The Audit Commission’s recent report on children’s trusts was highly critical, but some councils did shine. Staffordshire is upbear about its partnership work
Confused and confusing was the Audit Commission’s recent verdict on children’s trusts.
Five years after the green paper Every Child Matters, the study, Are We There Yet? finds “little evidence of better outcomes for children and young people” resulting from the requirement that all local areas in England set up trusts to coordinate children’s services locally. A third of directors of children’s services say their partner organisations are “unclear” of the purpose of trusts, and that this uncertainty is hampering their efforts to deliver better services.
But as well as highlighting the problems many trusts are having with bringing together and co-ordinating services, the study singles out a number of areas, one being Staffordshire, for particular praise. The structure of Staffordshire’s children’s trust is designed to help the council deal with the complexities of organising services to meet the needs of both rural and urban communities. In addition to county-wide arrangements, there are eight district children’s trust boards and 50 locality based groups.
While the study criticised children’s trusts for being “unsure whether they are strategic planning bodies or concerned with the detail of service delivery”, the report says the Staffordshire model is “explicit about strategic oversight and direction”. The trust’s board looks at the “big picture”, drives its strategic agenda and monitors performance across the county, while the district trust boards promote these service priorities and make sure all of their partners, such as youth services, deliver the council’s overall agenda for children’s welfare. That agenda is then translated on the ground by locality based groups, who are empowered to meet the needs of children in individual communities.
“It’s about having an overall approach and the flexibility to respond to local needs,” says Sally Rees, Staffordshire Council’s deputy director in children and lifelong learning.
The Audit Commission report highlights the importance of children and young people being given more say in how children’s services are designed. To make sure the voices of young people are heard in Staffordshire, the council established a shadow children’s trust board, which is led by the council’s commissioner for children, who champions their views.
This approach means young people are involved in shaping local services. “We listen and we alter things,” says Rees. So, for example, when the council was looking at its placement strategy for young people in care, the children’s commissioner was able to feedback that they wanted smaller units to make them feel more “homely”.
Praised by the Commission for its commitment to locally-focused activity, recent schemes have included a multi-agency project led by its youth service, which organised a number of events during the summer holidays this year, to engage young people in Burntwood. Wall climbing, street dancing and a fire-fighter’s course, where children had the chance to learn basic techniques, were just some of the activities on offer.
Other initiatives include Bay Leaf, an organic vegetable growing and healthy eating project, and the Moving Up Moving On scheme, which targets children who struggle to make the transition from junior to senior school.
Having made a success of its children’s commissioner appointment, the council recently recruited a commissioner for parents to make sure their voices are heard.
Along with these achievements there have been challenges. For example, around 400 schools and 500 voluntary agencies need to be kept ‘in the loop’ about the activities of the children’s trust, “but we have partners here who are willing for change”, Rees says.
Even before the Commission’s report, Rees says the council was looking to improve. “We regard ourselves on a journey and we want to continue to get things right,” she says.
For children’s trusts to work, she stresses that everyone involved has to accept responsibility for outcomes. “Issues for children rest with all agencies. So if it’s about the behaviour of young people, then that includes the police, the youth service, the schools and the parents.”
But she says the role of the trust board is “pivotal to making sure everyone is lined up to deal with the big issues”.
While being recognised by the Commission is “pleasing”, Rees says there is “no room for resting on our laurels”.
Recent Community Care coverage of children’s trusts
This article is published in the 4 December 2008 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Staffordshire success story