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Wed, 06 Jul 22 11:59

The power of our Association

This blog was first due a couple of weeks ago, but the small matter of an ILACs inspection diverted my attention. I can confirm that spending three of your last four weeks before retirement alongside your friends from Ofsted is simply the best way to ease out of a 40-year career.

As this is my final blog before toddling off next week, my editors at ADCS Towers gave me a bit of leeway to ruminate more personally. However, Josh McAllister’s Independent Review of Children’s Social Care final report was published this week, which I could hardly ignore in favour of a greatest hits karaoke from my life as a Director of Children’s Services (DCS). I’ll save that for my farewell drink with my South East DCS colleagues.

The publication of Josh’s report adds to the feeling that we stand at a critical juncture in the future of children’s services. Alongside the schools white paper and the SEND and AP green paper, Josh’s review and the government’s response to it will define our policy landscape for the next five years. One factor common to all is that the role of the DCS is central to each, and we will knit them all together for children, young people and their families in our local areas. This may sound obvious, but I can remember many times in my several centuries as a DCS where this was not a given, and several occasions where the role itself has been under threat. There are huge opportunities now, and the future looks bright.

ADCS has always been “a club I am proud to be a member of”, and never more so than now. The influence of colleagues from our Association to the development of all three government policy initiatives is obvious, including from our late friend Sarah Caton and ADCS staff. The measured, constructive but challenging response by ADCS President Steve Crocker and our leadership to each will ensure we play a formative role in their development and implementation.

There is power in our association, and in our Association. Any DCS is carried on the shoulders of giants – those who make up the bulk of the membership of ADCS - our leadership teams. They, alongside our wonderful staff at ADCS do the heavy lifting and keep our remarkable Association going as the collegiate, supportive and sector-leading organisation it is now, but also a lifeline for advice and friendship in the very challenging jobs we hold.

DCS can be a lonely role. We occasionally deal with tragedy, terrible loss and harm to children. We suffer a punitive and sometimes a personal blame game, fuelled occasionally by binary, zero-sum regulation and monitoring which can make the job feel undo-able (for clarity, this is not a reference to my recent ILACS). In social care our biggest successes often go unnoticed or uncelebrated, because they are invisible, and they involve stopping bad things happening. One failure will always trump a thousand successes.

However, it remains the best job in the world. We get the joy of working with children and young people and their goodness, optimism and capacity for love, and the privilege of sometimes doing things which make their lives better. There is no better feeling or motivation for getting up in the morning than to be paid to do that. I shall miss it, and it has been a joy to do all these years, but it has only been made possible by the power of our Association. Please continue to cherish it, and each other.

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A role like no other

I find myself writing this blog at a strange time – two days before I am due to leave Northumberland County Council to take up the Director of Children’s Services (DCS) role in Newcastle City Council. Consequently, I am using the opportunity to reflect on the role of the DCS and the significant impact that this critical role can have on the outcomes for children.

This past year has seen some challenges and changes for the sector (and I don’t mean Covid) and the uncertainty of the future direction of children’s services (schools white paper and SEND and AP green paper) and the odd adverse media stories which are never helpful. Just this week I was surprised to see the former Children’s Commissioner on breakfast TV advising the public to contact the NSPCC if they have concerns about a child rather than children’s services as they are more likely to get a response. Local authorities and children’s services are under a lot of pressure but keeping children and young people safe is always top of our to do lists.

Having never previously had a desire to be a DCS, and becoming one quite by accident, the enormity of the responsibility was well understood and accepted by me. No matter what background you bring to the DCS role - social care, education or some other career path - the learning curve is always steep.

I am sure most of you will have heard the analogy of a DCS being likened to a football manager, and I can see the similarity of winning/losing the FA Cup and achieving a positive/negative Ofsted outcome. But being ultimately responsible for the outcomes for thousands of children is not all about awards and Ofsted. As you all know, children’s services is the most regulated and risky of local authority services, (although receives slightly fewer complaints than potholes and fly tipping) with recruitment and retention pressures, increased demand of services, reduced budgets, ever changing guidance, legislation and process.

So, with all of the above, why would I voluntarily wish to change one DCS role for another in a different authority? Similar pressures, issues and demands but just with a different demographic. Despite this, I think that the DCS role can be one of the most rewarding jobs on offer. I have been grateful for the wide experience and opportunities I have had in my current dual role of DCS / DASS and Deputy Chief Executive (and more weirdly managing the Fire Service), but I am looking forward to focusing on one area - one huge area - and absolutely hoping to help make a difference to children’s lives as a Director of Children’s Services.

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A game of marginal gains

I am sure that the West Midlands is no different to any other region, in that recruitment and retention seems to be our number one topic of conversation. However, it does seem that momentum is building towards this becoming a national debate. I, like others, warmly welcome the words of Steve Crocker in his inaugural speech as ADCS president, and I echo his sentiment regarding the agency market and the impact that ‘managed teams’ are having on our regional and national workforces.

The agency market, of course, is just part of this complex issue. There are numerous reasons why workers enter the locum market, and for many, maybe even most, it is not always about the money. It seems that there is a growing anxiety about committing to employers and we have a responsibility to understand what that is about.

Our ambition, in the West Midlands, is to build a regional workforce who feel supported, valued and cared for. By doing so we aim to bring stability for the children and families whom we work with. Last year, aided by funding from our Building Back Better bid, we set about trying to find the magic answer, of course knowing that we are in it for the long game as there are no instant answers. That said, and maybe fittingly, for a year when our region plays host to the Commonwealth Games, there is much to learn from the sporting principle of marginal gains. So, for example, we are taking a closer look at our wellbeing offer and considering ways that we can be more consistent across each of our local authority areas; we are exploring ways we can raise the profile of the children’s workforce in our region; and thinking about how we might use our allied staff to take some of the workload off of our social workers.

In short, what we are trying to achieve is fourteen caring and responsive children’s services departments, that work together to attract the best talent out there to our region and offer stability to both our workers and the families they support. Our problem is, even if we find staffing Utopia, it’s quite likely that every other region will too and if all 152 local authority areas get there, the bottom line is, there simply are not enough sufficiently experienced professionals to fill the posts available. It is quite possible, therefore, that as ambitious as we think we are, we are not being ambitious enough!

Might it be that we accept that staff move on, and so we actually support this. We encourage workers to try new roles, in different areas. One day they might come back, saying “I’ve got that experience now, let me share it with you”. Should we consider intra-regional secondments, or set up our own “project teams” sent out from our best local authorities to support those who need a little support? Brave? Definitely, but innovative, aspirational and truly ambitious.

Whilst marginal gains are important and will serve to make us all the best employers we possibly can be, after all none of us would want anything different, the conversation needs to be bigger. So, the new ADCS President has set out his vision but let us all treat his words as a call to arms, let’s make sure in every conversation that we have with Ofsted, with the DfE, with our local politicians that training, recruiting and retaining a quality children’s workforce is front and centre of the agenda. After all, it’s nothing more than the children of this country deserve.

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Two years on...

Two years ago I remember sitting in my garden during the spring time of the first lockdown with so many mixed feelings. There was a sense of sparkle with the incredibly bright, clear skies of a spring I hadn’t experienced for years, if ever. The atmosphere was fresh and yet loaded with anxiety and concern for everyone’s health and welfare in the midst of the pandemic.

At that time, for some children, there was a sense of families coming together, spending time creating joint activities, filling time, and making the most of being ‘locked down’. Of course, this was not a positive experience for all children, but I remember thinking that perhaps re-establishing the value of being together as a family could be a positive spin-off from a very difficult and scary time.

Two years on I am sorry to say the optimism I felt for children and their families has waned and the sense of a generation who will grow up having missed a level of social inclusion and growth over the last two years is immense and intensified for those vulnerable children who we seek to help to flourish.

With more children arriving in the UK from different cultures after traumatic events, there is an increasing potential for more children to be trafficked; children missing from home is a societal issue everyone should be concerned about. A new report from ‘Every Child Protected Against Trafficking UK (ECPAT UK) and Missing People’ found that one in three trafficked children went missing from local authority care in England in 2020, 25% more than in 2018, in addition missing children were missing 8 times in one year compared to 6.5 times for non-trafficked children in the care system.

Several significant national reports and papers are being published during 2022 which shine a light on services for children and young people and so far a positive theme amongst them has been one of inclusion rather than exclusion. A key document for the next quarter will be the publication of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care which I also hope will enable change, allowing children and young people in care to be more stable in their homes with committed care providers who will stay committed no matter how tough the road gets. Children in residential care in particular are often the most vulnerable due to their complex needs and behaviours and yet, as the data from the above mentioned report shows, for some children care isn’t a safe haven and they feel the need to run away, often due to their experience of high levels of instability, insecurity and rejection.

Children in care are not a commodity to command the highest price and be ‘returned’ when they falter; children need love, care, understanding, tenderness, fun and a sense of belonging. Many care staff provide all this and more, with an amazing commitment to children and to their role. Ever the optimist, I hope the care review reinforces that the system needs to be equipped to do this too and provides a direction of travel with clear expectations to enable it to happen more consistently for all vulnerable children.

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Between the hammer and anvil

As Director of Children’s Services (DCS) for one of the 75 areas eligible for the Family Hubs and Start for Life programme, I am pleased that the importance of the first 1001 days is being supported in a whole family systems approach. However, at the same time I am disappointed that this package is not for all areas, nor does it reach the aspiration of Family Hubs across the 0 – 19 age range. This raises the perennial question of whether early help, preventative services, family support, early intervention, however we describe them, are valued and sufficiently resourced, particularly with our challenges of addressing adolescent risk and safeguarding.

Many years ago, a very wise and inspirational DCS, at the time my line manager, gave me a powerful analogy for early help services when in our 1:1 as we sat grappling with the purpose, benefits and status of our early help services. In his sage like style, he stated “the thing is that early help will always be between the Hammer and Anvil of Social Care and Education”. This hit me hard. Was I, at that time the Assistant Director for our Early Help and Youth Offending services, always going to be bashed and compressed by these power houses? The analogy often weighed heavy on me, and I think many practitioners and leaders of non-statutory services often feel they are the poor relative of the regulated statutory services. However, that analogy over the years has actually helped me recognise and describe the value of early help services.

The very title “early help” is something of an obstacle and misnomer and limits its value. Many of us now describe our non-statutory services differently to reflect the fluidity of early help and prevention services which can be provided in a myriad of ways; as early support before any other intervention, as a step down from, a rereferral or alongside and to complement social care. Here in Greenwich, we have rebranded our services to Family and Adolescent Support Services.

Notwithstanding this nuance in language, the name is less important than what we actually do. And herein may lie some of the problem. Due to the short-term nature of funding, constant uncertainty about the policy direction for non-statutory practice, no one responsible government department, we navigate with a lack of clarity. Over the years we have designed services, redesigned services, made up elements, and borrowed from others as we go along. Indeed, we have some good, shared principles that have developed practice over the years but this is not sufficiently located as part of our established system complementing both our education and social care systems.

London has a strong “Early Help” (sic) offer. As chair of the London Adolescent Safeguarding Overview Board, I am proud of the work we are beginning to undertake and the partnership buy in across London. One of the work strands we are implementing is a pan London joint venture between local authorities and the Violence Reduction Unit. We have called it “Your Choice”. It is a non statutory programme delivered by adolescent workers across the configuration of arrangements that make up London and you can read more about it here.

And here we can come back to the hammer and anvil. Over the years the analogy kept presenting me with a missing component, that which is between the hammer and anvil is the magic. The hammer and anvil have a function to bring out the best of the metal they are forging to develop tools for the future, Not understanding or respecting the metal will result in poor quality tools or flat metal. Paying attention, working together as hammer and anvil and metal creates the magic of change. Good family and adolescent support can be and should be valued as an important component in the alchemy of change. But we all have to work together as a respected system with equality and not hierarchies of statutory status.

Let’s hope that the forthcoming Independent Review of Children’s Social Care recognises the alchemical beauty of that which is between the hammer and anvil and the usefulness of non-statutory family and adolescent support and that we all work together as part of a cohesive system of change makers.

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Navigating a time of change

Looking outside at the spring sunshine it feels like change is in the air, although as I’m in the North East it’s still a bit chilly. This is my first blog since being elected as ADCS Vice President and it’s a huge honour to take on the role supporting Steve Crocker in his Presidential year. There is a big agenda to tackle, and Steve set out the ADCS position and priorities clearly in his excellent inaugural Presidential speech.

Underpinning everything is the impact of endemic poverty, the pandemic and the cost of living crisis on the daily lived experience of our children and families which must be addressed through national policy. Steve’s call for us as a society to prioritise our children and young people is critical but it requires a joined-up policy agenda with clear accountability at the heart of government. We cannot achieve our ambitions for children unless this is put in place urgently with outcomes for children and young people central to ‘levelling up’ plans.

Whilst there is still a lack of a clear joined up national plan it is really encouraging to see the direction of travel of the recently published schools white paper and the green paper on SEND and Alternative Provision. The alignment and systemic approach that has been taken opens up real opportunities to develop a genuinely inclusive education system and to remove some of the conflicts that currently exist in the system. When the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care is published, I hope to see further join up to consider the lives of children holistically and remove some of the silos that have existed for far too long.

In a time of change with multiple new national policy positions we also need to be clear about how that ambition is translated into reality to improve the lives of children and young people. We know from experience of past legislation that implementation is crucial, and the devil is in the detail. We cannot afford to get this wrong again and it’s important that a breadth of voices are fully involved as we move into the next phase.

That brings me to the workforce challenges that we face across multiple service areas. We can have the best plans in the world but will be unable to deliver them without addressing the workforce sufficiency challenge which continues to be most stark in social work. To enable our social workers to achieve high quality relationship-based practice we must ensure manageable caseloads that allow for quality direct work and the time and space to build strong relationships.

To do this we must understand the structural and environmental challenges to workforce sufficiency and address them through a national strategy. This needs to include, amongst other things, the role of agencies, the profile of the profession, and an area that I think has been neglected around retention. Of course, better investment in our workforce from national government is the common thread that runs through all of these points. Our social workers are amazing, working in exceptionally difficult circumstances and we must give them the right environment in which to practice.

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Plenty on the horizon

I am pleased and proud to continue to chair the ADCS Health, Care & Additional Needs Policy Committee. The committee has a wide remit but an important part relates to special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) which has taken on particular importance during the months, and years, in the lead-up to the SEND and AP Green Paper being published last week. I recognise that other ADCS policy committees will have a significant interest here too. By and large, the Green Paper’s aim to provide the right support in the right place at the right time has been well received and deservedly so. ADCS will, of course, respond to the Green Paper in detail and play a full part in sharing our expertise on the way that young people and their parents experience services on the ground.

The paper includes a number of exciting things that are so important. The ambition to digitise the offer for young people and to look at consistency nationally is an important next step. Clarity on roles and responsibilities for all partners with aligned accountabilities is key to success and the call for a greater focus on the needs of children with SEND within the health workforce provides another opportunity. With the recently published Schools White Paper, there is scope to move towards a more inclusive education system which focuses on the holistic needs of children and young people through greater partnership working. However, education is only part of the answer. We need a child-centred vision for what ‘good’ looks like in the SEND system; wrap around support, short breaks and strong partnerships with parents are important parts of this. We have come a long way since the 2014 SEND reforms with improved joint working and there is much more on the horizon. However, our ambitions for children with SEND is rooted in legislation much further back.

In 1982, I was teaching with a responsibility for children with special educational needs. I was very excited to be part of the implementation of the important 1981 Education Act which was a landmark in its time regarding the way that we assessed individual children’s needs and set out their entitlement in a way that parents could co-design and understand. This took us to an important place for the rights of every child. I have every hope that the new SEND Green Paper will be looked back on with the same pride that I look back on that reform, which is so long ago. Good luck to everyone who is going to contribute to this important debate.

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In preparing for this blog, I re-read Charlotte Ramsden’s final blog as ADCS President from last month, “time to pass the baton”. As someone who enjoys sport it struck a chord - we seem to be on a continual relay these days and it is definitely an endurance race. Only last week we saw the publication of the “Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child” schools white paper and the “Right support, right Time, right place” green paper following the SEND review. We also still await the outcome of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care.

So now time to digest and respond to these new policy papers whilst continuing to deliver the day job. Is there any such thing these days? We continue to see high rates of Covid-19 and the disruption this is causing to schools and children and young people. We have increased demand for our services in many areas and are working with partners experiencing similar pressures.

There is little indication of any let up, so what is it that keeps us going? It is, of course, the right thing to do, we have statutory responsibilities, are public servants and it is our job. These are all true but really it is because we care. We are preparing for the arrival of Ukrainian children and their families, in yet another unprecedented situation. Although never at the expense of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, those in need or at risk in our areas nor the children in our care or who have left care. All of this alongside ensuring children in our communities have access to the best educational opportunities.

This blog wasn’t intended to make us question why we do what we do, although some days it is a question I ask myself and I doubt I am alone. Rather, it is to acknowledge the care, passion and determination shown by those of us who work in children’s services to keep children safe and deliver the very best services we can.

So how do we do it? Caring alone isn’t enough. But we so all have that important quality that makes us continue trying to do something even when it is difficult, yes that is right, determination. It exists in bucket loads (technical term) but don’t forget to ensure your bucket gets topped up as needed. We have the invaluable support of the ADCS team and its members and I wanted to say a collective thank you to Charlotte for receiving the baton so smoothly and supporting us through another turbulent year.

We will continue to support the most vulnerable because we care and are determined. In the words of a famous relay runner Usain Bolt “The difference between the impossible and the possible lies in determination.”

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Receiving the baton at full pace

By the time that you read this, the machinery of ADCS will have worked its magic and the baton that Charlotte handed over to me in her last blog will be firmly gripped in my paws. It’s been such a pleasure working with Charlotte over the last year. Not knowing each other that well beforehand we’ve been thrown together through difficult circumstances and the sheer busyness of what has been happening in the sector; I think we’ve managed to forge a great friendship during that time and, I like to think, a pretty formidable partnership. Thank you Charlotte, for everything. This next year sees John Pearce, Director of Children’s Services (DCS) in Durham, moving into the Vice President’s role and John has already made an impact, joining our regular meetings with the Department for Education and others.

Before Charlotte handed over, there was still time for us both to represent ADCS at a reception thrown by the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street to honour those who worked in the children’s sector during the response to the pandemic. I’d be the first to say that the response isn’t over yet given the high infection rates that we still see but it was nice to be able to represent DCSs at this event and another marker I think, that ADCS as an organisation continues to have strong influence and recognition.

One of my incoming Presidential duties recently has been to talk to aspiring Directors on the Upon programme run by the Staff College. Whilst I am not sure how useful my words of wisdom were, it was exciting to see the next generation of system leaders coming through and I hope that they will become as involved in ADCS as so many of you are.

I now look ahead to the next year with some excitement and just a little trepidation of course. There are two major pieces of policy on the starting blocks. The SEND Green Paper and the Schools White Paper have now both been published and we will continue to work with government as they progress. Both reports, I am pleased to say, bear the imprint of our influence – something that has been painstakingly built up over years. It shows the importance of patience, winning the arguments and relentlessness in the way in which, for example, we now see changes to the powers of local authorities being put forward by government. There is much more to come of course when the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care is published. We will want to respond to these papers as an association and further influence how the subsequent policies are rolled out. To do this we are trialling some new ways of working for ADCS, bringing together representatives from different policy committees to get a fully rounded response, pulled together in quick time, using the new technologies that we are now all so reliant on.

Before I go, a quick word on our collective responses to the crisis in Ukraine. As well as working with the Department for Education and the Home Office in helping them to understand some of the issues on the ground, I have been in touch with DCSs during the past week to get a handle on how we are all responding as the situation unfolds at pace. I know that the next few weeks and months will be challenging for us as we try to ensure that Ukrainian refugees are safe and welcomed in the right accommodation with good schools and support services available for the children. Nevertheless, I know that we will also rise to that challenge, as we always have done, putting children first.

I wonder what else the year ahead will have in store for us. Whatever it will be, I know that I will be supported by the brilliant ADCS team and John as the Vice President and Charlotte as the Immediate Past President. Teamwork is the basis upon which ADCS has prospered and so it will continue.

It is an honour to be able to represent you all for the coming year as we continue to do all we can to get things right for every child and young person.

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Time to pass the baton

As I write this, I can’t believe a whole year as ADCS President has passed so quickly, yet I can’t quite remember life before it. I have felt humbled and privileged to be President, but leadership is not just what you do when you’re in the job, it’s the succession planning and being able to pass on the baton well without losing speed that counts too. Working with fantastic Vice President Steve Crocker and the great team, that is all of you who make up the Association, has made this year great fun and benefited our collective impact in some key areas of work, so a huge thanks to all of you for everything! So much has happened this past year, and ADCS has worked intensively to influence key government work which will be surfacing soon. A Schools White Paper, a SEND Green Paper and a major review of Children’s Social Care have been critical areas of focus and their publications will bring a new phase as ADCS continues to influence them going forward. The right purpose and shape of our education system for the future, the role of local authorities within it, and having the best partnerships in place are crucial to get right. The future direction for children’s social care and wider partnership working will be vital too.

ADCS has been busy making our collective views heard though two policy position papers; What is Care For? 2021 and a Youth Justice System that works for all Children. We also published our invaluable EHE survey and provided over 25 responses to consultations or submissions to calls for evidence. Our voice has been heard in newspapers, trade press, on national radio and television

With continued health pressures and the physical and mental health of both children and adults being such a critical issue, this year ADCS has pressed for the importance of children’s health to be better recognised in the new health and social care legislation, especially mental health, and the needs of those with SEND. The recent House of Lords amendments to the Bill are incredibly welcome, now to influence the opportunity.

The three-year spending review last autumn produced more funding than we originally expected, and we have been working to encourage joined up planning across government departments to use their allocations collaboratively. However, despite this funding, the financial pressures for us all remain real and stark. Covid recovery has a long way to go, and I know ADCS will continue to champion the needs of children in respect of safeguarding, health, education, poverty, and family life. The positive impact of the way local authorities and partners worked together during the toughest of times has helped us evidence the importance of the role of local authorities for the future. The value of our workforce cannot be understated and the current pressures we are experiencing will be vital to address.

Every ADCS president has been privileged to be supported by the wonderful Chief Officer Sarah Caton whose years of experience, encyclopedic memory and warm friendship brought something special to being president, as well as to the work of ADCS. Losing Sarah has been incredibly painful but as with all great leaders she built a wonderful team who have picked up her baton and are coodinating the work of ADCS awesomely. I am incredibly thankful to them for their friendship, leadership, great work and support despite their own grief in a very difficult time.

So, what about our children? Their lives, their hopes and their struggles captivate us all and we are determined to do our best for them through the work we do. Our children in care and our care leavers give us cause for fierce family pride but at times endless cause for worry. They bring joy to our hearts and give us sleepless nights. It is our impact on the lives of children, by which we ultimately want to be measured, and our determination to see a country that works for all children that drives us forward.

There is so much to do but I know that our new President will lead us brilliantly and take our collective endeavour forward to the next stage. Refreshed priorities are emerging, and the work carries on. Steve, a huge thanks for all of your support this year. The baton is now yours!

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Social work and you!

We’re coming to the end of Social Work Week, with its theme: ‘Social Work and Me’. It’s been great to see social media come alive with well-deserved thanks and praise for social workers and the impact of their work, and to hear from social workers themselves about what drives and motivates them. Social workers shared their pleasure in “hearing change in children, despite the challenges” and about how “fulfilling and rewarding” it is to be working with families “going through some of the most difficult experiences of their life”. Each week as I send an email update to colleagues in Surrey’s Children, Families and Lifelong Learning directorate, I look for a good news story to include. I never have to look very far. I draw on stories from every professional discipline, and that includes regular examples of great social work practice, supporting families to change for the better. Sometimes these include heartfelt feedback from families themselves (anonymised, of course). It’s hard not to be moved and inspired by stories of successful social work and the positive difference child and family social workers can make in children’s lives. Who wouldn’t want a career with so much pride and purpose?

And yet … social workers can often feel as though they are under fire in the public realm. Too many stories of serious harm to children seem to act as lightning conductors for demonisation of the entire social work profession. Demanding caseloads, pressures overspilling from partner organisations and the challenges of working in pandemic conditions over the past two years can quickly suck the joy out of the work. We have work to do as Directors of Children’s Services to try to mitigate these pressures as much as we can, creating an environment in which great social work can thrive.

It would be over-optimistic to think that thanks and praise is all it takes to achieve that. All the same, I hope this Social Work Week, and World Social Work Day on 15 March (Leaving No One Behind) have gone some way to restoring public understanding of why social work is so important and social workers so valuable to society. I also hope they have reminded social workers that they are respected and valued (and reminded Directors of Children’s Services to tell them so!) I think we all hoped that a post-pandemic lull might have descended on us by now, but if anything, the world suddenly seems even more precarious as the suffering of children and their families from wars and conflicts around the world in recent years is added to by the misery of displaced families from Ukraine. Social work values rooted in human rights and social justice are needed more than ever if we’re to leave no one behind. To all those great child and family social workers out there, coming to the end of yet another demanding week: you’ve changed lives for the better this week. Thank you.

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The political energy of our young people

It’s not often that I feel energised and inspired on a wet Monday night in February, but that was exactly how I was left feeling recently after watching the results of Derby’s Youth Mayor elections. I think everyone there was also buoyed along with the novelty of the event taking place in person, something that hasn’t happened for a couple of years but led to everyone riding the wave of the energy in the room.

Get this statistic – almost 11,000 students across 19 schools voted in the elections for the next Youth Mayor and Deputy Youth Mayor for the city. From members of Derby’s 40 plus Youth Council selecting four candidates, following the hustings, the campaigns that then ensued, to the vote and the results on the night, all highlights how young people want to make a tangible difference to their city and communities. The work the outgoing Youth Mayor and Deputy Youth Mayor have done, such as on matters to do with the environment and climate change, is equally impressive with evidence of impact.

Derby, like many other authorities, has a Youth Council (which we call Voices in Action). This is an inclusive and compassionate group and includes young people with additional needs alongside representatives from our Children in Care Council. They are an established part of Derby’s democratic processes, with the Youth Mayor sitting on Council Cabinet and Voices in Action leading on a range of different topics, as well as contributing to different Council consultations. Let’s face it, engaging young people and gathering their opinions and ideas automatically injects things with refreshing, relevant insights, and young people are less likely to sugar coat their input. The contribution Voices in Action has recently made to Derby’s Medium Term Financial Plan (MTFP) consultation, and the development of our family hub approach has been invaluable.

I think the wave of political momentum has always been there for young people, but it does feel different, massively strengthened by the global pandemic, the climate change emergency and the Black Lives Matter movement. Whilst these were topics gathering pace before March 2020, they highlight the vast structural injustices and inequalities which too many young people experience every day. In all the Derby hustings for Youth Mayor, and the speeches given by the two candidates who won the election, there was an unmistakably political ambition to tackle inequality and social injustice. Young people have an uncanny knack at telling you how it is, seeing what’s wrong and putting it into words, and increasingly into action. We must all seek to learn from this, harnessing their desire for change into the services that we deliver, making the changes that we need to for future generations.

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Leaders of Steel

It’s a sobering realisation to know that I started to learn some of the fundamentals of economics in the heady time of the 1980s! In a turbulent time of rocketing energy prices (remember what that was like?), the Chairman of British Steel (there’s a memory of a time gone by!) confirmed that it was not his job to make steel, but his job to make money. He was clear as to what he considered the purpose of his role and who he was appointed to serve.

Even the most purist among us would accept that as leaders in children’s services, a significant burden we carry is the role we have as custodians of the public purse and how serious this challenge can be. Whilst some of us are contributing to the Herculean task of councils setting their 2022/23 budget, or whether it’s limping our way towards the end of another challenging financial year, there remains a clear and shared determination to continue to meet some long-term challenges and endeavour to achieve sustainable change for children and families. All this whilst continuing to prioritise the value of what we do, and not just the cost, and to keep close the things we hold dear.

Over the last two weeks, with the news of Russian troops moving into Ukraine, there was rightfully a loud voice from the West in opposition to the significant impact such a manoeuvre would have. However, then came the challenge of the response; what should the sanctions be? How should each country collectively and individually react? The tension of holding up the values we profess to believe in, whilst worrying about the cost that may have to be paid, appears a sacrifice too far for some and perhaps exposes the compromises that we can all face unless we hold true to the values we profess.

The compromises that we, in our roles, sometimes have to make must continue to be felt if we believe in the value of our contribution. The need to promote the welfare of our children and young people, within the cacophony of competing demands on limited resources, needs leaders to understand the long-term impact of what we know is right. It requires role modelling congruity between our words and actions.

To those of us who are leaders in public service it is right we consider the financial costs of any decision we make, but surely we need to understand the value of the actions we take. It can often feel like we need the wisdom of Solomon to balance the pros and cons of some of the challenges we face, but if we retain our principles, understand the cost but prioritise the value, it can often make for the wisest investment.

So, to return to the analogy, we should continue to demonstrate ourselves as ‘Leaders of Steel’, even if that at times comes at a sacrificial cost.

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A system fuelled by love

Rather unusually for me I have been doing some reading this week (of things other than emails). It started with Amazon (my new shopping BF) delivering me a copy of Polly Curtis’s “Behind Closed Doors”. Closely followed by the Ofsted Scoping Study on Early Help published earlier in the month (a nod to Dez Holmes and RiP there).

The Behind Closed Doors preface ends with the statement “I explore an alternative: a system built on a strong supportive society and fuelled not by process and defence but by love” - a sentiment I think many of us wholeheartedly support, especially after the last two years. But equally it is important to know what we are struggling to do in the current climate, something which the Early Help Scoping Study brings into sharp relief. It demonstrates how early help has become entwined with the provision of services to protect children from harm at the statutory end, rather than being a part of a broader public health approach shared with all multi agency partners and local communities.

Locally, freed from the process driven approach of having to make bids and compete against each other, which appears to be flavour of the month currently, we have used the Holiday Activity and Food programme (HAF) to try to develop a very different way of working and thinking. Very much focussed on creating that stronger society notion (and dare I say it love and kindness) between our communities and our children and young people.

