a busy period for the ADCS Standards, Performance & Inspection (SPI) Policy Committee. Just before Christmas, Ofsted announced their new themes for Joint Targeted Area Inspections (JTAI). These themes, in case you missed them, are going to be early help and prevention, children’s mental health and contextual safeguarding. On January 16th Ofsted also launched a consultation on the new draft inspection framework for schools.

When considering the upcoming JTAIs, you might think that I’d be pretty jaundiced about such inspections given my role as Chair of the SPI committee and being the DCS for two local authorities giving me double doses of inspection joy. In reality I actually welcome these new inspections and I will tell you why.

Firstly, and most importantly, these inspections focus on the whole system for children (remember that language? No-one has yet revoked the Children Act 2004) although I might take issue with the ‘whole’ bit. By focusing on how organisations work together to protect children, inspectors can get much closer, in my view, to the lived experiences of children in an area. The JTAI thematic reports that Ofsted have produced thus far have been compelling in national policy terms. Ofsted’s focus on the ‘gaps in between’ services is really important and, crucially, as system leaders it gives us leverage with our partners in the police, health services and other agencies to ensure that we close those gaps. Too often, vulnerable children are still ‘other people’s children’ until the point at which they reach the threshold for children’s social care services when they are well and truly ours.

I really want to hear what the inspectorates say about the totality of early help services and mental health provision. Around the country, early help services are being pared back as funding grows ever tighter. A national perspective from the inspectorates on what we are losing might well be helpful. Equally, children’s mental health services have not benefited from the fragmentation and apparent isolation of such services. I hope that the inspectorates will look closely at the interplay between children with mental health difficulties and the rising number of children in care. In my experience, children’s social care services too often have to pick up the pieces when children have ‘no diagnosable mental health’ problems so they end up becoming ‘other people’s children’ again.

So it is exactly right that inspectorates should be looking at the gaps in between services, which brings me on to the new schools inspection framework. Schools are hugely influential to children’s lives and arguably even more influential to the lives of vulnerable children. Yet when I hear of schools being graded as ‘outstanding’ when they have off-rolled 19 pupils (18 of whom were on free school meals), inviting them all to be electively home educated; or when I hear of the schools graded as ‘good’ who are giving out hundreds of fixed-term exclusions per term, I despair. These, of course, are obviously ‘other people’s children’ to worry about. They will be the children who are most vulnerable to contextual safeguarding issues, require early help and will be more likely to experience poor emotional wellbeing.

Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, assured us during a recent speech that such actions will be taken into account in future inspections and poor behaviour in this regard could lead to schools being downgraded. I welcome this focus on inclusion, exclusions and off-rolling but I worry that the gaps in home education legislation means that Ofsted’s plans do not yet fully close that loophole in terms of families being ‘encouraged’ to home educate as a means of avoiding a permanent exclusion. That home education is a positive choice for some children and families is not in dispute and finding evidence of coercive practices can be very tricky, however, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t explore ways together to ensure that schools who do so are held to account for their actions. I wonder if a conversation with the local authority to triangulate what inspectors are being told would be useful if concerns about the numbers of pupils out of school or leaving the school roll in-year arise? I also wonder whether there is more that the new framework could do to enshrine the principle that schools are a part of the whole system for children in terms of their role in early help, for example? As a sector, we really need to get behind this joined up approach to inspection and I encourage all of our members to contribute, through your regional representatives, to the Association’s written response to this consultation, it’s vital that we are able to reflect the sector’s views.

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Reflection, recognition and reward

The turn of the New Year is a time for many to look back at the previous year and also to look ahead to future challenges. I’ve been considering this recently, whilst thinking about the complexity of working with children, young people and families, and how it’s possible to develop a culture where we put as much emphasis on celebrating good practice and achievement as we do on committing to learning from mistakes.

No-one working in children’s services does it for the reward and recognition. There are many more people working tirelessly for children, young people and families than could ever be given an award, but the reality is, like most parts of our strained public services, the safety, wellbeing and outcomes for our children depend on people going over and above the call of duty, day after day, for little or no reward. It’s our job as leaders to ensure that we recognise and acknowledge this.

That’s why I was personally delighted to see some recognition in the New Year’s Honours list for colleagues who have made an immense contribution to services and outcomes for children. Not because they are the only people worthy of such accolades, but because it is a recognition of the skill, bravery and commitment of all those who strive to safeguard, support, and promote the wellbeing of children, young people and families up and down the country.

None of us get it right all of the time. The work we do is complex, unrelenting and challenging and it is only getting more so. Our frontline practitioners make important decisions every day, many of which have to be taken without perfect knowledge and which rely on their judgement and experience. We make mistakes because we are human but our role as leaders is surely to promote the right sort of positive error culture, which means we reflect, learn, highlight good practice and create the right conditions for good decisions to be taken.

I think there are four parts to this:

- Firstly, accepting that mistakes will be made and that we reflect and learn from them. We should create a culture of learning and support that enables our skilled, committed professionals to work with our families

- Secondly, taking more time to recognise and highlight good practice, focus more on good outcomes and learn from these, just as much as we do when things don’t go well

- Thirdly, rewarding those professionals across all of our services who do outstanding work. For many, this will not be receipt of an award, (and some would not want this at all) but it might be a word of thanks or a note of appreciation to acknowledge a job well done

- Fourthly, ensuring the right support and tools are there – the systems, the extra support, the forms, the ICT – to enable our skilled and committed workforce to continually improve and ensure they are able to spend more time where they can make the most difference working with the families who need our help and support.

As we embark on what will undoubtedly be another extremely challenging year, it is more important than ever that we continue to recognise our role in using the power of reflection, recognition and reward as part of our commitment to building a workforce fit for a country that works for all children, young people and families.

That’s a resolution I hope we can all make.

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New Year’s Resolutions

I would like to wish you all a very happy New Year after what I hope was a rejuvenating Christmas break. Many of you will have kept up with the tradition of choosing a New Year’s resolution whether it be getting back into the gym or taking time to read that book that’s been sitting collecting dust. As an Association we will continue to call for a country that works for all children whilst ensuring that children and young people remain at the forefront of all that we do.

Reflecting on 2018 there is much to be proud of – ADCS has published and been involved in some great work, none of which would be possible without the wealth of knowledge and experience from our members. Much of this work is achieved through the hard work of the ADCS policy committees who are the focus of my blog today. (I would encourage any of our members who have not signed up to one of our six committees to do so in time for the first round of the meetings beginning later this month.)

The committees have supported and contributed to a wide range of projects to help influence the national policy agenda. The chance to meet with colleagues from across the country, away from the busy office, to discuss the pressing issues of the day is invaluable and these committee meetings provide just that opportunity. People often remind me of the unique help and support they get from the sharing of best practice with other local authorities or the opportunity to directly engage with various government departments, Ofsted and other stakeholders. The chance to do this seems too good to pass up!

Last year, the Educational Achievement Policy Committee led on our Elective Home Education Survey while the Workforce Development Policy Committee recently contributed to the development of four new children, young people and families apprenticeships. There are of course many other brilliant pieces of work that I haven’t mentioned that have been completed across all of the committees and I urge you to take some time to look through the ADCS website at some of these other achievements. It is through having as many members as possible engaging with our committees that we can keep making our voices heard across government and It’s also a great way to ensure that the views and experiences of your local authority are captured in our work.

Already, 2019 promises to be a challenging year for children’s services. Many of these, such as a lack of funding or long-term planning for the sector, remain the same and uncertainties around the impact of Brexit on children and young people will bring new challenges. The collective voice of ADCS will be hugely important during this time and already the first round of committee meetings will be tackling some of these issues with representatives from the DfE coming to talk to our Educational Achievement and Resources & Sustainability policy committees about SEND funding pressures as well as ISOS coming to speak about their latest research in this area. Committees will also be focusing on dealing with shortages of secure placements for children and young people as well as a new policy position paper on building a workforce that works for all children that is being led by the Workforce Development Policy Committee.

For me, 2019 poses as many opportunities as it does challenges and the ADCS policy committees will continue to represent our members to help improve the lives of the most vulnerable children and young people. So, if you’re already an ADCS member, I urge you get involved in a committee and add your expertise to what is sure to be a hugely important year for children’s services.

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A year of successes and challenges

Firstly, can I start by wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and all the best for the New Year. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all of our members and everyone involved in the work of the ADCS. Our amazing staff team, those who chair and attend our policy committees, members of our Council of Reference and Board of Directors and all those who work tirelessly in the regions; your work and contribution to the life of the ADCS is greatly appreciated and without it the Association would be a pale imitation of what it is. The greater people’s involvement, the greater our reach and influence becomes. I guess it is inevitable at this time of year to reflect on what has gone before and what’s to come and although it’s a season of hope, it also helps to travel with a big sense of realism.

One of the joys of this year has been visiting the regions and looking at the enthusiasm and drive that is being put behind Regional Improvement Alliances (RIAs). As we have moved through the shadow year we have grappled with some knotty issues but I feel that we are in a good place before we come together to review progress at our Policy Seminar in February. At the end of the day, RIAs will be rightly judged by the difference they make to the lives of children and their families up and down the land, but the early signs are encouraging.

The other big issue we have kept returning to is that of the money and this will continue to follow us into the New Year. As an Association we have been clear in stating there is simply not enough in the system to meet the level of need in our communities that we are having to respond to. The Safeguarding Pressures Phase 6 report was a stark reminder of this which showed significant increases in activity at a time of rising child poverty. I am often left wondering, what do families crammed together in Bed and Breakfast accommodation, reliant on their local food bank, make of the Christmas adverts on TV? I fear the reaction is too often to increase levels of household debt so that it isn’t their child that feels they are missing out. It is for these reasons we will continue to campaign for sustainable funding now and into the New Year and champion the needs of children.

I am not sure we have got any closer to our policy aim of this being a country that works for all children but it remains an ambition we will continue to pursue and, with your continued help and support, one I sincerely hope we will achieve.

Merry Christmas,


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Biggest reforms in a generation or the nail in the coffin for a...

Having recently had our Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) provision inspected by the Care Quality Commission and Ofsted, and received a report to be proud of, I thought I would reflect on whether the “biggest education reforms in a generation for young people with special educational needs” have really met the aspirations of children and young people or whether, in reality, they are falling considerably short.

I recall, a few years ago, talking to parents who were optimistic about the future. They were excited by the prospect of a system which provides them and their child with a stronger voice, a focus on long-term outcomes, closer co-operation between education, health and social care, the option of a personal budget and a clear description of services in the local area – exactly what was needed!

