Interview with children’s minister Margaret Hodge

wpid-hodge-margaret5.GIF


Main points from Children Bill


Special report on reaction to the Children Bill


Background information on the Children Bill

Community Care news editor Lauren Revans interviewed
children’s minister Margaret Hodge about the new Children Bill.
This is a full transcript of the interview:

Lauren Revans:
You have said there will be
some flexibility around children’s trusts. Do you just mean
in relation to deadlines?

 
Margaret Hodge

Margaret Hodge: We’re not legislating around
children’s trusts. We’re legislating around duties to
co-operate and we’re legislating around enabling different
bodies to pool their budgets. But I think we would expect most
local authorities to have a children’s trust by 2006, and all
by 2008.

I have a vision of what I think a children’s trust would
be. But equally I recognise that this is at the cutting edge of new
developments, and we need to learn what works and we need to learn
from what works. So I think our policy on this will evolve and
change over time. You’ll find different solutions in rural
areas and in urban areas, and in areas that have got a unitary
authority and areas where you’ve got a two-tier authority.
And we do want some models to emerge.

The vision is that the key stakeholders that impact on
children’s lives jointly commission the services for children
in their area, bringing in not just those who hold budgets but
importantly the voluntary and community sector too. And I would
encompass in that all the education services that remain with the
LEA, the children’s social services budgets, the
children’s health budgets, and then I think all the work
that’s done around youth justice and the work that Connexions
partnerships do. All of that ought to be encompassed in a
children’s trust. That’s my vision.

Now, what I accept is that there’s different local needs,
aspirations, structures, environments, populations.

We’re absolutely clear that our agenda for
children’s services is inextricably tied to the school
standards agenda. I think they’re two sides of the same coin.
You’ll only get high standards if every child achieves, and
you’ll only get real inclusion if children achieve well in
education.

So I’d quite like to see a model where a school, or
cluster of schools, becomes maybe a mini children’s trust and
commissions services for the population within that cluster of
schools or within that school itself. That’s the sort of
model we’d like to see tried.

We’re not prescribing. We’re not saying
there’s one thing. We’ll evaluate as we go along,
we’ll learn from what works, and then we’ll reflect on
that as we develop the joint commissioning capacity.

LR:
Some people are concerned that too
much power could be going to schools.

MH: The director of children’s services
will have responsibility for a merged education and social services
budget. So you’re talking about a new world. And that
distrust between the schools’ world and the social care world
is one of the areas of distrust that we are trying to break down.
This is a coming together – not a takeover – with the
interests of children at the heart of everything we do.

LR:
But the most vulnerable children
are the very ones most likely to be outside the school system in
the first place, either through exclusion or truancy. How will
these children be helped by schools taking the leading
role?

MH: That’s a legitimate issue. Those who
don’t fall within the school family, you’ve got to
ensure that the children’s trust provides for them
specifically because they may well be among the most vulnerable. Of
course I accept that. And that’s why
we’ve also said you’ve also got to have multi-agency
services being delivered from a GP surgery, from a youth centre,
from a children’s centre. It doesn’t have to be a
school.

However, we want to build confidence in schools. I know some
parents have had a bad experience of schools and don’t find
school a welcoming place or a positive experience. We want to break
that down. That’s part of what this is all about. And
that’s one of the challenges we’ve got to work through
over the coming period.

Schools are the most valuable asset that we waste. Good
buildings, wonderful equipment, terrific facilities – they should
be used for the wider community. And, if our vision is right, they
can become a focus for enabling the strength of a community to be
built.

So I think there are a lot of agendas that can come together
there. But, equally, we’re not being dogmatic and it may well
be that some children’s trusts will emerge in different
environments, and services will be delivered as multi-agency
services in different places. It may well be in youth centres, it
could be in doctors surgeries – all sorts of places where people
feel safe and comfortable coming, and also non-stigmatised.

