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Cogs in the machine

As August arrives, holiday season and allegedly some warmer weather, our colleagues at Ofsted tend not to be focused on inspections (although we are hearing of one or two monitoring visits). So, I thought I would turn the attention of this blog away from that strand of the Standards, Performance & Inspection’s (SPI) Policy Committee’s work and concentrate on Regional Improvement and Innovation Alliances (RIIA), something that our policy committee also has oversight of.

Officially at least, the function of the RIIA went live just over four years ago. I say officially, because as we all know, the history of local authorities working within a spirit of mutual aid dates back far longer than that. Back in 2019 we probably all asked, and indeed faced, questions about the need to formalise something that we had been honing and quite happily working with for nearly 50 years. But at that point the advent of the RIIA probably gave us two key advantages. It re-established the voice of the regions within Whitehall, something that had been waning in recent years. They also established a vehicle by which we could receive funding on a collective basis. Both of these were good opportunities, and I think we have used the benefit well over the last few years, evidenced by the fact that Ofsted and the DfE have realigned their structures to match those of the regions.

Of course, we are part of the local authority system, and for us as directors of children’s services to gain the best advantage for children and families, on a regional footprint, we need to make sure that our CEO’s, our finance directors, our directors of adult social services and yes, our politicians too, work together regionally. To that end, there are structures already in place with organisations such as SOLACE, ADASS and the LGA to support this, although often it’s a challenge to ensure it’s prioritised within our individual organisations when faced with multiple competing priorities.

Thinking about the bigger systems that we are all part of and partners, such as health, police and education, add in Family Justice Boards and combined authorities (where they exist), and I don’t need to tell you how complicated this gets, just on a local level, let alone regionally. Boundaries are non-contiguous, sometimes they are effectively sub regions of our own, sometimes we are subregions of theirs. However, the truth is, there will never be perfection, so to use that old phrase, we are where we are. That doesn’t mean we stop striving for perfection, nor that we don’t get on and do, after all that is at the heart of regional working, at the heart of the RIIA itself.

The picture I paint is of one massive machine, with cogs turning, sometimes cogs turning within cogs. Often it works, and works well, sometimes it doesn’t. But thinking of those local authorities that have benefited, and more importantly the children who they serve, I think we have done OK over the last four years and this has been evidenced by a national improving picture. We have had some tough times in my region, the West Midlands, and through the RIIA we have been able to catch some LAs before they fall. We have at least one of our number who speaks openly about their tough times and the support they received, and how it was a not insignificant factor in their journey to Good. There are others, who no doubt we have supported in just the right amount and at just the right time, that we may never know what might have been had it not been for the RIIA.

Moving forward, we have work to do in strengthening system relationships, maybe top of the list is to establish a shared regional narrative at the ICB table. Most importantly however, is that we seek opportunity to work together, across the nine regions, not so that we morph into one, but so that we share a united vision for the purpose of the RIIA, because at the end of the day localism and place remains central to the concept of supporting our own. To that end, SPI has RIIA’s back and we will ensure that whatever the future brings for regional working, at ADCS we will speak as one.

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