Schools, local authorities and health providers also shared this optimism. They were delighted to see an emphasis on greater collaboration, a Local Offer setting out all multi-agency and community services available for families and the opportunity for more parental control. However, the reality is far from the rhetoric.

A report by SQW on the impact of the reforms concluded that, although a reduction in the level of dissatisfaction has been sustained, this has not been accompanied by an increase in overall parental satisfaction, which is where I am most disappointed.

So, what has been the impact? Unsurprisingly, we have seen a significant rise in demand pressures:

  • The number of children and young people with education, health and care plans has increased by at least 35 per cent in five years
  • The number of children and young people educated in special schools and specialist colleges has risen by at least 24 per cent during the same period
  • Rather shockingly, children with SEND account for half of all permanent exclusions despite representing only 14 per cent of the school population. Further, of the children in pupil referral units, over three quarters have SEND
  • The number of pupils identified as needing SEN Support (formerly School Action and School Action Plus) has steadily fallen – this may be because school staff are getting better at intervening early to help pupils ‘catch up’ with their peers, but it is possible that there is an underestimation of needs and that some pupils are not benefiting from SEN Support early with needs escalating and pupils disengaging from education.

So why haven’t the reforms delivered? Was the context understood? Were the solutions impractical? I suppose when you extend the age limit for statutory support from 0 to 25, and when medical advances mean that more children with complex needs are thriving, the reforms and the financial impact assessment appear to have missed the bigger picture. I fear that the changes to a system which was considered by government to be too “bureaucratic, bewildering and adversarial” have not met its expectations and I argue strongly that this is not due to local leadership or lack of local ambition, but due to a chronic lack of investment, a focus on the wrong things and a naivety about the bigger context.

The financial position is close to ‘imploding’ according to evidence given by Dave Hill (Director of Children’s Services at Surrey County Council) to the Education Select Committee and I couldn’t agree more. Recent reports indicate that more than half of local authorities are reporting a deficit in their SEND budget which could translate to a national deficit of £536 million, compared to the projected national deficit of £267 million in 2017/18. This reinforces to me that it is not a local leadership challenge and instead requires urgent national action. However, this is not just a challenge for the Department for Education (DfE); the Department of Health (DoH) must appreciate that its current Continuing Healthcare framework is woefully inadequate to drive forward integration.

The other area where progress appears to have been limited is the use of the Local Offer. Many inspections of SEND provision are critical of local areas for not doing enough to promote this, but I don’t believe that signposting is enough on its own and to even think that a local offer would be the only solution fails to comprehend the various and complex needs of families. The focus is on the wrong solution.

Finally, I challenge the concept that personal budgets would be the best mechanism to give parents a voice. The market of service and support provision has been slow to adapt to the shift from a supply-led to a demand-led model, and many parents tell me that they don’t want to be responsible for finding and overseeing services. It may work for some, but for others, their lives are complex and busy enough.

So, if I had three wishes, I would ask for a focus on the following issues:

  • Funding which meets the ambition of the reforms across health, care and education - this will need not only a response from DfE but a commitment from DoH to review the Continuing Healthcare assessment framework
  • Workforce development so the whole children’s workforce is sufficiently prepared to support children with SEND needs
  • An inclusive education system where the enhanced needs of children with SEND are cherished.

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Being important in the life of a child

“One hundred years from now, it will not matter what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, how much I had in my bank account, nor what my clothes looked like. What matters is the world may be a little better because I was important in the life of a child” – Forest E Witcraft.

I should start by saying that my mum has agreed that I can share her story, which she insists is one of hope, and happiness. My mum, who is nearly 80 now, spent most of her childhood in hospitals and the care system. The quote above is the opening to her unpublished book and it reminds me why our work is so important. When born, she was diagnosed with Talipes Equinovarus a deformity of the feet, often leaving the forefoot turning inwards. It occurs in one in 1,000 births and thankfully nowadays, in most cases, treatment is non-invasive. However, for my mum, her early years were marked by years of pain, immobility and successive surgical operations, which included two years spent in hospital receiving treatment. She lived in abject poverty and was removed from her mother due to neglect at the age of seven. She therefore didn’t have the best start in life. Having the best start in life is often a statement we all use in our strategic plans and in our care system. In my mum’s case she couldn’t walk, had made limited progress in communication and spent an enormous amount of time trying to bond with people. Fortunately, we now have systems in place to ‘catch people’; the role of our early years services and working with our partners is critical during these early stages, particularly in spotting communication and functional deficiencies and working with families to support them. When working with children with disabilities and their families, building emotional health and well-being should be at the core of what we do.

My mum’s life changed when she entered residential care, she said she felt safe and secure, people cared for her and she experienced her first ‘family’ experience and personal bonds, living with 90 other girls and 120 boys (who were in another part of the grounds!) My mum said that the care home worked hard on her communication skills and relationship building and although it was a ‘strict’ regime it was also ‘character building’ and a very happy time in her life. I was therefore struck by the words of Junior Stringer, a care leaver who recently spoke at the National Children and Adult Services Conference last month. He finished his presentation by saying that giving children a positive experience in residential care is essential.

Whilst the majority of children in care are placed in foster care, residential care is the right placement option for some children and young people and it was a positive part of my mum’s life. In his review of residential care, Sir Martin Narey recognised the generally good quality of care provided by many children’s homes across the country and some outstanding practice and we should acknowledge the significant part that skilled and dedicated staff can play in a child’s development.

My mum was eventually fostered and then adopted in her later teenage years. These family environments enabled her to develop trust in adults, built her confidence, and developed self-belief in who she was as a person. It prepared her for the next stage in her life and enabled her to become an accomplished business woman, a fantastic mother and the happy person she is today.

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Celebrating children in our care

I recently had the pleasure of attending our Herts Awards, organised by the Virtual School for the children and young people in our care. There were over 600 entries, the highest number since the awards began 15 years ago. I don’t think anyone could attend one of these fantastic events without experiencing a full range of emotions from excitement for the children and young people for their achievements, anxiety that they might trip as they race onto the stage to sheer joy at how proud our children are to achieve and receive their well-deserved awards. A foster carer on my table told me how he can hardly wait at this time of year to see if an envelope drops through their door with an invitation for the young person in their care - this year she received a gold award and everything was brilliantly captured on video. The event was made all the more special as a whole range of children’s services staff and councillors helped out ensuring that it ran smoothly and, most importantly, that the children and young people had fun. What I take away from events like these is the important emphasis on what children in care can do… rather than what they can’t.

And it’s those last few words that I want to pick up on for this blog and the inspiration behind an essay contributed to by Kelly, Jemima and Tory from Hertfordshire, ‘Are We Valuing Care’ (a collection of essays, published by iMPOWER, on children’s services). How often do we hear about, and indeed contribute to, the negative perceptions of those children and young people in care? Unfortunately, we often hear about “poor” educational outcomes, “poor” career prospects, “over” representation in this area and that area, and our Children in Care Council and care leavers group have articulated how it feels to think that you may be one of those statistics. A young woman once described to me her emotions when a social work lecturer, talked about the poor outcomes for care leavers.

Herts’s young people in care are challenging us to take their Project Positive approach, to stop quoting and reinforcing statistics and speak confidently about how young people in care can achieve their goals and should “not be defined by what happened to them”. (It also makes you reflect on the current emphasis on adverse childhood experiences but that’s for another blog.) I know there are similar projects happening across other local authorities and through social media, care leavers are increasingly celebrating the whole range of their achievements. In fact, we heard from two impressive young ladies on this topic from the City of York Children in Care Council at the ADCS conference earlier this year. And many of you will have watched Superkids: Breaking Away from Care earlier this week if you haven’t make sure you do. It showed the strength of several superkids and their achievements as they expressed their experiences of care through poetry – at the end they read their poems in front of a packed audience on stage at the Belgrade Theatre.

So let’s celebrate success, strength and bravery throughout the year, campaign and change perceptions – this is what being a Corporate Parent is really about!

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What have you done to make you feel proud?

Since becoming a Director of Children’s Services in May 2010, I’ve never known a time when we haven’t had to make difficult decisions due to budget cuts and rising need for our help. Working in a relatively low-funded local authority means that we have had to ‘transform’ our services on a regular basis, and as the Revenue Support Grant has dwindled we have had to become ever more skilful at chasing opportunities to bid for short term, time limited pots of money from here, there and everywhere. However, there still isn’t enough money in the system. It is true that out of adversity comes opportunity - our staff take chances, put themselves out there and as a result we have some brilliant ‘supporters’ from people working in academia and charities, as well as the invaluable work from Research in Practice, who go the extra mile to help us become the best we can be. Their enthusiasm and respect for what we’re striving to achieve sustains us when the going gets tough - especially when we get positive tweets!

In North Somerset, we are very fortunate to have Dr Karen Treisman working with us again on developing our trauma informed and trauma responsive system. I found the first day both affirming and painful. Affirming because when listening to my colleagues around me, I felt proud to be able to play a part in creating the conditions for them to work sensitively with children and their families from a strengths based perspective. But it’s also painful to hear about children’s trauma, how we can sometimes retraumatise them, albeit unintentionally, and then to reflect on the fact that the environment in which we practice grows ever more challenging, as budgets reduce and need increases.

Through ADCS we continue to highlight the very real pressures that children’s services and, crucially, children and families themselves face and the need for sustainable and equitable long-term investment in children. We want a country that works for all children, one that recognises the importance of investing in them and their families because it’s the right thing to do, sadly, I don’t see much evidence that things are going to change any time soon at a national level. Back in North Somerset, on our journey to becoming a trauma informed and trauma responsive organisation, it’s likely to be an intricate, testing process but because we all believe it’s the right thing to pursue for our children and families, we’ll do it and I thank Karen Treisman and my colleagues for bringing us the opportunity.

“When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” (Alexander Den Heijer). Because we’re committed to achieving better outcomes for our children and families we’ll never give up trying, despite all of the challenges – it’s what they deserve.

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NCASC 2018 Round-up

The National Children and Adult Services Conference 2018 opened on Wednesday 14 November in Manchester with speeches from ADASS President Glen Garrod, ADCS President Stuart Gallimore and Councillors Antoinette Bramble and Ian Hudspeth from the LGA.