LR:
Many of the current
children’s trusts pilots are very specific, often tailored to
one small group of children, such as those with mental health needs
or those with disabilities. That is very different to a
children’s trust that covers, at the bare minimum, education,
social services and health for all local children. What lessons do
you think you will able to take from the pilots that will be of any
use?

MH: Don’t ask me yet. They are very
different. They were started probably a little bit before
we’d completely developed our thinking around the green
paper. But we’ll build on that. We’ll learn. We are
building in a strong learning and evaluation stream into everything
we are doing.

LR:
Do you think everyone is ready to
go for the children’s trust model? Those carrying out the
narrower focus pilots obviously thought that was the way forward,
but now they are being asked to do something quite
different.

MH: It’s an evolvement….

LR:
…well, it’s a bit more
than that, if you’ve only started with one tiny aspect of
children’s services. And some councils – such as
Manchester – have also told us they are not going to go down
the children’s trust route and don’t seem to have
grasped that it is going to be obligatory.

MH: I had heard that. All I would say is that
this is a journey on which we have to walk together, with every
stakeholder. In the end, one of the very important pieces of work
I’m now doing is developing a very simplified set of targets
for local authorities that will inform the CPA and also standards
for the Children’s National Service Framework. So we are
developing, right through all children’s services, a common
interlocking set of simplified outcomes/standards which will relate
to the five outcomes which children have said matter to them.

Children’s services will be inspected in a joint
inspection framework which Ofsted is developing with the other
inspectorates against those standards, which are based on those
outcomes.

So all authorities will be expected to deliver not just the
outcomes for children which we believe will come through joined up
services, but they will be inspected as well as to how well their
services work together.

I think that’s what will drive a lot of the change. And if
Manchester is confident it can meet the outcomes we want and
demonstrate the joint working and the working together across
professions in another way then, as long as they achieve those
outcomes, that’s what’s crucial. In my view, that will
require co-operation across authorities and joint commissioning. I
don’t think they can do it without.

LR: You have said there will be extra flexibility around
the director of children’s services post too. Can you explain
what you mean by that?

MH: The flexibility is firstly about timing. We
have said again most should have a director of children’s
services by 2006, all by 2008.

The other flexibility is how they organise the post. So, the
level at which they pitch it within the local authority is down to
them, and how they organise the services underneath the director of
children’s services will be down to them.

LR: But is it realistic to say there is flexibility in
who can fill the post? I can’t imagine anyone other than a
director of education, director of social services, or chief
executive…..

MH: ….or somebody from health, or
somebody coming out of the youth justice system.

One of the early things we are doing is, with some of the
£20m change programme we announced to facilitate all these
very complicated changes, developing a leadership programme,
because how you lead this culture transformation is going to be
really, really important.

Also, underneath that, how you organise yourself will be very
different according to again whether you are urban, rural, unitary,
two-tier, the strength of individuals who happen to be in place,
PCT boundaries. There could be all sorts of things which will
change the way they decide to do things. And I don’t want to
prescribe.

LR: But there will definitely be one person – the
director of children’s services – in every local
authority responsible for all local education and social
services?

MH: The buck will stop there. They will be
accountable.

They will probably also be the director of the local
children’s trust – although we haven’t said they
necessarily will be.

If, for example, there is an inspection report, it’s got
to land on somebody’s desk and somebody’s got to be
responsible for doing the action plan. And that will be the
director of children’s services. The person who will have to
account for the well-being and safety of children is the director
of children’s services and her or his staff.

LR: Apart from the £20m you mentioned earlier, will
there be any other extra money to implement the bill?

MH: Money matters. But our reform agenda is
about a much, much wider transformation than simply things that
money will buy. It’s about the way people work, it’s
how they work together, it’s the environment in which they
work, whether it’s an extended school, children’s
centre, children’s trust, whatever. Part of it’s about
money, part of it is about much, much more than money. That’s
the first thing

The second thing to say is that I want to eke value out of every
penny we spend. For example, in North-East Lincolnshire, by
introducing a common-assessment form, they reduced referrals to
social services by 40 per cent.