I think this has enabled us to strengthen capacity and capability across our communities to better meet the needs of our diverse population allowing children and families to build relationships locally. We are confident that many of the several thousand children engaged with the programme will remain connected to local support. Making a significant contribution to improving the lived experiences of children in Walsall and delivering much more in terms of the relationships being built within our communities.

This was summed up for me in a quote from one of our children and young people: “I feel safe in the area where I live because I know the people and they know me and my family”

Maybe this simple fact is what our system needs to be all about?

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The recruitment and retention challenge

When I was asked to write the ADCS blog for the Eastern region, I inevitably thought about some of the challenges that we are facing in my own local authority, Southend, and the challenges we share more widely - the recruitment and retention of social workers sprang to my mind.

Like I am sure many others across the country, we are struggling to recruit permanent social workers in the Eastern region. This extends to agency workers too, with rates increasing significantly over the last few months and noticeably since Covid lockdown restrictions have eased. In the Eastern region we have a strong Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to mitigate hourly rates spiralling up and agencies pitching LAs against each other, as we all try to fill our vacancies. I have only been in the region for two years so cannot claim to have had any input into the original MoU, but it really has helped us manage a very tricky issue across the region and is a helpful tool to prompt discussion and, where appropriate, challenge within the region.

In Southend, we have developed positive links with our local universities which has enhanced and strengthened our ‘grow your own’ programme. The offer to our student social workers and our ASYEs is a key element of our wider workforce development strategy, as I am sure it is in many other areas, and I was really pleased earlier this week to receive positive feedback about our social work apprentices in Southend.

Lecturers from the university fed back that our apprentices ‘…give teaching a whole new meaning, adding depth to conversation and brining their experiences and knowledge to the classroom’.

I want even more students to come to Southend and experience the good quality advice, challenge, and support from experienced practice educators, and it was great to hear from the university that the ‘..quality of the written work from practice educators in Southend is outstanding, the learning experiences being given to the students is of high quality.’

The positive feedback was good to hear and a testament to all the staff in Southend involved in our student social worker programme in one way or another, but I know that growing our own is not the panacea to the recruitment issues that we face. Our revamped workforce strategy in Southend will help us with that, but this issue cannot be resolved by an individual LA or a regional approach alone and so I really hope that the current workforce pressures, and solutions to them, feature in the conclusion of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. To not do so will be a big opportunity missed.

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What's it all about?

I can’t have been the only Director of Children’s Services who was saddened and disappointed at the targeting of social workers and colleague directors following the recent tragic deaths of children at the hands of their parents who should love and care for them. This led me to reflect on the challenges and expectations of the social worker role and the leadership required to support staff during these difficult times.

It is important to remind social work staff and other associated professionals like teachers, youth workers, early years staff and youth justice colleagues of their value and the impact of their work. Nobody tends to write about the workers who welcome children into school with a smile and piece of toast after experiencing domestic violence at home. No one recalls the social worker who takes a child in care out for tea or who turns up to watch them at a school event. Little credit is ever given to the countless visits made to children and families offering much needed support and sometimes challenge to prevent harm.

Safeguarding children can feel like a thankless task. Unfortunately, some policy makers and journalists often only remember the profession when tragedy strikes, and someone needs to be accountable. No link ever appears to be made to the year-on-year reductions to local authority budgets over the past decade and the secondary trauma of staff working with complex family dynamics in a resource starved system, which makes recruitment and retention a challenge for all of us.

It is rare that anyone reports on the daily acts of care and compassion that form part and parcel of social work engagement with children and families in our communities. Quietly and heroically they go about the business of keeping children safe as part of a complex range of multi-agency interventions. These success stories rarely make the news.

As a leader it leaves me questioning the value and purpose of why we do what we do and puts me in mind of a song I grew up listening to, “what’s it all about Alfie?” Made famous by another great scouse woman! If you take two of the lines from the lyrics of the Burt Bacharach song…

“Are we meant to be kind?” and

“Until you find the love you have missed, you’re nothing”

…you can start to realise exactly what it’s all about and why we continue to turn up. We just need to pay attention to what we see day in and day out – kindness and Love.

I was reminded during a visit only this week of the incremental, small step engagement that goes on across many of our partnerships to mitigate the impact of disadvantage. It is truly heroic work replacing the love missed by so many and being delivered and facilitated by truly humble social work practitioners and other multi-agency colleagues who don’t always understand the impact of their interactions and the quality of time spent with children and families in crisis.

It is this love and kindness that will sustain us all and make us system leaders of the change that is required. We will continue to be the voices in the system that demand a country that works for all children where they can know true love and compassion and where they can thrive irrespective of prior advantage or opportunities. Then we will know that our work has been truly impactful and our sector expertise has been listened to.

Colleagues you are making a difference every day for children in your part of the country, one step at a time.

Thank you.

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‘So let us not return to what was normal, but reach toward what...

As many will know from my work with the ADCS Educational Achievement (EA) Policy Committee, my passion for levelling up and enhancing the role of education is undimmed even after a number of decades of commitment to the cause. Having experience of several White Papers and the legislation that follows I know that there will be opportunities this year to make real change in the places we serve if we seize them and they are suitably funded by national government.

As Chair of the EA committee and alongside the ADCS President and Vice President, we have been robustly engaged in discussions about the future role of the LA in education to help inform the upcoming Education (Schools) White Paper. We are continuing to stress the importance of our place based leadership, the moral purpose and our extensive statutory responsibilities. We know that form follows function such that the focus should be on high quality educational outcomes rather than only on organisational form.

There have been several recent announcements presaging the White Paper and, along with the linked SEND Green Paper, we expect to find out more soon. One of these announcements was the School Attendance consultation launched last week and the other is the announcement of a register for electively home educated children (children not in school), the need for which ADCS has long raised with government.

In my own local authority in Brent, we recently held our Children and Young People Department staff conference, which focused in part on our ambitions for 2022. We used the Amanda Gorman poem quote “So let us not return to what was normal, but reach toward what is next” as the basis for video inputs from a range of staff about their work and ambitions. These included setting up Family Wellbeing Centres (Hubs) with a multi agency approach to ensure a better future for families and from more than one colleague the benefits of The Staff College’s Black and Asian Leadership programme was highlighted. I was delighted to be told that I was just keeping the seat warm for the next generation of Children’s Services leaders!

I am determined that an outcome of our current work must be to secure for these future DCS’ an explicit and valued role for them in place based collaborative education leadership in the best interests of all children and young people, wherever they are educated.

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Can I level up with you!?

Blackburn with Darwen, set within the heart of Pennine Lancashire, has high levels of structural inequality that impact on the communities that we serve. The borough and surrounding areas have also been in the eye of the Covid storm with persistently high levels of infection and restrictions. Despite this we have managed as a Council, with our partners and communities, to work more closely together than ever before and see the urgency in redressing the unequal impact of the pandemic on our children, young people and families.

Working with our communities and the assets within them, namely people, has allowed us to continue to take steps along a path where pride in place keeps us heading in the right direction. This pride enhanced by placed based services designed, delivered and locally accountable ensures that we do the best we can with the resources that are available to us.

There is an acknowledgement that “something needs to be done” by central and local government about the escalating costs in children’s social care. As Josh MacAlister’s Case for Change in June 2021 identified - improving outcomes for children is not something that government, local authorities or partners and our communities can achieve in isolation.

For change to have impact and to be sustained there needs to be a fair and consistent approach to funding children and families, alongside the services that we provide to them. So if I am levelling with politicians in central government and policy makers, there also needs to be an appreciation that if we are truly going to support all of our children to recover from the disruption to their lives over the last two years there has to be an appreciation of the unequal impact of the pandemic.

The excellent Child of the North Report by the Northern Science Alliance and N8 Research sets out that children in the north of England spent more time in lockdown than those elsewhere – which meant their education, and very often their mental health, suffered. Their parents were also more isolated. Children in the north of England have a 27% chance of living in poverty compared with 20% in the rest of England. The report also highlights that these children have a 58% chance of living in a local authority with below average levels of low income families compared to 19% in the rest of England.

We know that the Covid-19 pandemic has made an unequal situation worse. To address the north-south productivity gap and divide in the lived experience of our children we must tackle the stark inequalities and put in place a child-first place-based recovery plan that enables the children of the North to fulfil their potential.

Applying the principles of placed based services - designed, delivered and accountable to the people from the local communities that make up the wonderful area in Lancashire and the North that we live in - will be key to keeping our country’s recovery on the right track. We owe our children nothing less.

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Must do, nice to do, hope it goes away…….

It feels like the Christmas break was a very long time ago now, but as it’s still January I think I can just about get away with wishing everyone a happy new year.

I’m working my way through the list of things that I told myself can wait until January (come on we all do it!!). I do have a method to it though, “must do”, “nice to do” and “won’t do and hope it goes away”. I hope our colleagues in central government departments are also cracking on with their ‘to do’ lists for 2022. I know on the ‘must do’ list will be some important policy areas such as the reviews into social care and SEND, levelling up, supporting families and mental health, but I also sincerely hope that a coherent national approach to youth makes its debut this year.

We often face challenge, as local authorities, that we don’t understand the benefits of youth provision. This is not true. We know that good quality youth work delivery, at the right time and place, can head off many challenges that young people may subsequently face with mental health, engagement in education, family conflict, offending, and risks around exploitation to name a few. Whilst I don’t readily wish even more statutory responsibilities for us, I would whole heartedly support a fully funded statutory duty to secure a baseline of youth provision.

Of course, I welcome the recent funding for the youth sector through the Youth Covid Support Fund and the Youth Endowment Fund, but we still await confirmation on how the £500 million new Youth Investment Fund will be rolled out, with its implementation having been delayed by over two years and funding due to be spent before the end of this parliament. Statements to date seem to indicate a focus on capital, and whilst buildings of course have their place, they are little use without sustainable revenue funding for a youth workforce of people who can build the trusted relationships needed. So, at every opportunity I will be advocating for an ambitious and cross department governmental response, and with some urgency if we truly want to see a levelling up agenda that addresses young people’s lives. The youth agenda won’t go away, isn’t just a nice thing to do, and is a ‘must do’ priority for 2022.

In my first ever blog for ADCS four years ago I focused on Wonder Woman and made comparisons in terms of the leadership we needed. We all have people in our lives whom we look up to and learn from. Sarah Caton was my real-life Wonder Woman and I never thought for one second I would be mentioning in my blog about the very sad loss of our dear friend and Chief Officer of ADCS. I, alongside many of you, attended her funeral last week. Rachel Dickinson, previous president of ADCS and a special person to Sarah, gave an incredible and heartfelt tribute on behalf of us all. I had one job on the day and that was to arrange transport for some of us (including some past presidents, a policy chair, and our current vice president) to travel to the service. The taxi company were sweet and said they would send a vehicle that could accommodate us all. Ok – so I should have checked what the vehicle was, but I cannot describe accurately everyone’s faces as we all arrived in an old lime green school transport bus!! We all agreed that Sarah would have been very amused.

Sarah’s family and close friends were so warm and welcoming of her wider ADCS family and it was very comforting to be able to share memories and stories…which brought tears but many smiles too. We will dearly miss Sarah both professionally and personally, but I know her imprint of tenacity, passion, bravery to stand up for the right thing, and enormous sense of fun will stay with us as we continue with her legacy and strive for a country that works for all children.

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We see you...

I’m not sure what the collective noun for DCSs is; an exhaustion, a wisdom, a confusion, a compassion, or perhaps it’s a “solidarity of DCSs”. What I do know is that as system leaders, if we’ve learnt nothing else in the last couple of years, we’ve learnt we’re at our most effective when we act together. Even before the pandemic hit us, we were beginning to see the benefits of working together through our Regional Improvement and Innovation Alliances, and in the conditions created by COVID those benefits have been amplified and accelerated. It is of course also true that our unique role, privilege even, of being a single point of accountability for outcomes for children in our own area means we convene, encourage, and often drive the collective leadership of the partnerships at a local level. This is a crucial part of our purpose; place really matters, but this is complimented and enhanced by our determination to address the big issues through our regional work and as a national association.

So, as our muted (if somewhat better than last year) festive celebrations become a distant memory, and 2022 gets into full swing, we should turn our attention to things we need to focus on together and, if it’s not too late, perhaps agree a collective New Year’s resolution. Each region will already have agreed a number of RIIA priorities; in London they’re Adolescent Safeguarding, SEND, Resources and Sustainability, and Workforce, with cross-cutting themes of Peer Challenge, Innovation, Collaboration, Data Insight, and Anti-Racism and Disproportionality; you will all have your own. Nationally there are some really big-ticket items; the Education White Paper, the SEND review, the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, and the Health and Care Bill to name but a few. In recent weeks we’ve seen the publication of an excellent ADCS paper on Youth Justice, and then there’s Domestic Abuse, Educational Recovery, responding to the needs of refugees and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, caring for our fatigued (yet wonderful) workforce, and of course, learning from the tragic child death cases which have been at the forefront of our minds in recent weeks. I could go on - there are lots for us to turn our collective attention to.

What I want to suggest is that amid all of this we could, we should, make a collective New Year’s resolution to keep children visible in all we do. It sounds like a simple thing, trite even, but there is a powerful idea here. When we are responding to children being exploited by the drugs trade, or in the criminal justice system, we keep them visible as children; when we’re discussing the future of the English education system, we keep the children visible; when responding to the pressures of the asylum and refugee system, we keep children visible; as changes to the health system are developed and implemented, we are the ones who keep children visible. You get my drift. In the cacophony of competing calls for our attention, in 2022 let’s make a collective resolution that we will simply keep children visible, that as a community we’ll say to our children We See You, and we will make sure others do too.

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Duty of optimism

Well, goodbye 2021, I can’t say that I am sad to see that year go. Indeed the year has been scattered with sadness through the suffering and loss of colleagues, friends, families and some of the children we serve. I sit here tapping these words out on New Year’s Day, reflecting on what has happened and what the year ahead holds for us. One thing I know though, is that as leaders of this system we have to hold ourselves to our duty of optimism. And yes, there are things to be optimistic about – if only because there are a number of things that are reaching a critical mass which will lead to change in the next year or so.

The issues that we know about are of course; the Care Review, the SEND review, the levelling up agenda and local government, the unresolved refugee crisis, an Education white paper and the role of local authorities, the Covid response in the medium term, regaining good attendance by children at school and the staff shortages that we are beginning to see.

These are the known issues, and on their own they are a significant set of priorities for ADCS to get its teeth into this next year. But there are also a number of issues that are circulating that have the potential to come to the fore very quickly. Firstly, any optimism about the spending review settlement is quickly being disabused as our finance officers pick through the details and the knock-on effects of the impact on the current plans for adult social care on local government finances. It looks as if many more councils could be facing very big problems very quickly. Similarly, the lack of a coherent national children’s workforce strategy is beginning to loom large – and at what point do we need to look at private sector staffing agencies in the same way that we are beginning to look at the financial damage wrought by the private children’s home and SEN sector? There will also be further media fall-out from more tragic and complex cases. And whilst I understand the upset and distress that such cases cause, I can’t help but worry about the levels of anger and rage in public discourse – we will all have received those abusive communications in one form or another recently. There is also the issue of the rising tide of poor mental health amongst children and the lack of NHS resources being directed towards this – in particular the puzzling reduction in mental health beds at precisely the time when they are most needed – leading to a knock-on effect into the care system. There will be more things that come our way as well, the unknown unknowns.

All of which would be enough to drive you to despair except that there are real opportunities emerging to improve the systems that we lead. The response to Covid has demonstrated (if it needed demonstrating) the essential role that local authorities carry out and the indivisible link between place, people, local taxation, local democracy, and local services. I think that nexus is understood better in government than it has been for some time and gives me some cause for optimism about the forthcoming white paper on levelling up and local government reform. Similarly, the Education white paper might just provide an opportunity to rebalance the responsibilities of the local authority education services with powers, something we have been calling for for some time. The Care Review will also be reaching its conclusions and proposals. Many ADCS members will have contributed towards this thinking and as you will know, ADCS submitted its own response in the call for ideas. Similarly, the SEND review will reach its conclusions and proposals. I dare say that neither of these reviews will make proposals that we entirely agree with – I’d be surprised if they did. But moving along both systems, from the current position that we are in, has the potential to be positive and to help achieve better outcomes for children – we need to engage positively with those proposals where we can. Obviously, I am not daft and I know that both have the potential to be catastrophic if handled badly but I see increasingly positive signs from both.

All of which means that we, as an association, will need to step into these spaces and advocate for sensible reforms, meaningful and considered change delivered at pace and with sufficient resource to ensure that those real changes can be delivered. That also means that we, as an association will need to work even more closely together. The chairs of our policy committees are going to be critical for us in making our representations to government. If you are reading this now and are not a member of a policy committee then put yourself forward for one that interests you, the association is there to collect and represent all of our views and they are going to be vital in shaping our thinking in the next year. All of the policy committees are well supported by the brilliant ADCS policy staff team. Come and join in, in the spirit of optimism that we are all going to need this year.

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What a year

I want to take this opportunity to wish everyone a wonderful Christmas and a happy, healthy new year.

As in 2020, the pandemic continues to impact every aspect of our lives, our work and our communities. Multiple lockdowns, various restrictions on how we mix with loved ones and the ongoing disruption to children and young people’s education, with many schools struggling to stay open until the end of term, has made it feel like Groundhog Day.

As we are all aware, the pandemic remains a very real challenge. At the time of writing, urgency is increasing, the government’s national ‘get boosted’ campaign is well underway, face coverings are required in most indoor places and on public transport and the country has been asked to work from home, where possible. We are in what has been described by some as a ‘race against Omicron’ to prevent the NHS from becoming overwhelmed. The spread of the new, more transmissible, variant will have understandably increased people’s anxieties, including the children and families that we serve, however, everything we have learnt since the pandemic started will help us in this new crisis time despite potentially greater staffing challenges than any seen to date. It will be crucial for all partners to pull together in this latest wave.

Even with all the disaster planning in the world it’s very difficult to prepare for a pandemic. That said, the past 20 months have given us plenty of learning and a stronger platform from which to build on in future. In children’s services, we are well versed with new ways of working and continue to improve the virtual practices that are already in place linked to our wider face to face work. We have further strengthened partnership working in our local areas underpinned by a keen focus on children’s safety and welfare. This is most notable in the joint work of local authorities and schools as we’ve worked to keep children in sight, maximise school attendance and to ensure children are fed and supported. I hope the demonstrably important and unique role of the local authority in education is both recognised and reinforced in the forthcoming Education White Paper, expected in spring 2022. It’s absolutely crucial that should any further lockdowns be required, schools are the last places to close, they are a vital piece of the multiagency safeguarding system.

It’s been another busy year for ADCS members and staff alike in which we’ve published several important pieces of work championing the needs of children and young people. This includes, Safeguarding Pressures Phase 7, What is Care For?, our most recent elective home education survey, and a joint policy position paper with the LGA and AYM on the youth justice system. In its own way, each highlighted the impact of the pandemic on children, young people and families and how far we are from being a country that works for all children.

The 2021 spending review provided some helpful additional funding for children and families. However, this is not ‘job done’, we were clear in our submission to the Treasury that we still await a sustainable, long term funding settlement for children’s services and a comprehensive, strategic, long term plan for children. As I said in my inaugural speech, if collectively we don’t get things right for children now, they won’t have the futures they deserve. ADCS members are up for the challenge, we hope the government is too.

In 2022, two long awaited national reviews will report. The first into special educational needs and the other children’s social care. There are some big system level challenges local authorities face in meeting their statutory duties that these reviews must deal with to ensure children, young people and families are safe and supported. Both reviews present a “once in a generation opportunity” to make meaningful and lasting change for the children and young people who need help and support to thrive. To build on what’s working well in the system and to improve things where they aren’t.

As we know, the National Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel has launched a review following the tragic murder of Arthur Libanjo- Hughes which is expected to conclude and report by May 2022. No doubt there will be important learning for us all to take away and we hope any recommendations improve outcomes for children.

I want to end this blog by paying tribute again to Sarah Caton, ADCS Chief Officer, who sadly passed away last week. For anyone that knows Sarah, personally or professionally, you’ll agree with me when I say she had a huge heart and lived life to the fullest. Sarah played an integral role in the work of ADCS over many, many years, she led the ADCS staff team exceptionally well and provided seamless support to the Association, its members and each of its serving presidents. It’s important to take a moment to acknowledge Sarah’s commitment and dedication to making a real difference to children’s lives. She held the threads of our complex system together seamlessly and kept us moving ever forward.

It’s hard to find words that will do you justice Sarah. What a woman you were. We feel incredibly lucky to have been able to call you a colleague and, most importantly, a friend.

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Begin with the end in mind

As I write this I am reflecting on the life of a wonderful friend and colleague who passed away this week. Sarah Caton, the amazing Chief Officer for ADCS since its inception, was passionate about achieving the best possible outcomes for children and young people and equally passionate about the development of ADCS as a national, regional and local influence for good on their behalf. She was an inspiration, and her legacy will live on!

The immediacy of Sarah’s loss which is being felt so keenly by so many right now, caused me to reflect on the mantra “Begin with the end in mind” and the power of vision, aspiration and purpose in life. Recently there has been some appalling press making negative assumptions about the future of our children in care because of their life experiences both before and during their time in care. We know from first hand experience some of the many examples of those who lead fulfilled and purposeful adult lives, often with significant influence and responsible jobs, some because of the care they received and some despite it. We know too of the challenging hurdles many of them have needed to overcome and the importance of lasting relationships.

For all of us our lives are shaped by our experiences. Our ability to deal with tough times and use them for future good depends on many things, but our support networks and relationships play a crucial role. When the pressure is on, we often feel isolated and when tensions arise it is too easy to apportion blame, or for others to do that to us. We have seen this during the last two harrowing weeks, with the convictions of the murderers of two different innocent children in terrible circumstances. The pendulum swings from those who recognize the tragedy but also the complexity and the need for collective learning, to those with an assumption of knowledge and the desire to accuse. The multi-agency safeguarding system is highly complex and we welcome the learning that will emerge for us all in due course. In the meantime, our essential daily work goes on and I want to pay tribute to our fantastic social workers everywhere who make a positive difference to the lives of so many and to our wonderful wider multi- agency workforce without whom no safeguarding work would be possible.

With our vision and purpose firmly fixed on continuous learning and service development to maximise the best outcomes for children, young people and families, it would be easy to be blown off course by the tragedies we have felt so keenly. We could lose the progress that has been made in recent years to evidence and implement multi-agency practice that makes a difference. We have a long way to go and will learn from what has happened, but this is a time to hold onto our vision, use our skills and support networks well and use our learning in tough times to take us forward. The children and families we serve deserve nothing less and in this festive season with renewed Covid anxiety swirling round, we can take hope from those among us who have overcome adversity and who lead by example. We are as always stronger together.

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Ambitions for Care Experienced young people and adults

Recently I met with Ian Dickson - a retired social worker, Ofsted inspector, residential manager, and children’s rights advocate, to discuss our shared passion for getting the best for children in care. I wanted to use this blog to reflect on our discussion and reach out across communities of interest to share some of the ambitions both Ian and I have for the future; I hope many of these will resonate with you too.

I don’t know where the care review will end up, but when I’ve been involved in discussions about what we want for the future, there is much that unites us across the sector. Ian and I are in full agreement that the following areas need addressing.

But first, let’s start with a provocation – would what we have currently be good enough for your own child? If not, then how do we create a system that would be.

Support and preparation for life

Firstly, time in care should be focused on always preparing for what lies ahead. Preparation for independence needs to be funded to include very practical preparations for when young people live more independently.

Most children in families stay within them for many years after the age of 18 and we need to create and fund the same opportunities for children who are in care for many more years than we do currently. This is harder with residential care which needs to be local and incentivised to create lasting relationships and connections, and the use of semi-independent accommodation should ideally only be used when young adults are ready and can be properly supported to cope on their own, with workable back-up plans.

Support for care experienced people should last for as long as needed, with no end date. This should be relationally focused to mend and repair relationships for life, where possible, whilst recognising the family and children trauma that has occurred. Relationships, networks, and support should be of central importance.

Continued access to education

Support for care experienced people should recognise that education and learning can be lifelong and take place at different ages for different people. This support needs to be at the pace of each individual; age should not create funding barriers.

Housing available with support

There needs to be ongoing support for tenancy, guarantees, mortgage deposits, university accommodation and a breaks system. The possibility of housing associations just for care experienced people should be explored, with the ability to buy accommodation for rent - all designed to ensure no care experienced person is homeless or in poor quality accommodation.

Employment support

Care experienced people should be able to receive lifelong support, advice, and guidance to obtain and retain employment and training. This may include provision of references, support with interviews, purchase of vital tools and equipment, opportunities for employment within the local authority, and creating links with local employers to interview care experienced people recommended by the authority.

Enhanced health access

Care experienced children and young people should be able to expect no delays in their being referred or receiving appropriate medical, mental health, emotional or dental care caused by any movements within care or changes in placement. Within the context of support with mental health and emotional wellbeing, those who are care experienced should receive priority treatment. All care experienced people should have full access to all health care records when they leave care. Where possible, no care experienced person should ever have to deal with serious illness alone.

Co-ordinated support

Leaving care services should be cross professional and departmental, mandated and fully funded, bringing together all the support that is required for these young people and adults throughout their lives.

These are the ideas that came up in our discussion and I would love to hear other ideas you may have. The ambitions that I’ve described would need considerable resourcing and development, but if we truly want to level up for these young people who have had such difficult starts in life, we need a workable national strategy to achieve it.

The care of our most vulnerable children is something we all feel passionate about. Sometimes, passion can spill over - these things happen. However, as a sector, we are bound by a common belief that our children need to grow up feeling valued, wanted, and loved. How we make that happen must be our common priority.

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Systems and partnerships

There were two social workers, a nurse, and a magistrate sitting in a bar…. don’t worry this isn’t the start of a bad joke, but rather how I spent my Saturday evening and how the conversation inevitably involved how each of our respective worlds were under pressure.

This made me think about the ‘systems’ we all live and work in, and how everything is connected to everything else. We hear (almost daily) of pressures - whether it be in the NHS, the justice system, the care system…I could go on. This can lead us to believe that each system is independent of the other, certainly the media often portrays it as such, and take us down the ‘silo thinking’ route.

Locally our children’s health colleagues are under huge pressure, mainly as a consequence of staffing capacity coupled with increasing demand. Recently, this came to a head following some poor communication where the relevant DCSs hadn’t been informed of some fundamental priority decisions taken by health colleagues which affected SEND and services of looked after children. Whilst the first reaction may well have been huge frustration (it was!), this quickly moved into looking at the issue as a system who can support each other and move from an either/or, to a both/and approach. This shift is vital if we are to work constructively through issues as a system, rather than seeing them as an individual agency issue which they need to sort out.

On a related note, recently I spent a day with my corporate management team on our new corporate plan and budget planning – I know how to have fun! As a fairly new DCS, this made me think about my role as a whole system player and shaping partnerships from an internal point of view. The internal system and collaborative partnerships are the only way we are going to successfully address the pressures we are facing as a council. Our workforce, as a system, is vital in rising to these challenges and reminding corporate colleagues that ‘it’s about the people in the place’ – which has been a bit of a mantra of mine. This brings me back to partnerships.

The strength of our partnerships is perhaps more important now than it ever has been. There are interesting times ahead, with potential risks but also opportunities – the integrated care systems, the independent review of children’s social care to name a couple. One thing is certain though, our systems leadership will be at the forefront of sustaining a positive future for children’s services.

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NCASC 2021

At some point over the past 20 months most of us will have attended a virtual event, or 27! The pandemic has impacted everything we do and the National Children and Adult Services Conference 2021 was no exception. The event was held online for the second year running.

While we had hoped we could gather in person in sunny Bournemouth, this year’s conference still offered delegates plenty of opportunities to hear from ministers about the latest government thinking and from experts in the field who delivered important messages in sessions, not least in relation to tackling child and family poverty which is blighting the lives, and futures, of millions of children in this country.

The conference opened on Wednesday with speeches from Cllr James Jamieson, LGA Chairman, Stephen Chandler, ADASS President, and our very own President, Charlotte Ramsden. Charlotte began her speech by recognising the resilience of children and families and acknowledging the immense efforts and hard work of the whole local government family during the pandemic. (As you can imagine this was somewhat of a recurring theme throughout the conference). Charlotte touched on the recent Spending Review, the ongoing SEND and care reviews, on Covid-19 and the stark health, educational, racial and geographical inequalities it has laid bare as well as the Association’s hopes for the forthcoming Education White Paper, expected in spring 2022.

Amanda Pritchard, head of NHS England, joined us immediately after the opening speeches and set out her priorities for the coming year, including making ICSs a success and continued response to the pandemic. That afternoon we were pleased to be joined by Will Quince MP, Minister for Children and Families who thanked delegates for their work to support children and families through the pandemic, the new minister reflected on the national reviews into special educational needs and children’s social care and promised to be a ‘true champion’ for the sector. The full speech is available on the DfE website. Throughout the day there were a number of interesting sessions covering topics from the early years and education recovery to the evolving nature of children’s services leadership.

Children’s related sessions on Thursday focused on supporting children and young people’s emotional wellbeing and mental health and inspection now and in the future. Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, addressed the conference and took questions from the audience. Adult
social care dominated but he faced questions on SEND and children’s mental health. We were also joined by shadow social care and education ministers. The day ended with a virtual ADCS members meeting, thank you to everyone who stayed late and joined us. On Friday, Josh McAlister, Chair of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care updated delegates on the progress of the review so far followed by a wide ranging question and answer session which touched on the impact of poverty on families, relationships, care placements and local contexts. The event closed with a session aimed at all delegates on living with Covid-19, with inputs from the Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, in attendance, along with Jennie Harries, CEX of the UK Health Security Agency and Prof. Kevin Fenton, Office of Health Improvement and Disparities at the Department of Health.

A particular highlight of the conference was the strong inputs from young people and parents in sessions about the early years, mental health, education recovery and the care review across the three days. During the conference ADCS published its recent EHE survey 2021 alongside a press release and a joint policy position paper with AYM and the LGA on youth justice which can be found here. These important pieces of work were picked up in a number of national and trade media outlets including the Guardian, CYP Now, the MJ and School’s Week. A full list of press coverage will feature in the ADCS bulletin.

