Room at the top

The paths taken by the likes of Suffolk, Solihull and Southwark councils to create children’s services are properly and inevitably different. An effective transition to a children’s service needs to be handled in relation to the specific context of the individual local authority. There should be no surprise in this but the account and analysis of the journeys offers the sector an opportunity to reflect and learn on a period of fundamental change in the provision of services for children and young people.

The Children Act 2004 itself is a “legislative spine”. We have a national change programme based on a relatively minimalist Act, but translated into 150 local change programmes. It’s a welcome recognition by government that to make children’s services work they must be embedded locally.

While the government has given councils lead responsibility for children’s services, it’s essential that councils develop sound modes of working. Their role is quality community leadership and commissioning through the partnerships that will underpin services.

Across local government there is high consensus and commitment in relation to the Children Act. We have now moved to a different phase – one of detailed and complex system change. No one should underestimate the complexity of such structural and practice-led change. Supporting the sector in the step change to outcome-based services which are capable of rigorous self-assessment and regulation is our ambition.

This journey towards integrated children’s services is being developed with full account taken of locally assessed needs and priorities. Local areas can be difficult to define, but local area profiles, published last year by the Audit Commission, are a helpful tool. Our analysis predictably confirms that robust, strategic and effective partnership is a necessity, as well as sustainable and meaningful engagement with children and young people.

So what is currently worrying the leaders of children’s services? One anxiety is trying to maintain focus on outcomes for children and young people. There are complex joint area review arrangements and well in excess of 300 performance indicators. That makes it easy to lose sight of the key and high-leverage indicators. Also, during a transition period, such as the one councils are now in, there is always the danger that leaders take their eyes off the ball. It is vital that the core safeguarding function of the council is secure.

Creating partnerships is still a challenge. Our research shows that in only a few areas is the voluntary sector fulfilling its potential as an equal strategic partner, even though they often have the most relevant resource and workforce. They are simply not at the service planning table early enough in many cases. Creating true, trusting co-professional working is a demanding task.
In Show Me How I Matter – Part 3 we did find that local area agreements (LAAs) are being well used as vehicles to agree on joined-up targets, performance regimes and ways of working.

That’s difficult is that different partners work from a base of different performance management regimes – it’s a challenge to bring them into harmony.

Finally, councils are looking in relentless detail at local need in order to best target resources and change. This process goes beyond the level of aspiration. Every decision needs to be rooted in tough and accurate analysis – what is the reality for children and young people? Outcomes will only improve if change is completely rooted in analysis of, and response to, the needs of local children.

  • Show Me How I Matter – Part 3 is available for download from the IDeA Knowledge website at www.idea.gov.uk/children

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