Beverley Hughes managed to avoid being reshuffled and remained in her post as minister for children. Here, she tells Amy Taylor about plans for a green paper later this year for looked-after children
Beverley Hughes, who became minister for children, young people and families following Labour’s re-election a year ago, was one of the few ministers covering social care or education not to be reshuffled earlier this month.
She has stayed put while the Department for Education and Skills welcomed a new education secretary in Alan Johnson, a new schools minister in Jim Knight, and a new junior children’s minister in Parmjit Dhanda.
Her predecessor Margaret Hodge spent much of her time in office introducing structural reforms across children’s services in line with the Every Child Matters agenda. Hughes sees her job as converting these into results on the ground.
“Now that most of that structural change is in place, we really need to focus on demonstrating that our faith in these changes is justified and really start to demonstrate making a difference for all children, but in particular closing those gaps between the most disadvantaged children and the rest,” she says.
Looked-after children form part of this most disadvantaged group. One of the areas where the disadvantages they face are most stark is in educational outcomes. While the latest DfES figures show these are starting to improve – 11 per cent of looked-after children obtained five good GCSEs in 2005 compared with 9 per cent in 2004 – they are still well below the 54 per cent average for all children (Looked-after children improving in exams but still trail behind average, 27 April).
“We are still not doing nearly well enough for these children who are depending on the state to be their corporate parent and we have simply got to do better,” says Hughes.
She says educational attainment is probably the most important outcome for the group as it is so relevant to their future life chances. She adds that the many barriers to looked-after children gaining good qualifications have to be recognised and addressed.
Education is one of the four themes due to be covered in a forthcoming policy paper on looked-after children. Contrary to rumours that this would turn out to only be a strategy document, Hughes says it is likely to be a green paper, although the ministerial changes mean it will not be out in mid-June as anticipated.
She denies any suggestion that the document has been downgraded in importance, and says both she and Johnson are commit ted to making it as strong as possible.
Hughes says the paper will look at how to strengthen the accountability of those responsible for looked-after children’s education, including schools. Despite intensive lobbying by local government leaders, schools – unlike councils – were not placed under a duty to promote looked-after children’s educational attainment by the Children Act 2004.
“I don’t want to give the game away at the moment but I can say that we have got some very specific ideas that will probably end up in the green paper on how we can strengthen that link between the local authority, the people working directly with the children and young people and the schools,” she says.
Hughes adds that these ideas have not come out of thin air but have been drawn from existing good practice from councils.
The other themes which will be covered are improving foster care and residential care, workforce issues and leaving care services. Hughes says this final section will particularly look at enabling young people to stay in care until they are ready to leave and making the transition as stable as possible.
She says the themes arose out of extensive research and analysis of what is already known about looked-after children, for instance around the reasons they are taken into care.
Financial pressures will also be addressed. The annual Association of Directors of Social Services and Local Government Association finance survey, published in March, showed that local authorities anticipated spending £100m above budget on children’s services in 2005-6 (Directors’ survey points to huge council social services overspend , 16 March).
A large part of this overspend was caused by the rising cost of and increased demand for foster care and the use of specialist placements in children’s residential homes.
Hughes says the green paper will look at how to reduce the costs of the services while raising quality. She sees commissioning, particularly from the residential care sector, as an area that could be improved. “Most people would recognise that the situation at the moment with local authorities tending to spot-commission from organisations providing residential care has not been the most successful, the best quality or the best value for money, so we are looking at that whole issue of commissioning,” she says.
Adult social care has greater experience of commissioning since the community care reforms of the early 1990s and through its joint work with health, and Hughes says children’s services can learn from this. She says part of improving the process involves councils taking responsibility for nurturing the market in services, rather than simply expecting to go out and find a provider.
“That means having the kind of qualitative relationships with providers in the voluntary and private sector that we haven’t got everywhere at moment,” she says.
The government’s failure to give councils any extra money for local safeguarding children boards is another funding pressure to concern directors of children’s services. Hughes says she is aware that councils wanted direct funding for the boards rather than having to negotiate contributions from other members, such as health. But she says central government should not be dictating who gives what and that this should be worked out locally. However, she says she is “keeping an eye” on the situation to ensure that money from the local partners is coming in.
The well-publicised funding problems in the NHS have had an adverse affect on some children’s social care services. But Hughes says discussions with children’s services directors have convinced her that councils’ children and young people’s plans will help tackle any problems. She says the plans are proving a “powerful lever for health”, adding that the directors “were confident that they had got the wherewithal to use those processes to make sure that the commitments that have been made are honoured”.
Hughes says she has huge respect for social care workers and sees them as the “backbone of our whole country’s care system”. After years of negative press many people do not share this view. Hughes says this is something she must change.
“It’s part of my mission to increase the public’s understanding of the importance of this work, making it an attractive opportunity for young people to think about as a career option and giving social care the esteem that it really deserves,” she says.