In his opening speech to the conference, Stuart spoke about how the story of Graham Gaskin has inspired him throughout his career in doing his upmost for all children and young people. He went on to speak about the increasing pressures on children’s services and highlighted evidence from the Safeguarding Pressures Phase 6 report, published last week, which shows how significant increases in initial contacts and referrals made to children’s social care over the past decade and rising levels of poverty have impacted on services. Stuart went on to talk about last month’s autumn budget announcement and the funding allocated to children’s services. While he welcomed the acknowledgement that more funding is needed, he stressed the need for long-term, sustainable funding to support the sector as a whole so that children receive high quality services at the earliest possible opportunity, such as early help services which support children and families with complex problems that require long-term responses. Finally, and in bringing his speech to an uplifting finish, Stuart spoke about the brilliant job that children’s services are doing despite these challenges and our need to be both the conscience and the ‘noisy neighbours’ of central government.

The full transcript of Stuart’s speech can be read here and the link to the associated press release can be found here.

Conference delegates were kept busy in sessions that ran throughout the morning and into the afternoon. In an interesting session that morning, Amanda Spielman (HMCI) and Yvette Stanley from Ofsted, spoke about new inspection frameworks for schools and local authorities. Amanda Spielman’s speech can be found here. During the session, Amanda spoke about missing children and the threat of county lines before announcing the publication of the findings from Ofsted’s most recent joint targeted area inspection into children who are criminally exploited. Later that day, in a very informative session about child poverty, president Stuart Gallimore spoke about the rising numbers of children living in poverty, many of whom in working households, and the challenges this presents to local authorities. We also heard from Lucy Butler from Oxfordshire County Council about tackling sexual abuse and exploitation. Throughout the afternoon, delegates were able to choose from a variety of workshops such as understanding youth outcomes, integrating children’s services and supporting those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) where research commissioned by the LGA and delivered by ISOS on developing an effective local SEND system was published.

On Thursday morning, delegates chose from another diverse range of workshops including a particularly interesting session on contextual safeguarding across transitions, the role of Performance and Quality Assurance in social work, as well as hearing from Donna Malloy from the Early Intervention Foundation about the importance of offering support earlier. Leading into the afternoon, there were engaging sessions on tackling criminal exploitation and gangs, and the National Transfer Scheme for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and the funding challenges that local authorities face. Later in the day, Stuart Carlton spoke about North Yorkshire’s ‘No Wrong Door’ programme before we heard from Junior, a care leaver from North Tyneside, who sits on the What Works Centre’s Children and Young People’s Panel, about the need to work with families at the earliest opportunity.

ADCS also published the 2018 Elective Home Education Survey on Thursday. This is the third consecutive year of the survey and approximately two thirds of local authorities provided data on the growing number of children and young people known to be home schooled. The report estimates that nearly 80,000 were known to be home schooled at any one point during with 2017/18 academic year, and you can read the full report here.

In the afternoon, the Minister of State for Children and Families, Nadhim Zahawi, addressed the conference and spoke about working closely with the sector and announced the opening of the bidding window for the early outcomes fund for local authorities in improving early language outcomes. Finally, Carol Brookes presented the findings of the Safeguarding Pressures Phase 6 report. The longitudinal study compares ten years’ worth of data showing the growing demands in children’s services. Carol thanked the 140 local authorities who took part in the survey, covering 95% of England’s child population. The day ended with a series of fringe meetings followed by the annual Guardian quiz. The ADCS team looked to defend our crown as last year’s champions and, despite a valiant effort, we finished in a respectable fourth place.

A variety of sessions ran throughout the final morning of the conference which included creating a continuous improvement environment for Children’s Social Care as well as modernising adoption and supporting Special Guardians.

In the afternoon, we heard from Matt Dunkley, Chair of the Resources and Sustainability Policy Committee, in a session about children’s services funding. Matt spoke about the many and complex pressures impacting on children’s services and the difficult choices that local authorities are having to make in meeting rising demand with a lack of adequate funding available. In the final plenary session of the day, The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, addressed the conference and spoke about the importance place and public services working closely together to help their communities while keeping people at the heart of what we do.

There was lots of Twitter activity over the last three days. Search #NCASC18 or see @ADCStweets for a summary of events.

Speeches and presentations from the event will be posted onto the conference website and shared via the ADCS bulletin when available. Here’s to what has been, yet again, another enjoyable conference. We hope to see you all again next year for plenty more interesting discussion and debate in Bournemouth.

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Making a difference

Listening to reports of yet more serious youth violence in the last few days and feeling sick to my core at the tragic and senseless loss of young life, and the devastation of family, friends and communities, I reflected on the continued challenges we face in trying to make a difference to the lives of families in increasingly difficult circumstances. Whilst last week’s Budget provided something for children’s services, it did not go far enough as children’s and adult services remain woefully underfunded. With responsibility for both of these services in Salford City Council, I find this hugely concerning, as do colleagues across the country. By failing to invest in children, particularly the most vulnerable, I wonder what message they are receiving about their value to society and to us all?

We increasingly know what works; relationship-based practice focused on strengths and personalised support, but with an understanding of the impact of trauma and the distress that lies behind so much of the challenging behaviour we see, to enable people to grow and recover. It takes time, commitment, skilled people and of course money!

Although our evidence base of what works is growing, without properly funded children’s services that help children and their families earlier before they reach crisis point, our capacity to deliver is shrinking while levels of need are increasing. There is no shortage of commitment in local authorities to do our best for children and families and we will continue to find ever more creative ways to ensure that the voices of the most vulnerable are heard, in a way that makes an impact and delivers resources as an investment for the future. Headline figures from the latest phase of ADCS Safeguarding Pressures research provides us with yet more compelling evidence of the increasing pressures on children’s services. Over the past ten years we have seen a surge in demand; the number of initial contacts made to children’s social care has increased by 78%, referrals by 22% and the number of children in care by 24%. The report highlights the desperate need of so many children in our country and the increasingly complex world of safeguarding. This reinforces the need to provide those skilled services that we lead with enough resources and support so that we can provide a range of high quality, safe services that support children and their families earlier. It makes sense to invest in children now, they are the adults of tomorrow.

Despite these difficult times, I am often reminded of what a privilege it is to have the opportunity to be a director of children’s services and see lives change for the better. (I would say it’s one of the best jobs in the public sector). We, like so many of the families we serve, have developed resilience in the face of adversity by working together, learning together and supporting each other. Amongst the staff in our services there is a clear passion for making a difference which will continue to thrive. At the Greater Manchester Care Leavers Award ceremony a few weeks ago, I witnessed the determination and pride of so many care leavers from ten authorities, achieving great things and overcoming adversity because of the support they have had to help them to grow and believe in themselves. Whatever else we do in these next few weeks, let all of us take some time to read the latest Safeguarding Pressures research, if you haven’t already. Let us get the needs of children, families, and the services that help and protect them, high on the priority list, locally, regionally and nationally. Together we can make an even bigger difference as we strive for a country that works for all children.

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Budgeting for the long-term

Local authorities are ambitious about improving outcomes for children but our ability to do this is being compromised by a 50% reduction in our budgets since 2010 whilst at the same time more children and families are in need of help with increasingly complex needs. We also estimate that over 100 new statutory duties have been placed on local authorities since 2011, many of which are woefully underfunded. No one can underestimate how hard we have worked to minimise the impact of cuts on children and their families by reshaping and remodelling services and making efficiencies but cuts to vital, preventative services that keep children and families together and prevent future demand have had to be made. This is not in children’s best interests nor is it the right thing to do, but without proper funding we are left with little choice. We need long-term, sustainable funding for children’s services which enables us to invest in both statutory child protection and early help services at the same time.

With the growing pressures facing children’s services in mind, I like many others, waited for the Budget on Monday with a mixture of hope and apprehension. Would there be anything for children’s services, providing some respite from years of under-investment and crippling cuts? What, if anything, would there be for schools? And would there be any recognition of increasing pressures on SEND and high needs budgets?

The Chancellor announced £400 million for schools to spend on the ‘little extras’, £410 million in 2018/19 for adult and children’s social care and £84 million over five years for 20 local authorities with high numbers of children in care, amongst other things. (More was announced for potholes!) Although any additional investment in services for children and young people is to be welcomed, it falls short of the sort of long-term investment in children that we would like to see and in some ways shows a failure to recognise the extent of the pressures facing schools and local authorities; the omission of SEND or high needs funding from the announcement, one of the biggest financial risks to our budgets, was of particular concern.

There is not enough money in the system to meet the level of need that exists, and we are becoming increasingly concerned at the government’s current approach to funding children’s services. Small, one off pots of time limited funding is not the answer to the problems we face. Earlier this week, the Early Intervention Foundation published a report on early intervention which supports this view, it clearly stated that ‘small, short-term, single-issue funding pots from national government’ are unhelpful in comparison to the benefits of long term funding for services. The mounting evidence for strategic, long-term investment in children’s futures needs to be listened to, and soon.

Next week ADCS will publish the sixth phase of its Safeguarding Pressures research which will sit alongside a growing body of evidence illustrating the increasing pressures on children’s services. Clearly, we can’t go on as we are, a country that works for all children must invest in children and families and we will continue to work hard to make this case to the Treasury ahead of next year’s spending review.

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Do we know what Brexit means for children?

The outcome of the ‘Brexit’ referendum in 2016 has triggered the single most significant constitutional shake up in living memory. Extricating ourselves from the European Union (EU) will have huge economic, legal, social and cultural consequences, some of which we are just beginning to get to grips with whilst others remain totally unknown.

I appreciate that the negotiating team have 1001 issues to deal with but the ongoing absence of children and young people’s rights, their welfare and safety from the debate is worrying. They aren’t in a position to stand up for themselves, they are reliant on adults to advocate on their behalf. We need to secure a robust legal framework that protects their best interests; EU laws and regulations on everything from toy standards and TV advertising to environmental protections and food safety standards directly benefit children’s lives. There are also dozens of EU instruments which impact on child protection as well.

Immigration was writ large in the referendum and two years on remains at the forefront of negotiations (alongside elusive trade deals). Despite this focus, life changing questions remain unanswered for children who live here but were born elsewhere or who were born here but their parents were born elsewhere. The Children’s Commissioner has rightly highlighted the impact of this uncertainty on children’s well-being whilst the Coram Legal Centre have also sought to draw attention to the immigration status of children living with relatives under the provisions of Dublin III arrangements and EU-born children in the care of the state.

We still don’t know if Brexit will curtail young people’s opportunities to work, travel and study overseas, or if the countless EU nationals we rely on to keep our public services, including schools and hospitals, going will be able to stay here. Perhaps the more pressing question is, will they want to stay given the spike in hate crime since the referendum? Will the European Social Fund, which has been an important source of funding in these austere times, be replaced as per the recommendations of an inquiry by the Work and Pensions Select Committee and what will the jurisdiction of our family courts be? An impact assessment on these decisions and some assurances from the relevant government departments would be most welcome, even at this late stage.

