‘If we think we can relax on Every Child Matters we are deluded’

The incoming president of the Association of Directors of Social Services will also be the last one. Here, John Coughlan tells Amy Taylor about his priorities and how he will represent children’s and adults’ services

October 2006: President, ADSS.
October 2005-October 2006: Vice-president, ADSS.
August 2005-present: Director of children’s services, Hampshire Council.
September 2001-August 2005: Director of social care, Telford and Wrekin Council. Position incorporated responsibilities including housing.
2002-5: Co-chair, ADSS children and families committee (including a year as sole chair from 2004-5).
1997-2001: Assistant director for children and families, Dudley Council.

John Coughlan faces a difficult balancing act as the final president of the Association of Directors of Social Services .

Although he is a director of children’s services in Hampshire, he will also need to represent the association on adults’ services issues until it disbands in 12 months (see “End of the ADSS”).

He readily admits that his lack of experience in this area is a weakness but says there are structures around him to compensate, such as the vice-presidency held by Salford Council adults’ services director Anne Williams.

And he says he feels qualified to speak on the broad themes involved. “You lose touch quite quickly with some of the detailed issues but you don’t lose sight of the principles – they cut across,” he says.

One of the most pressing issues is the 2007 comprehensive spending review. Ministers have already warned that funding for social care will be tight and the incoming president says the ADSS has already begun to try to secure the best possible settlement.

He says he will continue to make this a priority, especially in adults’ services, where resources are expected to be scarcest.

Strong argument
The ADSS can make a strong argument, Coughlan says, based on evidence from its annual budget surveys, conducted jointly with the Local Government Association, which this year showed a £1.76bn national gap in social services funding.

He adds that an additional case is being made around the service and financial changes that will be required to implement the health and social care white paper.

The level of efficiency savings delivered by adult social care under the Gershon review is also impressive, further strengthening the organisation’s argument, he says.

“Now we are anxious that, alongside [the Gershon review], what we are hearing is the potential for a relatively flat settlement in next year’s spending review [for adults’ services]. If you build into that still further efficiencies it becomes incredibly challenging to deliver the change agenda.”

The white paper proposes more preventive services tailored around the individual but, in the current financial climate and with increasing pressure from an ageing population, how this will work in practice remains to be seen. Coughlan says that turning the vision into something more coherent will be another ADSS priority under his leadership.

He says it is impossible to continue concentrating funding on acute care without recognising that the money would go further in preventive community-based services where health and social care overlaps. He insists the ADSS wants to work with the NHS and government to make sure this happens.

Partnership working
Continuing care is an area where partnership working between social care and health often comes unstuck.

This month the debate stepped up a gear. Jeff Jerome, co-chair of the ADSS disabilities committee, said councils should stop automatically taking responsibility for service users who should be receiving such care.

Coughlan backs Jerome’s comments but says the potential impact on individuals also has to be considered.

“We are not getting into a public slanging match with colleagues in health about these issues but we are getting into some proper dialogue about where responsibilities start and stop and the implications for people at the heart of those discussions.”

The NHS has had a turbulent year due to funding shortages and a reorganisation that has made most primary care trusts coterminous with councils. Coughlan says the shift to coterminosity is a positive one but it has created “a hiatus in planning and partnership working”.

“[The restructuring] has been done as quickly as you can go about it but it has created a gap in the dialogue. We have to help our colleagues in health to pick that up very quickly indeed,” he says.

Children in care
The green paper on lookedafter children published last week puts forward a number of proposals to help councils improve their corporate parenting. Coughlan says the ADSS welcomes the document and the government has recognised the complexity of services for looked-after children.

At the paper’s launch, education secretary Alan Johnson said the government was already investing vast sums in services for looked-after children and it was the system that was the problem . But he added that ministers would argue for more money if it were needed.

Coughlan says more investment is essential to address the supply-led nature of the looked-after children’s services market.

Earlier this year Tony Blair ordered a fact-finding mission on the Every Child Matters agenda and civil servants set about collecting evidence of good practice. The reasons behind this were not confirmed officially but the rumours were that he remained unconvinced about the policies.

Coughlan says the distrust some children’s services stakeholders felt about the reforms is now resolved.

“I think the government is convinced and I think there was a moment this year when some testing questions were asked about whether Every Child Matters was either effective enough itself or a distraction to standards in schools. Now our reading is that that moment as a risk to Every Child Matters has passed.”

Sense of anxiety He says that, despite this, professionals must not think they need no longer prove the relevance of the agenda while continuing to deliver on school improvement and that he and the ADSS will make this a priority over the next 12 months.

He says: “That sense of anxiety in the air has gone but if we think that means we can relax on Every Child Matters we are deluded. It’s still a challenging agenda which has to prove itself and we have to make it prove itself.”

What was the first single you bought?
Thunderbirds Are Go by The Thunderbirds. I was about five.

What do you drive?
A battered Peugeot. It looks slightly sad and lonely in the car park.

Where did you last go on holiday?
Last year to the South of France. We had a really nice time.

What’s your favourite food?
Rich food.

Beer or wine?
Yes… not really. Probably beer.

End of the ADSS
The ADSS will continue for the next 12 months with Coughlan president.

In early February the ADSS’s children’s services directors will join the Confederation of Children’s Services Managers and the Association of Directors of Education and Children’s Services to become the Association of Directors of Children’s Services.

It will have a broader membership than the ADSS, going down to third-tier managers, but it will be a leadership organisation.

Coughlan and the incoming president of Confed, John Freeman, will become the first joint presidents of the ADCS. Coughlan will carry out the role while also serving as ADSS president.

From February the ADSS will focus primarily on adults and cease to speak on children’s issues but it will back up the ADCS. As a result, Anne Williams, as an adults’ services director, will probably start to take a higher profile as a vice-president than previous incumbents.

Next October new ADCS presidents will be voted in. In the same month the ADSS will disband and be replaced in England by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services while ADSS Cymru will become a freestanding organisation. Williams will become the first president of the adult organisation.

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