Nobody can predict the course of the pandemic but we hope to see you all in 2022 in Manchester, the home of ADCS HQ, to share more learning and good practice and, of course, to celebrate the work of the sector.

From, the ADCS staff team.

We hope you enjoyed the conference. Speeches and presentations from the event will be posted onto the conference website and shared via the ADCS bulletin as soon as they become available.

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Valuing and thanking our school governors

I read an Ofsted report in the spring which praised a secondary school for its actions in sending a van to nearby housing estates when school children were at home as a result of Covid. This van was delivering school equipment, including pens and paper, to children who needed it. The school also checked that the children and young people were okay, and that they had internet access. I was impressed by the actions of the school. Other schools across the country would have been doing the same, of course.

I was pleased that the comment had not been amended or removed by the Ofsted moderation process. I commented to Ofsted colleagues and thanked them too, as it is not always the case that this type of comment would be made in reports. When I spoke with the Chair of Governors of the school, she informed me that when the van visited her estate she had personally bought the van driver, and his assistant, fish and chips for their lunch. To the Chair, this was the obvious thing to do.

This led me to ponder whether we value and thank our school governors enough. We have heard a great deal about the commitment shown by headteachers, and rightly so; we know they value the praise and thanks that they receive from the community. Our school governors have also worked throughout the pandemic to support their schools in a way that demonstrates just how committed they are, although they do not seem to have received as much recognition for this.

School governors are so important. They are often connected with the community in a way that senior staff at school are not. The Chair of Governors may be the consistent presence when the senior management at a school change.

The important role of a school governor is explained on the National Governance Association website. I urge you to look at that.

So, I would like to send a personal thank you to all our school governors.

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Levelling up…it’s not just about buildings and transport

Whilst thinking about a theme to focus on for this blog I started to reflect on the changing political and national policy context of the last couple of years. In previous blogs I have written about the importance of the Care Review, the SEND review (still awaited!) and the impact of poverty on the lived experience of our children and families.

All these issues are still at the forefront of our work and the need to address them continues to be critical if we are to improve outcomes for our children and families. In this context I’m interested in what the highest profile national policy direction of ‘levelling up’ means for children and young people. Discussion to date about levelling up is dominated by large capital programmes and transport infrastructure but where is the thinking in terms of the people side of ‘levelling up’?

In the North East submission to the National Care Review one of our big asks was for government to develop an ambitious, cross-departmental strategy to reduce, and then end, child poverty as part of its ‘levelling up’ agenda. We started to explore the concept of ‘social levelling up’ and how that should underpin the national approach. Whilst the physical infrastructure of a place is important and can have a significant influence, it’s essential that equal importance is given to the social infrastructure that shapes the lives of our communities. This is particularly important in regions such as the North East with long standing and endemic levels of poverty that must be addressed if we are to really make a difference.

As the government grapples with the concept of ‘levelling up’ I think there is a real opportunity for us to influence and ensure it doesn’t just become about buildings and transport. The Spending Review started to make some welcome steps in the right direction, however, the lack of a joined up strategy, at a national level for children and young people, was evident in the number of individual programmes for which funding was announced.

As system leaders for our communities, it is incumbent upon us to make the case at a national level and use our collective voice to help shape change. What would a world look like where ‘social levelling up’ was at the heart of national policy? What could that mean for our children and young people?

I’m an optimist and it does feel like the door is open for a much better dialogue locally, regionally, and nationally to resolve some of these long-standing issues. As we head into a challenging winter let’s not forget to focus on the future and hold on to the ambition we have for our children and young people.

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The time for investing in children is now...

It’s Wednesday lunchtime as I sit here and write this blog – it’s not just 58 days until Christmas (don’t!) but also the day the Chancellor unveils his spending plans for the budget, so I’m frequently looking at my phone for live updates and emails for any initial analysis from Derby’s Section 151 Officer.

Let’s face it, we’re all hoping this will be a Spending Review that will major on children, young people and families, and have recovery from the pandemic at the core. This is the ideal opportunity for the government to demonstrate its commitment to children which is surely integral to their ‘levelling up’ agenda. ADCS sent in a robust submission to the Spending Review with a focus on addressing the ongoing and future scarring of children and young people from the pandemic, prevention, care and sufficiency of placements, education and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). All these areas are significant and require investment to help the system deal with current and predicted future demand.

One of the areas we’ve been talking about a lot in ADCS, more locally as a regional group of DCSs, and in Derby, is SEND. We still await the outcome of the SEND review which is now well overdue and, with a new Children’s Minister who has been pretty much silent (at the time of writing this blog) on his portfolio since taking up office, I fear might be kicked even further into the long grass. It’s vitally important that the government conclude and report on the SEND review and give councils long term certainty of funding to meet the current and growing number of children and young people with SEND. We all know that demand for funding via the high needs block is unsustainable and we’re seeing increasingly eye-watering deficits in councils. Reform of the SEND reforms is really the only way we can realistically tackle the year-on-year growth in demand for Education Health and Care Plans (EHCP), alongside government providing realistic capital funding to local authorities so that they can open special schools or invest in more Enhanced Resource Schools in mainstream schools for children with particular needs.

Growing numbers of EHCPs also means there is a significant pressure on home to school transport budgets; ADCS reported that local authorities spend in excess of £1 billion per annum on transporting children to and from school. Whilst councils actively look at commissioning and efficiencies in contracts to reduce costs, this is unsustainable. I was only talking to my lead member for children’s services this week about the home to school transport costs in Derby and that we could be in a situation next year when this becomes equally, if not more, pressured than the costs of placements for children in care.

By the time you read this we will know the detail of the Spending Review and what this means for children, young people and families, and of course the broader landscape for local government as we all develop and consult on our Medium Term Financial Plans. Let’s hope this is a budget that delivers a better deal for children.

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What's it all about

It’s October, so there’s a fair chance if you’re a Director of Children’s Services you’re deep in your local authority’s Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS), poring over your budgets for 22/23 and beyond and wondering – again – how to make efficiencies and achieve the savings necessary for a balanced budget without compromising on the quality of service provision for the children and families in your area. Is this really what it’s all about?

There’s a great antidote to death-by-a-thousand-spreadsheets; spending time with children. Last week I was lucky enough to attend the opening of a community garden at a Nursery School and Family Centre on my patch. It was a great gathering of children, families and the wider community, with some visitors from further afield. The youngest in the crowd were babes in arms and the oldest – I’d guess – certainly in their eighties – a truly intergenerational experience. The weather was dry, though we were buffeted by the wind. Everyone was taking delight in the sights, sounds and smells of the garden and appreciating the value of a natural environment in which children can play, learn, discover, take risks and connect with things as small as ants and as big as the universe!

In front of me, during the speeches, two little girls were making a collection of sycamore ‘helicopters’. They collaborated to spot and gather them, negotiated a fair distribution of the best examples, counted them, sorted them, made them into patterns and tested their flying capabilities, all without adult interference, the very epitome of learning through play. My entry point into children’s services was early years and I was catapulted back to those days of wonder at just how much physical, cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional development children cram into their busy days.

In childhood, if the conditions are right, we build the foundations of happy, healthy, successful adult lives. But childhood isn’t solely about investment in the future, it’s also about joy in the present. It can be easy to lose sight of this as we monitor our budgets and our key performance indicators (KPIs). We focus – rightly – on outcomes, and there’s no question that those future adults are important. Every so often though, we just need to ask ourselves again: what’s it like to be a child or a young person in the here and now?

By the time you read this, we should know what the Spending Review has brought for children’s services, but I’m writing this at the start of the week, when it’s still not clear whether the Chancellor has been listening to calls to direct more funding towards helping families, supporting early years provision, prioritising children’s wellbeing and all the many other elements of a much-needed strategic approach to meeting children and young people’s needs from conception right through to age 25.

What I’m hoping for in the Spending Review is a recognition that children and young people at every age and stage of their lives deserve more and better from government; that families experiencing disadvantage will receive more help to thrive; that communities will be supported to create environments where young people know they are welcome and belong; that there will be tangible compensations for the restrictions and detriments that 18 months of Covid has imposed on children and young people.

Whether my hopes for the Spending Review have been realised or not, come Monday I’ll be making the best of it alongside my colleagues in local authorities across the land. Thinking about outcomes, planning for the future, squeezing the most out of my budgets. To remind me what it’s all about: a sycamore helicopter in my pocket.

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Local, regional, national

I’m going to write this week about the Care Review led by Josh MacAlister. As you’ll know, ADCS have been engaged with the Care Review throughout – via Charlotte, our President, through colleagues’ individual and group submissions and also via a series of meetings that regional leads and committee chairs have had with Josh and the review team. At our last meeting Josh encouraged us to air some thoughts publicly so I am going to look at one of the ‘three dilemmas’ that Josh published recently specifically the dilemma around ‘local, regional or national’ service delivery.

My own view on this (and I stress that this particular blog is a personal view) is shaped by my views and understanding of the development of the welfare state in England and Wales. Recently, I happened to be reading one of Peter Hennessy’s brilliant histories of post war Britain which reminded me that the construction of the ‘personal social services’ was part of the post-war deal between the state and the citizen. Now, whilst many parts of the state have been rolled back, that construct remains in place – the state is there to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. That ‘deal’ is important when we think about the delivery of children’s services.

So, let’s think about what problem we are trying to solve. Is it variability of practice? Variability of funding? Political interference? Lack of political interference? Organisational structure and resilience? Or command and control from Westminster?

Change is something that we should embrace, and we’ve had to do a lot of change management over the last decade. But as a country we’ve got a pretty chequered history at trying organisational models in our public services. The reforms of the Probation Service have bombed because they were structured on a false premise (a static, low risk/high risk model when of course risk is dynamic). I have been around long enough to remember district health authorities, regional health authorities, primary care trusts, CCGs, SHAs, ICSs, ICPs (I’ve probably made a few up but you get my drift) and I’m not sure that it’s made an iota of difference to the running of the NHS apart from causing major distractions that have actually impeded service delivery despite year on year investment. In this context the police model has at least had the benefits of stability (notwithstanding the introduction of PCCs) and increased funding (relative to local government) but inspection outcomes seem to show a similar level of unevenness as other public services.

In children’s services we’ve seen the introduction of academy schools and children’s social care trusts. Stand alone academies haven’t brought significant changes in children’s attainment and progress (I’ll blog about that another time) and indeed have arguably widened the gap between disadvantaged groups and their peers; and whilst children’s trusts have had some success in improving outcomes in the short term (well done Sunderland!), I worry about their sustainability in the medium to long term. Other models of peer to peer support in local government have also been successful (which is why I am also DCS for the Isle of Wight). Regional Adoption Agencies (RAAs) are another interesting development in this range of alternative delivery models, but it feels like very early days for this model to be judged a success.

That said, there may be areas of practice that could be developed in line with our existing regional improvement and innovation alliances. Which brings me back to local government because there is also one obvious issue which underpins the delivery arrangements for children’s social care. Quite simply, local taxpayers contribute the majority of the funding for these services through their council tax (in Hampshire my finance colleagues tell me that 87% of our spend is against local taxation). And we have to acknowledge that some of the alternative delivery models that may be attractive (RAAs, Trusts) are entirely underpinned and funded by local government and, in turn local taxpayers. So, the deal between the state and its communities to protect the most vulnerable is realised through the democratic mandate of local government. I think we mess with that at our peril. What is messing with that deal, is the ever-tightening tourniquet of reducing funding and increasing demand – to paraphrase Josh himself, there is no way through this without spending more money, albeit that must be wisely spent.

More positively though, I’m not sure that any system should reach an ‘end state’, a phrase I keep hearing about our schools system. The notion of an end state implies a central hand determining the structures in each area, but structures drawn up on a bit of paper in Westminster have a way of not working when being implemented in messy reality. I think systems thrive on plurality, dynamism, and mutability – rather than being fixed. Funnily enough, and this is probably the optimist in me speaking, it strikes me that we have quite a lot of the right pieces of the picture already on the table, the trick is going to be in deploying them in the right way, at the right time, for the right purpose.

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‘Deep down, there is much more to it’ Luke aged 13

Earlier this week I attended the official launch of our Family Wellbeing Centres (FWC), otherwise known as Family Hubs. We moved from 17 Children’s Centres to 8 FWCs last December but delayed an in-person launch event until we could invite a number of guests. The event was held at one of the centres on an estate often referenced by Raheem Sterling as being in sight of Wembley Stadium, but in many respects a long distance away. There were inputs from the Lead Member, a parent of children under 5 years old who had benefited from services, a Citizens Advice rep who gave a case study of assisting the parent to address debt and budgeting, before finally hearing from our voluntary sector partner that provides activities and support for vulnerable adolescents. A ribbon representing all 8 FWCs was cut by the mayor to much local cheering.

My previous visit to the centre had been in August when the local scouts were running one of our Holiday Activity and Food Programmes (HAF) with great enthusiasm. Along with all other areas we are currently reviewing the Household Support Fund to provide food vouchers to eligible families for the half-term and Christmas holidays as well as planning the HAF programme for the Christmas and Easter breaks.

The need for such resources was emphasised to me at the FWC when a 16-year-old came into the centre towards the end of the launch event, having been on the adjacent basketball court. Young people now come into the centre when they see there is an event as it is likely there will be left-over food. These young people feel comfortable coming into the centre because, as part of the refurbishments from Children’s Centres to Family Wellbeing Centres, young people aged 11-16 worked with an artist in each of the centres to create a mural. The optimistic message in this FWC on the mural is ‘You are what you make of yourself’ with one young person commenting that “it helps to make people like this estate because it welcomes them in and makes them fit in because it shows that everyone is seen. It makes them think that even while everyone might be different, we’re all the same.”

As Charlotte Ramsden wrote in her blog last week ‘the emergence of Family Hubs which offer support and advice to families with children aged 0-25 at the heart of local communities gives us some insight into how investing in prevention can improve lives and significantly reduce demand for crisis services and intensive intervention in family life’.

For this critical Early Help provision we rely on the Supporting Families grant and the Public Health grant, supplemented with other resources whenever possible such as the Household Support Fund.

The level of need where ‘deep down there is much more to it’ means that confirmation of ongoing funding is key to meeting the increasing needs of children, young people and their families that we are all seeing.

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Let's invest in our children and young people

It’s that time again when we will soon find out what budget challenges we will face going forward and what if any good news may come to enable us to meet the increasing needs of children, young people and their families. Later this month, the Chancellor will present his Autumn Budget setting out government spending for not one but three years. The government has the opportunity to invest, to enable public services to plan and deliver for the coming years, as we continue to focus on recovery from the pandemic.

The impact of the last 18 months and successive lockdowns on society cannot be underestimated. The government has committed to ‘build back better’ but the needs of children and young people must not be overlooked. They have given up so much for the benefit of us all and there is now a risk that missed education, employment and/or training, together with life experiences lost, will negatively affect the life chances of a generation. You are only a child once and every year is a year of major development. Now is surely the time for the government to properly fund the services that support children and young people to prevent a decade of further disadvantage and rising child poverty. Covid has of course exacerbated existing issues, but this only highlights the need for a strong national commitment to allow children to thrive and benefit from a country that works for all children.

ADCS recently submitted a paper to the Spending Review, and within it we noted five key areas for priority investment: addressing the impact of the pandemic; effective support and prevention; special educational needs and disabilities; the best care for those who need it; and education. We have been pressing government for long-term, meaningful investment in these areas long before the pandemic impacted on all of our lives. Why? Because in 2019/20 there were 4.3 million children living in poverty and disadvantaged pupils in England were 18.1 months of learning behind their peers by the time they finished their GCSEs. The additional impact that the pandemic is having on the lives of these children and families is only just emerging, not to mention a cohort of newly vulnerable families that we have not previously worked with. Only by fully investing in the five areas highlighted above can we give these families the support they need and reduce the rising costs of local authority children’s services which continue to spiral out of control.

Before the pandemic, a decade of austerity left local government funding in a parlous state and children’s services teetering on the edge of becoming a ‘blue light’ service. Tough decisions have had to be made about how funding is allocated and often the services most at risk are those addressing the root causes of problems children and their families face before they reach crisis point. This does nothing to reduce future demand, is more expensive in the long term and leads to poorer outcomes. The government must invest in the type of preventative services that reduce demand and improve lives. Schools, early years and further education settings are essential parts of the preventative agenda and during the pandemic demonstrated the potential for future ways of working and the impact we have when working in flexible partnership. Further, the emergence of Family Hubs which offer support and advice to families with children aged 0-25 at the heart of local communities gives us some insight into how investing in prevention can improve lives and significantly reduce demand for crisis services and intensive intervention in family life.

We cannot afford to pass up this opportunity to build on what we have learnt and what we know works. It has been an unprecedented time and one that requires an unprecedented level of investment to address the lasting impact of the pandemic on vulnerable children, young people, their families and carers. They deserve the best!

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A critical word in our services. When designing services, working with families, assessing, planning, doing, reviewing, measuring impact. When we talk to our services and teams. Where’s the evidence of voice? Is it meaningful? Is it tokenistic? Is it representative? How have we acted upon it to make people’s lives better? And how do those we listen to feel about it? Was it worth it? Did it make the difference they were seeking? Did they feel valued and respected?

Understanding and acting upon the lived experiences, views, wishes and feelings of those we work with is fundamental to good practice. We’re in the business of building positive relationships, so listening without prejudice is a pretty important skill to have and encourage in others. Even if what we hear is unpalatable, hard to process, not possible, or contradicts our own values or beliefs. What matters is how we deal with conflicting views, between ‘professionals’, children and their families. What is our bottom line to stop listening and direct unwanted intervention?

So, surely the same applies when we look at the complex challenges facing children’s services right now. When it comes to “solving” the social care crisis (please be a bit more specific when you say social care!), there are plenty of opinions, fixes, viewpoints arriving from a variety of perspectives. No doubt there’ll be vehement disagreement, challenge or counterargument. It’s how we enter the debate that matters, if everyone is to feel their voice will be heard.

Recently, the debate about the children’s care review has really opened up. The publication of “Three Dilemmas” has certainly started a conversation, with some rather bold questions about the future of children’s social care. Representatives from voluntary and private sectors have also entered the debate and suggested a very different vision for the future. Giving differing viewpoints is healthy, it’s what we’d want to see in our conversations with families. But, as with families, if the way we engage ends up stifling or offending then it will restrict the voice of others, and we are going to struggle to deliver sustainable positive change. I’ll be honest, I’m fairly new to leadership at this level and still finding my voice in what sometimes feels like a crowded room. But I owe it to those I serve and lead to enter the review, and other debates, with an open mind and ready to listen.

I was struck by Dez Holmes’ recent blog on the importance of respectful and open debate, and that when you have the opportunity to be “in the tent”, it’s important to recognise and respect that those “outside” feel their voice is not as powerful. From someone well respected across the sector, it was heartening to read, but also so illustrative that valued colleagues feel anxious about how their voice will be heard, or even the response to engaging in the conversation. Recent national debates have ended up being binary: in/out, for/against, open/close. Society is asked to pick a side, but if it’s a bit more complicated than that, I’m not sure neutrality is the answer either.

If the care review is truly a “not to be missed opportunity” to improve the lives of children and families, then we owe it to them to have a voice, and to listen.

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The power of reconnection

This week saw the first gathering in person of ADCS colleagues for 18 months, when we held our Council of Reference meeting in the reassuringly familiar surroundings of the Midland Hotel in Manchester. Our President, Charlotte Ramsden, spoke of the emotions invoked by reconnecting with colleagues and ADCS staff in person again after such a long time, in the very place where we have gathered for our annual conferences for the last 15 years. Many of us have positive memories of inspiring sessions, supportive side conversations and joyful socialising and even, on occasion, dancing in that place. It somehow felt right to be reconnecting in person with each other again there, of all places.

We eagerly exchanged war stories of lockdown hair growth, weight gain or loss, and other more significant changes in our lives since we last were together. We were able to properly say farewell to past presidents Rachel Dickinson, Stuart Gallimore and Jenny Coles in a way we had been unable to during lockdowns. We gleefully raised our hands in person in the same room rather than a little yellow one on screen. There was some dancing. Above all we rejoiced in the powerful feelings of reconnection to our professional and personal networks we have in ADCS. As Joni Mitchell once sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. Despite the connections with each other we have successfully maintained virtually during the last 18 months, nothing compares to being in the same place to have nuanced conversations, get the sense of feeling in a room, read body language, and have a bloody good laugh together.

Most of us are going through some version of this restoration in our own workplaces, as we feel our way to the new hybrid working arrangements many employers are creating. In doing so, we will aim to make opportunities for our teams to interact in person and re-establish some of the social connections that have been lost during lockdown working arrangements, things that are the invisible glue that hold together high performing teams.

My own LA, Kent County Council, like many of yours, has also been focussing on reconnecting children and young people with activities they enjoy and have missed during lockdown. The Kent Reconnect Programme is a community-led programme to get children and young people back to enjoying the activities and opportunities they took part in before covid, and the chance to try new things. It has five domains it aims to reconnect children and young people to; Health and Happiness, Learning Missed, Family, friends and Community, Sport, activities and the outdoors and Economic Wellbeing (do those five sound vaguely familiar to some of you…?).

We launched the programme this summer and it runs until the end of summer 2022. This summer holiday we were able to offer, among other things, all Kent children and young people free bus passes and subsidised family travel, subsidised or free leisure centre passes, 82,000 online catch-up lessons, and access to a wide range of activities and programmes in their communities. The feedback we have had so far from children and their families has been very positive and speak of the restorative power of reconnection both with friends and communities.

It is an opportune time for ADCS to be able to reconnect with each other this week. At our meeting we discussed our position in relation to an entirely new ministerial team at DfE, the first multi- year comprehensive funding review for three years, the renewed focus on the role of local authorities in education, the social care review, the SEND review, and our proposals for a new approach to youth justice. Each of those present threats as well as opportunities. For us to tip the balance in favour of opportunities, we are going to need the bonds that are strengthened by the power of reconnection.

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Never stop caring…

I tend to think of myself as a “glass half full” person (those of you who know me, feel free to disagree), who makes the best of whatever challenges come my way and seeks solutions. As a “twin hatter”, i.e. a director of adults as well as children’s services, I listened to the announcement last week about funding for health and adult social care with a heavy heart. No one disputes that significant extra resources are needed. However, the allocation for adult social care is negligible compared to the scale of need. It is a privilege to have our NHS, and free health care is a precious resource that is too easily taken for granted, but if we don’t balance the funding for acute services with more resource for community care and support, plus health and wellbeing work, we will never make progress to reduce or manage need better, whatever someone’s age.

What are the implications for children? In the preparations for new integrated care system arrangements from April 2022 onwards, the priority given to the health needs of children remains uncertain, at best. There has been publicity recently about the pressures on acute paediatric wards in caring for children who are very mentally unwell, traumatised and distressed, but not mentally ill. They do not meet the threshold for Tier 4 provision, so are staying on these wards as there is nowhere for them to go.

Major investment was promised in the NHS Long Term Plan for mental health support for children. Programmes such as Mentally Health Schools and Mental Health First Aid have offered the green shoots of hope that the importance of community-based support for children and young people has been recognised. The adverse impact of Covid-19, and other pressures, on their mental health have been well publicised and child and adolescent mental health services are currently responding to the higher acuity needs in those who are referred. In the urgency of addressing acute hospital pressures, we need to ensure these community developments continue to be prioritised as part of the solution. We have a role to play in connecting the system and bringing one wrap around support offer to the children and their families in our areas.

In addition, those children in our care with the most acute mental distress are being poorly served by our current placement offers. A shortage of welfare secure placements and a lack of effective care options for our most complex young people is leading to placement breakdowns and use of inherent jurisdiction to establish arrangements that will keep children as safe as possible.

So, what to do? Firstly, we will never stop caring and will work on solutions despite the challenges. The Association will continue to raise the profile and need of children and young people everywhere and press for a national plan for children linked to a clear ambition for their welfare and future, with proper resourcing to meet their needs. Secondly, we will champion the needs of our most vulnerable children as individuals and there are many examples of great work and positive impact that we can learn from. Finally, we need to work with partners to develop creative solutions on a sustainable basis that will offer more of these children a chance to be cared for in a way that meets their needs.

We’re working on it and all help and examples are most welcome!

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A Double Taboo

As I prepared to write this, I reminded myself that today is World Suicide Prevention Day. A day set aside by several groups, including the World Health Organisation, to provide worldwide commitment and action to prevent suicides. Whilst the name suggests prevention, which of course is the ultimate aim, activities that will be taking place today, around the world, are focused upon awareness. As I sit here, a thought resonates; I guess to many it might be shocking that in the twenty-first century, there remains a taboo around suicide and that we actually need to set aside a day, in effort to break this.

I expect everyone reading this blog will have had professional experience of suicide, and a number will have been impacted personally too. Tragically the numbers speak for themselves. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in 2019 nearly 5,700 people in England and Wales took their own life. Since 2018 these numbers have been rising compared with some stability in the preceding decade. Whilst there are as yet no statistics for 2020, it is reasonable to believe that with issues relating to lockdown, potential unemployment, and a disproportionate financial impact on the self-employed that we witnessed last year, at best numbers will have stayed high, at worse they will have got higher.

Of course, the ONS produce statistics, that is what they do, but behind each of those numbers is a person and a family left trying to understand. In our professional worlds these are often children left needing to find an explanation, but all too frequently it can be parents struggling to comprehend why their child has died. More than 200 children and young people take their own lives every year.

So it’s children who are at the root of my message to you today. There is a strong argument to say that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the life chances of the young, and no doubt we will have all been part of making difficult decisions that have affected children over the last year, be that about needing to temporarily close schools or about the frequency and way in which we visit the most vulnerable. In unprecedented times we have had to make unprecedented choices. Whilst there is no room to criticise decisions made in good faith, this year on World Suicide Prevention Day, possibly over any other year, I would suggest that we have a responsibility to consider the mental wellbeing of the young and their experiences of Covid, for if suicide remains a taboo, when a child takes their own life that taboo is double.

As I said at the beginning, today is about awareness and spreading a message. Whilst there is no doubt that we all want to take positive action, in the children’s workforce that is what we do, maybe today is a day just to reflect quietly, catch up with someone who we know might benefit from a chat, or take a few minutes to talk to someone less aware about breaking the taboo of suicide.

As you are all aware, good practice suggests we should always signpost to support whenever we open a discussion about suicide and I would like to highlight that the PHE ‘Help is at hand’ resource has been updated to include information regarding children and young people who have been bereaved (see page 40). The Samaritans helpline can be contacted on 116123.

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Holidays, hope, and happiness

I am just back from a short camping trip in neighbouring Dorset, not quite the same as a holiday abroad this year but we had a close encounter with a Common Buzzard to remember. I have another break to look forward to where I am making my way from Somerset to Liverpool and so will wave as I pass through your counties.

I am sure some of you will have made a trip, or have one planned, to the South-West this year. We have some wonderful beaches and places of interest to visit (I am not on commission.) Collectively, we are a diverse set of councils up and down the country, all with different structures and demands, but one thing is clear: we each have something unique to offer and celebrate. We readily share good practice and provide support to each other; we are not defined by our boundaries in children’s services. The Regional Improvement and Innovation Alliances are an excellent example of collaboration on behalf of children. I recently coordinated the DfE Recovery Fund bid for the South-West. It was a little fraught and stressful at times given the tight timescales and restrictions of the bid, but I was determined that we would maximise the opportunities this could give us in the region. My thanks go out to colleagues who stepped forward, coordinated regional calls, liaised with the DfE policy team, and authored specific elements of the bid. We submitted a comprehensive regional bid a day early (as I had a camping trip to get to), with many good ideas. I wish you all every success with your regional bids as I know that recovery is at the forefront of our minds as we prepare for the return to schools in September.

In my previous blog back in 2020, I reflected about hope in the context of recovery. This year, I have loved watching the summer Olympics and I am enjoying the start of the Premier League - for the athletes it requires a lot of hard work, skill, determination, resilience and hope – like us really! Despite adverse childhood experiences, many top athletes have achieved great success. Novak Djokavic was born in Serbia and grew up through two wars, living amidst fear and violence, with his family struggling to access basic food. Marcus Rashford has openly discussed his childhood experiences of living in poverty and how he was able to use his football skills to change his family’s financial situation and later launch his on-going campaign to end food poverty. In children’s services, we continue to pull together and support each other to create opportunities in difficult circumstances for happy childhoods, unlocking talent – and even growing future Olympians!

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Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall

By the time you read this, summer will be on its way out and we’ll be inexorably heading into autumn - when ‘leaves chase warm buses’ and directors of children’s services chase treasury officials to get government to realise that a new financial settlement for children is required in November’s Spending Review. More of that anon, I am sure.

I hope that your summer was better than mine, what with both my daughters catching Covid and our holiday plans put in to disarray, but c’est la vie…as I didn’t get to say in France. It did mean though, that my youngest was able to pick up her GCSE results in person, along with thousands of other pupils on results day. Those national results showed an increase in attainment based on teacher assessed grades which, rather than celebrating our children’s resilience, hard work and sacrifice during covid; instead led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth about ‘standards’ by commentators in the media, as I sure you will have seen. At the same time, we saw the world’s Olympians pushing themselves to the limits and challenging world records. So, I suppose that if we apply the same analysis toward the Olympians that many media commentators have applied to our school children, we must conclude that the reason Karsten Warholm smashed the Olympic 400m hurdles world record was not because he was better coached, better trained, or fitter than previous runners; no, it must be because the hurdles are now lower, or the race is actually 20 metres shorter these days!

It must also be said that whilst the media focus was on high attainment, we are already seeing worrying evidence of a growing gap, brought about by the impact of Covid, between the most and the least disadvantaged pupils. That gap must be the key focus for educational recovery.

As we head into the autumn, the role of local authorities vis a vis schools is one that is going to be debated again but perhaps in a more rounded and positive way than hitherto. The Covid crisis has brought into sharp relief the critical role that local authorities play in coordinating, supporting, and challenging schools to ensure that all children get the best possible start in life. Following the Secretary of State’s speech regarding the role of multi-academy trusts, that debate feels live again. Myself, Charlotte our President, Gail Tolley the chair of our Educational Achievement Policy Committee, and other colleagues will be ensuring that our voice is heard loud and clear on this issue along with connecting it to the review of SEND, the outcomes of the Holiday Activity and Food Programme, the future of REACT meetings, education recovery and more. Our policy positions on most of these issues were outlined in 2018 in our ‘vision for an inclusive and high performing education system’ and reading that paper now, with the benefit of Covid hindsight, it seems even more perspicacious.

