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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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