Children remain bystanders in the Brexit process, they didn’t get a say in the referendum and remain powerless as politicians and negotiators shape their future. I would urge the government to engage with children, to listen to their concerns and offer them meaningful opportunities to input into the future direction of our country. After all, they will live with the consequences of this collective decision longer than any of us.

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Should we be worried about algorithms?

There has been some recent national media coverage about local authorities using ‘algorithms’ to predict the likelihood of a child being abused. Should the prospect of a ‘Big Brother’ approach worry us, or should we be encouraged by the possibility of improving outcomes for children?

Algorithms, machine learning and AI tend to get confused. A useful starting point is that algorithms don’t need computers. The word itself derives from a Persian mathematician based in Baghdad, al-Khwarizmi, who was working around the time of 780 CE – no computers were available then! An algorithm is just a list of instructions showing how to accomplish a task.

Daniel Kahneman in ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ (if you haven’t read it, you must!) shows that almost all of the time, we ‘think fast’ using limited data, without thinking about how we are thinking – working unconsciously, on autopilot – and then drawing rapid conclusions before taking action. Fast thinking follows what Kahneman calls ‘heuristics’ – learned responses or simple rules of thumb – like ‘bigger is better’ or ‘if some of X is good, more of X is better’. Often this is fine, but where there are many complex variables or complex situations, we very often make mistakes unless we deliberately ‘think slow’ – consciously working things out so that we don’t miss the trees for the wood.

Kahneman’s ‘heuristics’ are algorithms, but they are very limited. Conscious or ‘slow’ thinking uses more complex algorithms, and in the professional world these are often codified into ‘flow diagrams’, ‘process charts’ or ‘operational descriptions’. Even the most talented professional needs an aide memoire to avoid slipping into ‘fast thinking’. (The downside is that these developments can be said to ‘de-professionalise’ practitioners, but I’d much prefer to have a surgeon who went through a checklist with their team before cutting me open rather than a prima donna who thought things looked OK and went ahead without checking…)

So, we’ve all been using algorithms for years. What’s new is clearly the operation of computers in applying the algorithm. Now, I have a 45-year track record in using data and IT (from my PGCE dissertation ‘The use of a computer program to analyse objective tests in science education’ to being Chair of the National Consortium of Examination Results) and I’ve come across most of the advantages and the pitfalls from personal experience. The GIGO law ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’ was invented by early computer scientists: if the data is poor, any analysis using that data will also be poor, even if the computer is working properly and is well-programmed. Machine learning can be extremely powerful – Google Translate enables me to talk to the Spanish-speaking members of our extended family with barely a glitch – and computers now routinely beat even the best chess players. But unless machine learning is fed the appropriate information, we will get garbage out that reinforces our own biases.

What do I conclude? Perhaps it’s obvious, but a computer-based algorithmic system is likely to be effective and rapid if it is fed accurate and relevant data and is properly set up to assess and take account of missing or partial data. Compared to a human decision-maker with the same data, the computer-based system ought to be better – computers don’t get bored or have off-days. However, it’s important that algorithmic systems are checked to ensure that they do not simply codify and automate human biases such as ‘tattoos are bad’. (Kahneman gives an excellent (if scary) analysis of the variation in the proportion of prisoners granted parole by US courts according to the length of time before lunch.)

Computer-based algorithmic systems are the future, but so are professionals, both to ensure the algorithms themselves are appropriate, and to ensure that the output of the algorithm is reviewed intelligently and not applied blindly (‘computer says “no”’).

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Evidencing safeguarding pressures

I continue to be amazed by the extraordinary efforts of the staff working in local authorities to support their towns, cities and communities. As Alison Michalska perfectly summed it up in her blog earlier this year, ‘the impact of local government on people’s lives is difficult to express, we don’t just fulfil one role, we fulfil thousands’. And we do it all against a backdrop of reducing budgets and increasing demand.

In children’s services departments, up and down the country, hardworking, dedicated staff are working tirelessly, together with their partners, to make sure that children and young people are kept safe from harm and are given every opportunity in life. This is no easy task as the need for our help and support shows no sign of easing and we face a £2 billion funding gap by 2020. Despite this, local authorities are having to divert funding away from essential services such as bin collections and filling pot holes, whilst we are having to cut the very services that we know protect children and families from reaching harm in the first place.

Next month, ADCS publishes the latest phase of its Safeguarding Pressures research and we hope the evidence from this will inform the DfE’s submission to the Treasury’s 2019 Spending Review. ADCS has been completing this exercise since 2010 by collecting and comparing data from local authorities in six phases spanning 2007/8 to 2017/18. This means that, for the first time, we will be able to compare a decade’s worth of data and helpfully 140 local authorities, covering 95% of the total child population in England, have submitted their data. This valuable evidence base will give us a much clearer picture of the pressures local authorities are facing in children’s safeguarding activity.

Over the past ten years, we’ve seen the need for children’s services grow as funding has reduced, and while local authorities have done everything they can to mitigate the impact of these cuts, there’s now nowhere left to turn. Instead, we’re forced to make counterintuitive decisions, like targeting early help services, which only adds to pressures further down the line. Current resourcing simply doesn’t meet the levels of need we’re seeing, yet we still have statutory obligations to fulfil. The money has to come from somewhere which means that other vital, preventative services are cut even further, not to mention the wider services that communities value, like parks and libraries.

Safeguarding Pressures Phase 6 will bring the evidence base up to date for today’s context and the findings will seek to build upon the huge array of research and reports already out there which clearly show the pressures that local authorities are experiencing. Only this year, reports from the APPG for Children and the Children’s Commissioner and Institute for Fiscal Studies have evidenced the effects that cuts to children’s services have had on children and families. The evidence base will continue to grow but we need to start seeing change. We simply can’t go on as we are, the findings from this research must be heard and acted upon before it’s too late.

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Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve…

One of the privileges that come with being the ADCS President is that you get to represent the Association at a range of interesting events. Last week I attended the first Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse Mandatory Reporting Seminar to speak on this subject. The government has previously rejected proposals for a mandatory reporting duty and a duty to act after a full public consultation on these issues. The evidence received, from a wide range of sources, had not “demonstrated conclusively that the introduction of a mandatory reporting duty or a duty to act improves outcomes for children.”

As an Association our position is clear; there is no evidence that mandatory reporting systems will provide greater protection for children and young people. We believe the existing reporting arrangements are sufficient and there is no evidence of professionals routinely failing to report. My task, in the seven minutes that were allocated to each speaker, was to outline the existing obligations on social care professionals to report concerns about child sexual abuse and restate the Association’s position and the basis for it. Namely, new duties would have the potential to undermine the judgement of professionals and could lead to increasingly defensive practice which flies in the face of the hopes and aspirations that underpinned Munro’s review of child protection. What soon became apparent was that this view was shared by the other professionals who spoke for the DfE, the police, health, and the voluntary sector, although some did feel that mandatory reporting in closed institutions had some merit. An uncomfortable aspect of this seminar was that this view was at odds with everyone who represented victims or survivors, or were themselves victims or survivors, who spoke powerfully for the need for mandatory reporting based on professional failures in their own lives or those they worked with.

That afternoon we heard from speakers from Canada, Australia and Ireland who each have mandatory reporting. They, again in seven minutes, outlined the whys and wherefores for mandatory reporting. In some countries this duty extended to the general public, with an associated criminal offence for non-disclosure of a suspicion of child abuse. Interestingly, whilst they had seen a significant rise in reporting post the introduction of mandating, the number of reports remained below those of this country based on child populations. Hopefully the second seminar will provide an opportunity to get underneath that and delve more deeply into the pros and cons of mandatory reporting which the Inquiry will subsequently report on.

At the end of the session, I am not sure those who attended will have changed their views. The seminar reinforced the complexity of the issue and the danger that in trying to solve one problem you may be in danger of creating another. What struck me powerfully as I left was the need to continually work to ensure that our staff and the wider workforce not only recognise the signs of abuse, but that they know what to do and who to report to. It is just not good enough that victims and survivors report that the wider children’s workforce are still telling them they do not know what to do or that they lack the confidence to report. Getting the basics right should not require mandating and getting the basics right will ensure children are protected.

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Diversity matters

Directors of children’s services (DCSs) are all kinds of different characters, but if you’re at all like me, one of the things you’ll cherish is the opportunity to spend time among children, young people and the wider communities in the area you serve. And one of the things you’ll enjoy about that is the diversity of the people you spend time with.

People differ from each other in a variety of ways, but for the purposes of this blog, I’m thinking particularly of racial and ethnic diversity. As a nation, our increasing diversity is a generational thing as today’s generation of children at school are far more diverse than previous generations. In my borough of Merton, 37% of the population are from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background; by contrast in our schools that’s 68% (which is nevertheless lower than the London average). That varies widely across the country, of course (the figure is about 30% across England, I think), but everywhere it’s changing.

Increasing diversity is a good thing, bringing with it a richer life experience, diminishing discrimination, opening up new perspectives for all of us, increasing our understanding of the world and helping us to generate new ideas. But do our children and young people see themselves reflected in the professionals who impact so profoundly on their lives?

Quite often the staff in the ‘people’ services in a council are more diverse in background than those in other departments, and may be as diverse (or more diverse) than their local community, but it’s fair to say that as we move up the organisational hierarchies the picture changes. In June this year we dedicated an hour at the ADCS Workforce Development Policy Committee to diversity in our workforce and in children’s services leadership. We heard from Meera Spillett about our Leadership Imbalance (Black and Asian leaders missing in action) and considered The Staff College’s Cultural Competence toolkit for promoting leadership and organisational change, issued in the ADCS Bulletin in February of this year. In the discussion we had to confront the uncomfortable truth that our organisations and our own unconscious biases can create obstacles to BAME advancement. A month later this was somewhat evident as DCS and AD colleagues met in Manchester for the ADCS Annual Conference. It was a great event, no question, but if you looked around the room with an eye to diversity, you would certainly have noticed that we’re nowhere close to 30% BAME representation.

Representation matters because: “you can’t be what you can’t see”. We are more likely to aspire to progress to roles where we can see that people like us have already succeeded, so in August I wrote to ADCS regional chairs to promote the idea of taking a closer look at cultural competence and what it means for our workforce and our leadership.

More recently, Ian Thomas (formerly DCS at Rotherham, now Chief Executive at Lewisham) writing in the Municipal Journal made two practical and readily implementable suggestions to increase BAME leadership in local government: increase the diversity of appointment panels and offer mentoring for aspiring BAME leaders.

I’d like to encourage my DCS and AD colleagues to consider putting these suggestions into practice.

