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.