Children’s minister: ‘Why we must change outdated practice model of social care’

Edward Timpson announces £30m for government's innovation programme in an exclusive article for Community Care

Children's minister Edward Timpson
Children's minister Edward Timpson. Photo: Steve Back/Rex Features

I have no illusions about the pressures that those working in children’s services are under. And I know that noone who goes into this difficult but massively rewarding area of work does so without wanting to do anything other than their very best for the children in their care. I saw it with my own eyes, both as part of a foster family and as a family law specialist.

I understand what is at stake, so I can’t thank you enough for your efforts. I also know that you share my ambition to seriously look at how we can do much better by these children.

It’s why we’ve acted, as a matter of priority, to radically reform the care and child protection systems, putting the needs of our most vulnerable children at the heart of everything we do. Precisely what the Munro reviews called for.

It’s why we’ve sought to unshackle professionals who, for too long, have seen processes and red tape frustrate their efforts to innovate and raise standards – an approach that’s transformed schools and which we now want to apply for social services.

The academies programme has shown us what a difference it makes to children’s prospects when teachers are freed to champion excellence – particularly the prospects of those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Which is why in children’s services, I believe there is the potential to achieve so much more.

Push the boundaries

Why should children’s social care be excluded from pursuing the sort of innovation and excellence we have seen in some of our schools? There is, arguably, no area that needs innovation more. And it’s clear that I’m not alone in thinking this.

I’ve been struck over the past year by the growing appetite in local authorities, voluntary organisations and beyond to look afresh at the delivery of children’s services, to make the most of precious resources and really push the boundaries.

We can already see the results of doing just that in the innovative social work practice breaking new ground in Staffordshire, in the high-performing authorities providing support and challenge to weaker neighbours, as in the case of Richmond and Kingston, and through the work we’re doing with Doncaster to develop an independent children’s services Trust.

But we need to go much further and faster to trigger the fundamental change that’s needed to really raise our game; and that means seeking it not in isolated spots and certainly not only in local authorities that have been under-performing – but in all local authorities. I want to see innovation and diversity become mainstream; I want it to become the norm.

It’s why we launched the new children’s services innovation programme last year, with the aim of developing and spreading new and more effective ways of supporting vulnerable children.

£30m innovation budget

So, I’m pleased to announce now that we’re making £30m available for the programme in 2014/15, with much more to follow in 2015/16, if the ideas are there to merit it. So I want you to aim high and think big.

We’re looking for your boldest and most adventurous ideas to rise to the huge challenges we face; to drive better outcomes and better value for money. Ideas that have the potential to spark and spread innovation across the system.

Proposals from all areas of children’s social care are welcome, but as a starting point, we will focus on two areas: rethinking children’s social work, and rethinking support for vulnerable adolescents in care or on the edge of care. There are good reasons for these choices.

We expect our social workers to grapple with highly complex problems, but too often traditional working arrangements see the least skilled and experienced social workers weighed down with some of the biggest responsibilities. This is an outdated practice model that also sees precious time, which should be spent with families, squeezed out by bureaucracy, insufficient supervision and not enough professional development.

Successful team models like Hackney’s Reclaiming Social Work and Evolve’s YP’s Social Work Practice demonstrate there may be a better way, with time freed to spend with families, the scope to develop higher quality practice and, ultimately, greater job satisfaction and hence the retention of experienced social workers on the front line. I want to see more local authorities introduce innovative models of working.

‘We can do much better’

We also have an opportunity to make a big difference with adolescents who, as highlighted by the ADCS, often have highly complex needs involving fractured family relationships and multiple placements. Adolescents make up the bulk of children in residential care, which is where 9% of the total number of children in care are placed – and where a third of our total spending on children in care, or £1 billion, goes. Even with that huge outlay, we often don’t achieve good outcomes for these children. I’m sure we can do much better than this.

Creativity, enterprise and risk-taking are not words that automatically spring to mind when we think of children’s social care. Our natural instinct, when it comes to vulnerable children, is to stick to the rules and play it safe at all costs.

But playing it safe didn’t save Daniel Pelka, Hamzah Khan or Peter Connelly, or the countless other children living with appalling abuse and neglect away from the headlines. And despite some improvements in recent years, it hasn’t done nearly enough to improve the prospects of children in care.