Linked to this, The Staff College is seeking to better understand the longer term outcomes for participants in previous cohorts of the Black and Asian Leadership Initiative (BALI) programme and to further strengthen it as a result of this learning. There’s an event for BALI alumni on 11 October, which I hope will be well attended. I’d like to think that the steps we are taking will increase the racial and ethnic diversity of our workforce and our leaders over the coming years, so that all of our children and young people will see, and know, that they can be.

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Words may be mightier than the sword…

Now that the first few weeks of the school term are behind us, I’ve taken time to pause and reflect on the challenges and highlights of the summer months. As holidays become a distant memory and we build up to the inevitable budget planning round, I’ve found myself thinking about the summer experience for many of London’s young people. On the one hand there have been amazing opportunities to participate, volunteer, engage with each other and, dare to say the word, have fun. In spite of dramatic and counter-productive cuts that have had to be made to youth services, hard pressed councils, resourceful communities, voluntary and community sector organisations, and amazing groups of young people have planned, resourced, delivered and enjoyed a rich variety of activities. I am sure that there has been a similar experience up and down the country even if every year it gets harder and harder to do. There has also been the drama and excitement of exam results as thoughts turn to possible futures. You only get one chance to be a teenager so whatever the context that’s the one you have to take, and most young people do just that.

But for some young people the summer has also brought vulnerability to exploitation, the threat of ‘county lines’, fear and anxiety, and the trauma of violence. This group of youngsters get much media attention and little public understanding. Directors of children’s services and their colleagues across the capital have given a lot of thought to how we, as systems leaders, champions for young people, and corporate parents rise to the challenge of addressing the spike in serious violence, particularly knife crime, and the conditions that allow it to occur (it is worth saying this is not a problem unique to London as many areas are grappling with similar challenges). In the spring we brought together a cross section of practice managers from youth work, youth offending teams and social work to think about how we respond to these events when they occur and how we build a resilient workforce who can make a real difference to young people who, in some cases, are literally on the threshold of life and death. You can read the report from that event here.

The leadership challenge has been to resist simple single factor explanations or knee jerk responses and to recognise that reducing the risk of young people being drawn into the cycle of violence requires whole system thinking and a whole system response. This is sometimes referred to as a “Public Health” response. In my own authority, members, officers and partners have worked with communities and young people to better understand and respond to rising levels of youth violence through a Youth Safety Taskforce. This work, which started last December, was given extra impetus when two young men sadly lost their lives in separate incidents on the same night in February. The conclusion and associated recommendations are organised across five themes: prevent, identify, support, disrupt and enforce. Because of this, across the partnership we can ensure we have a whole system response which reduces the likelihood of involvement, helps those most at risk, disrupts the conditions where exploitation and violence can occur and takes action to keep young people and communities safe. There are no quick fixes but we have already seen some of the benefits.

So why have I referred to words and swords in the title of this blog? Well, when reflecting on the last few months, there were two points at which the power of words to frame our thinking about this issue seem significant. The first was in planning the taskforce, which originally had a working title of the Youth Violence Taskforce. Had the work continued on that basis I think our response, and certainly that of the young people whose insights have been so powerful in developing the recommendations, would have been very different. The other was a moment when, like many of you, I received another email from the police reporting a knife incident and referring to the injuries as “not life changing or life threatening”… and whilst I understood what this meant, I defy anyone to experience the trauma of being stabbed, or indeed doing the stabbing, and for that not to be profoundly life changing. For those of us privileged to lead in children’s services, we should never let the language we use minimise the impact of violence on young people’s lives or our determination to do something about it.

*The final report from Camden’s Youth Safety Taskforce proposes collective community response to break the cycle of exploitation of young people in the borough - click here to read.

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Children’s Funding – It’s “Code Red!”

“Yesterday, upon the stair,

I met a man who wasn’t there.

He wasn’t there again today,

I wish, I wish he’d go away…”

(A short excerpt from “Antigonish” by William Hughes Mearns.)

As a child I was always intrigued, and slightly spooked, by this poem. Little did I know that it was preparation for how it feels to be a DCS in 2018, when making arguments about the funding gap for children’s services.

By September, budget planning is well underway in local authorities and I imagine many of us are having similar experiences contemplating unpalatable and counterproductive cuts to preventative services, in order to protect already overstretched statutory services.

We do so against a background of national debate about children’s services funding. For the first time this summer, we have seen children’s funding commanding as much national attention as adult services and health. While this is a good thing, some of the responses from the DfE, Treasury and Ministers have been less encouraging. Put simply, the general response has been, “funding gap? Prove it – it looks more like variable performance to us”.

That’s where “the man who wasn’t there” comes in. Whereas local authorities experience stumbling into the funding gap and its consequences daily, it seems to me central government doesn’t see it that way at all. The gap they see is one of performance, not funding. That is because they see some local authorities are performing better than others with a similar level of resources, leading them to conclude, QED, that the funding gap is not there. Well if it isn’t, “I wish, I wish it would go away” to paraphrase Mearns.

Leaving aside for the moment whether this test is being applied to any other part of the public sector, let’s briefly consider the evidence on both sides of this argument.

On the one hand, we have various national reports confirming the lived experience of most of us i.e., 40-60% cuts in real terms to non-statutory services over 10 years, including early help, years of rising demand across SEND, early years, child in need and child protection as well as children in care. Rises in child poverty and homelessness, the impact of the welfare reforms and continued financial pressure on families with children. In the face of this, most councils have chosen to divert resources from other services to protect children’s social care.

On the other hand, we have the argument that, measured by Ofsted judgements, local authorities perform variably well with similar resources. Some authorities are judged ‘outstanding’ on current funding, therefore what’s to prevent all of us doing so?

While we know good safeguarding performance isn’t all down to money, we need to find a way to counter this false dichotomy between Ofsted performance and funding. At the same time, we must work together to secure greater investment in children’s futures as a matter of urgency.

Happily, this summer has given some helpful evidence. Our colleagues in North Yorkshire, East Sussex and Bexley have achieved the first overall ‘outstanding’ judgements of the new ILACS regime (take a bow Stuart, Stuart and Jacky!). Those reports show three authorities where great social work is underpinned by well-integrated early help and preventative services, put together in a planned way by outstanding leaders. Without those early help and preventative services, outstanding safeguarding performance becomes impossible, QED. Leaders of outstanding authorities are now able to evidence that they will not have enough money to maintain that performance.

The DfE’s own actions on performance support this. The huge extra resources thrown at intervention and the up-front investment required by the Innovation Programme show that change and improvement need extra resources, and are not scale-able without it… A question remains around what will happen to services funded through the Innovation Programme when budgets are tight and time limited pots of funding run out.

When I worked in Australia we had a wonderfully robust framework for managing the risk of bush fires to rural schools. On “high risk” fire days, when strong winds and high temperatures arrived, we would declare “Code Red”, and a smooth and well organised evacuation of schools would take place. As we contemplate our perverse options to balance the budget next year, it is surely time to declare a “Code Red” for children’s services funding nationally.

“The man that wasn’t there” is here now, and larger than life.

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An inspired corporate parent

Brave, brave, brave! This was the word bounding around my head as I sat beside three care experienced young people during a public meeting of the Council’s Cabinet. They were sitting in a packed Cabinet meeting, attended by the Leader of the Council; the Deputy Leader of the Council; the full complement of cabinet members; democracy support officers; the senior officer leadership team and members of the public and the press.

What were they doing? They were reporting to Cabinet about the progress of Takeover Day in Barnsley over the last few years, the impact that it has had on their lives and the plans for next year’s Takeover Day and beyond. They talked directly and openly about their individual experience, the difference it has made to their own aspirations and plans for the future.

This room was packed! Some might say it was overcrowded, it was certainly very hot – both in terms of room temperature and spotlight. In front of this large audience, these three remarkable young people delivered their messages clearly, coherently and with passion. You could have heard a pin drop. Not only because the members of the audience take their corporate parenting responsibilities very seriously, but because these three young people had, in their direct and respectful presentation, effectively commanded their audience’s attention.

Their overall message? You delivered on your pledge to children in care, you have high aspirations for us, you are helping us to have high aspirations for ourselves. Through Takeover Day you are taking one opportunity of many to give us the support we need to be the best we can be and to achieve everything we want to. Don’t stop, keep working with us to make it bigger and better. It’s not now restricted to a single day but runs over a week to a month, so why not year-long?

The response? Resounding support from the Council Cabinet to maintain their commitment to Takeover Day and beyond, to continue to deliver their pledge to support high aspirations for all of our children in care and care experienced young people. As corporate parents, to continue to explore every avenue in securing work experience, internships, apprenticeships and jobs for children in care and care experienced young people.

Their reaction? On leaving the meeting the young people were quite rightly proud of their performance and pleased with the response to their presentation. They had carefully prepared for an event that they found daunting, they had managed their understandable anxiety really well and used it to help them deliver a brilliant presentation. They had gained very valuable experience and were full of enthusiasm for it to be even better next time. They were also (and very delightfully) giddy.

My reaction? I was a proud corporate parent; there can be no greater pleasure than seeing young people face something new, something daunting and challenging, and achieve – that’s inspirational.

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Growing into the role

It was just about two years ago that I took up the role of Director of Children’s Services (DCS) at Staffordshire County Council.

This was not my first chief officer role; in fact it was the fourth, but my first within children’s services. Whilst I realised that my decision was not without risk, both for the organisation and for me personally, I wanted to try and make a difference to the lives of vulnerable children and families in my county.

But, if I am honest, it was with trepidation that I attended my first meeting of the regional ADCS group. How would this band of professionals view my appointment? Would I be able to contribute anything to the regional debates or would I be a bystander?

Well, two years in and as Vice-Chair of the ADCS West Midlands region (WMADCS), I can categorically state that my fears were unfounded. Although there has been some churn within the group, I have drawn great strength from the mutual support provided and excitement from their determination to improve outcomes for children and young people across the whole of the region.

In autumn 2016, the WMADCS group came together at Warwick University. This valuable time away gave us an opportunity to focus on our regional priorities for improvement, through a candid assessment of current performance, and to reflect on how effective we had been as a group thus far. There was agreement that we had created too many diverse priorities and that our oversight could be more effective. There was no doubting our ambition for the region but we needed to focus our vision on a small number of key priorities that would make a real difference and have an improved impact.

We agreed to concentrate on workforce and leadership; quality of practice; and education, skills and economy. Underpinned by: shared principles regarding managing risk and demand; improved commissioning; and effective governance whilst not losing the tools that have been effective, such as our agency workers protocol, self-evaluation and peer challenge.