So, there is plenty to do in this area of our work and I for one am glad that it is back on the agenda, and we can show what we, as local leaders, can do in improving the education system and what more we could do with a few more levers and a bit more co-operation. With this, the care review, the spending review and plenty of other things going on, it’s going to be an interesting autumn, or as F Scott Fitzgerald said in the Great Gatsby, ‘Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall’.

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The truth about change

I’ve recently been thinking about what it’s like to be a social worker, or indeed any other profession within the children’s workforce, in the 21st Century. It seems that our workforce, in the modern day, need to be experts on everything.

Some 30 years after I was first a social worker in Walsall, I guess there is a danger that I could fall into that age-old trap and find myself saying “things were different in my day”. The truth is, things were different in my day, but not from some rose-tinted perspective, but from an acceptance that as society adapts to modern innovation, different stresses and whatever this month’s new normal is, so do the situations that workers encounter as they walk through a family’s door, as the recent events in a London Borough sadly showed.

In 1990 we could barely imagine the powers of the internet, and few of us would have ever considered how it might be used to groom children. The fact that so many children would be carrying, in their pocket, a computer with more power than those that got us to the moon, was unthinkable. The concept of exploitation wasn’t in our language and our understanding of the impact of domestic abuse was, at best, limited to the victim and not their child. Yet today, the average worker will deal with these issues on a “normal” working day, not to mention the other 101 things on their to do list.

At times we might be excused for thinking that there are only two truths in local government, the first being that demand will always increase to fill capacity, the second being that the only certainty is uncertainty. This oversimplifies things, a lot, but it is true that we need to constantly review the service we provide to ensure that demand is managed appropriately, and capacity is adequate. It is also true that we are adept at dealing with uncertainty, be that; the unintended and undesirable consequences of a new technological advancement; a novel virus that suddenly becomes a pandemic; or a tragic event that becomes the subject of the next big public enquiry. All of these things, and many more besides, impact our professions - identifying and managing new risks, triggering additional legislation, and developing different ways of working..

Who knows what the Care Review will bring and how our professions will look three decades from now? But the truth is, being a social worker, a teacher, or a youth worker now is different to the way it was in the 90’s. However, in thirty years’ time when that fresh new graduate from the class of 2021 sits in my chair at Walsall, hopefully they too will look back, not through rose tinted glasses, but with the benefit of experience, and reflect upon how the challenge of change makes children’s services the most rewarding workplace in the world!

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Summer 2021: Hotter, Wetter, Stormier - Together

This summer has been momentous, if for no other reason than the publication of the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Thankfully, it comes with some small seeds of hope which could possibly be expressed in one ‘new’ Olympic word; “Together”.

The IPCC’s seismic report comes in the wake of a global pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics, and closer to home, A Level and GCSE results like no other. The report clearly requires our unequivocal acceptance, deep consideration, and urgent action - no action is simply not an option!

The reality is that our world is becoming much hotter, wetter, and stormier. We know that climate change exacerbates inequalities, our challenge is in how we minimise this. How to act and finding the time to do so will be tough; the pressures already upon us will threaten our response. There are other numerous existential challenges we are currently facing - recovery from a global pandemic, drastic public and third sector budget cuts, increasing inequality, and a digital and technological revolution - all of which are driving further societal change. Oh, and that’s not to mention the day job - ensuring children, young people and their families are safe, healthy, and achieving.

Recent consultation with children and young people in my area revealed some stark messages. Amongst heightened fear, anxiety and concern, and increasing mental health issues, they have unequivocally stated (in some cases with some anger) that they want adult leaders to act now; to act decisively, and importantly to appropriately replace the negative “lost generation” rhetoric with realistic optimism. And this was before the IPCC report.

Whilst I recognise that dealing with climate change on the scale, and with the pace required, may be daunting for many leaders (and even now just too distant and just too unreal), my fear is a road to an environmental global disaster for our children that is not paved by climate deniers, but by inappropriate and unfair competition.

Like many of you, I have been enthralled and moved by the Olympics in Tokyo this summer. Together, these young athletes went faster, stronger, and higher (literally in the case of the high jump gold medalists), highlighting the wonders of camaraderie and the shear delights and power of togetherness and diversity.

What I have learned from the world’s fastest, strongest, and fittest athletes this momentous summer was that this biggest of challenges for our children (stemming the tide of the hotter, wetter, stormier weathers) will only be tackled successfully if we are also truly…Together!

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A remarkable response

Although it has already been said many times and in many ways, I feel it is important for me to once again acknowledge the remarkable response that we have witnessed right across the public sector and beyond since last year; a response requiring the system to rise to the challenges presented by the unfamiliar phenomenon of widespread infection and illness that has blighted many of our communities, and the long and enduring lockdowns.

We have all spent nearly 18 months trying to make sense of strange and sometime frightening circumstances and the anxiety that comes from loss. Not only life but also freedom, contact, stability, and security. This has been a once in a lifetime, seismic experience that has brought profound shifts to our patterns of work, school and home-life.

Over the course of the pandemic, we have learned so much about ourselves, each other and what matters, and this has hasn’t stopped with the easing of restrictions; even now, there are new issues, guidance, circumstances to grapple with and overcome. The response since this all began has been more than impressive, it has, and continues to be, ground-breaking.

The speed of multiagency mobilisation, coordination and collaboration, united behind a collective goal, has been truly phenomenal. For years, I, like many others, have been promoting the benefits of integrated leadership that wraps around children and rejects ‘hand-offs’. Indeed, there is firm evidence that when agencies work in isolation of each other they can at times do more harm than good. For me, the benefits of whole system working, united by a common purpose, have been crystallised by our responses to the pandemic. The importance of embracing and nurturing skill mix and working with children, young people and families in a restorative way is well documented. The children’s integration work that has been promoted in many areas, underpinned by a culture of mutual respect and ‘team around’, has been a game changer. Delivery models of ‘team around’ have, in my experience, proved to be strong foundations that underpin and guide our ability to work effectively. Schools, the anchor institutions in communities, have risen to the enormous challenges with much more effectiveness when they have worked in a multi-agency spirit of cooperation and collaboration.

As we continue to readjust to life with few legal restrictions, there is much to reflect upon and analyse in more depth so that we better understand any enduring impact of this pandemic, not only on our children, families, and communities but also on our workforce. This will help to prepare us for what the future may hold.

Financial instability is without doubt causing considerable stress and hardship for many families. The number of children eligible for free school meals, due to reduced household income, has sharply increased and is continuing to rise. I expect this trend to continue as the national furlough scheme is tapered out. The disruption to children and young people’s learning opportunities and educational environment has been significant. The negative impact of the series of lockdowns and the invisible threat to life, on both children and adults’ emotional health and well-being, is yet to be fully understood. The impact of disruptions to dental care, speech and language therapy, physio for example, also needs to be better understood. As we go forward, we must consider how the system, working with families and communities, can mitigate against the inequalities compounded upon by the pandemic.

I look forward to finding time to carefully listen and reflect in a ‘multi-agency cooperative’ on what we have learnt over the past 18 months; any new ways of working that we want to continue to embrace in the future; share ideas and consider strategies for recovery. There have been some very important learning opportunities and messages for us to hear, captured through the voice of parents, carers and children, and indeed some examples of flexibility and adapted service styles that we would want to adopt going forward.

Finally, I believe we have a duty to our children and young people to avoid over-using negative narratives. Of course, honesty and sensitivity about the individual experiences and impact is important, but I feel that a spirit of hope, ambition and optimism should underpin our recovery and renewal dialogue with families in communities.

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What we know...

So, as I move into the last few weeks of being a DCS, my colleagues in the Eastern Region very generously gave me the chance to have a last word! I was going to write about the power of collective leadership and support that we experience through our regional networks (and which has sustained me personally for so long with my fabulous Herts team and ER colleagues!) and I will come to this. However, over the last 2 weeks the children’s services team here in Hertfordshire, alongside inspection colleagues, have been reflecting again on the impact of relationship-based practice, particularly with teenagers and how this then shapes the framework for developing the practice approach. I therefore thought I’d share a few of our thoughts.

I can’t believe it’s over seven years since the ADCS Families, Communities & Young People Policy Committee instigated a conversation on adolescents and risk, and Dez Holmes took this forward with Research in Practice to produce That Difficult Age: Developing a more effective response to risks in adolescence. This paper challenged and encouraged us to focus on what we know rather than continue to be constrained by the systems we have. I do think since then we are, and continue to be, less constrained. Research, evidence-based practice, sharing “what we know”, and listening to young people, have all supported us in this. Developing relationship-based practice has played a key part– we know a positive relationship with a trusted adult is critical to understanding how young people view their lives and then being able to build resilience. It underpins a personalised approach and enables us to work alongside and co-produce rather than direct. To listen to social workers, youth workers, police and health colleagues talk about their relationships with young people and families over the last couple of weeks as we reviewed our practice, and to see how this is really influencing policy and our multiagency approach for broader contextual safeguarding and early work on transitional safeguarding is inspiring! It is very clearly developing and putting in place what we know.

Relationships we know provide the basis for what we do every day as leaders and promote a collective responsibility and leadership. I’ve also done quite a lot of reflecting on this over the last few weeks. Collective and relationship-based leadership from within our senior teams and from our regional networks is what we know makes a very real difference. It promotes trust and openness and enables us to work alongside each other to challenge effectively. This is why sector led improvement is so powerful at demonstrating change. And probably this has never been shown more effectively than over the last 18 months through our collective and relationship-based leadership within ADCS.

This is what we know and we should be confident to say it loudly at every opportunity. I’m not going to write further paragraphs on transference and projection within relationships you will be pleased to know (although I wouldn’t mind!). So, in conclusion for my last very short blog, the final word(s) are of course what we know – it’s Happy Friday and have a good weekend!

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An opportunity to be even more ambitious for children and young...

When I qualified as a social worker in 1995 BSG (Before the Spice Girls) we’d never really heard of agency social workers, yet now taking them on is commonplace for all of us. And don’t get me wrong, there are some cracking agency social workers out there who commit to extended assignments in front line teams, who build relationships with families and share their wisdom with colleagues. But conversely, we also know that quality is variable and costs excessive and rising. It was good to see some reference to the costs of employing agency social workers in the Case for Change and whilst there was some reflection on the reasons moving to an agency is attractive for some, it didn’t offer any solutions to the cost and quality issue we seem to constantly face.

Earlier this month we held a workshop in the East Midlands, virtual of course, which I chaired, where we came together with senior leaders across most ADCS regions, to critically reflect and review the Memoranda of Co-operation (MoC) that most of us seem to use to manage the demand and supply of children’s agency social workers. There was great engagement, energy and ideas from everyone who attended. Our conclusion was that the market (if you can really call it a market since us local authorities are the only customers!) is simply not working for us in neither price nor quality, with plenty of stories shared about how some agencies and candidates try and drive up costs, the challenge of operating MoCs across regional borders, and the lack of any real quality control or accountability from agencies.

Clearly there will always be a need to employ agency social workers, but I believe there is a missed opportunity in the Case for Change to be even more ambitious and pose questions to government about the need to at least consult about regulation in this area. We know the DfE are increasingly concerned about the spiralling costs of agency social workers. At the recent ADCS virtual annual conference, the Children’s Minister said the government wants to drive down costs, although she dodged a question from me on whether the government would seek to cap the costs agencies can charge local authorities for using agency social workers. Surely a Minister’s focus on this, coupled with the Case for Change, provides the best opportunity there’s been to tackle this thorny issue? The Case for Change could be even more ambitious and start to ask some fundamental questions about the role of social work; is it necessary to be a qualified social worker to skilfully carry out all roles and tasks currently assigned to social workers? Given the agency social work challenge described here, and the issues Josh MacAlister describes about the pressures on front line social work, isn’t it time for real change?

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Put your own oxygen mask on first...

For many of us it will have been some time since we heard those words in an airline safety demonstration, but, as we continue to grapple with the pandemic and all it brings, I think it’s a useful phrase to reflect upon. As leaders, in times of crisis we strive to remain calm, collected and in control so we can “hold” our staff and create the conditions for them to safely practice. I think it was a chair of the CBI that talked about having a mask of command on the back of his office door that he put on as his public face. But are there unintended consequences of this approach? Could this be seen as us occupying the space of hero leader and placing more pressure on our staff to also “cope”, especially in a world in which much of our interaction is still virtual? Are we putting undue pressure on ourselves? Do we need to find a balance between making it safe and also showing our own vulnerability and humanity? Maybe the greatest strength of leadership at this time is to be able to say its ok to not be ok and to support others to do the same.

As some of you may know, I have the privilege of being a twin hatter so have had the opportunity to work right across the whole system in recent months. What I see everywhere I turn are amazing, resilient, committed staff who just keep going and doing everything they can to support the most vulnerable in society. But I also see staff that are absolutely knackered and scared of what is still to come. As a leader, the challenge is: do I stick with the mask of command, or do I admit I’m knackered too (and a bit scared)? I’ve made the decision I am going for the latter - there you go I’ve said it – I am knackered – we all are.

By owning this as system leaders, we free up others to say the same and then we can all find collective and new solutions together. In Yorkshire and Humber we have been having these discussions at all levels. We have been working with partners to put in place debrief sessions which support staff to recognise and understand the trauma impact of the pandemic on them – just providing time for groups to come together to share and voice this. We are also having a joint DCS, DASS, and DPH meeting where we are looking at how, as leaders of the system, we can support our workforce to move forward together. But perhaps the best thing we can do as leaders at this time is model behaviour and really look after ourselves, so others get the permission to do the same. Good old Maslow is really helpful here - reflect on the pyramid and honestly answer how many of you are meeting even your basic needs – then make a firm plan that you will do. Book a lunch break and be very visible that you are doing it – go wild swimming, take up yoga. Whatever it is, do it - and tell everyone you are doing it. Give them permission and space to do the same.

Go on – I dare you – put your own oxygen mask on first.

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The Value of Social Work

As a DCS, being a qualified social worker is not part of the essential criteria and I know plenty of brilliant DCS colleagues who have found their role though a different route. However, I am proud of my social work background, am still registered as a social worker and still use the skills I learnt. The recent debates about the role and value of social work have called to my roots and caused me to reflect on my time in front line practice and the essential and hugely valuable work our social workers do every day.

Meeting the needs of children and keeping them safe and nurtured, ideally at home, is at the heart of social work and a burning desire to do this led me into the role. Partnership working is crucial and none of us can do this alone, we are a team and all partners matter! A safeguarding focus on the child kept me calm knocking on the door for many a first visit to a family where concerns had been raised. That first meeting is a step into the unknown. It could lead to relief all round and closure of the concern, or the immediate removal of a child. Finely honed skills to manage and assess the situation are essential. Do we assess too much? Unknown families where concerns are not followed up could lead to harm being missed.

Whether the worker is a family support worker offering early support, or a social worker working with a family where there is a high level of concern, I learnt that assessment is a crucial element to plan and deliver the work needed. A skilled assessment can be a therapeutic process which enables the family to discover more about themselves as an agent for change. No-one, whatever their role, is protected from the responsibility of acting to safeguard a child if circumstances require it, and “professional curiosity” is part of working with children at all levels of need. Safeguarding is, and always will be, everyone’s business. Building meaningful relationships, despite those challenges, is central to Social Work, as it is to all those working with children. For me, any potential divide is a false one and fraught with risk.

My biggest fear was always that a child would come to harm on my watch and we have only to look at the Jenga blocks of our system outlined in the current Case for Change; laws and regulations, court judgements, Ofsted inspections, government reports and the judgements of the press and social media, to realise my fear was well founded. My fear, however, was not how others would judge me but that I would fail a child. To know that a wrong judgement could impact on the safety, or even life of a child, is pressure indeed. Our social workers live with these risks every day. Thank goodness for a clear expectation of the need for supervision, support and partnership working to provide reflection and challenge for the difficult decisions, and we need this for all our workers. We are proud to be one of the safest children’s services in the world, but we don’t get it right all the time.

In this time of review and potential change, there is plenty to reflect on. What is our appetite for shifting the Jenga blocks to live with greater managed risk? Which children would see benefit from this shift and which ones might suffer? How do we apply the wealth of good practice available as widely as possible? Social workers are living in a grey area of conflicting expectations which are managed every day. Despite that, our children matter. There are stories abound of those who work with children going the extra mile because children matter so much, but sadly these are rarely the ones we hear about. Do we love those in our care? When a child in care I loved died of natural causes, my grief was overwhelming. As someone said to me then, “you really identified with her didn’t you”. Wherever the current review takes us, the huge value of social work is clear.

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It's ok to be ok

Whilst I am reluctant to continue to focus on the pandemic, as we progress along the roadmap and are tantalisingly close to the end of national restrictions, I find myself once again reflecting on the impact of the past year or so on our children and young people.

The national focus and media attention has understandably been on how Covid has disrupted the life of every child. I have witnessed first-hand the ups and downs of daily life with my stepchildren - with their interrupted schooling, many days of self-isolation, lack of access to structured activities and reduced contact with family and friends.

I would not seek to deny or minimise the significant challenges that our young people have had to endure and manage over the last 12 months; the increase in the number of children living in poverty is of course testament to this. There are many areas of obvious impacts, to a greater or lesser extent, such as education, bereavement, social interactions, abuse and neglect, all forms of poverty and of course physical and mental wellbeing.

There is no doubt that the huge rise in demand for mental health services, at all levels, is an early indication of one of the potentially long-term impacts. Every day there are stories in the media about children being anxious, stressed and worried which has led to rapid investment in, and development of, well needed support services, although there is still much more to be done before we can meet the needs of all our young people.

Despite the constant deficit headlines about children - their missed education and recovery needs, hampered life chances and lost generation claims - there are still examples of positivity that instil optimism, hope and inspiration and demonstrate the resilience of some of our children and young people. We need to consider why some young people have flourished, despite all of the adversity in their lives, and harness that resilience.

In my discussions with some young people, they have reported to me that they have felt guilty or even worried by the fact they were not experiencing such emotions. As one young primary student recently said to his teacher, ‘Stop asking me about my feelings and give me some hard maths.’

We need to embrace the rhetoric that sometimes it’s ok to be ok.

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A juggling act

In the week that “Freedom Day” was delayed for a month, almost as if it were a DfE policy announcement, I was struck by what we are currently juggling as DCSs and the amazing reach and complexity of our statutory roles. Given I have been doing this since dinosaurs roamed the earth, you might think it would have stopped surprising me by now.

As well as national challenges in common, we all have our unique local issues. As DCS for Kent, I am contractually required to mention our particular challenge with unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) arriving in our county.

Last week I had the very difficult experience of advising our Leader and Lead Member, for the second time in nine months, that I believe it is no longer safe for us to admit newly arrived UASC into our care.

This advice involved a difficult balancing act between one statutory duty under the 1989 Children Act (to care for unaccompanied minors arriving in Kent) and another statutory duty under the same Act (to provide a safe level of care to children we look after). The pace of new arrivals this year, by dinghy at Dover, has been much faster than last year and has simply overwhelmed our capacity. Over the recent bank holiday, for example, we took 50 unaccompanied asylum seeking children and young people into our care and quarantined them. The failure of the voluntary National Transfer Scheme to keep pace with arrivals and ensure the safe and equitable distribution of UASC around the country has left us, once again, without sufficient capacity to offer the standard of care these vulnerable children are entitled to.

We have worked with the Home Office to help them safely place all new arrivals directly from the port of Dover to other LAs for now. It made it easier to give this difficult advice knowing that the young people will be safely cared for in other LAs.

In the past year, locally we have grappled with the emergence of the Kent Variant, the closure of the border with France and 15,000 HGV lorries parked on our motorways. You all have had your own versions of these local challenges, and they certainly add variety to our collective set of national ones.

In addition to all the catch up and recovery challenges, we face a long list of incoming issues. In the next year we have the Care Review and what follows, the SEND Review and the looming precipice of High Needs deficits, further transition to a national funding formula for schools, a push for enforced academisation and another Comprehensive Spending Review, to name but a few. The usual juggling act may involve a few grenades this time.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to three Past Presidents of ADCS who will retire in July. John Coughlan, Jenny Coles and Stuart Gallimore have each made significant contributions to our sector and to ADCS. I will miss them all, expert grenade jugglers and friends that they are. I look forward to hearing from them regularly about the joys of retirement.

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Determining the nature of sound

It’s four weeks since many local authorities were involved in overseeing local elections and, Milton Keynes being a unitary council with ‘no overall control’, we are getting used to the beginning of a new leadership termed as a ‘Progressive Alliance’. We have been focussing on a new council cabinet, new councillors, and new training sessions; particularly to support those exploring new portfolio responsibilities for the first time, and congratulating those new lead members who are finding out about being (corporate) parents for the first time!

Amid local election time, there is often some loud voices proclaiming, ‘what needs to be done’ and ‘how things must change’. At times, these loud voices overpower the real voices we need to listen to. Those families whose resilience evidences that if their circumstances and experiences were to be understood, it would position us well in being on the front foot in our approach to the months ahead, as opposed to reacting to events as they happen.

Over these last four weeks, I have had the opportunity to visit some of our children’s centres and schools in areas that were particularly challenged by Covid-19. My discussions with those new parents whose babies were born during lockdown, and with teachers and students whose schools have continued to offer so much to their communities, challenged me as to the voices we need to hear. We all recognise the power of a story, but these stories are only going to be heard if the people they belong to are listened to. The loud voice of a few can often drown out the experiences of those we work with, so we need to acknowledge this and consciously work to ensure we’re listening to the right narrative. This is perhaps the only way we can build a Tower of Insight over a Tower of Babel!

As we listen and help shape the steps ahead and move towards the contestable ‘end of lockdown’ date of 21 June, our voice as leaders in children’s services needs to give a strong message over some of the noise currently prevalent in our work. Representing those whose choices do not extend to which foreign holiday to take, but to which of their more immediate daily needs are prioritised, is critical if we are going to deliver the right services to the right people in a timely way.

This support should not be understood in using the language of ‘recovery, catch up, or of missed opportunities’, but to acknowledge the strength and resilience of our children, young people, families and communities who have shown immense strength, resolve and resilience throughout these past 15 months, too often unacknowledged. Whether a tension exists between delivering a summer of play and activities to support children’s socialisation, or whether there is an increase in summer schools to deliver formal learning, it is important we don’t just let the loud voices be heard. In the words of Vera Nazarian “don’t let a loud few determine the nature of sound. It makes for poor harmony and diminishes the song”.

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Who loves this child?

This needs to be the starting point of everything we do in children’s services. I don’t want to see love defined, pulled apart or being put in legislation. We instinctively know what love is. Since the Munro report of 2011, we have been revolutionising how we approach working with children and families. I can see the similarity of approaches emerging, they share commonality of ethos and culture - strengths based, with families - not to them, all based in systemic and relational practice. Of course, safeguarding needs to be sharp and focused, but we need to ask questions about how “risk” drives our national system and remember the lessons of Munro, Mason and others about safe certainty/ safe uncertainty.

We need to change the system from always focusing on risk and assessment to one of family seeing, supporting and building, maintaining and repairing relationships. More and more, it feels like we are trying to do this despite the system. A system that obsesses on process and measuring it, rather than anything of importance to children and families - more emphasis on doing things right, rather on doing the right things. For example, the Care Experienced Conference highlights its top three messages as needing more love in the care system, being seen as individuals worthy of respect, and that relationships are critically important. Yet our system of rules and Regulation fails to take account of these. Regulation needs fundamental reform. We need a system, underpinned by real ambition, to provide love, support and relationships for as long as young adults need it. We need to go further and the Care Review may provide this opportunity

We have to understand the whole system at play here and how it cuts across policy and service boundaries. Ofsted, Cafcass, the judiciary, health, schools, police and others - all have an important role to play, they are part of a system that inadvertently drives behaviours that can be counter to what is best for children and families. No one intends it, but unconnected decision making taken outside of the evidence base of long term outcomes (that go far beyond childhood), is driving more and more children into care, and more and more into residential care. We need to face the uncomfortable truths of the real impact if we fail to provide young people with the opportunity for healing through relational networks (as opposed to services) that mature throughout adult life.

Of course, we need to hold a magnifying lens on immediate risk but doing so without the same lens on long term risk (just because we won’t have the same level of responsibility 20 and 30 years on) is not acceptable for any part of the system. A system that doesn’t reflect on the lessons of many serious incidents and early mortality of adults who have experienced care, makes us no less responsible for doing the right things now.

The numbers of children in care continue to rise and these children are predominantly from families in deprived areas. 98% of children in care are there because of their parents’ needs. Are we punishing parents for being poor?

At the same time, the number of children and young people in residential care continues to grow. Let’s be clear. I spent 10 years myself working in residential care. Here in North Yorkshire, we have the most amazing No Wrong Door Hubs and the team’s commitment and ethos is brilliant. But I want them empty and I don’t want children in residential care, the long term outcomes as evidenced support my position. Adults who lived in foster and residential care during childhood had a 40% chance of very poor health 10 years later. This rose to 85% over the following two decades. Those who grew up with a relative saw their chances of reporting very ill health range from 21% to 43% over the same 30 year period.

The independent nature of the ‘care market’ does not care about long term outcomes of children, they are there to make a profit. How can it grasp the ethical importance of nurturing relationships and networks that provide the therapeutic building blocks for adult life? How can it prioritise reunification as a central pillar, when doing so directly challenges the business model it is built on? These are all uncomfortable truths but we must face them. Nationally, I personally don’t believe we have a ‘placement’ crisis, but we do have a family engagement crisis. Metaphorically, it’s like having a crisis at a cliff edge. We seem never to move from a focus on buying more and more ambulances to be stationed at the bottom of the cliff. We need to focus relentlessly on putting a fence up at the top.

It’s time for change. We need to support family and networks, to care for children in well supported and properly funded kinship arrangements when that is appropriate and necessary.

A recent report from the Centre for Social Justice sums up well my thoughts on this subject - “a consistent, trusting, long-term relationship protects a child against even the most adverse of circumstances.”

As a good friend to North Yorkshire, Kevin Campbell from Family Finders often says to me, “safety is only temporary without healing.” We obsess with assessment and risk, but we need to obsess with support to families and networks, relationships, connection and healing.

So, let’s build the network of support children and families deserve. I hope the Care Review is an opportunity to realise that ambition and develop a system that can truly answer for every young person – “who loves this child?”

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Doing the impossible

I want to start this blog with a quote from Francis of Assisi “Start by doing what’s necessary; then what’s possible and suddenly you are doing the impossible” - I think it’s what all of us working in children’s services do.

I used this quote to open our Foster Carers’ conference last week, the first we’ve held virtually. The event was a great success and everyone effortlessly navigated Zoom, however, it was a shame not to have some of the ‘coffee break’ catch-ups with individual foster carers. During the event we reflected on the life of one of our longstanding carers who died of cancer during Covid and the amazing impact he and his wife have had on many children. It had been humbling for me, some months ago, to talk to them both during a lockdown permitted walk and listen to his wife assuring me that she’d be back fostering on her own. At the conference we heard from our Mockingbird hub carers (we’ve launched two of the three during lockdown) who brought to life the many positive experiences of our children during lockdown – nurturing calm and stability that has eased anxieties, deepened relationships and created fun times. One of our kinship carers talked eloquently about how she has used the PACE principles in helping her teenage grandson to deal with bullying at school and I realised she would probably never have done that in a room full of 80 people – the positive use of technology!

I also want to reflect on the long lasting impact of Covid, on top of the challenges that predated Covid. Locally, we’re seeing growing numbers of children and young people who are anxious about their future and afraid to reconnect outside of their homes. Our school colleagues continue to go the extra mile because they don’t want any child to get left behind, and out of the pandemic has come a whole load of creativity with passions reignited – we can’t let this generation down. It’s exciting to talk with colleagues and our Lead Member about the skills agenda, because in our collective role as corporate parents we are using some of the new opportunities to improve the employment and support offer to our care leavers. Although they had a lot of support from staff, some of them really struggled with the isolation of lockdown, so it’s good to hear that they’re now able to talk about their hopes for the future again.

I can’t end this blog without giving a shout out for my DCS colleagues in the South West. They have proved themselves to be a resilient and supportive bunch. So, as we move into the sunshine and welcome those of you who are heading down here for a staycation (most of you?) I’d like to thank them for their camaraderie and mutual support. We traded our annual overnight conference, peer challenge day and regular face to face meetings for a completely virtual world. But do you know what? We‘ve had nearly 100% attendance at most meetings and the peer challenges went ahead with lots of positive feedback. We even had a few evening get togethers and have discovered things about each other that have wowed and amused us!

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Celebrating Diversity

Today is World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development; more commonly called Diversity Day. A day enshrined within UN Resolution 57/249 and an opportunity to help communities understand the value of cultural diversity and learn how to live together in harmony.

This past year has really brought to the fore issues around diversity. We witnessed the tragedy and horror of George Floyd’s death and response of the Black Lives Matter movement; the murder of Sarah Everard and the highlighting of injustices faced by women; and, the continued impact of a pandemic where the rich have become richer and the poor poorer and where digital exclusion has been exposed as yet another adversity issue for many families.

In the West Midlands we enjoy a richness to our culture and diversity, from the metropolis of the Birmingham conurbation and all that city living brings; the birthplace of the Bard in Warwickshire; the epicentre of the industrial revolution in Telford; Coventry with a certain lady on a horse; and so much more besides, but with such cultural wealth comes another story.

I am sure that every local authority is rising to the challenges that diversity issues bring, be those in regard to the families that we support, or those that impact our colleagues. Nevertheless, I want to share some of the work that is happening in the West Midlands and with two very different local authorities, one metropolitan borough and the other a rural shire county.

Here in Wolverhampton, where 30% of pupils live in homes where English is not the primary language and a similar number live in low income households, we have produced a short film featuring social workers and other professionals, as well as people with lived experience, all who live and/or work in the city talking about their experiences of equality, diversity and inclusion and what we are doing in the city to address discrimination, prejudice and inequality. Sitting behind the film is a wealth of work that supports both our workforce and our community.

