Schools at the centre of minister’s plan for delivering children’s services

Margaret Hodge has a vision. But whether it is one she can make
work, and convince social care, education and health staff to buy
in to, is far from certain.

Speaking exclusively to Community Care on the day the
Children Bill was published, the minister for children, young
people and families confirms that, as far as she is concerned,
schools are in the driving seat of what has been billed as “the
most far-reaching reform of children’s services for 30
years”.

Until now, the children’s trusts at the centre of the reforms had
been expected to be largely council-led, and headed by the new
directors of children’s services.

While Hodge does not rule out such a model, and insists the
government is “not prescribing” or saying there is only one
solution, it is obvious where her heart lies.

“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,” she explains. “That’s the sort of model
we’d like to see tried.”

She sees schools as “the most valuable asset that we waste” and
calls for them to be used for the wider community.

“If our vision is right, they can become a focus for enabling the
strength of a community to be built,” she enthuses. “So I think
there are a lot of agendas that can come together there.”

David Behan, chief executive of the new Commission for Social Care
Inspection and former president of the Association of Directors of
Social Services, speaks for many working with vulnerable children
when he raises concerns about proposals in the bill for schools to
be “the primary driving force in developing an integrated approach
to children’s services”.

He warns that these could lead to “further social exclusion” of
those children who already feel alienated from the school
environment, such as children in local authority care.

But, while Hodge acknowledges that this is a “legitimate issue”, it
does not fetter her determination.

“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 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.”

Hodge insists that evaluation, learning and reflection will be
central to the development of children’s trusts and joint
commissioning of integrated children’s services. However, the
contribution to that process of the 35 children’s trust pilots that
started last summer is, as yet, unclear.

While many of the pilots are narrow in their focus, commissioning
integrated services for specific groups such as disabled children,
children with mental health problems, and pre-school children, the
children’s trust model outlined in the document which accompanied
the Children Bill is altogether different. Every Child Matters:
Next Steps
states that children’s trusts will secure better
outcomes for all children and young people, and encompass education
services, children’s social services, Connexions, certain health
services and, where agreed locally, youth offending services.

Hodge herself admits that she doesn’t know what lessons the pilots
will be able to offer. “They were started probably a little bit
before we’d completely developed our thinking around the green
paper ,” she adds. “But we’ll build on that. We’ll learn.”

Although children’s trusts are not covered by the bill, and hence
will not be subject to legislation, Hodge is certain they are not
optional. She is determined that most areas across England should
have a children’s trust by 2006, “and all by 2008″.

Hodge reveals that her wish will largely be enforced via the
careful crafting of targets around joint working, which it will be
virtually impossible to meet in any other way than through the
creation of a children’s trust.

“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 on how well their services work
together,” she explains. “That’s what will drive a lot of the
change.”

The new post of director of children’s services was among the most
contentious of the green paper’s proposals and remains the subject
of much debate. Local authorities wanted more flexibility to
respond to local circumstances, and felt plans for the children’s
director role were too prescriptive.

Hodge believes that the director of children’s services role
outlined in the bill and its accompanying document answer these
concerns, offering greater flexibility for the new post in terms of
deadlines, the level at which the post is pitched, and how services
beneath it are organised.

She even suggests that the post need not be filled by someone from
within local government, proposing instead someone from a health or
youth justice background.

But what is clear is that there is still no flexibility in terms of
whether or not such a post should exist in the first place or in
terms of what the post-holder’s minimum responsibilities should be
– namely all functions relating to children and young people that
currently fall to the chief education officer and the director of
social services.

“The buck will stop there. They will be accountable,” Hodge states
unequivocally. “The person who will have to account for the
well-being and safety of children is the director of children’s
services.”

With the exception of a £20m programme to support cultural
change, Hodge is fairly quiet on the subject of resources to
implement the proposals in the bill and the Next Steps
document.

She admits that “money matters” and highlights the increase in next
year’s children’s social services budget, but insists that the
government’s reform agenda is about much more than “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,” she
explains.

Hodge is also keen to stress the importance of achieving value for
money, highlighting how certain reforms such as the introduction of
the lead professional role will improve efficiency.

But she is the first to admit that none of these reforms can happen
without the recruitment and retention of more professionals to work
with children, and particularly of children’s social workers.

“One of the other threads of the work that we are doing is a pay
and workforce strategy,” she says. “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.”

Hodge says that part of this is about borrowing ideas from other
professions, such as creating advanced skills social workers along
the same lines as advanced skills teachers. But it is also about
valuing the work social workers do more.

“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.”

No-one in the sector would disagree with Hodge on the need to
improve the image of social work and tackle recruitment and
retention in children’s services alongside any service reforms.

But other elements of her plans for the future are likely to prove
more contentious. The media headlines and controversy that have
often followed Hodge since her appointment last summer look set to
continue for a while longer yet.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.