A lead DCS was identified for each work stream alongside a lead chief executive officer and lead member. The work streams have driven the focus of the group ever since, aided by a small but effective support team.

So, where are we now? Has anything changed for the better? We have successfully secured an additional £3.5m through the MHCLG’s Controlling Migration Fund and £1.5m from the DfE’s Innovation Fund for ‘Future Social’. This is a regional initiative to create a stable and skilled workforce for the benefit of the whole region, involving one teaching partnership. We also continue to work on our Regional Improvement Alliance.

Our regional and national relationships have strengthened on the back of our improving reputation and appetite for innovation. Our Ofsted inspection outcomes have improved and educational attainment is heading in the right direction. We know that we still have a long way to go but it has been apparent that we are far stronger when we act collectively.

At a time when our services are under the cosh: more children and families in our systems; more savings required at a time of increasing demand; and difficulties in recruiting staff, the WMADCS group now provides a ‘safe space’ to share our individual concerns. It offers mutual support but also creates an environment to receive honest feedback when pressing concerns arise.

So, in the last two years I have moved from being a novice DCS to becoming part of the WMADCS establishment. I am grateful to my regional colleagues for their welcoming approach and heartened by the shared determination across fourteen DCSs to ensure that children, young people and families across the region get the best shot at living as happy and safe lives as possible.

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When fact is stranger than fiction

Returning home from my summer break was one of those occasions when fact was stranger than fiction.

On the flight, one of the films on offer was Kingsman starring, amongst others, Colin Firth. I won’t spoil the plot but it basically involves a spy organisation who recruit a young person with a particularly troubled background and who is heading for a life behind bars. Not the usual James Bond recruitment ground. It therefore came as some surprise, and no little shock, on my return to find references to children and young people being used as covert human intelligence sources under the auspices of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Since my return I have spoken with colleagues working in local authorities across the country and it seems many, if not all, directors were unaware of children being asked to take part in covert operations.

In the most extreme cases this practice is clearly at odds with the basic principles of safeguarding vulnerable children and young people. I don’t believe we have been consulted either nationally or locally on a case by case basis on the principles of this policy, yet directors of children’s services have a legal duty to protect and promote the health, safety and welfare of all children and young people. We also remain completely in the dark about the criteria used to select children to fulfil this role, the kinds of situations they are being sent into or the support they are offered before, during or after undertaking this role. We don’t know the numbers involved nor the age and profile of those who are gathering intelligence on behalf of the police or security services. Whether any of them are in care is a significant concern given our corporate parenting duties.

When questioned by the Chair of the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, the Minister of State for Security and Economic Crime at the Home Office indicated that previous criminal activity is a main factor for selecting young people. However, this overlooks the inherent vulnerability of children who are criminally exploited by unscrupulous adults and are coerced into committing crimes. The risks appear huge and, whilst I am aware of the longstanding use of children and young people to support trading standards operations, there’s an enormous difference between a 15-year-old being asked to buy cigarettes from a corner shop and them engaging in risky, and potentially dangerous, situations to help build a criminal prosecution case against violent sex offenders, radical extremists and drug dealers.

I’m pleased that members of the Scrutiny Committee have highlighted this issue and will be examining it further in the coming weeks. Without their challenge to the Home Office in response to a seemingly routine amendment to the legislation process, we might have remained completely ignorant of this situation.

Whilst things turned out rather well for Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, the gang protagonist in the Kingsman, I fear there won’t be the same happy Hollywood ending for other young people drawn into this world and I will take a keen interest in how this matter unfolds when it goes before the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

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Let's talk about local government funding

It’s the summer holidays yet negotiations are already underway in Nottingham to identify the next round of ‘savings’ required for the 2019/20 budget. With each year that passes this process gets harder, takes longer and feels increasingly counter-intuitive. In the beginning, there was some rationalising to be done but the services now being removed are the ones that our communities hold dear to their hearts – more libraries are closing, potholes remain unfilled, bins get collected less frequently, meals on wheels go undelivered, children’s centres are closing and community assets are being sold off.

In recent weeks the perilous state of local government funding has finally hit the headlines and I think it’s safe to say we’re entering uncharted territory as the first council edges towards bankruptcy and the list of others issuing similar warnings grows day by day. Whilst in some senses I was glad to hear these issues finally being debated on Radio 4 and reported on the evening news, I was sorry it took such a tragedy to get us to this place. Earlier this year the National Audit Office estimated that councils have experienced a 49% real-terms reduction in funding since 2010, for those who doubt the severity of our situation, I’d urge them to read this memorable interview with the Mayor of Liverpool last year. He spelled out our dilemma in no uncertain terms - even if he closed all of the city’s libraries and leisure centres, stopped maintaining its 140 parks, filling potholes or cleaning the streets and switched off 50,000 streetlights, he still couldn’t balance the council’s books by 2020.

Years of austerity are taking a toll on our communities and more families are tipping into crisis and requiring our help and support. There are now four million children living in poverty, two thirds of whom live in working families, and this number is expected to rise to 5.2 million by 2022. I’m always surprised and then saddened by how little outrage these shocking figures generate. Health, adult social care and the police have recently secured promises of extra funding thanks to widespread public support. This is understandable, everyone uses the NHS, most of us have an elderly relative or neighbour who needs support to stay well and live their best life and we all want our streets to be safe.

In truth, the impact of local government on people’s lives is difficult to express, we don’t just fulfil one role, we fulfil thousands. Millions of dedicated public sector staff work round the clock to build communities, to keep them clean and safe, to offer help and support to local residents young and old in difficult times. Over the last year or so council staff have also been at the forefront of responses to devastating floods and terrorist attacks, long after the emergency services have fulfilled their role. I wish I could adequately convey the pride and enthusiasm of the majority of staff I’ve met and worked with over the years; this dedication, this social capital, has sustained our services over the last few years in the face of continued challenge.

Relatively few people come into contact with children’s social care so it’s more difficult to persuasively make the case for investment, yet our ability to support children and young people who are growing up in violent, chaotic households or who are being exploited by the very adults they thought they could trust is diminishing. They are not to blame for their own abuse and neglect, nor are they to blame for their parent’s issues. ADCS is working on the sixth iteration of our ‘Safeguarding Pressures’ research which we hope this will provide the evidence the Treasury requires to commit to investing in children’s futures (and their education).

No one should underestimate how hard local government has worked to make efficiencies, to innovate and be creative. I recently re-read an interview with Dame Louise Casey in which she said: “… the best of local government is better than any part of Whitehall I’ve ever seen. Local government at its most effective is jaw dropping. It can inspire citizens. It can stand up and do things that are right. And sometimes I feel ‘come on you lot, show the country – show the bloody country – local government is worth something.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

We desperately need a sustainable, strategic, long-term approach to funding services for children and young people and indeed all of local government. A question mark hangs over our funding post-2020, which is impacting on our ability to plan for the future. A greater reliance on business rates has been mooted but I fear this will only result in greater inequalities in economically depressed areas, and more challenges. The LGA estimates that there will be a £2 billion funding gap in children’s services by 2020, that’s what’s required just to stand still, to turn the tide we’d need a reaffirmation of the value of preventative services, particularly in the early years and in children’s mental health services.

Failure to invest in children’s futures is a false economy and is only storing up greater human and financial costs in the future. It’s time for change.

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Secrets to a good peer review…

The secret to a good peer review is a great team. In any review there’s always a lot to do, both individually and collectively, in a very short period of time. There’s a huge amount of information to gather and a local context to understand if you’re going to be able to turn it into something meaningful.

The whole thing runs on teamwork, trust and usually a lot of coffee. Even though it’s acknowledged that this isn’t an inspection, there’s always the heavy weight of expectation that the peer review team will be able to create some new insight which will help the host make a breakthrough.

No pressure then. So, it’s critical we keep looking at ways to make our peer review teams as effective as possible. Here in the South East, we’ve been exploring the value of working in triads (not the organised crime variety) with three directors of children’s services (DCSs) working together as host, review lead and observer. I’ve done a couple of these now and it’s been really powerful having two DCSs on the review team, with the observer being able to provide support and challenge, keeping things on track and stopping theories from developing without sufficient evidence to underpin them; a trap which is surprisingly easy to fall into.

We’re also experimenting with multi-disciplinary review teams that go beyond children’s services. I’ve not long led a successful review looking at the response to neglect in Oxfordshire with the benefit of having the local area police commander and the principal social worker for adult services on the team. It meant a larger than usual review team of seven, but that in turn enabled us to complete an ambitious programme of twelve focus groups alongside eighteen detailed case reviews in a single day. It also meant the review team was able to see things, not just as outsiders looking in, but from the local partner perspective as well.

Too often, peer review becomes all about the process when it’s the people that make it really work. Yes, it’s important to have structure, but getting the right mix of skills, knowledge and experience within a team is what really makes a review fly.

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Putting collaboration on the agenda

We have a strong history of collaboration in Yorkshire and Humber and I’ve plenty of cause to reflect on this; at the time of writing this blog, I’m preparing for this week’s regional meeting where DCSs (or their representatives) from the 15 local authorities in Yorkshire and Humber come together, along with a representative of Doncaster Children’s Services Trust, to support and challenge one another in our collective endeavour to deliver better outcomes for children and young people in the region.

The agenda has just three key topics for discussion; leadership development; sector-led improvement; and Children’s Social Work Matters.

For the discussion on leadership development we will be joined by Jo Davidson, Principal of the Staff College. We share a concern, indeed a deep anxiety, about succession planning and strongly support the call for a national development offer. A dwindling number of us in Yorkshire and Humber benefited from the DCS leadership development programme that Jo referred to in her recent blog. As systems leaders operating in turbulent times, we have a continuous need for experience, skills and knowledge development.

In Yorkshire and Humber we have a strong leadership development offer for middle leaders, one which draws on capacity within the region and is strengthened by years of collaboration with the Staff College. We are really keen to feed into the future development of the Staff College, Jo is equally keen to hear our views. I’ve no doubt that within the discussion we will see many of the leadership behaviours that Jo discussed in her blog: nurture; challenge; support; collaboration; and drive, not forgetting cheering from the sidelines.

We will move on to spend a significant amount of time on sector-led improvement (SLI) as a Regional Improvement Alliance. Like many regions, our SLI work is supported by a Memorandum of Understanding and funded through individual authority annual contributions. The Memorandum has been progressively strengthened since it was first signed off in 2013 to reflect our learning and growing confidence in the value of collaborative SLI. We are currently on our fifth iteration.