Similarly, in Worcestershire where diversity is hidden behind a set of statistics which are lower than Wolverhampton’s, colleagues are working just as hard to challenge inequality. Their work includes a diversity calendar which helps deliver targeted comms to the workforce and events to celebrate and get behind; and their “First Space” internet resource so all practitioners can access quality information. They too have produced a film in celebration of Steven Lawrence Day and their proud support of the foundation which bears his name.

Whilst we know that these films will not change things, they do serve as a focus, a call to arms and a reminder of what needs to change, why it needs to change and what we can all do to be a part of a much-needed revolution. Can I ask, therefore, on this Diversity Day that you take a moment to reflect? Please watch one of our films, if that will help, but use them, not as a means, but as a means to an end.

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You may already be aware that Foster Care Fortnight began this week. This year, the annual campaign to raise the profile of fostering and show how foster care transforms lives is using the hashtag #WhyWeCare. I like the way it’s highlighting foster carers’ reflections about why they have chosen to be caregivers in this way, and at the same time to prompt those of us who aren’t foster carers ourselves, but who truly value those who are, to think about why we care about fostering.

A quick look at the hashtag on social media tells a heart-warming story of individuals and families who have opened their hearts and homes to children at every age and stage of their lives. Some write about what they see as the privilege of looking after children for a short, but difficult, period of instability and insecurity until a permanent home is found for them, others about a stay that was originally planned to be short but became firstly a child’s home for the whole of their childhood, and then a place to regularly return to in adulthood, often with children of their own. Some are what might be considered ‘traditional’ families, expanding their view of themselves to make room for more children, either alongside their own children as they grow up, or when their birth children have ‘left the nest’; others emphasise how fostering is open to families who defy traditional stereotypes and to single people who become a family when they welcome another family’s child into their lives. Some have made important connections with the birth families of children they care for and maintain these connections long after children return home to their parents. Some are fostering new mothers and their babies together.

There’s some important myth-busting in these shared stories: people who foster and work at the same time; people who foster in a rented home; people who foster when English isn’t their first language; people who foster although they don’t drive, or when they have a pre-existing health condition. Of course, some circumstances may mean fostering isn’t possible right now, but very few issues are an automatic bar to fostering, which means that great carers come from really diverse backgrounds and all walks of life. Sometimes it’s what makes a carer different, that makes them so special, and this in turn makes the home they offer somewhere a particular child can feel they really belong.

One of the reasons I care so much about fostering is that children need to belong. Most children and young people, most of the time, need to be cared for in families rather than in institutional settings; that’s usually where they’ll have the greatest sense of belonging. When birth families or wider kinship networks aren’t able to look after a child, family-based foster care provides a home that is safe with an adult or adults that can be trusted.

Why am I, as the Chair of the Workforce Development Police Committee, blogging about the importance of families and family-based care? Because as well as sharing family life with children in care, foster carers are experts, essential members of the support teams around a child. Experienced foster carers may know more about trauma, attachment, child development, life story work, additional needs, and specialist therapies than many recently qualified social workers. So another reason #whywecare about fostering is that it brings these specialist skills and expertise into the lives of children who need families.

This Foster Care Fortnight, I want to say a huge thank you to foster carers, for everything they bring to the care of the children and young people with whom they make their home.

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Getting it right in the early years.

Three weeks ago today, a generation of children who have spent around a third of their lives in the pandemic found out where they will be starting their school journey in the autumn term. For many of them, their levels of school readiness will be significantly different from those children that started school prior to the pandemic.

The impact of the lockdown on our youngest children has been widely reported. Just last month the Education Endowment Foundation published initial findings from a survey of 50,000 pupils that shows an increase in the number of four and five year olds needing help with speech and language.

For some children, their experience over the pandemic has been positive as a result of more time at home with parents/carers and increased play and time outdoors. However, the impact of the pandemic will not be the same for all early years children and will exacerbate and widen the gap already apparent for those children who are more vulnerable or living in poverty.

The pandemic has deprived many of this generation of children of social contact and the experiences that supports the development of vocabulary and social skills. Key skills that enable children to express themselves, interact with others and make themselves understood are ordinarily developed through social interaction with peers and others outside of the home. Many families also missed out on crucial developmental checks that identify early the need for additional support, leading to many more children starting school with unidentified needs.

But we know all of this already, through our services we champion the importance of early education, support the development of good quality provision locally and work with partners to develop support around the first 1001 critical days to enable children to have the best start in life. We also know the long-term impact of not getting it right in the early years.

So, whilst the research is really positive in terms of shining a light on the importance of early education, my concern is that the pandemic has shifted the narrative of the benefits of early education away from the fundamental benefits to the child towards an economic imperative, to support parents and carers to work.

I am sure you will all have seen a similar drop in the numbers of children returning to early years provision following the first lockdown and the impact this is having on providers who have either not re-opened or are in a precarious financial position due to a drop in numbers accessing the provision. What we don’t fully understand yet is the impact this will have on the long term sustainability of provision in our local areas.

For the generation of our youngest children who have experienced the pandemic, my hope is that we can quickly turn our narrative back to the benefits way beyond, and in addition to, supporting access to work. To focus on the importance of play, social interaction, the development of independence, risk taking, speech and language and building on the strengths of families to support children in their early development - championing on behalf of our youngest children and the importance of getting the best start in life.

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What matters

There’s a lot going on at the moment, what with our new President, the care review, a focus on unregulated provision, catch up in schools and so on. But for this blog I wanted to think about something that threads through all of these – our use of language to signify what matters.

Firstly, if you managed to catch Charlotte Ramsden’s brilliant Presidential speech last week, you’ll have heard a great example of the use of a clear, well-constructed argument. There were so many nuggets in there but the desire to “shine a light on inequality and do all we can to prevent child poverty becoming an epidemic wrapped up in a pandemic” and the call for “a Long-Term National Plan for Children and Young People. A plan which is ambitious and predicated upon a universal approach to enabling all children to achieve their potential, whilst retaining a focus on the poorest and the most vulnerable” are crystal clear articulations of our priorities in ADCS.

But I was also prompted to think about how we use language by an academic article that dropped into my inbox (thanks Katy and Dez). The article was not about language ostensibly, but about the marginalization of young people, gang affiliation and the fact that young people create gang associations because they don’t seem to ‘matter’ otherwise in their communities. The article is far richer and more complex than I can convey in this blog (please do read it) and it rightly argues for socio -economic changes that foreground the needs of young people. But socio-economic power structures and ‘mattering’ are embedded in our own use of language. To take a simple example, when I look back to how I used to record my interactions with young people as a social worker, I wince at the formal language that we all used to describe what I was observing, language which entrenches power relationships.

Nowadays, I am pleased to say, most of us are embarked upon change programmes that mean our social workers are recording our interactions with families in a much more constructive and nuanced way. They are more aware of power dynamics, highlighting the families’ strengths and using language which helps to both reflect and construct meaningful relationships between professionals and families that shows the child, should they come back to read their records in future years, that they were cared about and yes, that they matter.

That is not the only use of language that we need to think about though. A couple of times recently I’ve had occasion to say to a speaker – ‘what do you mean when you say…?’ and quite often the answer is not something that I had previously inferred. We sometimes try to gloss or hide our true meaning through ambiguity. For example, what do we mean by an ‘independent children’s home’? Independent from what? Or who? And why? Do we really actually mean private and profit making, and if so, why not say so? Or, another example, what does a ‘non-diagnosable mental health condition’ mean? Too often it seems to mean that a child’s distress does not fit into our neat adult categorizations. There are so many ways in which we, as adults, cloud our meanings for any number of reasons but most often to somehow try to make the truth matter less.

And that was the point of Charlotte’s admirably clear speech as well. Poverty matters, inequality matters, troublesome teenagers matter, planning for the future matters, resources matter and most of all children matter.

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The joy of spring

It’s a running joke that the government’s seasons don’t necessarily tally with the standard pattern that we’re all accustomed to. Both civil servants and stakeholders know that when a consultation is due to be published in the spring, this doesn’t necessarily mean the traditional April to June timeframe!

We are keenly awaiting two significant consultations which are due to be published in the spring; the output from the SEND Review, and the Code of Practice for the Liberty Protection Safeguards (LPS). Both will deal with the ways in which we support and protect the rights of children and young people, although not all young people with SEND will come under the remit of LPS, and LPS is about much more than just SEND.

The introduction of LPS for young people aged 16 and 17 is a significant development in children’s services. Currently, we turn to the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court when we believe it is necessary to deprive a child of their liberty. From April 2022, the legal process to deprive a young person aged 16 or 17 of their liberty where they do not have the capacity to consent, will be the same as for adults via the LPS.

I’m acutely aware that adult services are transitioning from the Mental Capacity Act Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS) to a system of LPS, whereas children’s services are very much in a different starting place. LPS and the Mental Capacity Act are generally new concepts for many of us working in children’s services so this needs to be on all our radars. Unlike the DoLS system which can only be used if the person will be deprived of their liberty in a care home or hospital, the new arrangements are not setting specific, therefore irrespective of location - if a 16 or 17 year old is deprived of their liberty and do not have the capacity to consent, a LPS authorisation will be needed. This isn’t just about social workers, we need to work with our young people, parents and carers, SEND teams, providers, schools, and voluntary and community sector partners to make sure they understand the new requirements so no young person is inadvertently and unlawfully deprived of their liberty.

While this has been mainly led by colleagues in adult services, the upcoming publication of the Code of Practice will give us the opportunity to make sure we collectively get this right for young people. The interfaces with the children’s legislative framework, The Children Act 1989 and The Children and Families Act 2014, along with the SEND First Tier Tribunal, are some of the many complex areas that require further clarity – I’m hoping we might get it in the spring!

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Time for reflection

As spring rolls in and the sun shines brightly, lockdown restrictions are beginning to lift and we move nervously into our new normal, I thought it provided an opportunity for reflection.

If, like me, you have juggled home working with periods of home schooling, you will be forever grateful to our schools, their staff and their leaders! I became more certain that social work was the right career for me during days of supporting my boys with their school learning - equivalent fractions nearly did for me, but my son’s Year 9 art project was a pretty impressive joint effort!

Teaching is challenging at the best of times, but the adaptability of the profession to online and face-to-face teaching, alongside the provision of significant pastoral support for vulnerable learners and their families, has been truly incredible.

The strengthened relationships and partnerships we have built across local authorities, schools, and colleges during the pandemic will only benefit children and their families as we collectively support them to navigate the future and make up for the social, emotional and educational gaps now present.

Personally, I have learned to value lots in lockdown, not least the absence of a tortuous daily commute up the M62, but I truly appreciated the skill and expertise shown by all my staff during these testing times. In our recent annual conversation with Ofsted, I shared some of these reflections; it felt important to acknowledge this year has been about so much more than impact, outcomes progress and pace.

These last 12 months have been about commitment, tenacity, adaptability, and delivery in the face of personal challenges for some, and tragedy for others. As members of ADCS we mourned the very tragic loss of our dear friend and inspirational colleague Helen Blackman. Similar in age and outlook, her death shook me profoundly as I know it did others, especially her close colleagues in Nottingham and the East Midlands – she will be missed. Our thoughts are with her family.

I am sure for many of you, the year has also been about excellence, positivity and the amazing ability of our staff and teams across the partnership system to retain hope and compassion in our approach to delivering such a broad range of services to the most vulnerable.

Therefore, it is important to take time to grieve, to remember those we have loved and lost, but also to celebrate our survival and our success, however small. Our individual and collective leadership as an Association has been incredible. It has had a huge impact on our local, regional, and national systems and I think we should take a minute, or 10, to pause and acknowledge the impact that may have had on us, as individuals as well as the people we lead.

It is time to reset, recharge and recover to ensure we can sustain ourselves and adapt to whatever our new operating model will be and support the people and systems we lead to continue to innovate and adapt to the changing environment.

We have all gone above and beyond, finding the extraordinary and exceptional in the everyday – success despite the circumstances, with enthusiasm and hope in uncertain times.

Theodore Roosevelt said “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”.

Colleagues we have done that in spades this year.

So, I invite you to take a breath, be kind to yourself and take that minute (or 10) to say, “Well done, well led, good job!”

Now ...what’s next on your “to do” list…

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Thinking about equity and fairness

I read an interesting and detailed report recently by the Education Policy Institute, along with the Nuffield Foundation, on social mobility and vulnerable learners. In the report there is a reference to the fact that the school a child attends makes more difference to their chances of being identified with special educational needs and disability (SEND) than the characteristics and experiences of the individual child. I found this interesting and obviously has significance for us in our work.

The report also identifies a complex set of risk factors for SEND identification at both individual school and local authority levels. It is well worth a read: Identifying pupils with special educational needs and disabilities - Education Policy Institute

This made me think about the changes that have taken place during my career working in local authorities, and the ability to use and manipulate data. It brought back personal memories of a task in my first job in a local authority which was handling school admission appeals. I had to take a very large map into the admission appeals hearing which had multi-coloured pins identifying each individual secondary school pupil

Choosing a secondary school for your child is one of the most important things that a parent or carer will do for a child and the transition from primary to secondary school is a vital stage in a child’s education. It struck me then, as it still does now, how poignant it was that a family’s hopes and dreams for their child were represented by a yellow, pink or purple map pin signifying the school allocated, and the aspirations of a future path in life that each of those pins represented.

There is a lot of talk right now, as we recover from the pandemic, about levelling up, recovery, building a fairer society and taking all the new and different types of support that we learned to do so well during Covid, into the future. This is central to where my thinking started.

We have very powerful data tools at our disposal in 2021. Using the example of Lancashire County Council, my own local authority, we can look at street and postcode level data showing the offer we give to our families and compare one with another. It is important that we continue to remember that each piece of data is actually an individual child. If it is the case that attendance at a particular school can lead to other follow-on issues, then we need to clearly understand what these issues are, and the reasons behind them. It is only with this knowledge that we will be properly equipped and able to work in partnership with our schools and other public and voluntary sector colleagues to make sure that we understand the reasons for differences, and that these differences are warranted.

I think the current recovery period presents an opportunity to think about equity and fairness in a way that perhaps we have not done so previously.

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Resetting our ambition for children

During this last turbulent year, our commitment to supporting our children has not changed. Their significance to us as families, communities, and as a country is enormous and investing in them and in their lives is both a privilege and a responsibility. They are our present and our future. How then after a year in which children, along with most of us, have suffered disruption, missed opportunities, isolation and loss, do we build recovery?

It is time to reset our ambition for and with our children, to think big and bold and then focus on a clear long-term plan and commitment, with sustainable investment in them and their lives. There is now an opportunity to rethink, to use our learning from the past year to “Build Back Better”.

Our wonderful outgoing ADCS President Jenny Coles who has led us through the ‘Covid year’ without seeing any of us face to face, spoke in her blog last week about shaping new horizons and building a set of ‘national Commitments to Children’. As I pick up the Presidential baton today, to lead and influence that ambition and commitment on behalf of ADCS this year, I am very grateful to her for all she has achieved on behalf of children and on behalf of us all. Together with a great new Vice President in Steve Crocker and the brilliant ADCS team, the work will carry on.

Our ambition is for all children and of course their families. We have long known about the value of local system based early help but we have struggled to sustain it due to shrinking resources and cuts to local authority funding which has been halved since 2010. However, there is much to indicate that this year is one to draw out the evidence of the value of early help and to press for long term sustainable investment. We have recently seen the nationally recognized impact of flexible local leadership and agile support during Covid, the refocused Supporting Families programme, the Best Start in Life vision for the 1001 critical days, and Sir Kevan Collins’ work on Education Recovery which includes not just excellent education, but local wrap around support. Looking forward we will use our local expertise and partnership with early years settings, schools and colleges to support education recovery and the emotional wellbeing and safety of our children. We will shine a light on inequality and the widening gaps exacerbated by Covid but also on the strength and resilience our children and families have shown.

For those children who need support from a social worker or the care of the local authority, a focus on the development of best practice will continue. Vulnerable adolescents are a big priority for us and our expertise in areas such as complex safeguarding, working with gangs, tackling youth violence and supporting young people’s mental health has grown but there is much still to do. We will focus on excellent relationship-based, trauma informed practice and seek ever closer partnership with health colleagues to meet children’s needs better. The Social Care Review is also now in full swing and we will engage fully by sharing evidence and looking at the opportunities ahead. Our voice is one of many and we remain grateful for the expertise of our children in care, our care leavers and the care experienced who have guided our learning in recent years. There is much more to do while holding onto the question posed by the awesome Dave Hill in 2016, “What’s love got to do with it?” We know the answer!

The Association has been able to connect and engage even more this year thanks to virtual working and a passion for meeting children’s needs. ADCS has felt like family as we have collectively mourned the loss of colleagues who were special to us. We welcome our growth and the opportunity to influence for good, regionally, nationally and with specialist expertise, so do get involved where you can, especially in one of our policy committees if you are a member. The establishment of a vision and long-term plan for children, with cross departmental working and resources that demonstrate that commitment should be a central government priority and we will be doing all we can to influence that. I look forward to working with you!

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"There is not just one story"

It doesn’t seem possible that I am writing my last blog as President almost exactly a year since we went into the first “lockdown”. I said in the first (of now many) videos, filmed on my phone, that we are used to dealing with challenges in children’s services – I can’t say, or indeed any of us could have thought it would be such a challenge, go on for so long and with such consequences for family, work and home life.

We know there is growing evidence of the impact of the pandemic on children and young people and their families. From early in the pandemic, we have collectively as ADCS focused on bringing these pressures to the attention of government, nationally, regionally, locally and the wider public through our publications Building a Country that Works for all Children post Covid-19, the EHE analysis, the submission to the spending review and Safeguarding Pressures. We’ve pushed for support for free school meals and highlighted the challenges of poverty, including the significant increase in claims for universal credit and the wider differences felt by children not being able to access remote learning effectively; emotional and mental health challenges; domestic abuse and hidden harm. We know many of these pressures were present before, however the impact of the pandemic has further embedded within our communities the inequalities experienced by children affected by their family’s access to good quality housing, employment, positive health outcomes and differential experience of opportunity depending on their ethnicity or disability.

Yet now there is also the opportunity to recognise there is not just one story that captures the experiences of the past year, but many, and crucially we have the opportunity to create new stories challenging current inequalities and shaping new horizons. What better time than now for a national set of Commitments for Children to show all young people that they matter, they are important and cherished, and that they inspire. Commitments that capture their hopes and aspirations with confirmation that support will be there for all children to have opportunities throughout their childhood for a bright future and to flourish. This need not be the story of a “lost generation” but the story of successfully bringing change - as long as action is taken now. In an animated video, first shown at the 2020 National Children and Adult Services Conference, young people in care from Hertfordshire spoke about the values they feel are important to support young people. They said they wanted us to “show we trust their words”; “feel proud of their progress”; and that “Love is Love and we should be treated equally”. Not a lot to ask to achieve so much.

I know our new President Charlotte Ramsden will absolutely take up this challenge with energy and determination! Her passion for improving children’s outcomes is awesome and she might even get to see a few people in person during her presidency! Steve Crocker, our new Vice President, will bring all his experience to Team ADCS - and what a team it is! ADCS this year has increased in membership and our strong work in the regions has been crucial in providing support to each other during these trying times whilst ensuring the local authority role for children and families has been recognised by government. This fundamental commitment to working together has meant we have deeply felt the loss of colleagues Helen Blackman and Dave Hill who contributed so much to our collective work – you will both be greatly missed but your achievements remain.

And last but certainly not least, Sarah and the ADCS staff team have been fantastic in steering us, and me personally, through by getting our voices for children heard and changing how ADCS operates – who would have thought 12 months ago that we’d run a virtual seminar for over 1,000 people in partnership with the Judiciary and Cafcass!!

What a year, what a privilege it’s been to be President, and what a lot of stories. Thank you!

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Why does social work have the word 'social' in it?

Whether it was because parents are worn out from caring for their children at home 24/7 or because children were desperate to see their friends again face-to-face, or both, we had some of the highest primary school attendance rates in Essex following the return to school on 8 March.

It really made me start to think about how not only our work, but our social lives have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and successive lockdowns.

When I last blogged, I reflected on the paucity of the use of technology in social work and now we are all experts! We work in a creative and adaptable profession so have all got used to online or hybrid meetings very quickly. We developed a collection of open and solution focused questions to help guide conversations positively with children and families. We’ve welcomed parents, consultant paediatricians and GPs to virtual child protection conferences, and children and young people in care have joined their statutory reviews for the first time because it is in a medium they are used to and gives them a degree of separation from what can be a daunting focus on them by adults.

Whilst there is little doubt that we will continue to practise some of our newly developed skills in virtual meetings into the future, I want to reflect on the meaning of social in social work. What does it mean for children and families, and what does it mean for our colleagues?

A few years ago, I attended a lecture in Oxford given by the late and great Olive Stevenson. Slamming a copy of her book on the desk, she exclaimed, “You have to smell neglect!“ (it’s also about observing the love and connection too). I also recalled what Harry Ferguson had to say when he came to Essex a few months ago to talk about ‘mobile social work’ and about the importance of touch.

Social workers need to use all their senses when trying to find out what life is like for a child and video calls/ virtual visits just don’t let you do this to the same extent. When visiting a family home in person, the social worker can see and smell the whole room not just what they are shown. Most importantly, in face-to-face social encounters they can develop the chemistry and the empathy at the heart of relational social work. For me, this is crucial to building an alliance for change – for the child.

So, whilst I’m all for the technology and am becoming more comfortable with it for professional meetings, it alone is a very poor substitute for authentic interactions with children and families – in person.

I am also not entirely convinced about equal access to family justice when a parent, alone at home, phones in to a court hearing, a child protection conference, or a PLO meeting for that matter. Our most disadvantaged families have poor quality Wifi and poor quality kit which is why we do all we can to support them to overcome these disadvantages, and support hybrid approaches in the interim to help families to get their views across.

Following our exodus from the office, some LAs have started to have conversations about further reducing costs by decreasing the size of the ‘office footprint’. Whilst there are benefits in terms of work-life balance by working from home, there are unintended consequences. Even experienced social workers need a safe place to return to after another traumatic encounter with the neglect and abuse of children. It cannot be right to expect student social workers, newly qualified or less experienced social workers, to have conversations about the distressing family circumstances they encounter, in the space that they live. The blurring of work and home in this way is likely to amplify secondary trauma simply because there is no escape – no sanctuary.

Being around colleagues, having face-to-face access to your practice supervisor and being able to share your feelings, is a protective factor for practitioners. Working in teams is what we do. We do it for mutual support and we also do it because it helps us to sound things out with trusted colleagues and develop our practice. We plan our work and think through scenarios with our colleagues, which is even more important with the complexity in casework caused by the pandemic. We don’t lose our train of thought by thinking about dinner or our children’s schoolwork or another online delivery arrival. Those ad hoc conversations with colleagues in the office help us to address nagging doubts and to pause and reflect. Our colleagues help us to process what we have seen and heard, they are there for us and help us with our focus - interaction between people is key.

Whilst we want to retain some of the flexibility that working through virtual interactions brings, I believe we need to retain the team footprint and work in the office. It is part of the fabric that facilitates the unique social work eco system we took for granted before Covid-19, and why in Essex we have had staffing presence in our office spaces throughout this past year.

So, for me, the social in social work is about the inherent nature of human beings as social creatures and it is this humanity that is at the heart of our work with families as well as being there for our colleagues.

If you want to read further, here is some research I have found helpful in thinking it through:

Ferguson, H., 2011. Child Protection Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Goodman, S. & Trowler, I., 2012. Social Work Reclaimed. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Helm, D., 2013. Sense-making in a social work office: an ethnographic study of safeguarding judgements. Child & Family Social Work, 21(1), pp. 26-35.

Jeyasingham, D., 2016. Open spaces, supple bodies? Considering the impact of agile working on Social work office practices. Child & Family Social Work, 21(2), pp. 209-217.

Stanley, N. et al., 2016. Rethinking place and the social work office in the delivery of children’s social work services. Health and Social Care in the Community, 24(1), pp. 86-94

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Choose to challenge

Monday was International Women’s Day. Every year on 8 March, across the globe, the achievements, life journeys, challenges and aspirations of women and girls are recognised and celebrated. The day acts as a prompt for all of us to look at how we can contribute to raising awareness of bias and help forge a gender-equal world and also reflect on women who have made a true difference to our children and young people.

This year, the theme was Choose to Challenge and this can mean different things to different people in different situations – challenging gender stereotypes, challenging gender-based violence and sexual abuse, challenging societal expectations, challenging inequality in the workplace, and challenging ourselves if we find that we’re making judgements based on gender.

As the DCS in Norfolk I have the privilege of leading the council’s work to champion Norfolk’s children and, in my blog to my council colleagues, called out the need to challenge any of the inequalities we see today so that we have a better world now and for this future generation.

My role gives me insight into the issues faced by girls and young women, but it also gives me the opportunity to see how, with the right interventions, we can support them to overcome these, helping to build resilience, self-esteem and self-belief.

Although we can’t be complacent in tackling the root causes of inequality or underplay the lasting impact that experiences can have, we can choose to challenge the idea that that circumstances define women and girls and what they can achieve.

This has been apparent in our work with girls who have come to Norfolk as part of the Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children programme. Many of these young women have experienced extreme hardships and trauma but with appropriate support and care they have been able to regain a sense of autonomy and build more positive futures. Friendships, independent living, study, relationships, motherhood and careers now feature in these girls’ stories. This is credit to the those working across our services and credit to these girls and young women themselves.

We have to be ambitious for all children and young people, for all girls and young women, if we want to create a future where they can thrive and flourish.

International Women’s Day is also an opportunity to reflect and celebrate the lives of women who have made a significant difference to children and young people. Our much loved ADCS colleague and friend Helen Blackman sadly passed away last week, and our thoughts and prayers are with Helen’s family, friends and teams at this very sad time. Helen was a compassionate leader with strong values that shone through everything she did. In her role with ADCS her contribution to key policy areas was diligent and relentless, and putting children and young people at the heart was her drive and motivation, which made her the special person that she was.

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A basket full of hope

Recently, I chaired the North West’s School Improvement Group and also led a series of local engagement events with social workers and managers. Throughout each one, whilst the sun was shining through my window, I could detect a growing sense of optimism in the virtual room as colleagues reflected on the past few months and thought about what lies ahead. It was no surprise to hear about the continuing fatigue and feelings of relentlessness, for them and the families they work with. However, what stood out was the natural shift to positive language, with teams feeling valued, a strong team spirit, with light at the end of tunnel, ready for a new chapter.

Later that evening, I found myself undertaking different extra-curricular activities as I helped my daughter with her schoolwork. Like many others, I’ve witnessed the impact of the pandemic and the uncertainty this has had on young people as they worry about their future. Immersed in the GCSE curriculum, we have covered causes of the Vietnam War, themes in Macbeth and the anthology of poems; alas, linear equations continue to get the better of me. That night, the poem was Living Space by Imtiaz Dharker, and it grabbed my attention. As my daughter talked me through it, I found myself making my own connections, linking it back to the workforce and the families we work with.

The poem describes a badly built building and, although dangerous, someone lives in it and has hung a basket of eggs outside. There is strong symbolism in the eggs - fragile yet full of potential, representing new life, referencing faith and hope for the future; and despite the structural challenges of the building, there is still the possibility of change and improvement. Hanging the eggs outside the building requires bravery and even a leap of faith, something we too require as we respond and re-set our priorities and ambition for all children. As the poet says, “…the whole structure leans dangerously towards the miraculous.”

Our workforce is fragile and so are our families. There is a lot of uncertainty ahead as we manage the impact of the pandemic and predict and plan what is likely to come. We know that every child has been affected; and for some what we don’t yet know is the severity of that harm as it remains hidden. There are concerns we all share about how much the system can absorb as we manage the increase in demand and complexity, care issues, and of course, the ongoing funding gap. It’s tested all of us, yet despite the difficult circumstances I was blown away this week by the courage of the workforce - its optimism and ability to look forward.

In the meantime, I will keep trying to understand linear equations….

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Changing the narrative

Like the Tokyo Olympics, Wimbledon and Glastonbury, the pandemic delayed another major event in our diaries, the publication of the seventh iteration of our Safeguarding Pressures research! Published this week, the final report provides us with a pre-pandemic baseline of safeguarding activity in the year ending 31 March 2020 and, for the first time, draws in some of the regional sector-led improvement data covering the first six months of the pandemic (March – September 2020).

The funding picture is even more challenging this year. Spend on early help services has been impacted the most, with many authorities reporting that Troubled Families funding, which has only been extended till March 2022, is propping up this offer. Nearly half of the 128 LAs responding to the study reported a decrease in funding ranging from 15 – 30%, whilst others reported needing to find further annual budget savings, up to 20% in some cases.

We know renewal and recovery will take some considerable time, however, the anticipated surge of latent need at the front door of children’s social care has yet to materialise or materialise in the way we originally anticipated. Instead, Safeguarding Pressures has identified a new cohort of families presenting with a level of complexity and severity on a scale not previously seen before. This may be due to heightened household tensions caused by close proximity to one another, layered on top of disruption to early help services and lack of other sources of support e.g. grandparents, plus financial and employment worries.

Over the past eleven months, national politicians and commentators have been concerned about hidden harms and disruption to safeguarding efforts. Social workers have continued to keep in contact with children and families, often whilst providing practical support, with home visits conducted virtually or in-person from a safe distance on the doorstep or using PPE. The work of some of our partners, particularly health services, has also changed or been severely disrupted during this period. However, contacts and referrals from the police and the general public have increased, which is positive - it will be interesting to see if this is maintained. Overall, referrals from schools remain down, however, schools did not close their doors to the most vulnerable and key worker pupils. Leaders are now more sighted than ever on what’s happening in their pupils’ homes and responding to this by providing food vouchers and parcels, IT equipment and holiday activities.

Covid-19 has tested our systems and partnerships like never before, but have held up thanks to the astonishing commitment of our staff who have adapted by working in new and different ways to support children and families. This responsiveness was consistently highlighted by many of the senior leaders interviewed for the Safeguarding Pressures research. We rarely hear praise for our child protection and care systems, yet it remains the case that many other countries look to us for inspiration and learning. I was recently reminded of Dave Hill’s efforts to amplify the voices of children and young people in the care system during his presidential year in a bid to ‘change the narrative.’ It was a welcome reminder that for many children and young people, the system does work…they themselves told us so!

