Alison Michalska says there is little evidence that independent trusts can improve outcomes for children.
Removing children’s services from direct control of local authorities can cause them to lose their identity, the vice chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) has said.
Alison Michalska highlighted that ‘Putting Children First’ sets out the Department for Education’s proposal that where councils do not have the capacity or capability to improve children’s social care services within a reasonable timeframe, they will remove those services from council control, delegate functions and transfer them to a not-for-profit organisation (usually a trust) in order to secure sustainable improvement.
“While I agree that we cannot allow failure in children’s services, I can’t help but think that by outsourcing these services and forcing local authorities into these trust arrangements, that there is little ‘reliance or confidence’ being shown in them and their capacity to improve,” said Michalska.
“Removing children’s services from direct control of local authorities can cause them to lose their identity and has significant implications for local democracy and the role of elected members. In addition, the indications from other councils are that far from representing a swift and decisive move, each of these trusts took over a year to set up and incurred extra financial costs,” she added.
While ‘trust’ is described as a ‘reliance on the integrity, strength, confidence and ability of something/someone’ and implies ‘depth, assurance and a feeling of certainty that a person or thing will not fail’, she warns that “the type of trusts the government is talking about in the world of children’s services today couldn’t be further away from this notion of trust”.
Michalska writes in a blog on the Association’s website that besides a general message that ‘something must be done,’ there is little evidence to date to support the ability of the independent trust to improve services so they deliver better outcomes for children.
However, irrespective of their success or otherwise, government expects to see more ‘not-for-profit’ trusts leading children’s services in a single authority, or having the responsibility for all children’s social care services in a combined authority area. Trusts may also deliver a sub-set of children’s social care services, for example, for leaving care services.
Michalska points out that this doesn’t sit comfortably with the DfE ambition that, by 2020, over a third of all current local authorities will either be delivering their children’s services through a new model or be actively working towards a different model.
While she agrees that in extreme circumstances a radical, structural solution is needed to kick start improvement and in a climate of cuts and austerity a range of new organisational models, from shared services to combined authorities can offer efficiencies and much needed savings.
“However, where this will have the biggest impact is through better self-awareness of performance, understanding our strengths and weaknesses and in the sharing of best practice. Through our collaborative regional arrangements and partners in practice we are harnessing experience and expertise within a self-improving system. Across the children’s services sector we share a passion to improve outcomes for our children. We have the knowledge and experience to develop bespoke arrangements which suit individual circumstances and drive each improvement journey,” said Michalska.
“Perhaps all we need is to be trusted …,” she concluded.