The SLI Executive, chaired by Jon Stonehouse from York, will meet the previous evening and we will receive an activity report by exception. We will be asked to consider a range of proposals around securing greater accountability and a further tightening of our processes and systems for SLI. As an important part of the discussion, the meeting will check our progress on providing coherent regional support for individual local authorities where the need is greatest.

To date 35 peer challenges have been completed in Yorkshire and Humber through our SLI arrangements and we will hear about the headlines from the latest two. Our peer challenge methodology is becoming increasingly bespoke and I will be sharing Barnsley’s experience of the peer challenge of our ‘front door’ undertaken by a regional Partner in Practice; East Riding in June. One of the most important elements of the feedback I’ll be giving is the positive experience of Barnsley’s front line practitioners and team mangers. Finally, we’ll be thinking ahead to our next regional meeting when we will be joined by our DfE Regional Advisor for SLI and consider how to collaborate across regions following my recent trip to the North East where I heard about some of the great work taking place there.

The last key topic for discussion will be Children’s Social Work Matters (CSWM). We are very proud of CSWM in Yorkshire and Humber which has contributed significantly to the region having one of the lowest staff turnover rates in the country. Founded in 2011, this project established a website to raise the profile of children’s social work and encourage people to come to the region to study and to work. We advertise all our CPD opportunities and jobs through CSWM, it’s the go-to place for the latest news, webinars and CPD recording. For the first time CSWM will sponsor a national Social Work Award in 2019. The work group driving CSWM forward has submitted a paper proposing an updating of the regional commitment to social work. I’ve no doubt that the discussion will be both lively and collaborative.

Our final piece of business will be to say happy retirement and goodbye to our much respected colleague Stuart Smith OBE, Director of Adults and Children’s Services in Calderdale. Stuart is one of the first generation DCSs; he came into post when the job was born in 2005/6 and we will miss his experience, wise counsel, skillful challenge and very special brand of humour. After over twelve years in the most privileged but demanding of roles, we think he’s earned a break – good luck Stuart!

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School’s out for summer....

I’ve been thinking about education a lot recently as the end of another academic year approaches. As well as being the director of children’s services (DCS) in East Sussex I’m also a Dad to a hard-working lad sitting his A Level exams hoping to make it to university in September and a husband to a fantastic primary school teacher (I’m not biased, honestly). These different perspectives give me plenty of food for thought, about the pressure heaped on our young people by a high-stakes exam culture, about the huge expectations placed on hard working teachers and the lack of coherence in national arrangements for education.

As a system leader I’m still waiting for the ‘Brexit effect’ to kick in. We often hear that there’s no parliamentary time for wide ranging reforms or new legislation, yet the world of education never sleeps. I’ve lost count of the number of reports, green papers, reviews, calls for evidence and consultations that have come out this year directly concerning education or likely to have some impact on our schools. These come on top of the reforms passed in years gone by that are still bedding in e.g. this is the first year that GCSE results will be entirely numerical, 9 – 1 instead of A* - G.

In the flurry of reviews and reports that have come out in recent weeks some of you may have missed the Association’s new policy paper on this very topic, ‘A vision for an inclusive and high performing education system.’ I hope it offers readers an honest stocktake of the current position we’re in in terms of a shortage of school places, muddled accountability, a crisis in staffing, confusing admissions arrangements, stalling social mobility and insufficient funding impacting on our ability to offer support the most vulnerable learners. At the moment far too many children are being excluded or are being educated in alternative provision when they could thrive in mainstream schools with a little extra help and support for my liking. And, it is abundantly clear that the overall quantum of funding allocated to schools is insufficient when parents and carers are buying not just stationary and books for their child’s school, but toilet roll. The paper also includes some suggested actions, largely for government, to level the playing field and make sure that all children have access to the same opportunities and can achieve their dreams. Some of the asks are significant and we’re ready to play our part in creating a coherent vision for the education system and to help design a coherent and equitable admissions arrangements. We need to get this right.

As DCS, one of the times I look forward to the most (apart from Glastonbury) is the end of the summer term and the wonderful opportunity it offers to reflect on and celebrate the successes and achievements large and small of learners as well as the contribution schools and teachers make to the lives of children and young people living in the county. So, enjoy the summer holidays one and all, we’ll be buying our new pencil cases before we know it.

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Harnessing our collective responsibilities to young people

Highlighting the impact of neglect on young people is clearly presented in Ofsted’s Growing up neglected: a multi-agency response to older children. I was taken by some of the opportunities missed in harnessing the insight and expertise of some of our partner agencies, as well as the need to better support the training and skills development of our frontline staff working with teenagers. The latest JTAI thematic report offers an overview of findings from six local authority area inspections. One of the headlines was that older children facing neglect can often go ‘unseen’ as signs of neglect are not as easy to identify as with younger children. This is partly because a practitioner’s focus can be on the presenting behaviour such as anti-social activity and other challenging behaviours, rather than understanding the reasons behind a young person’s actions. Another headline was that better joined-up working from local agencies is needed to identify neglect sooner.

When it comes to safeguarding children, all local agencies hold the same ambition, high standards and determination to protect them. Our different responsibilities mean that each of us has a unique insight into a child’s life. Harnessing all of this knowledge and any other opportunities to prevent problems is key to tackling these issues early. We must also not lose sight of the fact that teenagers are entitled to care and protection from neglect just as much as younger children.

The report raises plenty of important issues and I found the reference to the growing body of evidence regarding a trauma informed approach very helpful. However, I was particularly taken with the messages around the role of health services. As the report points out, identifying neglect in older children can be more difficult and therefore requires a more co-ordinated approach. The importance of GPs, dentists and other health colleagues in identifying, addressing and reporting neglect were noted with some excellent examples of tenacious practice by individual practitioners such as school nurses. Making sure that frontline practitioners who interact directly with young people and their families have the skills to respond and the confidence to share key information with each other goes such a long way. This is especially important in spotting signs of neglect. Multi-agency training in responding to older young people and sharing the good practice developing in some areas is essential so that we have every chance of supporting all children in a family.

Health is an increasingly complex landscape and as we begin to put in place our new multiagency safeguarding arrangements there is an opportunity to reset local relationships and ways of working. This report offers some food for thought in this process, like how we meaningfully engage with a range of partners in preventing neglect of older young people as well as addressing the impact of neglect. For me it is about championing the rights of young people to feel and be cared for as well as finding the best way to co-ordinate our efforts with other agencies within the broader safeguarding context. There is no doubt that positive work is taking place as many staff across multiple agencies do what they can to identify and tackle neglect, however, we must continue to develop our practice to address the needs of young people of secondary school age. There will be new challenges and opportunities in the future with the replacement of local safeguarding children boards, but one thing will remain the same, tackling neglect in families will make a crucial difference to outcomes for young people.

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Developing the leaders for tomorrow

As a proud participant in ‘cohort 2’ of the national DCS programme in 2010, I wouldn’t have predicted I’d be writing a blog as Principal of The Staff College eight years later.

Since I started in April, unsurprisingly I’ve talked with a lot of people about leadership development. A common reflection is ‘I wish there was something for DCSs which prepares and supports us for the breadth and complexity of the leadership role we have’.

Now, this blog isn’t the place for me to plug The Staff College and its offer. Instead, and more importantly, it highlights the need for a clear national development offer.

The DCS role is beyond practice leadership – it is a systems leadership role, charged with improving outcomes for every child and young person. I can’t think of any other major role like this which doesn’t have leadership development and succession planning in place. It would be careless not to.

So what sort of development makes a difference? I’ve been reflecting with others on the quality of the original DCS programme – we felt invested in and supported. We met and created a network with colleagues from all over the country. It was mind-opening and challenged our thinking. It introduced us to international expertise from all sorts of fields we would never have thought were relevant.

It gave us something far better than a large and complex tool kit – it gave us concepts and skills development and confidence. Confidence to keep going and confidence to change tack, sometimes dramatically. It was inspiring not least because it felt like there were people looking out for us and our roles.

That DCS programme also illuminated for me the power and generosity of peers. Not just the moral support, although that’s important, it’s the power of sharing knowledge, of listening, reflecting and extending your thinking so that you can pick your way through to your own clumsy solutions.

A national programme shouldn’t take a sheep-dip ‘this is how you do it’ approach; that’s training, not development. It should be about the supporting of a leadership community, establishing an environment where it’s ok to try things out, to fail and learn from that failure in order to build skills. It should be about opening minds and thinking; about learning from others from within and outside children’s services. It should be about challenging as well as supporting to enable DCSs and their senior teams to continue to develop.

The leadership roles that we inhabit require huge courage and skill – there are not many things we deal with which have simple solutions. DCSs and their teams are leading change and creating the environment for others to lead change with a multitude of professions and with communities and individuals. We nurture, challenge, support, collaborate, drive and cheer from the sidelines, sometimes all in one hour. It’s no wonder it’s exhilaratingly hard.

It’s hugely important therefore that leadership development and succession planning is rapidly rising up the agenda again at both a national government and sector led level. There’s a challenge to set out a proposition for leadership development for the sector and if we’re serious about sector-led improvement, we should seize this moment. Our future lies firmly in our hands.

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Annual conference round up

The ADCS Annual Conference 2018 opened on Wednesday 4 July in a very sunny Manchester. As always the first 24 hours or so of the conference offered a private space for directors of children’s services and a select few guests to discuss the pressing issues of the day. The Rt Hon Lord Justice McFarlane, incoming President of the Family Division, shared his early reflections on the family justice system and the rising volume of activity. We also heard from Indra Morris who reflected on improvement, intervention and children’s social care policy as she moves into her second year as Director General, DfE. Later, Regional Improvement Alliances and the Care Crisis Review were all high on the agenda. Delegates also shared local approaches to tackling some of our shared challenges, including David Williams from Glasgow City Council who talked about some of the opportunities arising from the integration of health and social care in the city in terms of improving children’s outcomes.

Thursday morning kicked off bright and early with a session led by Rachel Dickinson, ADCS Vice President, and Rachael Wardell, Chair of the ADCS Workforce Development Policy Committee, on what a workforce for all children might look like. Ensuring that we have a 21st century workforce that meets the needs of all children and young people is an ADCS priority this year and the discussions in this session will help shape a future policy position paper. Next, our very own Debbie Barnes, Chair of the ADCS Educational Achievement Policy Committee, chaired a session on local area-based education partnerships. In this session we heard from Kathryn Boulton, ADCS Elected Director and Deputy Director Children’s Services at Derbyshire County Council, and Christine Gilbert CBE about the development of these partnerships, exploring the key challenges and opportunities which they bring.