Societal inequalities and challenges, such as deprivation, have been amplified during the pandemic, as have the strengths of a whole host of public services, not least the NHS and local government. I hope the independent social care review will fully consider the learning from the Covid-19 experience and embrace those areas of the system that we know work and indeed work well.

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Education governance in a time of pandemic

In ADCS Vice President Charlotte Ramsden’s blog at the beginning of 2021, she wrote about the positive benefits of new beginnings. Here we are in half term, awaiting announcements relating to more new beginnings, possibly from 8 March, for schools and colleges and the governing boards that oversee them.

The academic year 2020-21 has asked leaders in our schools and colleges to constantly adapt to changing requirements and guidance. Governors, in particular, who volunteer to fulfil these roles, have had to show resilience and sound judgement as they make decisions that, more than ever, relate to the health and safety of employees and students. This is whilst they are also coping with pandemic pressures in their own working and personal lives.

The National Governance Association has been part of the DfE Education Stakeholder meetings, along with ADCS, throughout the pandemic, ably representing the views and concerns of governing boards.

An adaption that governing boards have had to make, along with the rest of us, is the move to virtual online meetings. One of the benefits of this, as in other areas, has been increased regular engagement at meetings particularly from some of our governors from communities where cultural, caring, or other commitments have, on occasion, precluded regular attendance at evening meetings held on the school site. Anything that guarantees diversity of board membership has to be a positive benefit!

The most significant, and usually infrequent, decision governing boards have to make is the appointment of a new headteacher or principal. Many will be turning their attention to recruitment during this school term, to replace retiring headteachers for September. To undertake this process during a lockdown period has meant that governing boards have had to be both creative and committed. Often a blended approach has been developed with one day of remote tasks and a second day of on-site in-person interviews, in accordance with the school’s risk assessment and controls to mitigate risk. Committed to ensuring that time was not lost in appointing the very best candidate has meant, in one case, governors interviewing with the windows wide open on the coldest day of the winter! Governors have wanted face-to-face interviews for those able to be in school, with other governors Zooming in, to enable them to evaluate key leadership components of the selection criteria in person.

Recruiting and retaining strong governors will continue to be a priority activity for all types of schools. I was prompted to reflect on recruitment recently when a neighbour, who is chair of governors at a local school, put a note through my door with an application form as they needed to recruit two new governors. They thought I might be suitable.

We do need to ensure that we consider governance fatigue as we move into the full opening of schools, especially where the burden of support to staff and headteachers has had to be taken on by a smaller number of governors than in more usual times. In a recent webinar with chairs of governors, the message ’ Keep going, Chairs!’ came up on the screen. On behalf of all Directors of Children’s Services, I would like to record sincere thanks to all those volunteers who have been providing exceptional education governance during this pandemic.

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The lost boys and girls – the Covid teens

I don’t think we have ever worked in a time where uncertainty and volatility have been such features of both our personal and professional lives. One good example of this is my worry for my daughter during Covid. She is a pretty average 17 year-old currently studying (or not) for her A-levels at sixth form college. She is the year group whose GCSEs were cancelled and who were told, at first, that their mocks would be used as final grades (but mum no-one really studies for their mocks!!). I have watched as her confidence and motivation is zapped as she is forced at stay at home, with no-one for company other than a pair of middle-aged glued-to-computer users and YouTube for company. She hangs about the house, a listless figure. My worries for her have really caused me to reflect on the wider impacts for all young people aged 14-19 facing the unique challenges of cancelled exams, home learning and no social interaction with their mates.

This group of children will have had two years of cancelled and disrupted education, qualifications, and tests. Those studying practical courses (art, textiles, engineering, construction etc) where you have to physically be in the school or college environment to do the work are particularly impacted. Of course they have been dangled with the hope of summer school to compensate…seriously? Does the government not know that they need to be on holiday or at festivals…oh sorry these are cancelled. I wonder what missing two years of exams will do to this group of children. On the one hand that’s how we have been measuring children for years, on the other hand exams can add huge pressure on children and their mental health. Is it time for a rethink on the exam situation? I am reminded of a recent conversation with a headteacher who said children will be able to catch up and recover from the past year as long as we do it at the child’s pace, and schools and colleges aren’t faced with unrealistic expectations and pressure from the DfE.

The transition between childhood and adulthood is an important developmental marker in our lives, enabling young people to try out different possibilities before making decisions. Whilst it is not always easy to see how getting drunk, dancing on the table at the local pub and exploring relationships leads to sensible transition to adulthood, but for many this is seen as both a rite of passage and FUN! It’s a time when our young adults should be learning new social skills and deepening relationships, something which is hard to do virtually.

The social isolation we are all experiencing will be especially damaging to those young people leading traumatic lives with no escape valve; we need to keep this in mind as we turn our attention to post Covid. We are in danger of seeing a tidal wave of mental health issues in this cohort of children. Loneliness, lack of routine, increasing poverty levels, and living with parents struggling with their own mental health issues are causing difficulties for young people now and are likely to cause further problems in the aftermath of the pandemic. In a meeting over the summer, my mental health colleagues reported an expected 18-month lag of these issues fully surfacing.

The next few months will be critical in terms of renewal and recovery for these young people. I am heartened that Sir Kevan Collins’ focus will be wider than education to encompass children’s ‘broader needs’. We need a special focus of renewal…for my daughter and all our children as we edge out of these unprecedented times.

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The future is unwritten

I am an optimist. I’ve also got a strong tendency to look forward and not back. Both tendencies have been challenged over the last year as we deal with the consequence of a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 of our loved ones and wreaked devastation to the social, emotional, and educational lives of our children and young people - an impact that has been felt unevenly, and most evidently, amongst the poorest and those with the least cultural capital to draw upon to get them through the crisis.

The toll of deaths through Covid now outstrips the number of civilian deaths during World War 2 (that figure was nearly 70,000). The war created the pressure for social change which led to the Beveridge report and the creation of the Welfare State as we know it. Which brings me back to my desire to look ahead. Whilst I really don’t have any expectations of a new Beveridge (I’m not that much of an optimist…), we do have some vehicles for change on the starter’s blocks. As we all know, the government’s review of children’s social care was launched recently under the leadership of Josh MacAlister and an early request to the Competitions and Markets Authority to review the private children’s homes ‘market’ was a sure-footed start alongside the early call for advice – no doubt more will be said and much more water will flow under this particular bridge in due course. Similarly, the long awaited SEND review will be published at some point in the near future, hopefully before we are all bankrupt. I wonder too, if it would be too much to hope that the role of local authorities in ensuring that vulnerable children have continued to attend school in good numbers during the pandemic, might also lead to a recognition of our valuable role as a support, challenge, and improvement agency for schools?

So, change is in the air, but I also wanted to think a bit about the changes that Covid has wrought at a more micro level. In particular, the way in which we now work with each other and the children and families that rely on us; and the value that we now place upon the things that we perhaps previously thought of as ephemeral to our work. Remote and online working has been an interesting experiment that this pandemic has forced upon us. A year ago, very few of us had the capability or inclination to work all day via our screens. Now we are all experts at Teams, Zoom etc and are getting used to different ways of balancing our work commitments whilst working from home (and trying not to make it ‘living at work’).

The same applies on our front lines. We have discovered new ways to keep in touch with children and families and new ways to help them learn. Neither are fully satisfactory – we know that. Any social worker will know that we use all of our senses in an assessment to get the full picture of what is going on within a family. Similarly, online teaching cannot replicate the classroom experience. But we have to think about what it is that is missing and what it is that we have gained and wish to keep. When we surveyed our staff in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, the vast majority told us that they valued the flexibility of working from home and that it gave them a better work/life balance, making them more effective at their jobs. Equally, when we talked to children, many of them (especially the older teenagers) valued regular on-screen catch ups more than when they actually meet in person with a professional. ‘This’, they tell us, ‘is how we live our lives – you should adapt to that’; and maybe four on-screen catch ups in a month might be better than a single, one hour in-person meeting with a child in care in a steady placement. But I would be the first to say that it wouldn’t be right or safe to do this in all circumstances. Equally, when we look in a little more depth at what our staff tell us, it is more nuanced. In particular, they miss working alongside colleagues, bouncing ideas off each other, talking through cases and issues in an informal way, they miss the camaraderie and communication that people working together in a team generates. So, like many of you, I am currently wrestling with what the future looks like; how often should people be together in a team – all the time? Once a day? Once a week? Where? What does the working environment look like (not serried rows of desks with fixed computers that is for certain)? Also, how do we apply these approaches to our work with children and young people? How do we decide whether to take approach x or approach y for each individual – or are regulatory inflexibilities going to force us back into a box that might not be fit for purpose for the future?

There is much to play for. The critics of the Beveridge report accused it of trying to build a ‘New Jerusalem’. We’re a million miles from that, but maybe, just maybe, there is just the glimmer of an outline of something different, something better. I told you I was an optimist.

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The biggest crisis in our lifetimes

We are talking about little else at the moment, but I am not talking about Covid-19 here and how we keep the most vulnerable in our society healthy and the NHS functioning. I am talking about the crisis our children and families are facing amidst a third lockdown. Once again, and this time with much less of the optimism of lockdowns 1 and 2, they are trapped in their homes exacerbating new worries about unemployment and poverty, home education and sufficiency of digital equipment, and of course the health pandemic. Adults, children and young people are suffering from the lack of social contact, education, stimulation, and dialogue with anyone other than their fellow trapped.

We know that we have one of the best child protection systems in the world and a robust infrastructure of spotting and responding to abuse and understanding children’s needs. But whilst there are many pressures to scale back, not even ‘business as usual’ is enough any longer, as exceptional circumstances require exceptional responses. We have to be more proactive than ever; to persuade and chivvy along our staff, partners, school colleagues to constantly go the extra mile, and encourage those struggling to get in touch and ask for support, and somehow to spot those who are not in a position to do so. At the same time, we worry about our staff and partners and the impact the crisis is having on them. Has everyone had a check in? Have we spent enough time to help new team members settle in? Are we sure our students are learning and our ASYEs supported to become the amazing professionals they have the potential to be? And are each and every one of our leaders allowed some time out too – including ourselves?

We have responded quickly as system leaders, both retaining what we do and building on it. We have set up helplines for parents who need support, issued daily parenting tips, and initiated social media campaigns to promote active play. Our staff have been out there continuing to visit and be visible, our partners have found new ways of keeping in touch with families and our teachers have undertaken doorstep visits. Our schools are constantly adapting to the changing asks of them – juggling face to face teaching, home learning, emotional support and implementing testing regimes. Our partnerships with community organisations are ensuring that volunteers can be ‘eyes and ears’ and easily report any worries or additional support needs for families. Our youth workers are out there trying to spot and support young people whilst at the same time reaching out through virtual groups and conversations. We initiate campaigns to increase digital access to education and we still challenge each other to do better and learn from each other through our regional arrangements.

And yet, we know it’s not enough. The Children’s Commissioner report this week is again highlighting the devastating effect of lockdown on our children’s and young people’s mental health. We are all only too aware of the lifelong impact the disrupted education of our students will have, widening the disadvantage gap we have been working so hard to start closing. It’s a pretty hard job at the moment, but our leadership and its tangible impact has never been more depended upon.

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“Once in a generation opportunity”–let’s make sure it is!

It’s been three years since I wrote my first blog for ADCS, based on Wonder Woman, and whilst I still firmly believe that superheroes exist, my experience from the last three years has taught me that the true heroes are often much closer than you think! Notwithstanding the true heroes are our children; I will continue my endeavour for magical powers and fabulous outfits, however, I think the woman herself sums it up perfectly: “if it means interfering in an outdated system, to help just one child…..I’m willing to accept the consequences”.

At the end of last week, the government launched the long-anticipated independent review of the children’s social care system. The DfE has said the review will be a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform systems and services”, tackling “major challenges including the sharp increase in recent years in the number of looked after children, inconsistencies in practice and outcomes, and the failure of the system to provide sufficient stable homes for children.”

I very much welcome this review and I know ADCS is looking forward to wide engagement to ensure that our systems leadership experience and expertise informs the thinking. Whilst I agree with the statement that there are challenges in the system that impact greatly on the quality of outcomes for our children, my focus, as I know it will be for many of you, will be to engage constructively but strongly to ensure that the scope doesn’t just focus on presenting challenges, discussing the problems and how hard it is – that’s the easy bit! As a sector, with our children and young people, we must help ensure that the wider societal determinants and true causes behind these challenges are heard and understood, not just the presenting issues. Without turning our attention to the drivers within the system, we will never achieve meaningful reform which has the needs of children and family front and centre. We need to inform the final recommendations and work together to make sure that they are then reflected in future comprehensive spending reviews.

I am also pleased that the intention is for the review to be multi-agency as we know that it is not just local authority social care that has a responsibility and role in safeguarding. Lockdown has shone a light on this more than ever. I hope the commitment from across departments nationally continues, but let us ensure, together, that any changes are not just playing at the edges structurally. It’s vital that the review is purposeful, resulting in better outcomes for children in and on the edges of care, greater collective accountability, investment, children’s voices being heard, and better join up in terms of policy and action.

Finally, and most importantly, I am encouraged that our true superheroes will be part of an ‘experts through experience’ group informing the review. ‘Once in a generation opportunity’ is the catchphrase – let’s make sure the current generation that have the lived experiences are able to have the strongest voice to help shape the right support for the next generation.

It’s hard to believe I haven’t seen so many of you in person for such a long time. I really hope you are all well. ADCS has done a fantastic job in keeping us all in touch with each other virtually, but I for one hope that I will see some of you soon; I’m really missing the human and personal element of connecting with each other. Thanks so much to those of you who have supported me, I very much look forward to another term as an elected director.

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Hopes for the future

Starting the new year, I’m sure we are all glad to see the back of 2020 but know that 2021 will continue to be a real challenge. I last wrote the ADCS blog in January 2020 and was looking forward to what the next decade may bring us. I finished that blog with “Hopefully it will be a less turbulent decade…..” so perhaps I should have learnt to steer well clear of looking to the future. However, many of the challenges for Children’s Services pre-Covid 19 still hold true and the risks in the system have escalated as a result of the pandemic.

The first area I want to highlight is support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). This time last year, we knew that the system was at breaking point, if not beyond, and a national review had started which we hoped would address some of the key challenges. I have a real concern that through the pandemic there has not been the right level of visibility or national priority placed on support for children with SEND. I worry that some of our most vulnerable children, and the hugely stretched family networks that support them, continue to be isolated from services. It is essential that the national SEND Review addresses the endemic problems in the system, created unintentionally by the 2014 Children and Families Act, and we start to reverse the steady move away from inclusion that I have seen over many years.

Another major national priority must be the long-awaited Care Review with the current system supporting our children in care also at breaking point. The Care Review, if done well, gives a once in a generation opportunity to reset and build a system for the future, building on children’s experience and learning from those who are experts by experience. An independent, transparent process is essential and there is much to learn from Scotland’s review.

The review needs to tackle the immediate issues that mean some children are not cared for in an environment that we would want for them, or that they deserve. Talk of a ‘market’ in placements for children in care is inaccurate and as the only ‘buyer’ of placements, the state should have more direct control over provision, with tax-payers expenditure funding quality care and not profits. The current mixed model that has become so dependent on private providers has failed and needs urgent reform.

Alongside that, the regulatory framework should be reviewed. From my perspective, I would like to see regulation focused on children’s outcomes and be about care providers rather than buildings and compliance. A lot has changed since the last major refresh of regulations and they have perhaps not evolved in the same way that the ILACS framework and its predecessors have done. We need to be more flexible in how we provide individualised care for those young people who require high levels of support and have a regulatory framework that enables us to do so, whilst ensuring clear accountability.

Whilst the SEND review and the Care Review are national priorities, the North East as a region has particular challenges in both areas. We have strong regional networks and I know colleagues from around the region are keen to shape the future.

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New beginnings!

I confess that I love new beginnings - a new day, week, term or of course new year! They are sources of hope, a chance to start afresh, renew good intentions and be purposeful. New year, after the indulgence of the holiday season, is a time for resolutions, plans, and good organisation of life and work with a real sense of energy and anticipation; that is, at least, after the shock of getting up in the dark again!

Somehow this new year didn’t turn out quite as intended and I for one am still reeling from the deluge of changes to plans that have been the daily headlines of the last few weeks. The plans we rushed to amend over last weekend and implemented on Monday, were swept away by Tuesday and the frenzy of lockdown preparation took over, fortunately with the benefit of having done it before. Thank goodness for the learning of the last nine months which has meant we have risk assessment processes, PPE systems, virtual services and partnerships that have strengthened during 2020 and will see us through. My plans this week to have reflective discussions with my key staff about the coming year, and even our Ofsted Annual Conversation, gave way to the urgency to prepare for lockdown, behind which the fear and anxiety people were feeling was tangible. Strong leaders listen, plan, and organise their way through difficult times, however, doing that when the rules and plans change every day is challenging to say the least.

So, how do we find hope and a sense of purpose for this new year with Covid continuing to rampage through our lives? Firstly, we should remind ourselves of the amazing achievements of last year which have given us such a strong platform from which to build services for the future. Secondly, a continued development of our partnership working, locally and nationally, taking advantage of virtual meetings to connect more regularly to influence the things that matter most. Thirdly, pressing pause long enough to be clear about our core priorities for the year ahead which are accentuated by our experience of Covid. ADCS President Jenny Coles highlighted some of these in her end of year blog and the increase in inequalities, racism, and poverty are priority threads we have to tackle within all our work on early help systems, education for all, safeguarding children effectively, nurturing our children in care, the care review, the SEND review…the list goes on.

The role of ADCS continues to be crucial in influencing change for the good of children, young people and their families and the increased involvement, wisdom and skill of our members last year has provided us with even greater opportunities for the year ahead. We will continue to learn from each other, promote the voice and needs of the children and young people of this country, and further develop our links with experts by experience, multi-agency partners, and government departments to make this a country that works for all children, despite Covid. I for one will be taking the opportunity of lockdown this weekend to sit down with a drink (non-alcoholic as it is dry January), press pause and list my thoughts on the three areas above. If anyone joins me and wants to share their thoughts, then you know where I am! Here’s to a hope filled and purposeful year!

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What a year!

It’s traditional that the President writes the last ADCS blog of the year. This year has of course not been what we were anticipating, predicting or indeed ‘traditional’ and certainly not what Rachel would have been thinking about when she wrote her blog this time last year.

For most of us, experiencing a pandemic and a disease that has endangered life and livelihoods, was something that was read about or happening far away. Even back in January and February, we could not have imagined that we would have ‘lived’ in this way for the last 10 months; will do so for a significant part of next year; that there will be a new ‘normal’ (or will anything be normal again?); and that we would have the language of Covid with children as young as two and three knowing what social distancing means, and track and trace a part of everyday life, not just something from crime novels.

We are reflecting on the things we’ve learnt during the pandemic, the new and developing ways of working, closer community activity, and a greater appreciation of public services and public service. However, I want to begin by recognising something the last few months have also shone a spotlight on, what has been evident and embedded in our society for a very long time and brought into sharp relief again by the tragic death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement and the racism which is holding progress and equality back at an individual, organisation, and societal level. Inequalities are rife within our country. The focus and energy, locally and nationally, is an essential part of moving forward next year and ADCS has a significant role to play in this for children’s services through our policy priorities, our engagement with government, and our membership.

We have seen a humanitarian crisis with the number of asylum seekers making the dangerous journey across the channel in rubber dinghies. We have provided homes for young people across the country, but the current approach is unsustainable. National and local government have to make a national transfer scheme work on a regional basis, which keeps the care and outcomes for young people at the centre of the decisions we make.

Working in partnership is what we do in children’s services, however, I think we can safely say this has been on another level since March. The range of activity to promote safeguarding and support the most vulnerable will give opportunities for developing a revitalised relationship with our communities and partners, both within and beyond the sector. We only need to look to our colleagues in Liverpool who are planning to recognise the support of the military in the roll out of mass testing by awarding troops the Freedom of the City. The reaffirmation and strengthening of the local authority partnership with schools and regional schools commissioners to achieve the return to school, promote learning, and manage a process when children have to be sent home – indeed just to get to the end of term is an immense achievement.

The increased partnership and support between ADCS members is also clearly evident. Sharing practice, challenges, and experiences that have been different across the regions confirms the value of the Association and I’d say sets us on a path for even greater involvement of the broader membership next year. Sarah and the fantastic ADCS staff team, yet again have our admiration and enormous thanks, ensuring we have the latest information in an ever-changing landscape and getting the voice of children and their experiences heard through the Association’s four major publications and numerous media articles since April.

The end of year blog cannot come to a close without remembering our dear friend and colleague Dave Hill – such an advocate for children and our profession. “All you need is Love” said Dave – what more can you say and here’s to 2021!

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The value of growth mindset and cognitive diversity

Like many of you, I was fortunate to join some of the sessions at the online National Children and Adult Services conference last month. I thought the conference was brilliant, especially given it was delivered virtually. For me there was something quite personal about it – it felt like the speakers were presenting directly to me through my laptop, all in the comfort of my own space! Obviously, I missed the getting together with others, but what a great alternative under the circumstances.

As ever, it was a precious opportunity to pause for a moment and take some space to reflect and challenge my thinking. One session that really impacted with me – in addition to Jenny’s Presidential address and DCS colleagues’ inputs of course – was Matthew Syed’s session on ‘Creating a high-performance culture through growth mindset and cognitive diversity’. I am sure many of you have heard of him or heard him speak previously, even if you didn’t manage to join his session at the conference. I have seen him present before and years ago I even bought his book ’Bounce’. I’ve also drawn on Dr Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindsets that Matthew referred to, although this has mostly been in relation to school leadership.

As a relatively new DCS, what Matthew said resonated with me differently this time. I have been giving a lot of thought and consideration to the culture within our organisation and the dynamic process of systematic continuous improvement, particularly against the backdrop of living through, and responding to, a pandemic.

We know that culture starts with leadership, and as leaders one of our key roles is to develop a culture where best practice can flourish. And when I say leaders, I mean distributed leadership, as everyone is a leader in their own right. I was interested in the notion that to focus on and value talent is not enough in itself to improve outcomes for children, it’s more about what we do with the talent and how this is nurtured within an organisation.

Matthew Syed talked about the curse of expertise - where ego, elitism, and the drive to be better than others rather than a better version than before, can work against growth and development. In contrast, a growth mindset believes in human development, coupled with potential and constant learning, where mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities. The research has shown that this way of approaching the world better enables innovation, collaboration, and commitment.

He also talked about organisational value being built on collective intelligence rather than the intellectual brilliance of individuals. This is crucial at a time when our issues are too complex for individual practitioners or organisations to solve on their own. The importance of embracing diverse perspectives is key to developing collective intelligence. It’s tempting to surround ourselves with those that think the same as us, as this can provide validation. However, if we want to push the boundaries with creative solutions to complex problems, we need people who offer different perspectives, from different frames of reference.

As is often said, we are living through unparalleled times. This year has presented challenges for every one of us, at every level. For me, now more than ever, it has been important to foster an environment where there is an openness, honesty, and willingness to learn and collaborate with compassion. The temptation is to close down. But we don’t. Because we are driven to make a positive difference and improve the lived experience and life chances of children and families. So, thank you to Matthew and the conference experience for helping with my thinking and providing a much needed boost of energy and inspiration!

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It may be Black Friday…but roll on the Happy Mondays!

Today is Black Friday! It may feel as though it is so called because “it follows Black Thursday, or it’s at the end of a very bad year”, but the day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday, is the busiest shopping day of the year. However, after the year we’ve all had, it does seem particularly aptly named for 2020.

ADCS has 130 associates, most were previously substantive DCSs, ADs, or senior leaders within local authorities. In the main, they now work across many LAs rather than just one and, as such, they are reporting similar pressures repeatedly shouldered by children’s services senior leadership teams and their staff. These challenges are tackled with dedication, hard work, creativity, integrity, resilience, and bravery. And, at the risk of stating the obvious, these common challenges are the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on disadvantaged children and young people, compounded by crippling levels of budget savings, layered on top of years of austerity, increased awareness of diversity issues, the cataclysm of global warming, and a physically and emotionally exhausted workforce…hey! It’s Black Friday!

Our associates also recognise with much empathy, the ways in which our leaders are holding our communities together by impressively mitigating the effects of exhaustion and pessimism. It is a privilege to be an associate, but also humbling because one wonders how one would have coped in such extreme circumstances. Therefore, mindful not to lecture, here are some observations from our network. Just as we ask, what is it like to be a child living in their family, associates often ask, what is it like to work in that local authority? For associates, the defining difference of what looks like a good local authority isn’t about structures and systems, but cultures.

Generous partnership: “how can we help?” This is the default phrase heard from leaders that seem to thrive best. In offering support, they also welcome and receive support from others. They work with partners, personally and organisationally. In short, they are open to both giving and receiving.

Optimism: it is a delight to work with some local authorities, some children’s services energise all those they touch, and are great places to work. The difference is optimism! People seem to cope with dysfunctional IT, unclear communications, or role confusion, but not with pessimism.

Restorative practice: finally, a clear balance of both challenge and support. Local authorities where restorative practices are part of the culture, rather than just policy or procedure, really do seem to cope the best.

So, belying both my age and many years spent in wonderful Salford, forget Black Friday…and in the words of Shaun Ryder, “don’t stamp out your fire…change your desire”…roll on Happy Mondays!

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21st Century adoption

This week, I had the pleasure of delivering the keynote address at the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies (CVAA) annual conference. The theme of the event was 21st century adoption. It was a great opportunity to have a dialogue with our voluntary sector partners about the collective vision for adoption and how we can best meet the needs of children and young people going forward.

In recent years, the number of children who leave care via adoption has fallen. By far, the majority of children who leave care return home and we have seen a rise in other permanence options, particularly special guardianship orders. While adoption will always be the right permanence option for some children, this is now set in a much broader context of what permanence means to children, families and professionals and ADCS will always advocate for the right home, for the right child, at the right time, with the right support.

Much has changed in the adoption landscape since the concept of Regional Adoption Agencies (RAA) was first mooted in 2015. Now, nearly every LA in England is either part of an RAA or in the process of firming up their regional arrangements. Voluntary Adoption Agencies (VAA) continue to do great work but there is little benefit of all adoption agencies focusing on the same pool of potential adopters. I see the VAA sector playing a significant role in helping us to identify, recruit, and train families who are willing to adopt children who may have been waiting for too long to be placed.

Adoption remains as just one aspect of the wider children’s services system and can’t be viewed in isolation, just as any intervention or care episode needs to be seen as part of a child’s journey. ADCS is keenly awaiting the commencement of the government’s care review, as I think everyone in the sector is! My hope is that the review will bring an opportunity for us to collectively think differently, not only about adoption but also about the purpose of care in the 21st century.

The care system is binary, and we live in a world where things aren’t necessarily clear cut. The review offers the opportunity to think creatively about using care in a flexible way, that supports both birth families and carers, essentially a shared care model.

We also need to consider contested adoption, contact, and the importance of self-identity. In this digital age where the internet and social media are part of everyday life, is the concept of closed adoption really viable and is it the best option for children? Everything we know about a child’s best interests tells us that self-identity is key; children want to know where they have come from. If we are to move away from closed adoption and embrace a system that allows birth families to play a continuing role in their child’s life, we must also consider the needs of birth families and the resources required to support them to successfully engage. This is missing at present.

So, as we look to the future, I look forward to more conversations with partners about the added value needed from all parts of the system and how, collectively, we can support our partners to diversify and invest skills to build on their offer, using principles of early intervention and prevention and taking a whole family approach.

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First principles of hope and enjoyment

Welcome to my first ADCS blog since taking up my role as Chair of the South West Sector Led Improvement Group. The events of this year have come to affect us all in many ways, especially as we have just entered #Lockdown2, and so I have chosen to focus on resilience.

There are many famous quotes in respect of resilience including one I contemplated using from Nelson Mandela following the recent celebrations of Black History Month and another by John F Kennedy given the American election we have all endured over the last few days. However, I settled on one more seasonal and took my inspiration from the carved Halloween pumpkins in the garden that can be seen from my home office window. It seemed most appropriate during these uncertain times:

“It is really wonderful how much resilience there is in human nature. Let any obstructing cause, no matter what, be removed in any way, even by death, and we fly back to first principles of hope and enjoyment.” ― Bram Stoker, Dracula

Our staff have shown a considerable amount of resilience and we must focus on supporting them to retain it, enabling us and them to get through the pandemic and recovery. Resilience is often assumed to be innate or even learned; what I know is that it is most certainly not a badge of honour and it is ok to show vulnerability. Psychologists, Pooley and Cohen (2010) helpfully describe it as “the potential to exhibit resourcefulness by using available internal and external resource in response to different contextual and developmental challenges.” Thanks to Dez Holmes’ two minute podcast on the subject which you can listen to here. At the best of times we need a resilient workforce and if this can be achieved, they will make it through the most challenging times. I was fortunate enough to participate in the research to develop the Social Work Organisational Resilience Diagnostic (SWORD). If you haven’t seen this already, I urge you to take a look, as it is an extremely useful resource.

The phrase that stands out for me in Stoker’s quote is “we fly back to principles of hope and enjoyment.” Work doesn’t always feel like enjoyment and last week it was lovely to hear a work colleague remark “I am quite enjoying this”. As leaders we need to role model enjoyment and hope with our workforce, whilst recognising it is difficult at times; this needs to be done sensitively especially where loss and trauma are also present.

Finally, I turn to children. It is great that they are back at school and it has been wonderful to see the positive activities and work undertaken within schools providing both children and teaching staff moments of joy. The return to structured learning also gives them, and us, hope for their future. There remains much uncertainty surrounding the summer exams, the length of the pandemic and when the next sleepover with friends can take place. However, children are incredibly resilient and we should look to them to remind us how we too can be the same. Let us ensure we are not afraid to speak out when we are stressed, recognise when our staff are struggling and ensure resources are available to keep their resilience topped up. The resources must be made available now, whether in the form of employee well-being schemes, trauma-informed practice or moments of fun and enjoyment at the virtual staff quiz (always fun to beat the Chief Executive!)

