There is little evidence that children’s trusts have improved outcomes for young people, according to a Audit Commission report marking the halfway point of the 10-year Every Child Matters reforms.
The regulator said agencies had been hampered by Whitehall’s over-prescriptive and inconsistent approach to trusts, which caused “considerable” confusion locally.
Progress less than anticipated
The findings of Are We There Yet?, published today, were part of a study of children’s trust representatives and field work in eight councils. It found 96% of areas in England had set up some form of partnership body as of March 2008, the deadline for setting up trusts. But the progress achieved by integration had been “less than anticipated”.
Confusion about the purpose of children’s trust arrangements was found to be a barrier to success by 31% of children’s services directors and 46% of the primary care trust representatives surveyed.
Commission chief executive Steve Bundred said the term children’s trust was “probably a mistake” because it suggested the government wanted to create a single organisation to manage children’s services in each area.
While initial guidance in January 2003 pointed to a single body – drawing together council, NHS and other services – the government later switched to promoting a partnership approach, embodied by the duty to co-operate placed on agencies in the Children Act 2004.
This inconsistency also caused confusion, Bundred added. He also said the government was too prescriptive in its approach, leading councils and their partners to focus on processes rather than outcomes.
The report came with the Department for Children, Schools and Families due to produce new guidance on children’s trusts next month and legislate to strengthen trusts in 2008-9. This will include putting trust boards on a statutory footing.
The commission said the new guidance needed to be “enabling rather than prescriptive”, otherwise further confusion could distract attention from improving outcomes for children.
Last week, children’s minister Beverley Hughes explained to the National Children and Adult conference the reasons for the government’s new proposals for guidance and legislation on children’s trusts: “Some areas haven’t progressed so well. We want to raise the floor a little bit to a minimum level of performance without holding back those who are forging ahead.”
At the conference where the findings were trailed, Hughes called for improvements in joint commissioning and increased use of pooled budgets, both of which were found to be limited by the Audit Commission.
Today, Hughes said she was “very disappointed” in the commission’s report, claiming it “went for headline over substance.”
The minister added: “Not only are the headline messages a misrepresentation of what their own report as a whole says, but it is based on fieldwork which is now almost a year old. Significant changes have taken place since then not least the publication of the Children’s Plan, which sets out very clearly our high ambitions for children and the strength and role of children’s trusts in delivering them.”