In his opening address to conference our President, Stuart Gallimore, spoke about some of the challenges facing children, their families and the education system. His words were met with a huge round of applause when he raised the insufficient levels of funding in children’s services and highlighted rising levels of child poverty and funding for children’s healthcare too. Stuart stressed the need for a joined up approach to meeting children’s health needs locally and nationally as well as addressing their needs earlier. He concluded by praising local authorities who have shown their strength and determination to do the very best for the communities they serve despite a prolonged period of public sector austerity, a 49% real terms reduction in funding since 2010 and significantly increased demand.

The full transcript of Stuart’s speech is available, here.

That afternoon the Association published a new policy position paper which can be read here. The paper is wide-ranging and sets out a vision for an inclusive and high performing education system, stressing the need for clarity in the education system and parity in access for all learners. It makes several recommendations for government, the Department for Education and Ofsted. The policy paper was picked up in Schools Week, where you can read the article here.

Damian Hinds MP then took to the stage. In his speech the Secretary of State highlighted the pressures facing local authorities in relation to SEND and expressed his ambition for an inclusive school system for all children. He also touched on off-rolling, and alternative provision. We also heard from the Children’s Minister, Nadhim Zahawi MP, who spoke passionately about improving outcomes for all children, particularly the most disadvantaged. This was the first time we have had both the Secretary of State and Children’s Minister attend the conference, we hope this will be the first of many opportunities to engage.

There was an inspiring and thought provoking session on honour based violence and forced marriage from Jasvinder Sanghera CBE, founder of Karma Nirvana, a charity that supports people affected by these issues. The room went silent as delegates were presented with some staggering statistics about the age, gender and circumstances of victims and survivors. Jasvinder urged delegates to use a national helpline run by her charity on forced marriage which offers advice and support for victims of honour based violence and for the professionals working with them. The helpline number can be found on the Karma Nirvana website.

The day ended with four workshops on a workforce that works for all children, inclusive education, commissioning of placements for children in care and responding to parental conflict.

Friday morning started with another round of workshops on supporting care leavers, complex safeguarding and inspection. In plenary sessions later that morning we heard from Yvette Stanley and Lisa Pascoe from Ofsted and Matt Dunkley, Chair of the ADCS Resources and Sustainability Policy Committee, chaired a session on children’s services funding where we heard from representatives from the LGA, Newton Europe and the DfE.

In the final session of the conference, Amy and Shelly from Show Me That I Matter, the City of York’s children in care council spoke about their Aspire to More campaign, which challenges stereotypes, stigma and statistics around being in care, and explored what a country for all children should look like. Their personal experiences and message of hope about children in care bursting with potential ended the event on a high.

As always there was lots of Twitter activity over the last three days. Search #adcsconf18 or see @ADCStweets for a summary of events.

We will post speeches and presentations from the event on the ADCS website when available. We hope to see you at the same time, in the same place for next year’s annual conference.

Some of the resources, reports, tools and programmes referenced in the workshops can be found, below:

  • The ‘Trapped’ campaign in Greater Manchester aims to raise awareness of complex safeguarding, including county lines which can be found here
  • A collation of local responses to increases in violent youth crime across Greater London can be found here with a link to the full report at the bottom of the page
  • ‘Achieving Change Together,’ The Wigan and Rochdale innovation programme which works with Children and Young People at risk of CSE can be found here
  • More information on the Lincolnshire Ladder of Behavioural Intervention for permanent exclusions can be accessed here.

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Supporting our neighbours

Last week’s blog by Steve Crocker, Chair of the ADCS Standards, Performance & Inspection Policy Committee, got me thinking about improvement in children’s services. Over the past few years this has been a contested arena with a wide range of opinions on the type of support that is needed and where it might come from. In my view, key to success is always to be very clear about the needs assessment and a clear outcomes framework to commission against. For some, the arrival on the scene of Regional Improvement Alliances could be viewed as an added complication. However, they provide a real opportunity for authorities to work together to challenge and support each other to improve outcomes. Support from our neighbours is especially important now as we face significantly increased demand for our services with depleted budgets. As Steve touched on, RIAs will be operating in shadow form in the first year - this will be key to developing something that works and makes sense in each region driven by directors of children’s services and supported by those with an interest in improvement. Although sector-led improvement is nothing new to local authorities I am sure that there will be some real lessons to be learnt from what works, and crucially what doesn’t, during this set up year.

When a local authority receives a poor inspection judgement, there is a tremendous amount of pressure from all quarters to take decisive action before the dust has even settled. It is so important that we, as leaders, fully take stock, develop a clear, overarching narrative and a suitable improvement plan and, crucially, ensure the right support is brokered to assist with the transformation of services. Rushing this risks children’s outcomes.

In the fall out of a poor inspection result the director of children’s services can be overwhelmed with offers of help and support, some more welcome than others, some paid for, some not. The inspectorate and the Department for Education (DfE) will of course have a view about next steps too. Down the years the DfE has taken an eclectic approach to securing improvement - alternative providers have been commissioned, new operating models and partnership ventures have been created. It’s fair to say the results have been somewhat varied but this is not entirely unexpected given the complexity of commissioning (and delivering) children’s services and the weight of expectations. To systems as complex as children’s services there’s definitely no one size fits all solution to improvement.

Thankfully, we are now in a place where we routinely see local authorities being contracted by central government to support colleagues post-inspection. The Partners in Practice programme (PiPs) is breaking new ground in terms of formalising long-standing collaborative sector-led arrangements and central funding is bolstering capacity in a more systematic way. This feels like a helpful space to be in, but we can’t rely on a handful of PiPs to do it all. ADCS believes that PiPs could commission other local authorities to support colleagues with specific aspects of their improvement journeys in the future, some assurance and oversight will of course be required. I understand there is some nervousness within the DfE about this approach but here at ADCS we are clear that everyone has something to offer and something to learn. Whether it’s care leaving services, youth offending, adoption or school improvement, there are talented practitioners working tirelessly and creatively to achieve better outcomes for children and families right across the country.

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Co-operating to improve outcomes for all children


OK I made up at least one of those acronyms. But the theme that I want to talk about in this blog is co-operation which is inherent in all of the acronyms that I haven’t made up.

As directors of children’s services there is a temptation to look at our neighbours as, in some ways, competitors. We tend to want to achieve better Ofsted results, better adoption recruitment rates, better educational outcomes etc for the children, young people and families in our local areas. I suppose to some degree that is healthy and means that we strive to be ‘the best’, or at least the best that we can be. But the prolonged period of public sector austerity, increased demand for our services, a 49% reduction in local authority budgets since 2010 and new models of inspection mean that we probably need to rethink this – even for the hopelessly competitive amongst us (ahem).

In the South East region we’ve been trying to think through what this might look like, through the RIA. As the DCS for Hampshire and one of the DfE’s Partners in Practice (PiP) there is an expectation that we will support other local authorities. But at the moment we have based that offer on what (we think) we are good at rather than what other authorities in the region may necessarily need. That’s because this year is the first time in which we’ve had an annual conversation with Ofsted and the first time (at least for a while) that we’ve had a regional DfE Improvement Advisor acting as a link between the region and the Department. So, we’ve now agreed to share our self-assessments and the outcomes of our annual conversations between authorities so that we can better identify our collective needs. We’ve also got a regional data set (our Regional Lead is leading on the work to develop a national, real time data set for local authorities – and that work accounts for most of the acronyms above). It seems pretty unlikely to me that one local authority alone - yes, even Hampshire - will be able to meet the likely diversity of needs. So, the question will be how do we bring in the right support from across the region and vouch for the quality of that support? What happens if an authority is spiralling quickly? What should be the role of DfE and Ofsted in the ongoing discussions?

We don’t have all the answers at the moment but like all other regions we’ve committed to having a really good crack at it this year to try to work it out together. I for one am pleased that we have an opportunity to take sensible steps forward, work out our responses, trial and modify what we are doing and learn from how others are doing in this first year – whilst being cognisant that we must deliver improvement for the children that we all work with. This feels so much more sensible than an imposed top down solution but relies on our ability to trust each other, to try new things, honestly evaluate their success or not, to communicate what has worked effectively and yes, co-operate. On the one hand it sounds tricky but on the other we won’t have a better opportunity to shape how to improve services for children. And if it’s not us then who?

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As with so much in life you learn a lot from your children

As with so much in life you learn a lot from your children. It was only when my eldest son wound up his Everquest game by selling his virtual trousers for 150 real dollars that I realised this world was very much part of the real world. And my youngest son helped me to understand that the friendships developed online are as significant as those in the physical world for him. Multiplayer online role-playing games have become increasingly popular with people of all ages, from all professions – in an increasingly digital world it’s important that we are aware of the positives and dangers associated with them.

We are now well aware of the hazards of social media. As a vehicle for bullying and as a means for people with evil intent to gain easy access to children it is unprecedented. Many people rely upon social media for interaction with others and sharing with family and friends what is happening in their life. So the way in which we present ourselves and the feedback received through social media now forms part of our sense of self and sustains our well-being. It’s powerful stuff.

The Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, is leading the efforts of many to press internet service providers to take more responsibility for controlling what they can to make the internet safer for children.

The world of social media raises professional dilemmas too. There are important debates taking place about whether social workers should access social media in order to understand more about the people they are working with. If parents are posting things about their social life and activities on Facebook, is it legitimate to take this into account when forming a picture of family life? Or is this professional stalking?

But social media also operates as a force for good.

Through my Twitter account I have seen the power of personal support for people through times of crisis. The networks which organically form, of people with shared interests, enable connections between people who would simply never meet in the same way in the physical world. And the informality of the environment can also facilitate conversations which are very useful in taking forward important debates.

Over the past six months I have seen a very vibrant set of conversations amongst care experienced people on Twitter. Ian Dickson has successfully generated conversations about the potential for care experienced adults to contribute more to the debate about how we should be supporting children in care. Using the power of networking he has been able to generate lots of conversations to clarify and develop ideas and thinking.

And from this has come the idea of a conference, a physical coming together, of care experienced adults. He’s gained lots of support and it is now clear that this will happen in the spring next year. It’s pleasing to see support from of the Department for Education, Ofsted, the Children’s Commissioner and others with a formal role to play too. The University of Liverpool are on board with not only facilitating the conference itself, but also enabling research to support this area for the future.

And if Ian’s ambition is realised this will contribute to the future for children in care. As he puts it:

“Imagine also if those who made decisions about care had access to the massive experience and understanding of not just one band of care experienced people but could speak with care experienced people of all ages and in all their diversity, including those still in the care system and those who have successfully negotiated it and are now in the community. How services could be improved!”

None of this would’ve happened without Twitter.

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