Let us hold onto hope and relish every enjoyable moment.

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A conference like no other

The pandemic continues to alter many aspects of our home and working lives. As if to further underline this point, the spiritual home of the National Children and Adult Services Conference (NCASC) in the north, Manchester Central, recently reopened as the region’s Nightingale Hospital and the country re-entered lockdown in the middle of the event. So, this week one of the biggest events in the local government calendar was held wholly online for the first time ever.

As usual, this year’s event opened on Wednesday with speeches from ADASS President James Bullion, our very own Jenny Coles, and LGA Chairman Councillor James Jamieson. Jenny’s abridged speech touched on the pandemic and the stark inequalities it has laid bare, on the urgent need to act on child poverty and re-stated the case for renewed investment in children’s services and indeed in children’s futures.

As in previous years there were ministerial speeches and the usual mix of topical, cross-cutting plenary sessions on equalities and diversity, on mental health and on the role of local government in responding to the pandemic, plus a series of policy workshops. Covid-19 was, of course, a running theme across the three days. For the delegates from children’s services, the focus was on safeguarding, all important funding, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, education, inspection and the much-anticipated care review. Hertfordshire’s children in care council made a short video which was shown in the care review session. In it they shared their priorities for leaders, including honesty, kindness, fairness and love and asked social workers to be proud about their work. Yusuf Paul McCormack, a care experienced person and a member of Our Care, Our Say, provided delegates with real food for thought in his input about the role of ‘big people’ in the lives of children in care.

So, although there was no Guardian charity quiz (the team from LB Havering retain the title for another year!), no exhibition and no chance meetings between old friends and colleagues in the queue for lunch, there were still plenty of opportunities to share and learn and so much to be proud of. NACSC offered many of the presenters, including ministers, the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families and HM Chief Inspector, the opportunity to pay tribute to the tremendous efforts and work of our frontline staff in supporting children, families and communities through the pandemic.

Let’s hope we can all be together again in 2021 in Bournemouth, until then, stay safe out there.

From, the ADCS staff team.

Speeches and presentations from the event will be posted onto the conference website and shared via the ADCS bulletin when available. The full transcript of Jenny’s speech is on the ADCS website alongside the press release.

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Diversity still matters

This is the final ADCS blog-spot in October, when we celebrate Black History Month, so I’d like to return to the subject of racial and ethnic diversity, which I last blogged about back in September 2018. In that piece, I reflected on the low number of black and other minority colleagues in the most senior positions in children’s services, and noted that as a group of leaders we are far less diverse than the communities we serve. Regrettably, this remains true two years on. However, action on this issue continues, and is accelerating.

Back in October of 2018 The Staff College (the public sector leadership organisation for children’s services) held an alumni event for graduates of the five cohorts of its Black and Asian Leadership Initiative (BALI) programme. This sowed the seeds of a bigger idea, which has come to fruition this autumn with the launch on 14 October 2020 of a permanent BALI Network. This network brings together people who have completed the BALI programme to share their experiences and support each other and also invites allies to join, help, advocate and support the cause.

Meanwhile, in March 2019, as one of the recommendations in its policy paper “A workforce that works for all Children” ADCS made an explicit call for a focus on and investment in training BAME leaders for the future. The Staff College has gone on since then to secure the funding to run two BALI cohorts a year, and in November of this year, the BALI programme’s ninth cohort will participate in a two day virtual ‘residential’, structured around the different stages of a career from middle to senior leadership, and with a focus on the added value that Black / Asian leadership can bring.

Alongside this work at a national level, regions are taking action too. In London, within the workforce work-stream of the London Innovation and Improvement Alliance (LIIA), there is a commitment to establish a kind of ‘pre-BALI’ programme for London’s aspiring BAME leaders. A steering group is now actively engaged in the design of this programme, which we hope to be able to launch early next year. In response to feedback from BALI alumni, who continue to experience barriers to progression in the organisations that employ them, this programme will not only provide a development opportunity for BAME colleagues, but – crucially – will contain an element of anti-racist challenge to the organisations they work for. What are the behaviours and biases in our organisations that stand in the way of BAME advancement?

Individual local authorities can also make change happen. Our colleagues in ADASS are taking forward a pilot to implement the NHS’s Workforce Race Equality Standards (WRES) in the adult social care workforce, and local authority children’s services are encouraged to participate too by adopting/adapting the nine NHS indicators for local authorities, which can be found on p.73 of the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard report. In Merton, we’re not confining this work to the ‘people’ services, but applying these adapted measures across the whole council.

In response to the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities, and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter following the killing of George Floyd, our local, regional and national actions to tackle racism and discrimination are under the spotlight as never before. This scrutiny can only be a good thing. On Wednesday 4 November, straight after the official opening of this year’s NCAS Conference, the plenary is: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion – Inclusive Leadership in Social Care. This session will challenge delegates to consider how they exercise inclusive leadership. I urge you to attend.

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Learning from schools

As someone whose career anchor is teaching, with eight years as a secondary headteacher, one of the joys of the DCS role for me is visiting schools. Across the almost 12 years that I have been a DCS in two LAs, I have started every Friday during term time with two school visits. These visits ended with lockdown in March and will not recommence with such regularity for some time.

Following the wider opening of schools from 1st June, I offered to visit any school within their Covid-19 visitor protocols and have done the same this term. These visits (nine so far) have been invaluable in understanding the experience of children, school staff, governors, and parents. In July, a visit to a primary school in the area with the highest Covid-19 death rate in Brent (and therefore in the UK) made a great impact on me when I went out to do end of day gate duty with the headteacher and saw the visceral fear in the parents in the street waiting to collect their children.

My most recent visit this term was also to a primary school. This school is four form entry with 98.5% of pupils from Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic backgrounds, with 83% of pupils who have English as an additional language (45 home languages) and high levels of disadvantage and additional need. Under the leadership of a relatively new team the school had made an impressive full return. Attendance was 96% with all children, supported by parents, very keen to return to the full school experience. The planned recovery curriculum had been set aside, to be drawn upon when needed, with the new curriculum being delivered in appropriately risk assessed arrangements. The school also volunteered to pilot the Ofsted assurance visits.

One statistic from this visit does now stand out. This half term, only one family had opted for elective home education (EHE). Similarly only one family from the school in July has moved to EHE. Whilst across Brent we did not see the level of EHE requests in the early weeks of September that other LAs experienced, we are now seeing an exponential increase as London has moved from tier one COVID alert level to tier two with media coverage of a likely move to tier three.

As chair of the ADCS Educational Achievement Committee, I have been pressing for the publication of the government’s response to the consultation on EHE and next week, I will be signing off the ADCS submission to the Education Select Committee inquiry into EHE. The evidence from our ADCS survey on EHE is going to be a key resource for ADCS representatives in upcoming meetings with DfE ministers and officials so I urge all local authorities to complete it – the deadline is 2 November.

The link between EHE and safeguarding is well known, with the National Child Safeguarding Panel also scoping a review. In educational achievement terms, the recent gains made in narrowing the gap – in Brent for boys of Black Caribbean heritage – will be undermined by any loss of learning in the home environment. We need to work collectively to challenge this.

A clear benefit of school visits is the direct feedback. The classes in my most recent visit had clearly been briefed about the ‘important visitor’. When I visited a class to congratulate them on their 100% attendance, a voice from the back commented ‘she does not look that strict.’ Not feedback I have ever previously received!

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Give a little bit of yourself

In common with many other directors of children’s services (DCSs), I do a monthly blog as part of a newsletter that goes out to all children’s services employees in my local authority. Whilst these have been really welcomed some of the feedback from staff was that they would like to get to know more about their colleagues and the Senior Management Team as people through the newsletter.

With this in mind we have started giving staff the opportunity to share their ‘Lockdown Stories’ and in June I decided to share mine. I debated long and hard about how much within that story I would share, I wondered about the impact on professional credibility should I outline some of the reality of life as a DCS, parent, partner and pet owner.

In the end I decided I would just go for it. I will not recount the full tale here, but it included a very important meeting on ‘Teams’, the commencement of window cleaning, my dog turning rabid guard dog and the intrusion of a teenager sharing his shopping list. I wrote about the chaos, the stress and the need to find humour. I also told of how those on the other end of the meeting were totally oblivious to this due to my effective and timely use of camera/mute buttons when I checked with them after the meeting. I reflected that even those who appear to be coping well are having to adapt and that staff who are finding working from home stressful or challenging are not on their own.

I can honestly say that in my four years as DCS in Derbyshire I have never had such an overwhelmingly positive reaction to anything I have said or written before. I was inundated with messages from staff not only within children’s services but from those who had received the article from their colleagues. Our communications team even asked my permission to run it in the corporate newsletter. Staff passed on to me their own experiences and stories, some of which were heart breaking and others which were hilarious, and whilst this created an issue for my mailbox and in responding to them it was worth every minute.

What I learned more than anything is that staff want to see that we are human, that we have real lives and that we don’t always find things easy. In our quest to look professional we can dehumanise ourselves and create a disconnect from those who we most need to engage with us. We can also undermine the confidence of that very workforce through illusionary perfection. It often feels like we give everything to the job but I will also now give more of myself – as imperfect as that may be.

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Additions to our toolkit

I am sure we all agree that we are currently living in unprecedented times, impacting on our vulnerable families, children, and young people possibly more than any other group of people. I am so proud of the way our social workers, and all of our children’s services workforce, have risen to the challenge of supporting our vulnerable families during this unusual time.

With the restrictions placed up us, we have been able to learn valuable information, for example many staff have enjoyed the opportunity to work remotely. Colleagues have commented that greater flexibility, balance in their lives, less travel, and the trust and positive support received from managers has been greatly appreciated.

Some staff have taken the opportunity to access more training opportunities, now available virtually, which often fit their lives in a more flexible way. Colleagues have also reported health benefits and greater productivity. However, we remain mindful that this is not the case for everyone, and have made sure that wellbeing, and emotional wellbeing in particular, is always on the agenda.

Working from home can be isolating. It has been more stressful for some dealing with situations in different ways. People who have had to balance childcare and work, experienced IT issues, or those who live alone, have particularly found the new ways of working difficult.

Our local government staff have felt the challenges just like everyone else, but they have mainly remained motivated and positive, however hard this has been. From virtual brew breaks, to quizzes and newsletters, they have been aware of their colleague’s ups and downs and have really looked out for each other. Sometimes just picking up the phone instead of sending an email can really help.

We have seen the impact of less face-to-face contact with our children, young people, and their families. Children’s social workers and others who support families across all the regions are working creatively within the current restrictions to find new ways of keeping in touch. Physically distanced meetings in parks and gardens have worked really well and have often been a necessary link for some struggling families and young people. The virtual experience of meetings, visits, direct work and supervision has been positive and provided efficiencies, more focused work, improved engagement from partner agencies, and increased our contact with some families.

Family support workers have been keeping in touch, visiting in person (as much as they safely can) and virtually, to maintain contact and provide support to the families that have clearly needed it. It has been lovely to see staff develop their confidence and skills, embracing new ways of engaging children and young people and learning what works for different groups. For example, sometimes older young people may not have credit on their phones, but if they can get a WiFi connection (and they often can!) they can receive calls and messages through WhatsApp, with many preferring this increased virtual engagement. Some of the younger children struggle to engage with video calls, so practitioners have grown their ‘toolkit’ of questions and games to keep them engaged and develop these relationships.

There is no doubt that Covid-19 has had an impact on us all. It has allowed a degree of connection to our common humanity which has helped in our interactions. Even the most challenging of families can appreciate the efforts and work our staff have been making to maintain a relationship, keep in touch and provide support. These new and innovative ways to connect are welcome additions to our toolkit.

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Together in the same (virtual) space

Many of you, like me, will have had several key dates fixed in the diary well before lockdown or home working became the new normal. Budget planning meetings, annual appraisals or dentist appointments quickly fill our time, and although we are probably quite glad to see some of the more mundane commitments postponed or cancelled, there are some weeks of the year we genuinely look forward to!

On November 4th this year’s National Children and Adult Service Conference will begin, albeit virtually, and I for one am delighted to see it is still going ahead. Whilst we may not be congregating in Manchester, we will be embracing our new way of working with the opportunity to engage in a series of online webinars held over the three days of conference. There will be a mix of plenary and sub-plenary sessions where we will hear from prominent figures in the children, adult and education sectors, but this year we can enjoy these from the comfort of our desk – wherever that is currently situated!

Opportunities to share learning from one another are always greatly received, but this year it feels especially important. The conference provides the opportunity to hear from Ministers and collectively push our asks of government. As a sector we have shown amazing strength over the past six months to keep the show on the road and ensure that children and young people are kept safe. It therefore feels only right that we come together in the same (virtual) space to acknowledge what we have achieved and to discuss what we will need in the future. Covid-19 has highlighted and exposed many of the problems we have been working against, such as child poverty, domestic abuse or mental ill-health, and as a sector, we must keep highlighting these problems and inequalities, and urge government to take meaningful long-term action.

Like many of you, I was hugely impressed with the ADCS annual conference in July which also took place virtually, and although it was disappointing not to have that chance to catch up with friends and colleagues face to face, the passion we all share for the work we do shone through in the presentations and discussion afterwards. A lot has happened since July and the forthcoming NCAS conference offers the perfect opportunity to share ideas and learn from others, except this year we won’t have to make that mad dash from one session to another!

So I urge you all book your place and take a seat in the best seat in the house to enjoy this year’s conference. You won’t be disappointed!

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What a difference a year makes

It’s exactly a year since I last wrote a blog for ADCS and my what a year it has been! Who could have foreseen the change the pandemic has wrought, in our working lives and at home and how the relationship between the two has been altered so much? Yet the challenges I wrote about a year ago; racial disparities in outcomes for children and families, the limits on the opportunities for our Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic colleagues, and the need to listen to and be inspired by the people with whom we work, are writ larger now than ever.

In London we have been working hard to learn from the experiences of the last six months of working through Covid, to make sure we shape new ways of working that do not allow us to slip back unthinkingly to our previous state. Directors of children’s services have met for ‘recovery workshops’ to reflect on our shared experiences of leading through the emergency. We have recognised that in our work together through the Covid period we have strengthened our relationships at a regional and sub-regional level and are better for it. Our networks for practice leaders in social care, youth justice, schools and SEND have all met to learn and plan for recovery together.

The centrepiece of our recovery curriculum, however, has been the work undertaken with Research in Practice to bring together practitioners, managers, principal social workers, workforce and quality leads to reflect on their work throughout the Covid period. The result is the report Learning from Lockdown, the headlines from which can be read here. What is clear from what colleagues across London have told us is that they are proud of how their services responded through the crisis. They have adapted to ensure the most vulnerable were protected and they learned new ways of supporting children and families that they do not want to now give up. The next stage of our work with Research in Practice will be to build upon what has worked for colleagues and for children and families and to recognise aspects of our emergency responses which need to be rolled back. This will see us develop our digital practice framework to support decision-making about how, where and when practice could and should be digital, when it needs to be face-to-face, and how a blend of approaches can best be used.

Two other messages stand out from our action learning sessions with Research in Practice. The first is just how the pandemic has laid bare the social inequalities that are so inherent in our society. Digital poverty and a lack of access to the means to communicate and to learn have been at the forefront of children’s services and the challenges schools face throughout the pandemic. The way our poorest communities and most vulnerable citizens have been disproportionately impacted by the virus has further underlined our social divide and this has been most acutely felt by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities.

The second message from our staff is that now, as a result of the Covid experience and the Black Lives Matter movement, is the time to challenge these inequalities, particularly racial disparities, both as played out in the workplace and in wider society. It is clear that our staff are looking closely at our response to this challenge. As our Learning from Lockdown report states:

The commitment of senior leadership in responding actively has been strongly noticed and valued. Conversely, where this was felt to be absent this was keenly felt by staff. We heard very positive stories of young, black members of staff ‘walking taller’ in the wake of the whole organisation Zoom meetings that acknowledged structural racism directly.”

Across London we are working in our individual authorities and collectively through our Regional Improvement and Innovation Alliance to grasp the nettle of racial disparities, promote anti-racist practice and forge a new relationship with the people who use our services.

A year ago I wrote that “too often we accept things as they are rather than having the courage to fundamentally change them”. Having experienced a year like no other, now is surely the time to lean on each other and face the challenges of racism and inequality head on with our colleagues and our communities.

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What do we mean by recovery?

As a professional community we have been regularly sharing our experiences of making difficult decisions in extraordinary times. The pandemic has necessitated a rapid adaptation of the way we provide services to support vulnerable children and families which I believe we did successfully and thoughtfully. My reflection is that leadership throughout this period has not just been about crisis management, it has been about building and valuing relationships to effect change, drawing on our emotional intelligence, and holding and containing anxiety while finding solutions together. Locally we have experienced compassion, shared endeavour, deeper partnerships and openness across our systems. We have used our collective resources more effectively, freed up some of the bureaucracy that slows us down, shared information and data, and communicated. Never before has communication been more crucial.

Daily I have been inspired by the ingenuity, dedication and child centredness of my staff and those we work with who want to share their stories to support, acknowledge and challenge each other. This is now woven into every working week, sometimes every working day depending on how we are feeling!

My sense though, however difficult it has been so far, is that it won’t be nearly as challenging as when we start recovering. This period will be hugely challenging for many families, and we suspect there will be many more who have not previously been identified as vulnerable and have therefore not accessed support during this time, either because they haven’t tried to, or because they thought the support was not available. Even despite the innovative processes to mitigate risks and provide safety nets, there will inevitably be hidden harm as well as some children and families who were previously vulnerable but became more vulnerable during the lockdown period.

So, like everyone else we have been planning for a significant spike in early help and social care referrals since children returned to schools in September. What is clear from our internal budget conversations, where we are being asked to make savings, is that we will all need greater financial investment. This does not mean pots of money to bid for but, with the long term in mind, ringfenced funding to achieve sustained changes, so we can be resourced at a sufficient level to fulfil our child protection duties and manage demand for children’s social care. Also, and very importantly, additional funding needs to allow for meaningful investment in the kind of high-quality early help that is vital in getting families back onto their feet and preventing problems from getting worse.

So, what do we mean by recovery? Earlier this summer, ADCS published a discussion paper Building a country that works for all children post Covid-19 which set out what is needed to restore and reset the services that children and families rely on and I encourage you to read it if you have not already. In Norfolk we have started asking ourselves what a trauma-informed, resilience orientated ‘recovery’ might look like? Building on our current work of creating a trauma informed workforce internally and externally, we are kicking this off in partnership with Research in Practice (RiP) at one of our Leadership Exchange & Learning events. In preparation for schools fully reopening we have also started developing a trauma informed school system, and for those of you who are members of RiP, Dez Holmes is hosting a leader’s forum on 3 November on this topic.

This feels like an important moment in time to reflect more deeply on what ‘recovery’ might mean, truly take in the learning of the past six months and, in the face of this adversity, capitalise on the enthusiasm to use resources to adapt and transform with both head and heart as a system.

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An opportunity for improvement

Crisis is an opportunity riding on a dangerous wind – Chinese Proverb

The past few months have been an incredible test of our resilience, energy, ability to adapt, problem-solving and innovation. You might think these words too positive or optimistic, but, for me, they describe the best aspects of our leadership. We have had to respond, in double-quick time, to the needs of children, young people and families, to our staff, to our partners, and to the myriad government departments and quangos that have wanted daily engagement, data, feedback, and time – and none of that includes the urgent daily business that we have continued to deliver in each of our local authorities. If I were the type of person that saluted, I would salute you all; instead I simply ask a question: how can we harness our experience to help our improvement journey?

Let’s start with our staff – our greatest asset. It’s only natural that they will have felt anxious about how to continue to do their jobs well, have possibly felt isolated when working from home, may have been distracted by the needs of others they care for and care about. All of this can take its toll on productivity – but I think we have all found that (bizarrely) our staff have worked brilliantly during this period. So, what is it that’s enabled this result, and how can we continue to harness it? Keeping in regular contact with staff so that they know they are valued, that we will all get through this strange time, together, has been an important leadership task. The use of technology to get everyone in the ‘room’ together has worked wonders – we need to keep doing that. We had over 1000 people in a conference one day; it sounds horrendous, but it was great, and the feedback was amazing – we are going to keep doing that. Talking about how we are feeling and making sure that the psychological safety of staff is paramount is now something that all organisations seem to be more aware of – so we are definitely going to keep doing that!

And what about our children and young people. I’m not sure what’s happening elsewhere, but again, technology has been so helpful. Children are really happy to engage virtually (personally I don’t think it should or could ever replace real life engagement, but it has its place), and so have families. Our schools have been magnificent in creating all sorts of interesting and engaging learning platforms to keep in contact with children. It’s certainly felt tough, but it’s also very exciting – so long as we harness what we have learned and build on it.

Continuous improvement and open innovation go hand in hand. While innovation welcomes new ideas from unlikely sources, continuous improvement ensures that these new ideas are continually discussed, analysed, and evaluated. In the West Midlands, we have used the past six months to re-evaluate our RIIA programme. We had already been thinking about how we get better at sharing what we do well across our services; there’s some very good practice across the region but we spend more time talking about our challenges and what isn’t working well, than we do about the things that are working well. Edward de Bono says: “we may have a perfectly adequate way of doing something, but that does not mean there cannot be a better way. So, we set out to find an alternative way. This is the basis of any improvement that is not fault correction or problem solving.”

This is not to forsake or dismiss the important conversations about ongoing improvement. In the West Midlands, we continue to ask three key questions in our RIIA work:

  • What do we know about the quality and impact of services?
  • How do we know it and where is the evidence?
  • What are the plans for the next 12 months to maintain or improve practice?

We’ve seen that a number of the areas consistently identified for improvement continue to include the foundations of effective, outcome focused practice and have a positive impact upon the rest of the child’s journey across the children’s services system. It is therefore arguable that if these areas could be improved, the benefits to the rest of the system would be considerable.

How we have handled the crisis has been a defining moment for us all and a crucial part of that has been sharing our solutions to problems that have arisen every day, in changing conditions. Our West Midlands WhatsApp group has never been so busy! But improvement and innovation go hand in hand and learning from each other about the innovative solutions we’ve put in place over the past six months (albeit forced upon us) will be an important part of the future RIIA conversation.

Have no fear of perfection; you’ll never reach it – Marie Curie

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Sharing the child's journey

The child’s journey must be at the heart of our system. As system leaders in children’s services, we know that co-producing, building and delivering a system that enables that journey to be the best possible is core to our purpose, whatever the experiences and needs of those children and their families. With time out on holiday recently I reflected a lot on the child’s journey through Covid-19 and the vast array of experiences that will impact on their future. The last six months have been challenging for us all and understanding the journey our children have experienced is essential if we are going to enable recovery, “build back better” and keep them central in future planning.

For most children their life journey is punctuated by key events in the calendar and the beginning of the education year is one of the most significant. Transition to new nurseries, schools and colleges or a return to a new school year is a time of excitement mixed with expectation and nerves, plus for some, mixed with anger and dread.

The start of this education year, however, is like no other. Education leaders and staff, together with all of us, and of course parents and children themselves, have taken a firm grip on their nerves to begin the new normal. Buildings and timetables have been redesigned, bubbles organised, multiple guidance documents digested and public health advice given. Staff are prepared and support has been designed to reach out to children whatever their experiences and needs, to enable their disrupted learning to resume. For some, there will be significant needs to address and the social and emotional impact of Covid for many has been more damaging than the impact on their physical health.

How will we make this a success? ADCS President Jenny Coles wrote in her recent blog about the positives that have come from Covid giving us a “renewed common purpose” together with increased partnerships, reduced bureaucracy and rapid and flexible responses during the crisis. We are working to mainstream these positives but the challenge is obvious. Anxiety about the unknown plus the inevitable risk of further Covid surges brings an understandable desire for assurance and management and with that comes bureaucracy, including requirements for data and evidence which take time to collect. We are breaking new ground and differing views can be divisive as can changes to regulatory arrangements linked to Covid concerns, however necessary those are.

The best journey for our children depends on maintaining our common purpose in rocky seas and our common purpose right now is to support them to begin the education year well, return to school and engage in the opportunities for learning, friendships, support and where necessary recovery. Locally and nationally their needs must be prioritised. Whatever this Autumn throws at us we owe it to our children to make things work for them and we will remain stronger together!

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Anyone fancy burnt oven chips?

If this pandemic has done one thing, it has allowed us the opportunity to reflect and examine our relationships, collaborations and partnerships in both our personal and professional lives. The question is, have we seized the moment, or have we simply been driven by the next data request, survey or research, grateful to come out of ‘lockdown’ unscathed or with limited damage?

Out of necessity, having spent three weeks on my own for the first time in 17 years and with a talent for being able to burn oven chips, I have been reacquainted with my culinary skills and learned there are five essential ingredients to a healthy relationship both in my personal and professional life:

• A regard for our own wellbeing and happiness

• Respect

• Trust

• Openness

• Passion

The whole sector, including schools and children’s services, has had to adapt and respond to the spread of the coronavirus in a way that leadership gurus Heifetz and Linsky would be proud of. There has been a great deal of learning, as reflected in the staff college’s covid-19-learning and predictions series, and opportunities to re-evaluate what is important. Who would have thought that four months ago a HMI would be ‘trusted’ to work as part of a local authority frontline team, chairing a child’s review/conference or assisting in the planning/mapping of schools and early years settings recovery - but they have and their contribution has been valued and appreciated.

Weekly local REACT meetings with Ofsted Regional Directors, Regional School Commissioners and Department for Education officials have been a new challenge. Thankfully, we have been ably supported by trusted colleagues and have been able to successfully implement Bruce Tuckman’s team development model: ‘form, storm, norm and have the opportunity to perform’ in a way not previously envisaged; collaborating sub-regionally in respect of school attendance and inclusion.

Within the context of our Regional Improvement and Innovation Alliance (RIIA) priorities, we have taken the opportunity for greater and more ingenuitive means of collaboration on areas we are passionate about such as children’s learning, safety and welfare; it seems we just needed the presenting conditions and ‘permission’ to do so. Turning to the national context it seems that since the Social Policy Association published its 2018 article on the impact of austerity on children, the financial situation has not improved. Arguably it has worsened, with local authorities reporting significant financial deficits as we head into Brexit and a Comprehensive Spending Review that will need to respond to the ‘cost of Covid’. The prospect of more councils making s114 declarations is increasingly inevitable and therefore innovation and initiative led funding in themselves will not provide the required solution. There needs to be a structural financial solution for schools and children’s services, one that recognises and addresses disadvantage and inequality.

If we are truly passionate about the future of our children and young people, then we have an opportunity to build on our collective learning and develop a partnership between government departments, national bodies and local authorities to collaborate on a policy framework that brings with it the structural resources, vision and ambition. One that builds a safe, healthy, happy and successful future for all our children; underpinned by a healthy relationship. Or, we can simply conclude Bruce Tuckman’s cycle; mourn and have burnt oven chips!

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Take a deep breath

So, writing this in the middle of August makes me think that in many ways this is the moment for taking a deep gulp of fresh air so that we can be prepared for whatever might happen next…

There are a few reasons for doing this, firstly because during August, the pace has slowed with more people away so there is a small opportunity to take that deep breath. Secondly, many of us are fortunate enough to be taking some form of a short break during the summer period - if you haven’t been nagged to do so already, then please do, it is really important! And thirdly, it is more crucial than ever to try to switch off (both mentally and electronically) and re-charge the batteries after the prolonged period of managing all of the consequences (so far) of Covid. And…breathe.

And of course, who knows what is coming next? The full return of schools; the challenges of travel to school; the much-anticipated rise in demand for supporting children and adults in our communities; the potential longer-term impacts of job losses and ‘austerity’; ongoing local outbreaks or a ‘second wave’ of Covid; and for many authorities a bleak financial outlook to add to the challenges of supporting recovery and renewal in their local areas. And once we sort out all of that, let’s not forget that ‘business as usual’ had its own challenges to start with!

But directors of children’s services (DCS) and their teams do not step into these roles looking for an easy life or being easily daunted by the odd boulder strewn in their path! The contextual challenges only reinforce the importance of the role of the DCS in our society. Who else is able to take a system wide view of outcomes for children; to make those links about vulnerable children who might be worse off if they don’t have school as a protective factor in their lives; to understand that there are some children who (surprise, surprise) might struggle because they don’t have parents with the capacity or aptitude for providing schooling at home; that there are organisations which in the midst of reactive responses to Covid, might need challenging to remember the impact of their actions on children and young people, or to include children and young people in their plans for recovery and renewal; that black children’s lives matter and there is still so much to do to address the ingrained bias that impacts on their lives and futures?

These are amongst the countless opportunities (not boulders!) to make a positive difference in children’s lives and to ensure that post-Covid Britain is a country that works for all children. Take a deep breath and you can blow those boulders away!

And finally… on a personal note, I am also taking a deep breath and stepping away from being a DCS. Thank you to so many brilliant colleagues in ADCS nationally and regionally as well as in my home patch who have been there to advise, coach and support me in my personal journey as and when needed. I intend to continue contributing to the sector by offering the same for others where I can.

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Partnership: a renewed common purpose!

ADCS recently published a discussion paper Building a country that works for all children post Covid-19 which highlights both the challenges and opportunities the pandemic has created for children, families and the services they rely on. The paper draws on the experiences of senior leaders in children’s services from across the country, and it was clear that there were a number of positives emerging from lockdown that should be retained as we move forward. Enhanced and more productive partnership working was often fed back as one of the positives by ADCS members and this is what I shall be focusing my blog on.

As the discussion paper articulates; “a renewed common purpose has galvanized partnership working in many areas, even within LAs working relationships have been strengthened, particularly with public health colleagues”. Partnerships are fundamental to our approach, our work and the environment we seek to build, and we know it improves outcomes for children and families. This has been at the core of our activity for years, forever even! Most of us would say that we had a good basis or model of practice to build on when Covid-19 impacted on all of us, so what has been different since March? In times of crisis and such extraordinary challenges, increased commitment to partnership, a better understanding of each other and what working together achieves and is achieving can never have been so important. So, here are some reflections on what’s moved on in a few months which may have taken a lot longer previously:

Bureaucracy has been streamlined or bypassed! Managers as part of Safeguarding Partnerships have met regularly, shared intelligence and information, used social media and formed relationships with local businesses, supermarkets etc. to publicise messages about protecting children, domestic abuse and where to seek help. They have also been able to redirect activities of their workforce in a short space of time to cover gaps and ensure that vital services continue.