Ofsted still finds too many examples of poor performance and too few of excellence, while serious case reviews tell the same sorry stories of familiar mistakes made; as if the system has got stuck. I want to free it. If there are barriers to innovation, I’m determined to remove them.  But I need you to play your part.

Seed grants available

I urge you to dig deep creatively and get in touch. Whether you’re a local authority, a company, a social enterprise or a not for profit organisation, we recognise the important role you have to play and we want to hear from you. Let us know what support you need to get your proposals off the ground and we will tailor help accordingly, whether by brokering partnerships, addressing regulatory barriers, providing evaluations or almost anything else.

You may, for example, need funding to pilot a new model or run a major change programme, and we are willing to invest in these. Seed grants of up to £10,000 are also available to help develop such proposals. Applications for these open today and I’ve insisted that the application and awarding process is as painless and streamlined as possible.

We’re also advertising for a delivery partner with a proven track record in innovation who will work with us throughout the programme.

Of course not every venture will fly, but I’m hugely excited and hopeful to see what inspiring and imaginative schemes make it through. My time as both Minister and as someone touched by the care system throughout my personal and professional life convinces me that, not only is there a wealth of untapped talent, expertise and commitment in the system and beyond, but also that there are many like me who believe that this is the right thing to do. So let’s harness it, as we have in education and elsewhere, and truly deliver the best.

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9 Responses to Children’s minister: ‘Why we must change outdated practice model of social care’

  1. Peter Cape February 12, 2014 at 12:30 pm #

    The development of social care is continually haemorrhaged by the monolithic approach to qualifications, Only those who opted at 18-21 to complete a degree in social work are eligible to progress whilst reams of excellently qualified, experienced and innovative practitioners are excluded from local authority management and developmental roles.

  2. Conor Pendergrast February 12, 2014 at 2:51 pm #

    Any info on how to apply for these programmes? I’d be interested in working with local authorities and other residential childcare providers to enable them to manage their care more effectively using Resiflex.

  3. Imelda February 12, 2014 at 5:06 pm #

    Is this not more of the same?? You ask us social workers ‘We’re looking for your boldest and most adventurous ideas to rise to the huge challenges we face; to drive better outcomes and better value for money. Ideas that have the potential to spark and spread innovation across the system’. We actually have a good system and one that is ever evolving because of the ‘lessons’ we are supposed to learn. Ha!! We KNOW and we have so LEARNT!!!! We mearly await with anticipation and hope that you, the government, provide us with the funding to do the job!! We need a proper induction, less caseloads and time to keep our training up to date. We don’t want to hear that funding has run out in one area or another so hence the resources are reduced or gone and hence more pressure on existing ones. Stop asking us for ideas and get on with ur own job. The job of supporting our boldest and greatest ideas!! Eileen Munroe has recommended some excellent ideas. Funny how our newly qualified social workers are still carrying high and complex caseloads that even I, an experienced worker would have trouble keeping on top of. I don’t know one social worker who sleeps easy at night. We are all running round trying to keep the plates from falling off their sticks. It isn’t bold and fantastic new ideas we need Mr Timpson! It’s assistance with executing our existing yet simple ideas!!!!

    • Beth February 12, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

      Imelda is right! We are seeing time and time again money put into ‘initiatives’ and then these fall out of favour when the next gov or new idea is a buzz whilst the social workers on the ground have to cope with increasing case loads, red tape & no time to effectively work cases!
      I have worked in a project where we intervened intensively with families. This was the best social work I have been involved with. Developing interventions and making a real difference.
      The most important part of this work was that it was completely fair to the families as if the intervention had failed then i would have honestly been able to go to court and state we had tried our best/evidence the issues. We built trust and worked honestly with families.
      I BEG YOU MR TIMPSON..THE BIGGEST CHANGE THAT IS REQUIRED IS THE CASE LOADS OF SOCIAL WORKERS IN CHILD PROTECTION.
      This was the success of the above project and the ability of social workers to develop their intervention with families. Most social workers in child protection hardly have time to breath/eat and sleep! They take work home/work late and weekends and can not keep up to the demands of the work.
      You can not meet the needs of 20 children on a caseload well let alone 40+ We are in danger of developing an unskilled workforce who are good at typing to keep up but have no idea about how to really initiate change with families! This is unfair on children and families but also on the social workers who have to hold the amount of cases. IT DRIVES MANY OUT OF THE WORK!
      Child Protection work is at a very dangerous point..loosing experience due to pressures which i doubt any other profession has. If you can do social work you can do anything..unfortunately many are doing just that..going elsewhere…

  4. aidan7 February 12, 2014 at 6:35 pm #

    Actually, he is not asking social workers directly, he is asking LAs and ‘god help us’ people such as the NSPCC and Barnardos, that rake in money and do no hands on work unless LAs pay them a fortune. None of the ‘voluntary agencies or charities’ go knocking on doors not knowing what they might face, yet they are expected to have ‘innovative ideas’ as to how front line CP social workers should function.

