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Six reasons to rethink moves to strip councils of children’s services

The government’s thrust towards trusts could do more harm than good to efforts to improve struggling services, argues Ray Jones

Austerity makes it hard to do good social work. So does constant change and churn in services. David Cameron’s government imposed both. As the summer parliamentary break comes to an end, the question is – will his successor?

Theresa May and new education secretary Justine Greening have inherited a legacy of disruption in children’s social care. Councils, struggling with year-on-year budget cuts, have faced a drive to ‘academise’ children’s services, with ‘inadequate’ Ofsted ratings used to force or coerce authorities to move provision into independent trusts.

So far this has been true of Doncaster, Slough, Sunderland and Birmingham – notably all Labour-controlled councils. In recent weeks both the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and the education select committee have urged the government to at least pause its drive towards the trust model.

Having been involved, between 2010 and 2015, in assisting service improvement at five local authorities after ‘inadequate’ ratings, I agree.

The impact of ‘inadequate’ ratings
I spent two days a month within each area for between 18 months and two years. On every visit I met social workers, health professionals, police, councillors, senior managers and many others. I’d report back to the children’s minister on the progress being made.

In my experience, in the immediate aftermath of a service being hit with an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted judgement things inevitably get worse.

Confidence decays quickly. Other agencies pile referrals on to the council. The workforce becomes less stable. Reliance on agency workers increases and case backlogs build up.

Services that were stumbling towards a cliff before Ofsted arrived, are quickly tipped over the edge. It takes sustained attention and commitment over 18 months to two years to climb back up. I worry that the drive to implement trust models could delay this process and potentially make it far harder and contentious. Here’s why:

1. Transition costs
It takes at least a year to set up a trust. The set up process itself consumes the attention of key people in children’s services and the wider council. Not only does this cost time, it also costs money (no small consideration at a time of shrinking budgets). In the meantime the focus is not on improving services which remain trapped in uncertainty.

2. Transaction costs
When the new trust is set up and becomes operational there are ongoing added costs. The trust will have to report back on its performance to its own board, the council and the education secretary.

Generating and delivering data and reports again costs time, attention and cash – with dedicated staff likely to be required to fulfil these activities. At a time when less bureaucracy is needed in children’s services this moves in the opposition direction.

3. Transmission costs
One of the early requirements of the new trust is to stabilise a workforce who have had a long period of uncertainty and may still feel uncertain as they move without choice into a new organisation.

This is made more difficult when the message which has been transmitted, and the news locally and nationally, is that this is a children’s service in such disarray that it is no longer to be run by the local authority. Recruitment as well as retention has not been made easier.

4. Transgression costs
What if the trust fails to deliver the improvements required? What if – unlike the requirement for other services funded by the council – it goes over budget?

What if when Ofsted re-inspects it is still found to be ‘inadequate’? This is quite likely if the Ofsted re-inspection comes while the trust, catching up on the improvement delay of the set up period, has still not had time to generate stability.

Are there to be (financial) penalties imposed as might be expected in a profit-making commercial contract? If so, they will have to be at the expense of the funding of services.

5. Transmutation costs
In some areas the stated plan is that after an initial contract period of five years or so consideration should be given to returning services to the council. But during this time the council will have lost much of its children’s services wisdom, experience and expertise in its corporate, political as well service leadership for children’s services.

And if a trust fails should there be an earlier return of services to the council, which still carries the statutory responsibility for the welfare and safety of children in its area? The costs here are in terms of time and cash (unwinding from a contract and setting up another set of new arrangements) and also in the cost of re-creating and rebuilding expertise.

6. Transparency costs
However, the greatest concern should not be about financial costs but about the implications of confused and complex accountabilities. The Laming inquiry following the death of Victoria Climbie warned there should be explicit and clear accountability for statutory children’s services and child protection.

This was enshrined in the 2004 Children Act with the requirements that there should be a named lead councillor for children’s services and the statutory required post of Director of Children’s Services.

This clear accountability is being made opaque by the transfer of children’s services outside the public sector to an independent trust where its relationship with the council is through the management of a contract.

As an independent non-public sector organisation trusts may not be required to comply with freedom of information requests, and indeed may refuse to publish or make available information which they consider to be (commercially) sensitive.

None of the above are criticisms of those now leading or working within the trusts which Cameron’s government required or promoted. They are working hard to provide good children’s services.

For some, there may be the relief that their services no longer sit in dysfunctional councils. They will feel free of bullying cultures or overzealous political and senior leadership that had made itself remote from frontline realities.

Such examples exist, but they are likely to be a minority. They would more sensibly and less disruptively be tackled by the government pursuing the model of appointing a confident and competent experienced commissioner with the power to advise and also direct the council in fulfilling its statutory children’s services responsibilities. There is also the successful model of an experienced management team from a well-performing council overseeing the children’s services in the council which is causing concern.

Meanwhile the government’s thrust towards trusts as a mainstream replacement for council-run services – not limited even to those rated ‘inadequate’ – risks adding costs, complexity and confusion which can be avoided by other strategies.

After a summer of reflection, our new prime minister and new secretary of state have the opportunity to change course.

Story courtesy of Community Care

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