Partnerships with schools and education settings, whatever their governance, have improved and I’ll say it again, has confirmed that LAs are the leaders of place in education. Added to this, there has been a much greater appreciation of our role from national government, not just in education but in our local communities as well (I could write a whole other blog on this topic, but maybe another time!)

Sharing of information. For some, this emergency has given them permission to share more easily and, given we are going to be living in a situation where sharing information at a person, local and national level will be so important for some considerable time, this should be the justification to break down the information sharing barriers we’ve struggled with for so many years.

But there are also some challenges. Although we have seen firsthand the positive impact of partnership working at a family and child level, or the benefits of technology on virtual working and contact, evidence of their effectiveness will only emerge over the coming months. Successful partnerships require building trust and understanding and, as we have seen for some communities, the last few months have shown yet again the importance of positive action rather than relying on promises to achieve lasting change.

Finally, and on a more personal note, the partnerships we have developed through ADCS and our regional networks have been part of all our coping mechanisms. The support and advice I have received from colleagues has been invaluable and I hope others have benefited as much as I have - thank you!

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Waving not drowning

Blackburn with Darwen (BwD) has found itself in the media spotlight recently. The high rates of transmission of the virus in the borough have challenged us all to implement further actions to reverse this trend so that we don’t face another lockdown. As the rate of infection has risen and our access to the data has become more useful, we have been able to see that the virus, at this moment in time, is having a bigger impact on our Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities. Our Director of Public Health (DPH), Professor Dominic Harrison, has been clear throughout the pandemic that existing health inequalities, poorer quality housing and lower pay are all contributory factors that make children, young people and families more vulnerable to the virus. These inequalities have only been amplified for children and young people during the lockdown.

Having experienced the gradual relaxation of the restrictions that we have been living with I want to stress the importance of an effective outbreak management action plan that puts children and young people at the centre. Like our DPH, I also want to stress the importance of not blaming anyone for a global pandemic, including children and young people!

This includes the children and young people who in June and July have started to return to school, play or socialise. We are all concerned about the impact of the virus but I have found myself challenging critical comments about children who have been observed on the streets playing together and young people being seen to be meeting up with each other without the necessary social distancing. The impact of the virus on children and young people seems particularly severe.

High quality early years provision, school, play and friendship are as important for children as having an effective health service and functioning economy for us all. In the pace and complexity of responding to a local outbreak, it isn’t enough to remind colleagues and partners about the needs of children and young people.

My reflection on the role that I should play in my Local Authority Local Outbreak Management Board is to represent the children and young people of the borough. I have done this by working with and enhancing our existing partnership structures. Our termly School Improvement Board which co-ordinates school improvement activity through system leadership was “stepped up” to meet every week from 22 April. This has allowed us to engage our schools in planning for the lifting of lockdown and the reopening of schools from September. I have also asked our Children’s Partnership Board and Corporate Parenting Board to focus on how we mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on all of our children and young people.

Earlier this year, a third sector consortium was successful in securing a Department for Education funded holiday hunger scheme which went live in the borough on 3 August. I understand parental anxiety and the restrictions that containment brings but we can’t have children being confined to their homes when, if properly risk assessed and with the right protocols in place, they could be taking part in positive activities. In addition to this, the summer scheme provides a lunch which is important for the 60% of children in BwD who are now living in poverty.

As we implement plans for recovery and for the management of local outbreaks, key to this balancing act is to work closely together with children, young people and parents/carers in tackling this international pandemic at a very local level, and taking time wherever possible to do with and not to.

We have also had to go back and prioritise our service for those children and families who we have risk assessed as needing face to face contact. This includes all initial assessments, Section 47s and statutory visits across the service for children and families where we have the highest level of concern. Added to this, we have maintained our summer delivery scheme, albeit restricted and risk assessed to ensure that we are Covid secure. The staff and our colleagues in schools and education settings have been amazing in developing, implementing and then reviewing these risk assessments all in an effort to keep children and young people at the heart of our service.

As a Director of Children’s Services, I have worked very closely with our DPH and their team, as well as benefitting from the hard work and support of colleagues from across the Council and the wider community. Our next steps involve building a resource that can support the borough to manage the impact of the virus through our local Outbreak Management Board and our responsibilities for test, trace and isolate. As Professor Dominic Harrison, BwD’s DPH, informed us by referencing Sheriff Body from the film JAWS: when the Sheriff saw the shark up close for the first time, he said “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” If we are to avoid a long running sequel then the need for adequate resources to tackle this menace effectively at a local level is a necessity.

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A digital bonanza?

I would like to begin this blog by paying tribute to Dave Hill who was my predecessor as Director of Children’s Services in Essex, and a tough act to follow! Last week I attended his funeral and was reminded how Dave was a larger than life character who made an impact on everyone he met.

In these Covid times, his funeral, by contrast to his personality, was a small affair; but it was also very intimate and led me to focus on his achievements as a friend and a colleague. His enthusiasm for our profession made him a great President of ADCS, an advocate and a leader.

He will be greatly missed by us all.

Working with families to effect change in Covid-19: a digital bonanza?

The recent change to guidance for shielded workers, allowing them to return to work in ‘Covid-secure businesses’ from 1st August, made me start to reflect on how we have tried to effect change in families during the pandemic.

My first reflection was that there has been a digital bonanza!

Whether you used MS Teams, Zoom, WhatsApp or any other digital platform, so much work has been done remotely since lockdown began. Sometimes this had real benefits, for example, some children in care, who had never attended their review meeting, did and told us they preferred it; and we all know how infrequently consultant paediatricians attend child protection conferences, but they have via Teams. So, distance is important, distance that the remote review creates has encouraged participation. Even the lack distance that professionals have needed to travel for an online meeting has had a similar outcome. Indeed, those who were shielded or self-isolating, but remained physically well, continued to work entirely from home.

So, some of these changes can easily be offered as alternative routes to participation in a post-Covid world.

My second reflection was how important face-to-face visits are to social work practice

Initially, we visited only those children at the highest risk of harm, or whose placements were about to break down. As time went on, the risk of not seeing other children became greater, and while video conferencing mitigates that risk, it does not do so half as well as being physically present.

Observation skills are key to good social work, and that means the use of all of our senses. You can get a young person to give you a tour of the home using WhatsApp, but you cannot always see who is behind the camera, coaching the response. How can you tell if they are living in hygienic conditions without using the sense of smell?

So, the technology has been helpful, but cannot replace good old-fashioned home visiting.

My third reflection was about the time it is taking to get work done: is there really a digital bonanza?

Quite early on, I was hearing that child protection conferences, held online, were taking twice as long as they usually do. We all know how tiring video conferences are now, but there is something peculiar about an online meeting that just isn’t as efficient (even if it comes to the same conclusion). Yet more concerning is the fact that progress in case work is slower: cases are open for longer, and, at least in Essex, we have had fewer exits from care during this period. While Covid has added a layer of complexity with the emergence of issues such as the impact of lockdown on domestic violence, adolescent and parental mental health, there is also something about how we have approached working with and managing risk.

I have always been an outspoken and passionate advocate of relationship-based practice, so when in all other respects a conversation with children or their parents is the same, what is it about the video conference that makes us less brave about stepping down or closing cases?

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Leadership in troubled times

One of the lasting impressions left by my leadership development training with the Staff College was the idea of “Leadership in Troubled Times – from the swamp to the high ground”. This seems even more relevant now in the most volatile and uncertain of times and I encourage you all to watch the video link above.

Our world right now certainly seems “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous”. Covid has placed unforeseen demands in front of us and added greater complexity to issues such as hidden harm, criminal exploitation and domestic abuse. That is all before we really understand what is coming in terms of the economy, unemployment and the associated financial stress in family life.

More children are entering care year-on-year and placements can be far from home, scarce and unable to meet the child’s needs. A care review hasn’t yet started but it feels like a once in a generation opportunity to resolve, with our partners, some of the complex challenges in the system. It needs to be radical and bold and not just about increasing the number of placements. For many, care is a protective factor but being in care should not be seen as an end goal in itself.

There are no magic solutions, our best response will continue to be what we have always done, creating the best conditions for fantastic social work. Now is the time to remind ourselves of the values that create the best outcomes, and ensure our services are about quality and practice rather than performance and process. Remember, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

As Danielle Turney said in her book Relationship Based Social Work: getting to the heart of practice:

“Despite everything that happens around it, social work will always begin and end with a human encounter between two or more people and this encounter, or relationship as it develops, is the medium through which the social work task is carried out.”

We might have different models of how we get there and describe it in different ways but the best social work I have seen has this large and centre. We have to work with families amidst crisis and uncertainty, tolerate that uncertainty and seize the energy as a powerful force for change, working with families and their wider networks to do so. We need to build a model of social work practice that celebrates the power of relational work and keeping children rooted with families, placing more value on connecting and repairing relationships.

As Bruce D Perry said:

“The more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely they will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”

Thinking about therapeutic repair requires a fundamental mind shift from episodic social interventions, which only consider immediate or short-term risk management, to a position of thinking about the child’s life course. How do we ensure we work with families to build children into resilient adults so that they have the tools to deal with life events long after we take away the temporary scaffolding of services? In the past we have seen time and again that once the scaffolding has been removed (such as care) we had simply forgot to install the right foundation. We should use the privileged opportunity we have to build solid and bespoke foundations with a common and simple ingredient; trusted local relationships that have been firmly built to last for ever.

Let’s make our social work about repair as much as it is about safety. Let’s create as much love and as many relationships as we can for the children and families we work with and create a system that values those outcomes.

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Should working from home be the "new normal"?

During last week’s 2020 ADCS annual conference, colleagues discussed options about how the children’s workforce could return to the office environment which gave much to think about. Whether we adopt a “blended” or “hybrid” approach was just two ideas floated at the conference. Our ambition is to shape and influence “A country that works for all children” where individual workers manage highly complex situations and decision making, where we work to help children, young people and families, reduce inequalities and where the vital support our workforce provides is highly valued.

Throughout “lockdown” we have seen the innovation, resilience and strength and flexibility of the workforce, embracing digital technology whilst still remaining active in the community to support children and families, always following national guidance as we go. However, many are keen to recapture working together in a way that supports personal connectivity.

During these strange times, we’ve all had to make the most of digital technology to communicate, hold meetings, keep in touch, and to engage in a way that most children, young people and their families have welcomed, while acknowledging that face to face interaction is important. We’ve also heard that social workers have had varied experiences and taken to home working differently. The challenge does not appear to be about whether we return to the office environment in a way that existed pre-Covid-19, more so about how we should use our workspaces in the future.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a disruptor to normal life, impacting all of us right across the sector and this will continue. We therefore need to build organisational resilience for a 21st Century workforce. The opportunity is there for us to build an organisation on the strengths and assets that our workforce has demonstrated, one that withstands, recovers and sustains us into the future with health protection firmly in mind.

It is widely acknowledged that physical space is a strong and powerful determiner of organisational culture and behaviours. We know “place” has a strong psychological impact upon people, so we must strike the right balance between face to face work, use of digital technology and private work. We must work together in different ways to reconnect, undertake collaborative work and to embrace and enjoy social interaction. This is not to say that we should forget the advantages presented by working remotely during lockdown, but instead embrace what we have learned that works well and incorporate it into future working practices. There is an opportunity to reconstruct how work is done with a focus upon redesign, to have more collaborative and less private space, all while ensuring that staff are safe and well.

The nature of how and when we do this is down to individual local authorities who have a role to ensure we are compliant with national guidance and future plans set within the context of preventing outbreaks.

The increased profile of social workers and key workers over the past few months has been very encouraging, but there is an opportunity to re-think how (and where) we work in a way that is flexible enough to meet everyone’s needs. Working from home can be a fundamental part of this and one that can have wider benefits in terms of home and work-life balance if we embrace a new normal, a newly designed working space and routine.

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The power of the ADCS family

We all work through building relationships and deliver services that support children and families. Some of us do this in a more formal way, utilising restorative and relational based techniques that drive our practice, but ultimately without building those relationships with children, their parents and families, it becomes far more challenging to do our work successfully. Developing and maintaining relationships helps with our resilience, whether that be in our privileged position of working in this fantastic sector, or personally outside of our work.

The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown has meant there has never been a more important time to draw on those relationships, to be self-resilient, and to have a resilient workforce. Actual human contact has been replaced by virtual contact and, for now at least, the vast array of video meetings has become the new norm, something we probably couldn’t have contemplated before March - thankfully it is in the main serving us well. It allows us to go about our business and maintain those vital connections more easily than traditional faceless telephone calls do. Our jobs are based on building trust and mutual respect, and today’s technology means that we and our staff can continue to do so.

With that in mind, and as a people person, when asked to write this week’s ADCS blog, I reflected on what must be one of the most challenging jobs at this time, and pondered on my resilience, what has had a positive impact on it, and that of my staff over the past few months. Some of the ‘constants’ in my reflections were relationships, and the sector itself, and how through ADCS a collective disparate family is brought together in normal times, and the power that this has then created at the most difficult of times in many of our careers.

So, I ask myself, what makes ADCS so important? Being a relatively new member to ADCS (I have been a member since late 2015, much less time than many of my esteemed colleagues), I realised it provides a wraparound warmth of a family in normal times, let alone during uncertainty and need, to a role that can feel a very lonely place. Regionally as well, there are huge advantages. North East ADCS is a strong network, bonded together by our relationships, understanding of local nuance, and the desire to bring about long term sustainable change to improve the outcomes for those we serve. Our Sector Led Improvement framework and associated sub-groups has a set of well-developed priorities that has shown real resilience. It has given us a readymade infrastructure for driving forward change and solutions with clear responsibilities and accountabilities that we share and own.

With yesterday’s ADCS virtual Annual Conference, it was really encouraging to note a number of people ‘attending’ their first conference. As a “newer kid on the block” I can vouch for the value of becoming an active member of the ADCS community. The collective band of brothers and sisters is so powerful in providing an individual and collective ‘prop’, probably like no other that I have felt, and we should recognise and celebrate that at any time, but especially during this pandemic. There are many things that other sectors could learn.

What makes our sector different to any other is the strength of our ADCS community and our innate understanding of the need for these trusted supportive relationships, without which our jobs may well have felt and even been impossible over the past few months. Our own professional and personal resilience is an easy one for us to side step in this rapidly unfolding world of change, yet speaking for myself, my wellbeing remains intact (if not a few pounds heavier), and that is largely due to my ADCS family that keeps me grounded and mentally strong. As a sector leader, this means that I can do the same for my staff, and ultimately for those we serve to support.

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On love, and love after lockdown

The devastating loss of our friend, colleague and ADCS Past President Dave Hill had a huge impact on our sector last week, and on the many of us who knew, loved and admired him. Dave always was a hard act to follow - whether you spoke after him in a meeting, followed him into a job or exchanged anecdotes and gossip with him in the bar at the ADCS Annual Conference - he was brilliant at all of it. The moving tribute of publishing Dave’s 2016 blog What’s love got to do with it? last week was another example. The vague collection of dull thoughts that were bouncing around in my head to share with you this week were immediately rendered irrelevant and insignificant. How do you follow that blog?

The only answer was to go with Dave’s flow and to look forward – as he always did. There is a member of my household (nameless to spare her embarrassment) who is addicted to an American reality series called “Love After Lock Up”. Residing in the outer tundra of satellite channels, it follows the fate of relationships forged by correspondence with prisoners, on their release. Frankly, it’s unlikely to be troubling the BAFTA judges, but its premise is interesting to consider in the context of Dave’s treatise on love and our current situation. To paraphrase, what happens to “Love After Lockdown”?

Dave reminded us of what does (and doesn’t) matter in this world and this job, where we live with a combination of privilege and challenge, joy and pain. Many of us have experienced the “I don’t know how you do your job!” dinner party conversation, based on the negative press our jobs attract. But what we know, and they don’t, is the unique pleasure of seeing children thrive and succeed in our care, overcoming the odds and their trauma to flourish. As Dave said, we deal in the currency of unconditional love – children’s need for it, and our need to ensure they receive it and are protected by it. Last week I received a beautiful letter from a UASC care leaver who had just achieved top honours in a degree in architecture, now going on to do his Masters. He came into our care as a frightened, deeply traumatised child with no English and significant mental health issues. He described the care, support and, yes, love he had received from social workers, Personal Advisors and carers in Kent that nurtured him to where is now. What a privilege to receive.

One aspect of the universality of the current crisis is that it has acted like a chef’s “reduction”- everything feels more concentrated, more intense, more impactful. This is particularly true for children and their experiences, positive and negative, of lockdown. Children have already sacrificed months of their learning for the health and wellbeing of us all and ADCS President Jenny Coles has spoken eloquently of the need to ensure they are not the long-term victims of Covid-19 as they were of austerity. As we approach the next stage, it will once more fall to us to make the case for children, and for childhood, in the public realm. This will be a fight for resources, but also for public opinion. The public has shown extraordinary love for the NHS, and we need to galvanise national sentiment to show similar love and commitment for our children, to prevent a generation being hugely damaged. In the words of Dave Hill, “We need to start talking about love. The children we care for deserve nothing less”.

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What’s LOVE got to do with it? - Dave Hill

Former ADCS President, Dave Hill CBE, died suddenly this week. He was a kind and compassionate man with a big heart who made a huge difference to so many lives. Dave’s presidential year was unique and will always be remembered for its focus on ‘love’, based on the simple premise that all children deserve to be and to feel loved by those who care for and work with them.

Dave wrote this blog when he became President in April 2016…

“I was, have been and am – loved. I am as sure as I can be that my parents loved me unconditionally and I not only love my wife and children, but a range of others too. It is a really deep, heart wrenching kind of love. It can be joyous and sometimes even gut wrenchingly upsetting, but it is very real. And I don’t think I’m confusing this emotion with deep caring or concern, although love can involve those things too.

I am also a sucker for the film Love Actually all of those British luvvies falling in (and out of) love. My personal favourite scene is when Jamie (played by Colin Firth) proposes to Aurelia in broken and comical Portuguese. I am sure for those of you who like me have a soft spot for the film will remember it well. But the use of the word love is ubiquitous and its meaning undermined by abuse, misuse and overuse.

So why blog about love? As Directors of Children’s Services my colleagues and I know only too well how important positive and meaningful relationships are to children, particularly children and young people in care. It is these relationships that children tell us they value most and can help them overcome challenges in life. These children deserve more than simply just our care, concern and attention, they also deserve our love. So deep acceptance, caring and concern, all attributes of love, are qualities that we should value in our carers, social workers, teachers and other professionals who work with children. We should also acknowledge that unconditional love is a key part of child development.

We value adoption as a means to a loving family and look for these traits in our adopters, but love is also present in foster placements and yes in residential care too. But as professionals we value ‘boundaries’ and ‘professionalism’ and can find the ‘L’ word difficult and awkward to discuss. Loving relationships are driven more by the heart than they are by the head – this is not territory we are comfortable in. Yet if we ask children looked after what they want and need they are more forthcoming, they want love, many are happy to say so. In my experience they want love that is unconditional, but a love not in competition with their families, love that doesn’t seek to replace, but enhance. The fact is that if you give love, you are likely to receive love back in return, it can and does affect your judgement. When you receive love as a child it encourages, motivates and supports you to go on and achieve the best in life. So we need to start talking about love, the children we care for deserve nothing less.

“The greatest gift you can give to others is the gift of unconditional love and acceptance” – Brian Tracy.”

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An opportunity for meaningful change

All schools and colleges across the country are now allowed to open more widely to children if they feel able to as lockdown measures are being slowly eased. Throughout lockdown many schools have remained open for vulnerable children and children of key workers, a significant achievement for schools and not always given the national recognition they deserve. Local authorities, schools and teaching staff have worked incredibly hard to risk assess and put measures in place so that more children can have the opportunity for face to face learning and interaction before the end of term.

For most children though, they have had to adapt to the home learning environment, and their experiences of this will be different because each will have unique circumstances. To supplement learning at home, schools have swiftly embraced new ways of teaching by delivering lessons online for example, and countless learning resources have been made available by a range of organisations, yet legitimate fears remain about the widening attainment gap. Recent research has shown pupil engagement in schools is lower in areas of higher deprivation as children without access to IT equipment, sufficient internet access or a quiet space to study at home are impacted the worst. It is clear that the current crisis is exacerbating the challenges that many children and families faced long-before the pandemic began.

As we approach the end of this academic year and head into the summer holidays, the debate around free school meals has highlighted stark inequalities in our society. No child should be going hungry and we know the school holidays are a particular pressure point for many families so it is even more imperative that we do all we can to support them. The government has made the right decision to provide food vouchers for those children eligible over the summer period, but this is not job done. Clearly the government needs to act quickly to implement a clear child poverty reduction strategy, recognising the lived experience of children and that once and for all addresses the root causes of poverty.

There are clear links between poverty, disadvantage and children’s educational attainment. Research tells us that some pupils, such as those receiving support from social care, eligible for free school meals or from certain ethnic backgrounds are more likely to be excluded than their peers. This cannot be right, particularly when considering being out of school places children and young people at greater risk of exploitation and being unemployed in later life. School is a safety net for many pupils and the government has rightly been concerned about the impact of children missing school over the past few months, but what of the rising number of vulnerable children who receive permanent or fixed-term exclusions each year? If the government is serious about its ‘levelling up’ agenda then it needs to progress the asks of the Timpson review because creating an inclusive school system is the perfect place to start.

Anti-racist demonstrators over the past couple of weeks have further highlighted inequalities that exist in our society, and I encourage you to read last week’s ADCS blog on the subject by Mac Heath, Director of Children’s Services in Milton Keynes. As leaders of children’s services, we have a responsibility to recognise and shine a light on social injustices and the barriers faced by children, including particular challenges facing children and young people from black and minority ethnic groups. In addition to being overrepresented in school exclusion statistics BAME children and young people are overrepresented in the youth justice system too – this is and has been unacceptable for far too long. Only by addressing the underlying reasons for these disparities can we challenge systemic inequalities.

The pandemic has highlighted many of the challenges children and families already face and this moment represents an opportunity for meaningful and lasting change, to be ambitious and take action on child poverty, inequality and the structural barriers children and families face, particularly those from the most deprived areas and from black and ethnic minority groups – lives and indeed life chances quite literally depend on it.

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Many colours of the rainbow

As a student social worker, I came to understand that anti-discriminatory practice was the cornerstone of my social work training that needed to underpin all I did, professionally and personally. We would all be expected to reflect on the approaches taken in working with a family in trying to promote change, and in undertaking any intervention consider how we were perceived by those families with whom we worked. Gaining insight into the barriers our children and families face, particularly in our BME communities, surely must continue to strengthen our commitment to build services that reflect the communities we serve and deliver support that gives improved access of opportunity.

As we contrast the challenges of social distancing with the protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, we continue to see the evidence all around us, in both the USA and UK, of unfairness and inequality. The disproportionate number of deaths from Covid-19, the impact of poverty and the under representation in positions of leadership of black and minority ethnic (BME) communities can only but give challenge as to the limit of the success in us achieving a fairer society that brings equality of opportunity.

Over the last few months, rainbows have been put up in the windows of houses and offices as a symbol of thanks to the NHS and key workers. Previously we saw the rainbow as a symbol to reflect the diverse nature of our communities, particularly in LGBT+ gatherings, and as a sign of hope and a promise of things to come. Martin Luther King Jr. championed a dream where people of all races blend together in peace and harmony like the colours resplendent in a rainbow, and Jesse Jackson echoed: ‘our flag is red, white and blue, but our nation is a rainbow.’

The events of the past two weeks cannot be attributed to a single moment but upon the endemic and entrenched presence of racism and prejudice still evident in our communities and across our society. The duty to challenge unfairness and inequality is on us all but the responsibility must weigh particularly heavy on those of us in a position to influence and evoke change. However the rainbow symbol is positioned, and surely we must see it as a sign of hope, we need to be intentional and committed to addressing the injustice of opportunity that we and our services see every day.

This year is the 60th Anniversary of the time when six-year-old Ruby Bridges was escorted by four armed federal marshals as she became the first student to integrate William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans. Her actions inspired Norman Rockwell’s painting The Problem We All Live With (1964). As we start to consider now the re-introduction of many of our children back into schools in the UK and the many difficulties they may face after months outside of our school settings, racism surely shouldn’t be one of the challenges that we continue to see at the level we do. We know many of those children and families who have suffered most during lockdown are those who haven’t been given same level of accessibility to opportunity that we would all want to consider is a right.

Even if we acknowledge the rainbow as a symbol of hope we often know that we are continuing to make decisions in a world where it is unclear as to what the true costs of the recent challenges have brought. However, we do know that as leaders of children’s services there is a responsibility on us, more than ever, to promote the voice of the oppressed and elevate opportunities for those who face the biggest hurdles by challenging injustice and prejudice across our areas of influence.

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Walk a mile in my shoes...

I am a bit of a closet Elvis fan and the lockdown has led me to explore the backwaters of my record collection which, in turn, led me to the king’s song ‘Walk A Mile in My Shoes’ (Live in Las Vegas 1970 if you’re interested - and I know you are). Which got me thinking…

This lockdown and the responses that we are having to make requires quite a lot of walking in other people’s shoes. Firstly, let’s spare a thought for ADCS President Jenny Coles, Vice President Charlotte Ramsden and the ADCS team whose leadership and support has been stupendous throughout. As Chair of the Standards, Performance and Inspection (SPI) Policy Committee I get drawn into some of the meetings with national bodies but Jenny, Charlotte and the other policy committee Chairs are having to shoulder the majority of the burden, ensuring that we are getting our views across and that we are making a difference time and time again. During that time we have had no less than 185 pieces of guidance (at the time of writing) relating to our role as a Director of Children’s Services (DCS). I am struggling to think of who has benefited from those 185 pieces of guidance, but it’s not me.

The SPI committee has been wrestling with two particular issues over the last couple of months; the data requirements being asked of local authority children’s services by the Department for Education (DfE), and the thorny issue of what local authority and education inspection might look like in the medium term as we move out of lockdown and into some form of ‘recovery’. Firstly, it is worth reiterating that neither of these things are ultimately our decision, but for both issues, the committee’s role has been to try to help the DfE and Ofsted ‘walk a mile in our shoes’.

With regards to the data return it was really helpful to get a wide cross section of views from directors of children’s services (DCS). That helped us to engage with the DfE constructively and to help construct a data set that was significantly different from the first draft. I’m very aware that there was little enthusiasm for a data return given the current pressures on DCSs and our services. That said, it’s worth reflecting also the importance of having ministers and senior officials who take a keen interest in the children’s social care sector, so when those people show that keen interest and want to know how the system is working in a time of crisis, it is to our benefit to find sensible ways to demonstrate this (we’ve got to walk a mile in their… ok you get the picture). I’ve no doubt that as time goes on, we are going to have to find more sophisticated ways to express to government the complexity, challenges and on occasions the tragic circumstances, that have been exacerbated by lockdown. We’re going to need to be able to highlight the increasing volume and costs of the work that we are now beginning to see come through the system.

Moving on to inspection. The committee has engaged with Ofsted and we have been pleased that a pragmatic approach has been taken to suspending current inspections in schools and local authorities (although some inspection remains in regulated services, and of youth offending teams via HMIP). Given that inspection it seems, like death and taxes, will always be with us (whether it should be or not is another debate of course …), the challenge now will be about the recommencement of inspection activity in due course; when, how and what it will look like are part of the discussion that ADCS will be having with Ofsted at today’s SPI committee meeting.

As ever, we’ll be trying to help Ofsted ‘walk a mile in our shoes’ in order to try to influence and shape the future.

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The Meaning of Tests

On Thursday we were advised that the five tests had been met and that the phased wider opening of schools could commence from 1st June. Detailed risk assessments are being finalised, with headteachers and Governing Boards in all schools being put to the test in making significant local decisions. Where local authorities and schools feel unable to meet the government’s ambition for an extended reopening these difficult decisions are being made in the best interests of children and the staff who work with them.

ADCS is an organisation with regional structures, reflecting both shared approaches as well as difference. As Chair of the Educational Achievement Committee, I have been alongside Edwina Grant, Chair of the Health, Care and Additional Needs Committee in multiple meetings with DfE officials, unions and on occasion ministers over recent weeks discussing guidance to early years settings and schools, representing our regional variations as well as common issues.

As we all know, the coronavirus pandemic began around London and spread across the country, the R rate is currently lower in London than in other regions. Under these circumstances it is understood that there will be regional differences in the planning for the wider opening of schools over the next few weeks from 1st June. There are however also significant similarities.

Firstly, I would like to thank the education leads in each local authority (sometimes called Directors or Assistant Directors) who with significantly reduced teams and services are working collaboratively across regions and with schools and unions in individual local authorities to provide system leadership. They are advising and supporting school leaders and even in some instances loading PPE into school minibuses! I was privileged to hear from the regional representatives in our Educational Achievement Committee meeting earlier today about the pragmatic but principled approaches being taken to enable the progressive wider opening of schools across the next few weeks.

Secondly, I would like to acknowledge the key role of our colleague Directors of Public Health where their advice on testing capacity and ‘track and trace’ systems in local areas has been influential.

Thirdly, there is unwavering focus on the learning needs of all of our children and young people whose educational experience, including of tests and examinations, has been disrupted in both obvious and as yet unseen ways.

The Educational Achievement Committee is currently meeting on a monthly basis. In July we will be covering the impact of Covid-19 on early years settings, and also our links with FE colleges. This year’s Y11 students, particularly those more vulnerable to being NEET, have missed daily contact and support for their applications to colleges and apprenticeships. Another DCS commented to me earlier this week that these students lost their education over the past 10 weeks to protect us more than them, so we have an enhanced moral as well as educational imperative to provide them with a coherent offer in the Autumn giving them renewed purpose and wellbeing – their life chances quite literally depend on it.

The meaning of tests has been expanded over recent weeks. Educations leaders are rising to these new challenges and collectively passing them.

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