  5. Geoff February 13, 2014 at 10:55 am #

    As a foster Carer for over 30 years we have seen little real improvement in the outcome for children in care. While improved access to education and housing have helped the basic needs of vulnerable children are not met. Frequent moves, frequent changes in social workers, frequent changes in schools etc. when they really need is stability and consistency. So while we have over worked social workers, managers more concerned with budgets than the needs of the children little will really change. Another issue is still by many local authorities foster carers are still seen as little more than bed and breakfast and carers are only doing it for the money ( it often costs carers money to look after these children). The children coming in to care today are already much more damaged that a decade ago, requiring a great commitment on all concerned.

  6. Maisie February 15, 2014 at 6:10 pm #

    I agree with the above comments, we need investment in the retention and support of the current social care system, which does actually work if social workers are able to work effectively (for which manageable caseloads and clear and supportive management are essential); it’s actually very rare that a child on a CP Plan dies, and it frustrates me that Mr Timpson continues to perpetuate the media blame sensationalism in order to push his ‘new bold schemes’ which are just another attempt by a politician to come along and attempt to plaster a crack without any knowledge or understanding of current frontline social work practice.

    Stability and consistency are essential, as the foster carer comments above, but there is far too much reliance on agency staff and not enough recognition and financial incentives to keep staff permanent or to encourage agency staff to go permanent.

    Not only that the now ridiculous delays,tests, and other recruitment ‘barriers’ in getting through HR hoops to permanent employment makes agency work all the more appealing but also perplexing……why all the hurdles to permanent employment, when councils are happy to recruit agency staff on just an interview…..in my current borough agency staff make up over 50% of staff…..if councils are happy for these social workers to practice based on CV and interview only, why all the hurdles to permanent roles?

    We will never be able to provide the stability and consistently which children so desperately need if politician do not start to take real notice of the link between the impact of stress from high caseloads on the retention of social workers.

  7. Lesley February 19, 2014 at 4:46 am #

    REDUCED CASE LOADS MR TIMPSON!!! CASE LOADS
    Social work is not rocket science but with the current case loads it appears more complicated than rocket science.

    TRAINING MR TIMPSON!!! TRAINING
    As an NQSW in 2011-2012, coming from a mental health background, I asked for training in direct work with children and this was not forthcoming, usual story, no funds. As recent as November 2013, I completed a form requesting training in direct work with children, again, same story, no funding.
    I was asked to complete life-story work with one of my most complex and delicate looked after child, I rightly stated that I did not feel equipped to tackle that kind of work. My background in adult mental health was rubbished,and I was told what I should be doing over a 5-10minute lecture with the Team Manager with a senior social worker (whom I’d previously asked for views on completing the life story work and had offered none) chipping in with ideas. Later on, I was advised that the senior social worker would cover the life-story work whilst I would under study her as what I was doing was just academic. Does that give me the tools for direct work with children? In my own world, the answer is ‘no’ coz I need training before I understudy.
    Social workers in Children and Families are swimming against the tide!!!
    No wonder many children are being failed twice over. Their semblance for a family life is taken away and nothing better is offered to replace their poor family conditions. Deep down, these children must be bitter

  8. Michelle Wilkes February 25, 2014 at 10:26 am #

    Cuts to council budgets are forcing local councils to reduce spending in children’s and young people’s services. Social working roles are being replaced by less qualified and ‘cheaper’ professionals. The focus in my local council is changing…the drive is to keep families together, a nice sentiment but as a foster carer who has seen the damage which comes with abuse and neglect first hand, I wonder if keeping a child at home is simply another cost cutting measure.Care is expensive. At what cost to that child or young person, to society and to future generations? Start listening to those on the front line, and not those that hold the purse strings.