Former head of children’s specialist services at Coventry Council, Howard Woolfenden, joined private provider Northerncare last year as managing director. Here he talks to Community Care about the cultural differences and the challenges that lie ahead.
Has Care Matters paved the way for improving outcomes for children in care?
Care Matters and Every Child Matters represent some of the most cohesive and joined-up policy for children’s services I have seen for many years. The detail of the policy and, more importantly, the language have helped all in the sector to frame their thinking, service design and performance on the concept of better outcomes. What I have really enjoyed, though, is the way some local authorities have pushed their thinking beyond that of just the five outcomes.
Care Matters tries to address key outcome measures, particularly on placement choice and stability, and this is a challenge to local authorities in their commissioning and to providers in delivering against outcomes. I remain frustrated by the lack of recognition of the level of achievement by the young person after entering the care system.
Are the pilots for GP-style social work practices a step forward?
This is one of the most controversial aspects of the white paper and I eagerly await some feedback from the pilots. Having worked in local authorities for 23 years, I am all too aware of the competing priorities for social workers between safeguarding and looked-after children. The performance indicator of every looked-after child being allocated a named qualified social worker has not helped and is not necessarily what looked-after children need. I’m still unsure how the lines of accountability for such practices will work, and fear its impact on recruitment and retention in local authorities.
How is the commissioning relationship between local authorities and the private sector evolving?
Things are much better now than ever before. Commissioners are genuinely working towards outcome-based commissioning while facing enormous demand for efficiencies through the process. At the same time, the market forces within the independent sector have created a competitive market with little left to be squeezed out of costs.
Although Department for Children, Schools and Familes (DCSF) sponsorship of regional commissioning pilots has been welcome, the complexity surrounding it means most authorities are ahead of the game and are pursuing their own processes. At Northerncare, we are keen on relational commissioning, which covers all the dimensions of outcome focus and efficiency, but bases the relationship on true partnership.
Are we right to be concerned about venture capital’s interest in care providers in the children’s sector?
Who knows? One high-profile casualty does not mean all venture capital funding is a bad thing. I believe the source of funding is not the issue. The real issue is recognising that funding of children’s services is a long-term commitment, based on improving lives and futures and not the best business to be in if profit is the motivation.
How do we keep troubled children out of custodial settings?
This is a hard one because society cannot reach consensus on the matter. There is still too much demonising of young people by intolerant communities. The easy answer is to say develop better alternatives to custody, but that will not happen unless the young people themselves are involved in the design and implementation.
Is enough attention being given to the successful transition of children in care into adulthood?
Care Matters implies not and I guess we can all agree with that. However, there is just a risk that the provision in Care Matters will only delay the day when independence or adulthood arrives. A young person will not become better prepared for adulthood or independence just by staying in care longer.
I have every hope that local authorities, connections and providers will start to develop real and relevant services that prepare young people for citizenship, integration and employment – but this will only happen in partnership with local communities, housing providers and employers.
How does working in the private and public sectors compare?
I am loving every minute of it. I was swung by a genuine belief that the private sector has so much to offer to making a difference for children. Having worked in local authorities, I’m in a good position to offer support and develop relationships, which relieves some of the burden on local authority staff.
Of course I have swapped one set of pressures for another, but in the private sector our focus is much narrower, so it is possible to apply greater focus to the task in hand. I also believe that as, increasingly, local authorities become commissioners of children’s services, we will see more senior managers migrating to the private sector.