If you looked at all the spending programmes we’ve got for
children in the teen years – Connexions, drug action teams,
teenage pregnancy teams, youth offending teams – we’ve
got a whole plethora of professionals and I’m sure they spend
more time than one would like in case conferences and less time
than one would like working with children and young people. And, if
we move to the lead professional, I’m sure we can eke better
value.

And the third thing to say is that next year’s budget is a
9 per cent increase in funding for children’s social
services. I hope that gives a demonstration to local authorities
that we really do want to support a transformation in their
services.

The final thing to say is that we are preparing our plans for
the spending review, and that’s why we’ve said
we’ll produce another document. We are going to produce a
doument, probably in the late autumn, after the spending review
outcome in the summer.

This is a journey. It is not an overnight sudden change. A lot
of it is about culture.

LR: Obviously there are still a lot of vacancies in
certain professions working with children. Do you think any of the
plans set out in the bill will work without greater success in the
recruitment and retention of staff, and particularly
children’s social workers?

MH: No. One of the other threads of the work
that we are doing is a pay and workforce strategy. That’s
right across the children’s workforce, but clearly it’s
focusing as well on children’s social workers. We have got to
find better ways of recruiting, keeping and supporting –
through training and other ways – talented people to come
into children’s social care.

We’re doing better. The number of people coming in to
train since we introduced the social work degree is up. And
we’re looking at a whole range of levers: how you come into
the profession, whether we can borrow some of the ideas that have
been developed to keep the best teachers at the frontline (advanced
skills teachers, advanced skills social workers), what we can do to
value the work in child protection that children’s social
workers do. So we are looking at a range of ways in which we can
get more.

But I think there’s a much bigger problem in social work
around the feeling that you’re damned if you do and damned if
you don’t. We have to raise the valuing of people who are
carrying out such a demanding and tough job on our behalf. And
that’s part of my raison d’etre, to talk up the value
of working with children, and particularly children’s social
services.

LR: You are planning to establish the development of
multi-agency databases at both a local and national level. But the
idenfication, referral and tracking trailblazers have come across a
lot of problems around data protection and confidentiality issues.
How do you intend to resolve these?

MH: What we are doing is ensuring that, in the
context of the bill, there are no legislative barriers which
prevent professionals from sharing information, What we’ve
then got to do is the much more difficult task of trying to find
the right balance between the privacy and rights of individuals and
their families and the need to ensure children are safe and
protected. And that’s a difficult debate.

How we organise that, and how we ensure not so much that
information is shared but that the sharing of information becomes
the means by which professionals can talk to each other and work
together, we’ve got to do a lot more work on. Part of the
work we’re doing is trying to learn from the trailblazers.
But also, we’re doing a number of feasibility studies.

There are a lot of complicated areas, but this is one of the
more complex areas. But, equally, if we do get it right, in terms
of supporting the culture change that is our mission, I think it
could play a very, very key role.

For example, a baby who is born with a low birth weight, you
don’t need to have that fact on her record. What you have is
the GP having a flag up there saying I have a concern about this
baby. She then goes to a nursery and she’s a bit withdrawn so
the teacher puts up a flag. She then goes to her reception school
and she arrives with a bruise, so her primary school teacher flags
up a concern. So what happens is that the system doesn’t hold
that information but enables, because she has three flags up, those
three professional to have a sensible conversation sharing the
knowledge and information they have, so they can take an informed
decision about what to do.

LR: So no details of the concerns raised will be held on
the database?

MH: As I see it, all that will be on the
database is name, address, name of GP, school attended, that sort
of basic data, and then flags if there’s a professional
concern.

The trick is ensuring that we have systems in place that do
alert professionals at the appropriate time so they can talk to
each other.

But it will always be professional judgement – you will never,
never get away from that. In the end, we are asking a lot of these
people to make difficult professional judgements, because if you
make the wrong one you get a lot of blame.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.